Assistant Minister for Women Amanda Stoker (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Amanda Stoker, the assistant attorney-general, doesn’t like the term “anti-racism”. She hates it so much she got the Australian Human Rights Commission to scrap a tender enhancing a much-needed anti-racism campaign, according to a report in Guardian Australia.

Why did the senator take issue with “anti-racism”, which on its surface sounds like an objectively good thing? It’s because, according to a spokesperson, anti-racism is closely related to critical race theory, a once-obscure set of academic ideas that has somehow become a bogeyman for culture war conservatives the world over.

What is critical race theory?

Firstly, it’s not really all that scary. It refers to a set of ideas created by influential legal scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado, who were trying to grapple with the endurance of structural racism in a post-civil rights world in which black people were granted formal equality and many white Americans believed the problem of racism was fixed.

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At its core, critical race theory posits that race is not biological but socially constructed, reinforced through systems of power like the law.

“It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it,” Crenshaw, one of the movement’s leading figures, said last year.

It’s that interrogation of the way racism manifests in subtle, quietly pernicious ways that makes critical race theory such a useful analytical tool — not just in the United States but here in Australia, where despite seven Indigenous deaths in custody since the start of March, there is a dominant narrative that suggests the country is a successful post-racial multicultural society.

Critical race theory suggests those deaths are not tragic accidents or aberrations, but an inherent part of how policing and the law works to reinforce racial hierarchies.

Why are conservatives outraged by it?

So, why is Stoker suddenly so mad about critical race theory? Firstly, Stoker’s parliamentary career has been steeped in conservative culture warring, and the issues she’s picked up — like attacking transgender rights — are often imported directly from overseas.

It’s therefore a sign of how the transnational right operates, and just how much conservative politics is still swayed by the rambling outbursts of former US president Donald Trump.

For decades, critical race theory was relatively obscure outside university campuses, until Trump started tweeting about it. The former president, and the Fox News-pilled Republican Party he led, were always hostile to the idea that racism still exists in the US.

Then the murder of George Floyd provided visceral evidence of exactly what that ongoing racism looked like, led to mass protests for racial justice, and forced institutions across the country to start rethinking their own unconscious biases around race.

In an attempt to rev up the base and culture-war his way back to the White House, Trump pitted himself against that correction, defending Confederate statues and vowing to protect American history from Marxists and The New York Times.

Last September, he ordered federal agencies to stop any diversity training that discussed white privilege and critical race theory. It was all “divisive, anti-American propaganda”, Trump said, which would tear workplaces and families apart.

Within a month Trump’s culture war had jumped the Atlantic and was being picked up by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. And of course, it’s now a frequent topic of conversation on Sky News over here, which runs multiple segments on it a week.

It was only a matter of time, then, before that old Trumpian culture war jumped over to Parliament.

Trump is gone from the White House, and banned from every reputable social media platform. But the endurance of his attacks on critical race theory are a sign of how he still has the global conservative movement in his thrall.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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