Part of what’s so insidious about the conservative assault on critical race theory is how it exploits a deep-seated rift in the Democratic coalition, one that’s been apparent since the advent of the back-to-the-city movement in the 1980s and 1990s. That divide has never been fully resolved — and it needs to be soon.
Of the various factions that comprise the Democratic Party’s base, two in particular have held considerable sway in the election cycles of the 21st century. The first is the mostly (but not exclusively) white, educated and affluent progressive wing. These voters rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Great Recession and saw opportunities for greater influence during the Obama Administration. In the 2020 election cycle, they mostly supported Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The second is the relatively moderate wing of middle- and working-class people of color. These Democrats have been painstakingly building up power within the party’s establishment over several decades. They coalesced around Joe Biden in 2020.
The alliance between the two factions has long been uneasy. It was forged in the 1980s and boasted early successes that vaulted local leaders such as Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and New York Mayor David Dinkins into office. The coalition seemed to produce its best electoral results when both sides rallied behind a moderate Black candidate, often with establishment ties but equally strong progressive support. While this formula proved less successful at the national level, perhaps its biggest achievement was ushering President Barack Obama into the White House.
As more and more progressive whites moved into cities in the late 1990s, however, fissures between the two sides began to grow. At the national level, they focused on different priorities. Progressives took on global challenges such as climate change, for instance, while Black and Hispanic moderates focused more on expanding their political representation and access to levers of power .
New debates broke out at the local level as well, largely having to do with the repercussions of gentrification — including displacement, widening racial and ethnic inequality, higher housing costs, and a tussle for control over neighborhood character.
White progressives saw cities as places with abundant educational and job opportunities, whose potential was not being fulfilled. Moderates of color saw neighborhoods just barely holding on as blue-collar jobs disappeared. One side argued for transformative change to remake the urban landscape. The other pushed for a more incremental approach to gain greater entree to government, business and institutions.
As the numbers of progressives in cities rose, so did angst about their impact. In response, many progressives adopted a lexicon of inclusion to signal their benign intent. They championed the “not the color of our skin, but the content of our character” argument raised by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to show they had the kind of character necessary to eradicate interpersonal discrimination. Progressives promoted inclusion as a way to strengthen our nation’s institutions. Diversity became a touchstone.
Urban progressives thus created much of the vocabulary at the center of today’s debate over critical race theory. At the same time, moderate people of color, largely led by Black academics, increasingly saw a society that was racist yet without racists in the conventional sense. The expansion of Big Data drew wider attention to racial disparities in economics, education, health, crime and other areas that persisted despite doors being technically more open than ever before.
This was the foundation of the critical race theory developed by Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda and others, which made the case that racism was structural and systemic in society — and did not need racists to advance its outcomes.
Conservatives took umbrage at both the imposition of a new vocabulary to describe a changing nation and an academic view that challenged their foundational understanding of U.S. democracy. They thus conflated the progressive vocabulary with the notion of systemic racism, in an effort to tackle both.
It’s an ingenious strategy. But will it work?
It very well might, if the effort exacerbates tensions between the two Democratic factions. Black and Hispanic moderates have expressed concerns about continued access to the levers of power within the Democratic Party. Progressives have questioned the moderates’ commitment to larger issues such climate change, defunding police or forgiving student debt.
Perhaps, instead of focusing on abstract theory, the two sides should return to the more local issues that first divided them — over how to improve quality of life for city residents. Those problems still require solving and they could grow worse if white progressives flee cities to create urban-like utopias in reinvented suburbs. Just because conservatives want to pick a fight over race doesn’t mean liberals need to oblige.
Pete Saunders is the community and economic development director for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and an urban planning consultant. He is also the editor and publisher of the Corner Side Yard, a blog focused on public policy in America's Rust Belt cities.