America is in the midst of a culture war over critical race theory — an academic concept distorted beyond recognition by conservatives who view it as an effective wedge issue for next year’s midterm elections. Anything to change the subject from the January 6 attempted coup and an economy that is becoming more responsive to working families.
How did this manufactured controversy enter the media bloodstream? Much of this debate can be traced to the work of a single source, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, in Boca Raton, Fla. The foundation has funneled several hundred thousand dollars to the conservative Manhattan Institute, on whose board Thomas Smith sits, according to the investigative reporting newsletter Popular Information. The Manhattan Institute has, in turn, paid Christopher Rufo, a formerly obscure journalist and filmmaker, to gin up a compelling account of academic theory run amok.
Conservative donor Charles Koch has added fuel to this effort as well, broadening the anti-Critical Race Theory campaign with his support for a wide range of think tanks and advocacy organizations.
In short order, a relatively academic enterprise centered in American law schools has morphed into a punching bag for everything conservatives love to hate about the left — especially progressives’ insistence on reckoning with America’s centuries-long struggle with racial inequality.
The recent right-wing intervention has generated quite a show, creating the appearance of a grassroots movement with a well-orchestrated communications effort. But for those of us interested in the truth, this example should give pause. When foundations manipulate public debates with misinformation, they corrupt the integrity of the philanthropic process and the quality of individual engagement in democracy.
No Easy Fixes
How did critical race theory gain wide currency in the first place? Our organization, the New Press, published the foundational book on the subject in 1996. In the intervening quarter-century, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, has found a growing but not extremely large readership. The book is a testament to the hard work and patience of nurturing ideas and should be a model for philanthropic organizations that too often look for quick fixes to complex problems.
Edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, the book is a collection of original academic articles, most first published in law reviews for a scholarly audience and put into context with substantial introductions by the editors. Cornel West wrote a foreword. The book was listed at what’s known as a short discount, signaling to bookstores that it was primarily intended for use in college courses and as required reading for students, rather than for single-copy sales. Clocking in at almost half a million words, the volume had to be published in a square, two-column format in order to fit on ordinary shelves. This was not a book with the makings of a blockbuster, at least not by mainstream publishing standards.
Although the New Press receives support from a range of charitable foundations for our work, we had no specific funding to support this book. Our small staff promoted it as best we could, with the help of the dedicated editors of the volume — far from the myth of a vast, left-wing conspiracy we’ve been hearing about on Fox News, on Capitol Hill, and in state houses around the country.
Even as their analysis is caricatured and manipulated, scholars such as Crenshaw have pointed out that critical race theory was designed as an analytical framework for understanding how seemingly race-neutral laws perpetuate racial inequality. The field of inquiry is deliberately complex and demands sustained attention from students and other readers, just as addressing systemic racism will require time, attention, and resources from philanthropy for a number of years.
But critical race theory also promises a deep engagement with the forces that shape our world. The first edition of the book appeared in the wake of such events as the Rodney King police brutality investigation, the Central Park Five case, and the O.J. Simpson trial. The essays contained in the book became essential tools for grasping the legal dimensions of American racism in the 1990s and well beyond.
Achieving influence in academe alone has taken scholars decades to accomplish. Our sales of the book roughly tracked that progress: a modest initial printing was followed by additional, still-modest successive reprints, which have accumulated slowly but steadily over 25 years. The resulting total sales in the low- to mid-five figures are impressive by New Press standards but would represent a mere blip in the sales databases of larger publishers such as Penguin Random House or Hachette.
And yet a Google search of critical race theory turns up hundreds of mentions of the book. It’s in hot demand, and we are struggling to keep up with reprints. If all of our books performed this well, we’d be clinking glasses almost nightly — but would still be operating in the red.