The phrase has elicited derision, without understanding

Of all the memorable ways to let a genie out of a bottle, it is hard to beat the maneuver of inventing a phrase and then watching as this phrase races out into the world, refusing every plea to return to the shop for a tune-up. While the phrase is arousing fierce opposition and equally fierce defense, its creator can only repeat a remark that no one hears: “That’s not quite what I meant.”

Having been there and done that, I feel some sympathy for the folks who conjured up the term Critical Race Theory.

I had my first experience with a phrase gone rogue thirty-five years ago. After a Washington Post reporter wrote a story about “Trails:  Toward a New Western History,” a conference I had organized in 1987, the phrase, the New Western History, rocketed into visibility.

Objections — usually offered as if they carried stunning insight — rode the same rocket. The New Western History paid too much attention to minorities. It wasn’t actually all that new. New or not, its portrayal of the nation’s westward expansion was far too disillusioning and negative.

One comment I heard from a critic won the prize: “I said everything you said before you did! And everything you say is wrong!”

Compared to Critical Race Theory, the New Western History was a pathetic underachiever when it came to generating an uproar. No president of the United States ever placed me or my phrase in the crosshairs of his rhetorical rage. Not a single state legislator even began to draft a bill to punish K-12 teachers for finding a place for the New Western History in their classrooms.

If it had not been excoriated by former President Donald Trump, and if legislators in various states had not written and passed laws to prohibit teachers from including it in their lesson plans, Critical Race Theory would still be sequestered in universities, traveling around in the closed circuit of professors talking to professors.This distant history leads us to the recognition of a deeply ironic fact.

Escorted into visibility by its opponents, Critical Race Theory never dealt with its big identity problem: hardly anyone knows what it means.

Why, for instance, is it called a theory, when pronouncements by its advocates usually register — not as theories put forward for testing — but as Critical Race Foregone Conclusions?

And why didn’t its opponents ever ask, “Could anyone provide an accessible, de-jargonized definition of this theory that has us all upset?”

If asked this question, I would have offered my best shot at decoding the term: “Critical Race Theory asserts that the injustices built into this nation’s origins await a full reckoning in every sector of American life.”

Racing to outlaw an idea that no one can define or identify with precision, agitated legislators started down a slippery slope. If they don’t interrupt this skid, they may soon be drafting laws to exclude mermaids, dragons, unicorns, and other figures of doubtful existence from the nation’s classrooms.

But why not try a law to reinsert genies into their bottles? Restored to a familiar environment, the genies would feel more at ease and less inclined — actually, unable — to stir up trouble.

Best of all, we humans might be able to figure out what we are actually arguing about.

Patty Limerick can be reached at pnl@centerwest.org, and you can find her blog, “Not My First Rodeo, at the Center of the American West website.

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