Until this month, according to the parliamentary record, Hansard, the term “critical race theory” had never once been uttered in the House of Commons chamber. By the end of the day on 20 October, however, it was of such importance that the government declared itself “unequivocally against” the concept. “We do not want to see teachers teaching their pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” warned the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, at the end of a six-hour debate to mark Black History Month. “Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”
Strictly speaking, critical race theory is an academic field that originated in the US around 40 years ago. As the British academic Kojo Koram notes, it began as an attempt by legal scholars to understand why black communities experienced discrimination in the criminal justice system, even though they were formally guaranteed equal rights. Today, the term has become a kind of shorthand in US politics for an approach to race relations that asks white people to consider their structural advantage within a system that has, historically, been profoundly racist.
In the wake of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, however, “critical race theory” has also been the target of an anti-leftist witch-hunt ordered by Donald Trump: in September, the US president ordered federal agencies and contractors to stop funding any training programmes that drew on “race-based ideologies”: a range of ideas, crudely put, that suggests racism persists in today’s America. “This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue,” Trump tweeted. “Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!”
In the UK, critical race theory is a relatively marginal intellectual current, and a term most people are unlikely to have encountered until now. Yet the Conservative government, no doubt glancing across the Atlantic, has decided to co-opt this bogeyman into the culture war it enthusiastically pursues on several fronts, whether it’s against “lefty lawyers” who represent migrants in court, or against the “north London metropolitan liberal elite”.
When the Black Lives Matter protests spread to the UK this summer, they ignited a fraught national conversation about racism. Many responded by offering solidarity to the thousands of young black people who took to the streets to protest at their own experiences of racism, and demand that Britain more fully acknowledge the injustices in its history. But it also prompted a backlash, one that the government has increasingly thrown its weight behind, seeking to portray the movement as dangerously extreme.
Last month, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, told museums that they risked losing public funding if they took down statues as a result of pressure from campaigners. The Department for Education told schools in England that they were not to use materials produced by anti-capitalist groups, or teach “victim narratives that are harmful to British society”. In his Conservative party conference speech earlier this month, Boris Johnson accused Labour of being on the side of those who “want to pull statues down, to rewrite the history of our country … to make it look more politically correct”.
This week’s parliamentary debate provided an opportunity for some Conservatives to push the issue further. Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich, accused the leaders of Black Lives Matter of having “strayed beyond what should be a powerful yet simple and unifying message in opposition to the racism that still exists in our society, into cultural Marxism, the abolition of the nuclear family, defunding the police and overthrowing capitalism”. Hunt was one of two Tory MPs to decry “cultural Marxism” during the debate; the last time a politician did this – Suella Braverman, now attorney general, in 2019 – she was criticised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews for using a term often associated with far-right antisemitism.
This is the context in which the government’s sudden attack on “critical race theory” needs to be seen. There is scant evidence its associated concepts are widespread in British schools: on the contrary, a report published in June by the race equality thinktank, the Runnymede Trust, found that many teachers felt they lacked the resources and training to teach about racism with confidence. Since Trump began his assault at the end of the summer, however, a handful of rightwing commentators have been trying to import the moral panic into the UK, mainly via the pages of the Telegraph and Spectator.
For the right, “wokeness” fills much the same role as “political correctness” might have done in an earlier era: it is a rallying cry against a liberal elite whose values are allegedly being imposed on an unwilling population. Since 2016, this populist tactic has become a central way to shore up support among the new coalition of voters the Tories have assembled. Its ultimate effect, however, is to deflect any conversation about structural inequality – and not just when it comes to race.
One of the right’s first responses to Black Lives Matter was to revive the debate about whether white working class boys suffer the greatest disadvantages at school, a topic that has recently returned to the headlines. Yet when presented with an opportunity this week to materially improve the lives of poorer children of all backgrounds in what will be an extraordinarily difficult winter, by extending free school meals into the Christmas holidays, the Conservatives were dead set against it.
Theoretical concepts have their uses and their limits. Does the idea of “white privilege”, for instance, encourage people to think about racism as a social problem, or as a matter of individual conscience? How can institutions, particularly schools, foster conversations about injustice, past and present, that ultimately build solidarity and understanding between people? These are important questions. But a government that talks about banning ideas is unlikely to engage sincerely with them.
• Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe, and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right