Inez Stepman joins the podcast this week joins the podcast to discuss this month’s policy focus: Critical Race Theory. We discuss the basic tenants of CRT, break down the confusion that surrounds it, and explain why this unpopular worldview has made its home in academia.
Inez Feltscher Stepman is a senior policy analyst at IWF, with a decade of experience in education policy. She is a Lincoln Fellow with the Claremont Institute and a senior contributor to The Federalist. Her work has additionally appeared in outlets such as USA Today, Newsweek, and New York Post, and she has made appearances on Fox News, PBS, CSPAN, and NPR.
Hey and welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg, and on today’s episode, Inez Stepman joins us to wade into the conversation of critical race theory, this month’s Independent Women’s Forum policy focus. She’ll explain the basic tenets of CRT, break down the confusion that surrounds it, and explains why this unpopular worldview has gained a home in academia.
But before we bring her on, a little bit more about Inez. Inez Stepman is a senior policy analyst at IWF with a decade of experience in education policy. She is a Lincoln Fellow with the Claremont Institute and a senior contributor to The Federalist. Her work has additionally appeared in outlets such as USA Today, Newsweek, and the New York Post. And she has made appearances on Fox News, PBS, C-SPAN, and NPR, and we are so glad to have her here today. Inez, thank you for joining She Thinks.
It’s great to be here, Beverly. Thanks for having me.
Yeah. Now, you have the fun task of doing the policy focus on critical race theory, which is a very hard issue, one that’s being discussed quite a bit, and I thought we would just start by having you define what critical race theory is. So we’ve heard a lot of conflicting definitions of it. What is your definition?
I think it comes down to a few basic premises. I think the most important of those premises is that America is systemically racist, and that systemically is doing a lot of work. I don’t think that there are very many people left in the United States who would say that racism doesn’t exist in America, or for that matter, anywhere else around the world. But the premise of critical race theory is that the American system and in fact, the entire Western enlightenment tradition from which the American system springs, that itself is based on and built on pervasive racism.
And that racism really can’t be eradicated from those institutions. It’s baked in to all of our institutions, which is why you’ll hear various critiques from critical race theorists of everything from private property to the three branches of government, to the composition of the Senate or the Electoral College. You’ll hear critiques about the nuclear family perpetuating, systemically perpetuating racism.
So the idea is that all of the institutions that shape both our political and private life here in the United States are just irredeemably pervaded with racism. And you can see why, therefore, if you want to call yourself an anti-racist, you have to essentially hold revolutionary goals, right? You want to completely overturn those institutions. But the other, I think important tenets of critical race theory is that no real progress has been made.
We haven’t proceeded towards a more perfect union or toward the ideals that Jefferson wrote down in our declaration. Progress is a myth, and all that’s happened is racism has been subsumed or gone underground or been sort of obscured by supposedly neutral institutions. Critical race theorists also have a preference for collected equity over individual equality. They’re looking at differences between groups, collective groups of people, and the individual doesn’t matter nearly as much as it would in, let’s say a more traditional American outlook.
And then finally, race essentialism. Racial identity is, to the critical race theorist, the primary way that a person understands and experiences the world. Whereas I think some of us might say race is probably, one of many, many, many different ways that you can experience the world. We have plenty of human experience that is common between the races. Critical race theory really hones in on race as something not only just a fact of life, but an essential part of the way that a human being experiences this country, this world, and this life.
And I think all of those tenets are quite pernicious, although I would note that it’s not that important. I think it’s important to understand what critical race theory is, but it’s important not to get sucked into an academic debate about Herbert Marcuse or what’s the relationship of critical race theory to Marxism. These kinds of academic debates are important and interesting, but at the end of the day, I think what’s really much more important is to point to the implementation of critical race theory in our schools, in our government agencies, in our corporations and say, “Are you okay with this? Whatever you want to call it, are you okay with third graders being split up by racial group and assigned a ranking in terms of their privilege and power? Are you okay with that?”
I don’t care what you call it. I think we would probably get further that way than being sucked into this endless debate about what is critical race theory, what is a different intellectual strain? Is it academic? Has it left the academy? All of these things are very interesting questions, but at the end of the day, what’s important is how it’s being implemented. And I think the majority of Americans are quite unhappy with seeing it implemented in our institutions and education centers.
And I think one of the interesting aspects of this, as I would say decades ago even, maybe even as recent as five, 10 years ago, there was this idea that being color blind was a good thing, to not see color, to quote Martin Luther King, “Content of character more than color of the skin.” But that is now moved into, it’s offensive if you see things in a color blind way, that we actually need to see color. I should say, where and why did that change happen?
Yeah, I think it goes back to that first principle of critical race theory, the idea that our institutions are themselves, even these new institutions that seem on their face to be racially neutral, the idea that we have three branches of government, that we have limitations on the government from the constitution, the entire American system. To the critical race theorist, this is all just a cover for a racial hierarchy. And that’s why you see that color blind ideal that a lot of us thought we were moving towards in the ’80s or ’90s become essentially a dirty word to folks who would identify themselves as proponents of CRT.
Because their argument would be that color blindness is simply an excuse to cover up the existing racial hierarchies. What they would say is that your race really matters in America, and it matters for how you experience the world, and therefore this color blindness is not an ideal. It’s just one more cover over the racial hierarchies that are existing in America. I actually think the opposite, obviously. I think it’s a very difficult project that America has always taken on, has always been a multi-ethnic republic.
And there’s a reason that our motto is E pluribus unum: out of many, one. That’s a very tall order. We have people in America from all over the world, every country in the world. Every language, virtually, that has been spoken in the world has been spoken in this country at some point. We have people of different faiths. We have people with radically different experiences and backgrounds. It’s always going to be a challenge and a strength for us to try to find what all of these people have in common and try to integrate them into what might be called the American way.
And so sometimes I wonder if some of these critical race theory folks, if they really believe what they’re saying about the virulency of supposedly white supremacy in 2021 in America, and whether if they spent some considerable time outside of this country, they might come to different conclusions about the tolerance levels of Americans towards other Americans who may not look like them, may come from different backgrounds. I mean, in my experience, this country is among the least racist countries on the planet.
That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, but that we have actually made an enormous amount of progress towards those ideals that are enshrined in our declaration, towards the equality of man, towards treating people on the basis of the content of their character and not the color of their skin. But it’s deeper than just saying, “We haven’t fully lived up to those ideas.” A critical race theorist says, “Those ideas are not worthwhile to begin with. They’re just covers for racial hierarchy in and of themselves. Color blindness is a cover for that.”
And therefore, not only are they not something to strive towards, they’re actually an act of perpetuating what they would say, a racial hierarchy or white supremacy. I think that’s the impasse in which we find ourselves. There’s no way to really satisfy the critical race theorists. There’s no progress that’ll satisfy a critical race theorist in terms of within the existing system. The system itself has to be overturned or destroyed. That’s what makes them a revolutionary movement rather than just a political block with certain policy demands.
Well, one critical race theorists, Ibram X. Kendi, seemed to backtrack some on what has been language of those who are promoting this theory. There was whether or not critical race theory says every white person is a racist, and he said that those who are accusing his perspective of that are based on things that are made up definitions and descriptors and do not accurately reflect critical race theory. What do you say to that line that he claims to that narrative, that critical race theory doesn’t say every white person is a racist?
I think he’s just splitting hairs there. What critical race theory and what he’s endorsed in his own writings has been that every white person necessarily participates and furthers structures of white supremacy in the United States. And that’s by supporting things that, again, even 20 years ago would have been considered neutral or color blind, so by supporting the American constitution, by supporting the system of government that we have in this country, that his argument has been that that supports white supremacy.
So I think it’s a bit of a dodge. I think what they’re trying to say there is that they’re trying to separate the idea that most Americans have racism as essentially a sin of the heart, as judging someone by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character, prejudging someone before you know them, assuming certain negative stereotypes about a person because of their racial background. That’s what the average American thinks racism is, but they want to move away from that because frankly, that kind of racism is a very small problem in America, especially compared to what it was, let’s say 50, 60 years ago.
So they want to move away from that individual definition of racism as prejudice or ill will or assuming negative characteristics about a person based on their race. They want to move away from the individual definition and talk then only about systems, and talk about why the systems themselves perpetuate racial inequity. And I think it’s a dodge because they want to make you feel like you’re on your heels. They want you to feel like, oh, I’m not a racist. And just making that statement is a statement of white fragility.
It’s a defensive statement. And then they have you in their trap, because just disagreeing with them about the nature of systemic racism in America makes you somebody who has white fragility or is responding in a defensive or emotional way by essentially declaring themselves not personally racist. I think that’s really the kind of jiu-jitsu that is intellectually dishonest and unfair in terms of citizens of a country discussing what is the best way to move forward as a country, as I said, that is as diverse as ours. It’s a dodge and an unfair intellectual tactic to tell somebody, “Well, if you agree with me that America is racist, then America’s racist, but if you disagree with me that America is racist, then you are just being defensive and exhibiting white fragility, and that proves that America is racist.” It’s unfalsifiable.
Yeah. And it’s an argument that no person can win because no matter what you say, there’s a wrong answer to it. And so my question to you, you talked about this being the application, the application is what’s really concerning more than let’s get into theory and how did it begin, and all of those things, which is a great intellectual exercise, but it matters as far as what is being taught specifically in our schools. And so how did critical race theory first get introduced into K-12 education? And has it been their goal for this to be under the radar and to be teaching our children this without parents knowing, and was it just COVID and parents being more aware of what their children were being taught that really unearthed what’s been going on for a long time?
Yeah, I think it’s important to realize this is just the capstone. Critical race theory is the capstone on narratives that have been embedded in the K-12 system and that have come to the K-12 system from the academy, from the university, really for decades now. And those ideas are perhaps more radical now than they were three years ago. And I do think that it was a huge turning point for a lot of parents when they had their kids at home and they were essentially, as my friend, Mary Katherine Ham calls it, they were Zoom butlering for their kids while their kids were doing school over Zoom.
That was, for many parents, the first time they actually heard what the curriculum that their local public school was actually teaching their kids, that they were listening to their 10- or 11-year-old children being told that they are part of systems of oppression, having to identify themselves as oppressed or oppressor. They were watching as affinity groups were created, which means that students were split into racial groups, which I thought we were done with since we passed the Civil Rights Act. But in any case, this was the first real in your face interaction because the public schools do a very, very good job of actually hiding what it is that they teach kids all day.
You would think that it would be a very simple thing to pull a lesson plan, for example. The reality is that more often than not, it requires a series of lawyer requests. It requires a lot of effort. In some schools, you have to come at a particular time of the day that’s in the middle of the work day in order to see the lesson plan for the upcoming year. They do a lot of things to make it difficult for parents to actually read and see what their kids are doing. And because of COVID and because of Zoom school, all of a sudden parents were able to break through all of those layers of bureaucracy and really just sit next to their kids and see what they were learning.
So I think you can’t underestimate how important that was. But the reality is that in our education system, in the K-12 system, these narratives, whether it’s formally critical race theory or similar narratives or similar iterations, things like The 1619 Project, or just generally what I would frankly call anti-American narratives, the idea that that America is a bad and racist country. This has been going on for a long time. And to use the favorite word of the left and critical race theorists, it’s systemic.
At this point, if you are a teacher in the public school, you have gone to a school of ed at one of our universities that essentially taught critical race theory and taught you to look at teaching through the lens of critical race theory. Your teacher trainings are often done through the lens of critical race theory. The national teachers’ unions endorse lessons in critical race theory, both for students and for teachers. And your districts, your principal, almost everybody, even the bureaucrats working in the district office, have all been through this sort of lens, even if they called it something other than critical race theory.
So it truly is pervasive in the system, which is not to say that there aren’t teachers who oppose it, but in the system, it is kind of the default. This lens is the default that we have been teaching young Americans through, for I would say at least a decade, probably closer to two decades. And that has enormous negative consequences. And you can see in surveys and polls of my generation, the millennials, and then Gen Z after us, you can see how fewer and fewer young Americans identify as proud of their country, as patriots, as really wanting to be that next generation of the American experiment. And you can see those numbers slide down and down and down over time. That’s not an accident. It’s the narrative that’s being taught in our schools.
Well, before we continue the conversation, I’d like to take a moment to highlight IWF’s Champion Women Profile Series, which focuses on women across the country and world that are accomplishing amazing things. The media too often ignores their stories, but we don’t. We celebrate them and bring their stories to you. Our current profile is Sarah Frey, entrepreneur and author of the upcoming book, The Growing Time. To check out her story, do go to IWF.org to see why she’s this week’s champion woman.
And I want to remind our listeners that they can read your policy paper by going to IWF.org, and I want to call out an excerpt that you put in this. And I thought this was really interesting, and it does harken back to what you were just saying. And here’s the excerpt. It says, “While the radical worldview of CRT has relatively few adherence among Americans of all races, it has found a welcome home in America’s institutions.” And you list those. It’s not just academia, which we discussed. It’s government, it’s private corporations, it’s the entire culture. How did something that is unpopular, and if you could speak to how unpopular it is, how did it become this pervasive thing?
Yeah, I mean, every survey, first of all, shows that to the extent that Americans know what critical race theory is, they oppose it. And that’s true of Americans of various racial backgrounds. This isn’t a bottom up phenomenon. It really is a top down phenomenon from the academy, then into the K-12 system. And then ultimately as the academy and the K-12 system graduate more and more young woke Americans, those folks are moving into all the other institutions. The folks who are now in middle management and pushing upwards, millennials, the oldest millennials are about 40 now. That means that people who are working in the boardrooms, in the newsrooms, in government agencies, in Hollywood production companies, those people have basically, from a very young age, been taught to view America through this lens.
And that has enormous institutional consequences. So we’ve seen, for example, there’s been revolutions happening in the already left wing newsrooms. We have standard bearer liberal papers, like The New York Times and The Washington post. What they’re seeing is that their younger staff, their staff who’s, let’s say, 22 through 35, that those young journalists that they’ve hired have a very different view, for example, of objectivity of the press, of the duties of journalists, of free speech and the tradition of free speech and free press in America, than the folks who are older and perhaps skipped that indoctrination in public schools.
Same thing in corporations, they’re finding that their young talent overwhelmingly has this perspective and is urging management, for example, to pay thousands of dollars to people like Ibram X. Kendi to come as consultants and give anti-racism training to their employees. And so what’s happening is that these institutions that once adhered to American principles, like freedom of speech, whether they were on the left or the right politically speaking, adhered to basic small L liberal bedrock principles, like the freedom of speech, like respecting the Bill of Rights, like the idea that the press is supposed to report the truth and hold people in power and the government accountable equally.
Those kinds of ideas are now out of fashion with everybody under 35. And as those folks gain more power in those institutions, they’re using those institutions to then go ahead and perpetuate what is ultimately an elite phenomenon. When this ideology, for example, captured Twitter, the company now I’m talking about, Twitter just donated $10 million to the academic center headed by Ibram X. Kendi. So they throw in their money, their ability to censor the public space and public sphere, and where a lot of conversation takes place.
That’s an enormous amount of power that’s now being used in service of this ideology, which is why I think it’s going to require a sustained and serious effort from the majority that opposes critical race theory. It’s going to take getting serious over a long period of time about pushing these ideas out of these institutions. It’s going to require us to deal with, and I’m not going to go into all the ways of how because it could be an entire podcast on that, but it will require us to confront woke capital in this country and the woke culture within powerful corporations. On the education space, it’s going to require systemic moves, like thinking about whether it’s worth it for the American taxpayer to fund student loans into the tune of $1.7 trillion, to go to universities that then teach this critical race theory worldview.
It’s going to take us thinking about whether we really ought to be funneling a much bigger, even, sum of money because it’s about 800 billion per year, every year that we pay for K-12 education, that instead of going directly to families so that they might be able to choose whether they want a school that teaches critical race theory or a school that doesn’t teach critical race theory, or teaches a more traditional American curriculum, instead of going to the family to make that choice, right now that $800 billion goes overwhelmingly directly to districts.
And we’re going to have to look at that. We’re going to have to think about this as a prolonged battle because even if we win tomorrow, quote unquote, and we push this ideology out of the education system, we’re still going to have millions and millions of Americans between the age of, let’s say, 20 and 35 who have totally bought into this ideology. And we’re going to have to think about how to deal with that and how we can try to preserve the American system for those who are coming after us, for our children and our children’s children.
Because I truly believe, especially as my parents came from somewhere else, they came from communist Poland, I don’t want to see this country become unexceptional. All of the things that the critical race theorists are worried about in America and want Americans to self-flagellate for, our history with slavery, our history with discrimination and Jim Crow, all of those things are real, but they’re unremarkable in the history of the world. What’s remarkable isn’t that America has its sins and black marks and has treated people horribly.
What’s remarkable is that America has created the amount of liberty and prosperity and freedom that it has, and the fact that we have been able to take people from all over the world and make them a part of this great American experiment, where we are progressing towards a more perfect union, where we are progressing towards living up to the ideals that are etched in our declaration. That’s the exceptional and remarkable thing, not the fact that there have been mistakes and terrible things in this country in the past.
Yeah. So in closing, I think one of the things that has been encouraging to me, and hopefully to anyone else who’s been seeing what’s been happening with critical race theory and for people who are concerned about the future of our country, I’ve been encouraged to see how many people have spoken against it, especially when it comes to parents speaking up in board meetings. And I find it encouraging because they are called horrible things. They are called racist, among other things, for speaking up.
And yet we have Americans across this country who are willing to take on public shame by a certain group of people in order to protect their kids. So when you see average Americans speaking up across this country, and parents who probably had no desire to be confrontational, but for the sake of their children, they’re going to speak up, do you think that there is a ground swelling movement among Americans of all races who feel like, “You know what? For the sake of my kids, I’m going to speak up,” and are you encouraged by that?
I’m enormously encouraged by it. Yeah, it’s wonderful to see people go to school board meetings and speak up. It’s wonderful to see people state publicly what privately they were afraid to say publicly, but they were saying in private for quite some time. We have a real problem with the chilling of free speech in this country. And I hate the phrase cancel culture, but for lack of a better phrase, people are afraid to share even the most moderate and well-reasoned of beliefs that are very common in this country. But I believe that the polls are around 50% of Democrats are afraid to share their political beliefs publicly, about 60% of independents, and about 75% of Republicans are. So the majority of the country is afraid to speak out because they will be called those nasty names.
And I think it’s just very important to realize that when they call you a racist or a bigot or a white supremacist, their definitions of those words, the critical race theorist’s definition of those words, couldn’t be further from the average American. So in my view, we just need to be brave and stop worrying about being called those names, because they might as well be calling you purple. It’s such a different definition than what I think the average American thinks of when he thinks of racism, for example, or white supremacy.
We think about the Klan, not about somebody who supports the Bill of Rights and the constitution. So I think we have to stop being afraid, which I am fully aware it’s easy for me to say. I work for this wonderful organization, the Independent Women’s Forum, and I’m able to come on to podcasts like this one and talk with you, Beverly. So I have the freedom in my work to say these things, and I realize that it’s much easier for you and I to speak about these things than, for example, someone whose job might hinge on the line. But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for courage, and there are a lot more people who think like you out there who are afraid to say anything and who will speak up if you’re the first one to step forward.
Yeah. I completely agree with you. I think the fact not only that we have this platform to speak on these issues, but we have the support from each other and our colleagues, and it’s not going to impact our work. We know that we have a job and we’re able to speak freely, that we’re in a very safe environment to be able to speak about these issues. But there are a lot of Americans who do take great risks, including employment, including being shunned by people that know them, in order to speak up.
But we encourage people to continue to do that. And if you want more information on this really important policy focus on critical race theory, again, go to IWF.org. Inez not only details more of what she talked about today, the tenets of CRT, but also goes into more detail on what each of us can do to stop it. Inez, thank you so much for working on this policy focus and for explaining it so well in our conversation today.
Thank you so much for having me, Beverly.
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