The Fear of Critical Race Theory Is Exactly Why We Need It
Some 25 states have already enacted or are considering laws to ban teaching what they call “critical race theory” (“CRT”) in public schools, a concept that school officials around the country deny they even teach. Most academic work never gets noticed at all, yet CRT is being publicly vilified, even banned. While Critical Race Theorists were writing footnotes and teaching classes, their ideas didn’t become the new orthodoxy in American society and the foundation of K-12 education. This opposition is about nothing more than fear of the truth.
CRT is not a racialist ideology that declares all whites to be privileged oppressors, and CRT is not taught in public schools. What we’re seeing is all race reform efforts in education and employment are being branded as CRT—a disinformation campaign designed to rally disaffected middle- and working-class white people against progressive change. In fact, CRT is a pretty good lens for understanding why the campaign against it has been able to spread so fast.
What Is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory describes the diverse work of a small group of scholars who write about the shortcomings of conventional civil rights approaches to understanding and transforming racial power in American society. It’s a complex critique that doesn’t fit easily into a K-12 curriculum. Even law students find the ideas challenging and often struggle to put it in understandable terms. There is no simple nor orthodox set of principles, so no one can really be “trained” in CRT. In fact, as Georgetown Law Professor and critical race theorist Gary Peller writes in Politico, if teachers were able to teach such analytically difficult ideas to public school students, it should be a cause for wild celebration, not denunciation.
Critical Race Theory starts with the assumption that racial power was not eliminated by the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That movement succeeded in ending the system of blatant segregation reflected in the “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs that once marked everyday life in America—but in its wake, in the 70s and the 80s, racial-justice reform in countless institutions was halted by old-guard resistance.
In explaining it, I have used the analogy of taking over a hotel from someone who opposed access for handicapped patrons. The new owners themselves may not be opposed to the handicap, but there must be acknowledgment that the building still exists with impediments to handicapped folks. I have also used the analogy of a wall being built on land separating people where one side is fertile and one side is not. The people on both sides of the wall change, but it can’t be knocked down because the people on the fertile land are “proud of what their ancestors built”. The people on fertile land do not want to give any produce to those on the other side of the wall with barren soil because that would be a handout and reinforcement of victimization when they had nothing to do with the building of the wall (they have no interest in destroying it). The people on the fertile side’s suggestion of giving seeds to those on the barren side to plant their own crops is all well and good, but does nothing to address the hunger those on the barren side have right now.
Peller’s example is clearer and much more personal:
For example, as a first-year law teacher in the early 1980s, I served on the University of Virginia Law School admissions committee. UVA had been regularly admitting a tiny number of Black students for some 15 years by then. But some of my colleagues serving on the admissions committee were the very same people who had administered the school when it was segregated. The rules had changed, but they were still in charge. So, there they were, decades after formal desegregation, insisting categorically that all graduates of historically Black institutions were unprepared for the rigors of law study at such an elite school like Virginia, and voting against their admission.
The same story was playing out in institution after institution. The “Whites Only” signs were gone, but the racial power remained in a myriad of social practices—now couched in the language of race-neutrality, such as the old guard administrators’ professed concerns about “standards,” and their ideas about what those standards should be.
Critical Race Theory and the Problem with the Civil Rights Movement
From a traditional liberal point of view, the problem, if any, with the civil rights movement was that the policies of racial integration were not implemented strongly enough. From a critical perspective, Black students getting admitted into “mainstream” institutions isn’t enough to achieve racial equality—because once inside the gates, we are confronted with norms organizing what is taught and how it’s taught that have been created exclusively by whites operating in all-white institutions. There are, or could be, racial power dynamics embedded even in what is called “knowledge” in academia or “neutrality” in law. Racism should not be viewed as an irrational deviation from rationality, but exploration of how liberal categories of reason and neutrality themselves might bear the marks of history and struggle, including racial and other forms of social power is needed.
Critical Race Theory on Police Reform
Concerning police reform, CRT focuses on the historical relations between the community and the police, rather than simply on the idea of neutral enforcement of rules like probable cause requirements. Imposing “race-neutral” standards of “reasonableness” on police within an actual context of white suburban police officers sealed off in high-tech patrol cars patrolling the urban streets of Black neighborhoods is lacking.
Critical Race Theory on Wealth Inequality
While “objective” market forces explain the continuing wealth inequities between Black and white America, a CRT perspective would highlight the long history of discrimination—in employment, housing, education, financing and healthcare—that built and still underlies the economy we have today. I actually have addressed this pervasive inequality here.
Critical Race Theory on Affirmative Action
CRT questions the traditional ways that liberals have defended affirmative action as a useful exception to a presumed race-blind ideal of “merit.” Indeed the very definitions of “merit” reflect racial and other forms of social power.
Critical Race Theory Rejects “Colorblindness”
CRT was first articulated in the 1980s by a new generation of scholars who confronted this kind of racial power in universities and law schools where they would eventually teach. While American constitutional law embraced “colorblindness” as the ideal of racial justice, CRT focused on all the ways that racial power was exercised in supposedly “colorblind” ways. There are a number of different approaches and beliefs, but the shared goal—broadly speaking—is to understand how those subtler racial power structures work, how they often pose as “neutral” institutions in law and society, and how to undo the injustices they’ve been causing.
Critical race theory analyzes social practices—and the law is a social practice—in terms of how they help to construct or maintain the subordination of the Black community. It rejects “colorblindness” as an ideal because being conscious about race is the only way to tell whether the situation of the Black community is improving or not. As soothing as colorblindness might sound to some, it’s also dangerous: It can lull decision-makers, wrongly, to assume that once they no longer explicitly discriminate along racial lines in admissions or hiring, then racial power no longer plays a part in social life.
Is Critical Race Theory Racist for Opposing Colorblindness?
Asking critical questions about widely shared values always makes people uncomfortable. Opponents of CRT seize upon critique of the ideology of colorblindness to charge that it’s divisive or, in fact, racist. Peller and other critical race theorists highlight how colorblindness is an empty ideal that works to ensure confirmation of its own premises: If one is not permitted to see the social consequences of policies in terms of race, then the disparate racial effects of policies simply become invisible. Racialized police violence disappears when no racial statistics are kept on police interactions. Racial redlining looks like simple risk-based pricing if one doesn’t look at the racialized ZIP code results. The way to end racial subordination is to end it in fact, not to define it away.
In contrast to being racially divisive, the “critical” part of CRT holds that there is no objective and neutral idea of “merit” that could explain the distribution of wealth, power, and prestige in America. The unfairness extends to whites as well as to Blacks, and to all those whose place on the hierarchies of American life are supposedly legitimated by ways that “merit” is defined by the professional classes.
Critical Race Theory Explains Opposition to…Critical Race Theory
Peller astutely notes how the campaign against CRT has spread so fast in large part because of how narrowly traditional civil rights approaches comprehended racial power. As the civil rights “revolution” of the 1960s was institutionalized in American cultural understanding, whites were taught to understand racism simplistically in terms of bad individuals who carry around racist ideas. The Bull Connor type “redneck” Southern sheriff became the consensus villain for mainstream America.
This simplistic analysis of racial power meant that there was never a national reckoning with the subtle and systemic effects of American apartheid, as they marked schools and workplaces over multiple generations. Also, if racism means identifying bad actors as the conventional image holds, then whites are understandably anxious that renewed attention to all these forms of institutionalized racial power means that they will be blamed and shamed.
It makes sense, and is good politics for the right, that depictions of CRT bear so little resemblance to its actual work and ideas. Whether it was “welfare queens” or Willie Horton in the 1980s, or affirmative action after that, the point of banning what is being popularly defined as “CRT” (The 1619 Project and anti-racism training is not CRT though they are conflated with it) is not to contest its vision of racial justice nor to debate the social critique but to tap into a dependable reservoir of racial anxiety among whites. This is a political strategy that has worked forever, CRT simply serves as the convenient face of the campaign today.
Why Opponents of Critical Race Theory Should Be Fearful
As of 2019, only 32% of Americans have college degrees, and 12 percent have advanced degrees. This small population are the only people who would have exposure to critical race theory. So why the backlash?
The multiracial, multigenerational popular mobilization in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last summer is a sign that the old strategy on the right is weakening. While CRT itself is not being taught to elementary and high school students, it is likely true that many teachers and administrators in school systems across the country have been motivated since George Floyd’s murder to include themes of racial justice in their schools.
Martin Luther King Jr.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” is the one line many white Americans can recite from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to show him as a colorblind organizer of interracial marches. What’s missed is that King was one of our nation’s most courageous and consistent defenders of Black lives. Shaun Harper in The Grio shows us how MLK’s own words can be used to argue that he was an early critical race theorist though CRT is a reaction to the movement that he spurred. In fact, towards the end of his life, MLK saw those failures himself.
“They are never honest enough to admit that the academic and cultural lags in the Negro community are themselves the result of segregation and discrimination.” (1960)
King frequently called on white people to accept responsibility for the racial inequities they created, and to assume leadership for corrective action. Contemporary problems plaguing Black Americans are incontestable byproducts of slavery, Jim Crow, voter suppression, police brutality, and other acts of racial violence and exclusion. White people manufactured those. As King maintained, it continues to be their responsibility to right past and present wrongs. CRT is simply a way to examine how those wrongs can be righted.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is… the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” (1963)
Again, CRT is a reaction to the liberal interpretation of the shortcomings of the civil rights movement. White liberals who claimed to be committed to social justice, yet did nothing to disrupt racism in their families, communities, and workplaces were more harmful than white supremacists (embodied by conservatives according to both King and Malcolm X). This continues to be the case today as white elected officials, corporate executives, college presidents, and other leaders tell people of color that we matter, then routinely fail to courageously confront racist white people actually sustaining white supremacy while claiming to oppose it.
“There must be a grand alliance of Negro and white. This alliance must consist of the vast majorities of each group. It must have the objective of eradicating social evils [that] oppress both white and Negro.” (1964)
King would’ve found beauty and hope in the numbers of white Americans who marched for Black lives last summer. King wanted whites and people of color to recognize how economic systems of oppression disadvantaged them both, and to understand that working together would significantly improve their chances of overthrowing engines of wealth inequity. Sounds like…critical race theory.
“The concept of supremacy is so imbedded in the white society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor.” (1965)
King explicitly called white supremacy by its name and understood its consequential effects. While his strategies were nonviolent and his coalitions were inclusive of whites, King was far from colorblind. CRT identifies and explains the indicators that make it painstakingly clear that race hasn’t yet ceased to be a judgmental factor in just about everything in America. White extremist groups advance particular violent notions of white supremacy, but many whites who think of themselves as good also uphold other everyday versions of it, at times unknowingly.
“I have a dream that one day…little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” (1968)
King was a fierce proponent of integrated schools. In them, he believed children would cultivate interracial bonds. King would be appalled that our neighborhoods and schools are just about as racially segregated now as they were in the 1960s. CRT helps to explain why more white Americans don’t send their children to schools with meaningful numbers of Black students and Black teachers.
“America is reaping the harvest of hate and shame planted through generations of educational denial, political disenfranchisement, and economic exploitation of its Black population. Now, almost a century removed from slavery, we find the heritage of oppression and racism erupting in our cities…” (1968)
King was attempting to help whites understand how uprisings throughout the 1960s were concurrent responses to the present moment and to centuries of racial injustice. Similarly, CRT helps explain that while uprisings we saw last summer were, in fact, about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it’s important for whites to know that fed-up Black Americans and people who stood alongside us were also protesting other, longstanding acts of racism and systems that cyclically aim to diminish the value of Black lives.
“The fact is, we have not had any insurrection in the United States because an insurrection is planned, organized, violent rebellion. What we have had is a kind of spontaneous explosion of anger.” (1968)
I’m certain King would want white Americans to know that the attack on the U.S. Capitol earlier this year was an insurrection. It was a planned, organized, and violent rebellion. Disillusioned Trump supporters, most of them white, flew on airplanes and drove across states to attend. CRT helps explain why this isn’t the same as the mostly peaceful protests we saw in numerous cities last summer, and that the Capitol insurrection also isn’t the same as when frustrated Black people spontaneously (and at times unpeacefully) take to the streets following the miscarriage of justice.
This basic effort to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about American history and government must be encouraged. Most can recall in their own educations the tired and idealized cartoons of civics and American history that has held sway for generations in American schools. It’s a good thing that teachers and other school officials are trying to change that by taking a more thoughtful and accurate approach to our history, and being more honest about what needs fixing. And as they do, it’s worth bearing in mind that what’s really under attack right now isn’t the bogeyman of “critical race theory”— it’s the modest and long overdue change being ushered in by teachers and school administrators. They may never have heard of CRT, but they intuitively understand why it exists—and rightfully see the absurdity of the conservative charge that teaching about racism is itself racist.