Sunday, December 12, 2021

What if Critical Race Theory Doesn't Cause Antisemitism?

Note: This was originally going to be a column published in a Jewish media outlet -- it got caught in publishing purgatory for months before eventually being killed. Though it is now slightly dated, I republish it here. One significant modification is that JILV has revised its "white paper" since its initial publication -- you'll have to take my word on what the original version said, though I contemporaneously addressed some of the biggest howlers in this post shortly after the original was released (it actually is not entirely implausible that my post inspired several of the unnoted "corrections" in the revised document!).

* * *

It is time for the Jewish community to take seriously the question: Is critical race theory causing a surge of antisemitism in America?

And by “take seriously,” I mean take seriously the possibility the answer is “no.”

This is, after all, what it actually means to take a question seriously. One does not take a question seriously by presupposing a given answer, then clinging to that conclusion come hell or high water. That’s not rigorous inquiry, that’s dogma.

Yet the cottage industry of Jewish pundits, speakers, and institutes that purport to ask questions about the role of critical race theory in the growth of antisemitism aren’t really asking questions at all. For them, it is an article of faith that “critical race theory”, or “intersectionality”, or “critical social justice” (the terms are frequently used interchangeably, and with little precision), is a primary driver of contemporary antisemitism in America. Though they style themselves as bold truth-sayers, their conclusions come pre-loaded, held with a zealous fervor that brooks no naysaying.

But what happens when we try to actually put the hypothesis to the test? It is not hard, of course, to find examples of antisemitism emanating from progressives (or conservatives or centrists for that matter). Yet frequently, the case for “critical race theory” being a prime cause of antisemitism is nothing more than collecting a series of anecdotes of bad behavior by presumed progressive or non-white actors, then asserting that they’re all attributable to the theory. This slipshod practice is troubling for a host of reasons. 

First, critics of “critical race theory” or its cousins often are maddeningly vague in defining what the term(s) mean. A recent “white paper” by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values attacking what it calls “critical social justice” is emblematic. “Critical social justice” is an invented term—it is not to my knowledge commonly used as a self-identification by anyone—but incredibly the white paper does not bother to give a definition of what the term means either. Hence, a rigorous reader has no way of assessing whether any of the forms of antisemitism identified in the paper—things like “the canard of Jewish privilege” or “the erasure of Jewish identity”—are elements of, or attributable to, “critical social justice.” Many readers might suspect that these practices are best criticized through a Jewish iteration of critical race theory methodologies (amusingly, one of the few academic sources cited, incorrectly, in the white paper as a supposed critic of “critical social justice” actually is a prominent advocate for developing what he calls “HebCrit”—Jewish critical race theory). But a writer or reader already steeped in the dogma doesn’t need “critical social justice” to be defined to be convinced it is to blame. For them, of course these antisemitic incidents are elements of “critical social justice” (whatever it is). 

Second, there’s little effort to show the scope or significance of the problematic activities as representative of the supposed theories that generate them. The JILV white paper, for instance, contends that “there is evidence that the more extreme versions [of critical social justice] are gaining ground and influencing public discourse.” In the white paper's initial formulation, the sole citation for this claim directed to a list of state rules and regulations seeking to ban critical race theory by force of law. Of course, such a list provides absolutely no evidence that theories of critical social justice, “extreme” or otherwise, are “gaining ground”—if anything it shows the opposite. What the list did show quite starkly is that the most overt threat to traditional liberal values in American politics today comes from the anti-CRT movement groups like JILV proudly attach themselves to.* 

Third, there is often the assumption that any antisemitic activity that occurs in an urban or coastal area must come from progressive people of color. Yet, as Laura Adkins has repeatedly emphasized, even when talking about, for example, antisemitic attacks on Orthodox Jews in New York, the data does not support the commonly-held assumption that the perpetrators are primarily Black or other persons of color. Moreover, it is grotesquely reductive to assume that any antisemitic action by a person of color is an instantiation of critical race theory, or even progressivism. Indeed, the latest data we have suggests that the highest levels of antisemitism among young people are found among non-White conservatives. This makes sense: there is nothing progressive about the extremist fringes of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, so there is no reason to think antisemitic attacks committed by BHI adherents emanate out of any progressive philosophy. Yet how often have we seen writers lazily conflate “Black” with “left”?

Finally, even among the archetypical young, progressive, college-educated set, if “critical race theory” was responsible for generating antisemitism, then we’d expect to see spikes in antisemitism amongst persons (over)exposed to it. It is commonly claimed that certain academic disciplines, or even the collegiate system as a whole, are indoctrinating students with critical race theory and this suffusion is responsible for heightened antisemitism on campus. If this were true, we’d expect antisemitic attitudes to grow in intensity among students majoring in the problematic disciplines (the humanities compared to STEM), and/or students in their final year of college compared to their first. Yet the data does not support this either—it turns out that there is no measurable increase in antisemitism among students over the course of their college career nor among those majoring in the fields supposedly dominated by critical race theory.

That the crusade against critical race theory appears largely impervious to contradictory data or testing is worrisome. For one, it speaks to a troubling decay in our collective commitment to subjecting important hypotheses surrounding antisemitism, equity, and equality, to critical scrutiny and review. Helen Pluckrose, a hero of those rallying against critical race theory (she is the one who coined the term “critical social justice”), identifies laudatory “critical thinking” as “the examination of an argument or claim in the light of reason and evidence rather than accepting it uncritically …  looking for flaws of reasoning or unevidenced claims or unwarranted assumptions being made due to an ideologically biased interpretation of a situation.” If this is the value, it is largely absent amongst self-styled critics of “critical race theory,” whose assertions on the subject frequently assume conclusions not in evidence and who abjure critical engagement with actual CRT thinkers in favor of circular citation to members of their own ideological bubble.

The larger problem, though, is how we risk misallocating resources in the essential fight against antisemitism. Put simply, if we devote our resources toward fighting critical race theory as a means of fighting antisemitism, and it turns out that critical race theory has no significant relation to causing antisemitism, then we’ve just wasted a ton of time and energy! Polls of American Jews have been consistent in showing that most Jews see the primary instigator of antisemitism in America as being the political right, including the Republican Party. Increasingly, Soros conspiracies, tropes of shady “globalist” string-pullers, and what Deborah Lipstadt calls “softcore Holocaust denial” are normal not just on the right fringe, but the totality of the conservative movement. The insistence on clinging to a theory of antisemitism that is not backed by the evidence is blinding many of our communal institutions addressing a veritable tsunami of antisemitic sentiment surging through American politics.

The Jewish community has for years now labored under a torrent of tweets, YouTube screeds, public orations, and institutional white papers, all committed with a single-minded focus to the assertion that critical race theory is an enemy of the Jewish people. They have had much time to make their case. They have not done so—indeed, they’ve scarcely attempted to do so. That’s because their case is long since ceased to be a proposition that can be falsified by argument or evidence. It is a dogma. And it’s time we start seriously asking what happens if that dogma is not true.

* In the revised version, this list was removed and replaced by a hodgepodge of citations to companies or institutions allegedly practicing "CRT" -- though with no effort to draw the requisite comparisons between allegedly more or less "extreme" versions of the concept, let alone establish trends towards the former; and in some cases no effort to tie certain alleged practices to "CRT" at all.

It is notable that, with the deletion of the (perhaps inadvertent) citation to the long list of official governmental efforts to ban CRT, the white paper no longer addresses even indirectly the prominent, de jure efforts at censoring wrongthink being promulgated by its ideological compatriots. The closest it comes to doing so is in its discussion of filing lawsuits to chill the adaptation of diversity or equity initiatives -- a practice JILV endorses.

No comments: