Wikipedia editor responds to ‘Critical Race Theory’ edit war

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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A Wikipedia article devoted to Critical Race Theory, a controversial legal theory crafted to respond to the alleged role of “white supremacy” in American law, was placed on a temporary editing lockdown over the weekend after bloggers determined that CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien had relied on Wikipedia’s introductory definition of the theory — verbatim — during on an-air debate. A second lock was placed on the article Monday to protect it from politically biased editors who adjusted it following O’Brien’s gaffe.

The flurry began after Breitbart.com editor Joel Pollak made a guest appearance on O’Brien’s show to explain a video clip depicting a close relationship during the 1990s between President Obama and the late Derrick Bell, the Harvard Law School professor credited with originating the theory.

During her show, Pollak repeatedly reminded O’Brien that Critical Race Theory was created as a backlash against perceived “white supremacy” in America. O’Brien denied this with equal force.

An editing war ensued almost immediately between pro- and anti-O’Brien partisans, alternatively removing and reinstating references to white supremacy from the Critical Race Theory article.

The article’s current lockdown, instituted by the same Wikipedia editor who froze it over the weekend — until “the media attention cools down,” he said — will last one week.

Daily Caller blogger Jim Treacher mentioned the online battle of definitions, which caught the attention of Wikipedia’s editors as well.

“Given the flurry of reverts by and of anons yesterday I’m semi-protecting the article for a week,” wrote a Wikipedia editor named WGFinley, referring to nameless amateur editors who had been making and un-making various edits in quick succession.

“It seems at least one of the anons was trying to make meaningful contributions but given the blatant vandalism I’ve decided to semi-protect the article. If anyone disagrees feel free to chime in.”

Such a lock, Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson Matthew Roth told TheDC, is not uncommon when an article becomes the center of a political debate. The popular online encyclopedia is supported by the Foundation.

“That is often an approach when topical media reports turn an article into a contentious editing space,” Roth said in an email. “In this case, he reverted to the form the article was in before the CNN story.”

That definition did, in fact, mention “white supremacy” in two specific places.

It cites a definition from the UCLA School of Public Affairs, saying Critical Race Theory holds that “existing power structures” are “based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.”

It also concludes that Critical Race Theory “asserts that white supremacy and racial power are reproduced over time, and in particular, that law plays a role in this process.”

Wikipedia has no editorial board and has no formal vetting process for editors. No specific editors are responsible for articles on any given page. Instead, editors are volunteers and editorial criteria are generated through consensus. Anonymous editors can easily “vandalize” articles, leaving only their computers’ IP addresses as fingerprints.

According to the edit history of the Critical Race Theory article, it has existed since 2006. The first critique of the article then called Critical Race Theory an “unencyclopedic pseudoscience.”

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Josh Peterson