About the people fighting CRT and supporting the Tomahawk Chop

October 30, 2021

If you want to rile up someone who’s fully immersed in conservative media fever swamps, ask them about “critical race theory”.

As with just about any issue, you’ll get a variety of understandings, but among the folks who can string together an argument and that I’ve seen, most fall into just a few major forms, and each of these arguments suffer from some combination of being ahistorical, circularity, or misapprehensions about what is actually taught in schools.

One major form, expressed by Erick Erickson, is that critical race theory is just a pose and that, without conceding any of its supporters’ contentions, it’s silly for anybody to expect anyone to actually follow through on any of the implications of race having a broad systemic impact on American life. So, really, Erickson seems to be saying, it’s just a political ploy to make liberals mad about something. It's a go-to move for conservatives like Erickson to try to discount others' beliefs by suggesting they don't really believe the things they say. Whereas the liberal/leftist version of this is suggesting a conservative is saying something outlandish to put on a show for the rubes, Erickson and his ilk tend to suggest liberals' positions stem from naivete and that he is the one who'll tell the harsh truths they won't even admit to themselves.

A second form I’ve seen holds that few groups of people are much oppressed in the United States anymore, so any framework that argues people suffer significant difficulties because of the color of their skin or any identity other than being evangelical Christian is obviously incorrect and misguided. Clay Travis is a proponent of this argument, and agreed with his co-host when that dude offered the classic high schooler’s fallacious assertion that acknowledging people are treated differently because of race and taking direct action to address that is, itself, racist: “That’s what critical race theory is. ‘There’s racism everywhere.’ There’s no way to get around it or deal with it that doesn’t involve treating people differently on the basis of race, which a lot of people would say is racism.” ("Intolerance of intolerance is intolerance. You're the intolerant one. Checkmate!") The evidence for systemic racism's existence isn't just a bunch of people feeling bad, and is firmly supported by empirical studies, but that hasn't stopped him before.

Finally, there’s the version presented by Patti Hidalgo Menders, a Republican party figure in Virginia who’s been protesting against CRT at school board meetings. A reporter for a Showtime program interviewed her, and I have only seen a clip of the interview that the network propagated on its social platforms, so it’s certainly possible she said something else that mitigates the moral rot, failure of empathy, and sheer lack of interest in other people’s perspectives she’s put on display, but I doubt it. She told the reporter, regarding Virginia’s diversity and equity curriculum, “It is definitely racist. They are putting down the child for the color of their skin.” That same report also showed that Hidalgo Menders seems to think that criticizing how Andrew Jackson slaughtered Native people is offensive to her. “At what point do you forgive and stop segregating?” she asks.

The main thing about these three arguments is that they all flow from anxiety about whiteness being interrogated and the obvious conclusions of thinking about whiteness. Time and again, certain white people react in horror and immediately resist when asked to think about how other people wish to be seen and treated, which necessarily leads them to thinking about their own whiteness.

I dislike the canard that “CRT is just a college-level course” because, while technically true, it also elides the point that the base concept of critical race theory is that our lives are heavily affected by institutions and social structures which, themselves, express racism and create racist outcomes. That is absolutely something taught in grade schools and high schools — even if indirectly — because it comports with a large body of supported scholarship, because it comports with lived experiences of many people, and because teaching students to recognize, appreciate, and embrace experiences other than their own makes them better students and makes the school a better place to learn.

This kind of argument isn’t just playing out in schools, however. Witness the new attention paid to the Tomahawk Chop thanks to the Atlanta baseball club’s participation in the World Series. Of course people like Erickson and Travis enjoy the chop, ostensibly because it’s a big group activity, but also because it presents them an opportunity to taunt their political opponents as weak-minded killjoys for objecting to a ritual that's demeaning to a good number of people and obviously dehumanizing.

It’s not quite hypocrisy that these dudes are fighting tooth and nail so that children don’t learn about what white people did to darker-skinned people in this country while also telling everyone the chop is no big deal and they should be left alone. It makes sense if you understand that Erickson and Travis see themselves as being in power, and both CRT and anti-chop sentiment are challenges to their power to do as they like with no repercussions. It’s a constant refrain among those types that "if the country gives in” on CRT or the chop or anything else in which historically oppressed people tell the white majority that life would be better if they changed, it won’t stop until... well, they’re usually good about not expressing the fear out loud, but until white people don’t run things anymore, is what I gather.

The Hidalgo Menders clip is useful for understanding conservatives' embrace of the chop because, again, she asks, in reference to Andrew Jackson's treatment of Native people, “At what point do you forgive and stop segregating?” I wonder if she realizes what she’s asking, because it certainly sounds like she’s suggesting white people today ought to be forgiven for a Native genocide. Here, she’s undermining the argument by some anti-CRT allies that it happened so long ago that it doesn’t matter anymore (see: Travis). Instead, she seems to understand, even if she wouldn’t lay it out this way, that white people still benefit today from the structures put in place because of things like the Native genocide on this continent, and therefore must be forgiven for taking what they did. Bringing it back to Atlanta, if she genuinely wants forgiveness, what good would forgiveness do when, today, large institutions are building an entire branding identity around chants and iconography meant to evoke Native savagery, and influential people like Erickson and Travis are responding to protests about that with mockery? Forgiveness implies reconciliation and making things right. What might she suggest for a full reconciliation process?

If you don’t want to see the world as a complex system of interconnectedness in which kindness and empathy benefit all, even in the face of cruelty and selfishness, you won’t. If you won't acknowledge past atrocities for fear your current actions and station might come into question, perhaps we should question your actions and current station. And if both of those are true, you definitely won’t understand why the chop is a shitty thing to do to other people.

(Photo: "baseball-10" by thatlostdog--. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)