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.


The Rewards of Patience


Many people writing in these pages and elsewhere have commented on what we can learn from right-wing donors, including the importance of unrestricted general support, investment in institution building, and a long-term commitment to issues. Our experiences at the New Press reflect many of these lessons and resonate with some of the present critiques of mainstream philanthropy. Investment in ideas and in fundamental narrative change is a long-term gamble with few payoffs. But the rewards, when measured by the depth of cultural and political influence, are hard to match.

We didn’t know whether Critical Race Theory would find a readership, but we perceived that it could ultimately play an important role in shaping the public’s understanding of race in this country.

Similarly, and many years later, the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was impossible to predict when we sent out our first printing of only 3,000 books. But as of this writing, the book has spent 283 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and galvanized the movement to overhaul the criminal-justice system. Other recent examples include Mark Mauer’s Race to Incarcerate, which first brought attention to the topic of mass incarceration and inspired Michelle Alexander to write her own book; Monique Morris’s Pushout, which sparked the conversation on the criminalization of Black girls in school, and Tressie McMillian Cottom’s Lower Ed, which uncovered the scandal of for-profit colleges.

All of these books, despite their varied subjects, have one thing in common: None proposes simple answers to complex questions. They offer a depth of research and analysis that is meant to educate and to persuade, not to deceive or obfuscate. They change the way we think about race and, in time, the world.

Publishing untested authors on topics that might seem difficult, countercyclical, or challenging for mainstream readers involves a lot of risk and very few financial rewards. But the societal benefit can be enormous.

We can fight lies only with truth and sound bites with substance. To judge by the current debate, the right is out of ideas and can only attack and warp the vibrant visions of a new generation of progressives committed to ideas that make some people uncomfortable, including the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and, yes, critical race theory. It’s time for donors who care about a world in which ideas matter to step up and meet the right’s distortions and destruction with robust investments in the creation and promotion of narratives that fuel a more equitable society.