Lynn Lu (CUNY; Google Scholar), Who’s Afraid of Bob Jones?: “Fundamental National Public Policy” and Critical Race Theory in a Delicate Democracy, 25 CUNY L. Rev. ___ (2022):
In Summer of 2021, Republican legislators across the United States introduced a host of bills to prohibit government funding for schools or agencies that teach critical race theory (“CRT”), described by the American Association of Law Schools not as a single doctrine but a set of “frameworks” to “explain and illustrate how structural racism produces racial inequity within our social, economic, political, legal, and educational systems[,] even absent individual racist intent.” Characterizing such an explicitly race-conscious analysis of legal and social institutions as “divisive,” opponents of CRT, such as former Vice President Mike Pence, labeled it “nothing short of state-sponsored and state-sanctioned racism.”
The political campaign to “Stop CRT,” as articulated by strategist Christopher Rufo, seeks to redirect the time-honored civil-rights strategy of defunding racially discriminatory social institutions for use against race-conscious efforts to remedy the ongoing disparate racial, economic, and other social effects perpetuated by the same institutions. The movement to Stop CRT thus seeks to freeze civil rights progress where it stood decades ago, as when the Supreme Court acknowledged a “fundamental national public policy” against racial segregation in its 1983 decision in the notorious case of Bob Jones University v. United States, while leaving unresolved vital questions about whether and how to allocate public resources affirmatively to foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in democratic society.
In Bob Jones, the Court upheld the federal taxation of private schools that excluded Black students because their religious beliefs allegedly mandated “racial separation.” Specifically, the Court ruled that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) properly withheld federal tax-exempt status to otherwise qualifying entities to enforce “fundamental national public policy” (“FNPP”), as expressed by all three branches of the federal government, against racial segregation in schools, and deemed desegregation a compelling government interest that outweighed any burden on religion. As a private tax dispute, Bob Jones stands alongside legions of other complaints brought by taxpayers aggrieved by IRS actions. But as a case involving an educational institution raising a religious liberty claim against antidiscrimination regulation, Bob Jones raised broader public law issues involving constitutional and federal statutory interpretation, as well as judicial review of administrative action.
This article assesses the legal and symbolic influence of Bob Jones not to relitigate the case or to rewrite history, but to highlight the case’s lasting symbolic impact and lessons for future civil rights advocacy, especially as informed by CRTs that developed alongside the federal courts’ retreat from enforcing existing antidiscrimination norms. Part I examines the case of Bob Jones to show how its political and legal context shaped its unique posture and path to the Supreme Court. Part II examines the afterlife of Bob Jones and its symbolic importance to conservatives motivated to prevent its expansion, even as the decision limits its own impact by leaving crucial substantive questions unresolved: namely, the role of pluralism in enforcing civil rights against First Amendment claims, the viability of race-conscious remedies for racial discrimination, and the visibility of redistributive economic justice concerns. Finally, Part III shows how CRT’s insistence on confronting those same questions reveals persistent inequities sustained by U.S. social and legal institutions, drawing the fire of efforts to Stop CRT. Part III assesses the prospects for moving the difficult questions left unresolved in Bob Jones back to the center of analysis, even with the current Supreme Court in a polarized and partisan political climate. The Article ultimately concludes that the legal reorientation demanded by Bob Jones and initiated by critical theorists, whatever their fate in the Court’s jurisprudence in the near term, remains crucial for identifying and challenging ongoing power disparities in and through every level of democratic government and society.