A columnist in Alabama checked in with the sponsor of a state bill to ban “critical race theory” in schools, only to find that the lawmaker was fuzzy on the details of the thing he wanted to ban. Rep. Chris Pringle, a subcontractor speaking from his pickup in Mobile, on the Gulf Coast, said critical race theory “teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period,” and that was about all he could muster.
That seems to be the shorthand going around — critical race theory teaches that white people are evil. Folks are fired up about it. Whether that actually is what it teaches is a more difficult question than you might think. The concept isn’t easily defined, and I’m not sure there's even a consensus summary among those who broadly support it. We know, though, that there's a debate underway about the nature of reality and the history of our country and our roles in it, and it's an important debate. Critical race theory is definitely playing a role in that debate.
So what is it? It’s a body of legal theory that springs from critical legal studies, a leftist (at least back then) movement that came to prominence in academia in the 1980s. Legal “realists” had, 40 years earlier, begun to argue that the law is not some neutral, general set of principles derived from cases, but rather something much more subjective, because cases are decided by human judges, and then justified by them in their “neutral” written opinions. This line of thinking, which doesn’t seem all that revolutionary to me, was picked up and expanded on by law school professors who sought to show that the law is “indeterminate” — that is, up for interpretation anew every time a case comes to court. A judge may justify any opinion, the argument goes, and because the law is a tool of power, judges decide in ways that perpetuate power. This brought on an even broader skepticism about the validity of concepts as fundamental to our nation as the Bill of Rights. Georgetown Law Professor Mark Tushnet in 1984 wrote a 43-page critique of the idea of individual rights, calling it a “masquerade.” Whether someone is acting within his or her rights is a pointless question, he wrote; what matters is whether "their action was politically effective." Getting power and using it is what had been going on all along under the veil of flowery Enlightenment language, the argument went, so that’s what people should be doing now, not prattling on about “rights.”
A strain of this school of thought, spurred by what many viewed as a stalling of the civil rights advances of the 1960s, began to focus analysis on race, gender and sexuality. Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Alan Freeman, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Williams were early major figures, and they and others began to critique not just actual discrimination in American society, but the concepts underpinning society. They argued that all of American culture was, and still is, a “social construction” aimed at perpetuating the supremacy of white people. I often see defenses of critical race theory (this one from CNN, for example) that say it simply aims to teach about systemic racism, and those who oppose it don’t want to believe systemic racism exists. That simple framing may motivate a large share of the discourse, but it also undersells the power of critical race theory, which goes well beyond arguing systemic racism must be dismantled. It argues that racism in the service of white power is essential to this country, raising the possibility that what needs to be dismantled is the country itself.
“Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law,” wrote Delgado, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, in “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” a 2001 book updated and republished in 2017.
In other words, the United States of America, conceived on Enlightenment principles with the bloody caveat of codified hereditary slavery, is so pervasively racist that even the tools it has historically used to discuss and address racism — reason, fairness, freedom of expression, even justice itself — serve as mere justifications for the exercise and perpetuation of white power. (Commitment to this idea among critical race theorists was not uniform, however — more on that later.)
Now, I don’t think these ideas in an explicit form have been widely disseminated. It’s graduate school stuff. But in many ways, this vision of the country — far more pessimistic, clearer-eyed about the past, more critical and demanding of whites, and urgent in its calls for change — has. Ta-Nehisi Coates popularized, in the pages of The Atlantic, a more fire-and-brimstone assessment of the country. From then on, in a decade of highly-publicized police killings of Black men, the conversation got more blunt. The concept of “anti-racism” hit the mainstream, explained most prominently by Ibram X. Kendi (and Robin DeAngelo, though she’s fallen somewhat out of favor). Building on the foundation of critical race theory, Kendi says that people cannot simply be “not racist” (there is no neutrality), but must actively seek to combat the racism around and in them. This piece that describes Kendi’s ideas and what they mean, by Kelefa Sanneh, a Black staff writer for the New Yorker, is worth reading. Kendi asserts that all inequality of outcome in school or business, or anything, is evidence of racist policy, and has called for an anti-racism amendment that would make inequality unconstitutional and establish a federal Department of Anti-Racism to eradicate racism from the nation. The 1619 Project from the New York Times argued that preserving slavery was what motivated the colonies to declare independence from England, a true hammer blow at the heart of the nation’s conception of itself that's been widely disputed by historians, including Black ones.
When I read through old stuffy journal articles laying out the intellectual foundation and even some of the critiques of critical race theory, I find myself sympathizing with it. Surely any reasonable person would agree that a corrective was (and is) needed. Generational poverty among Black people was enforced by explicit racism at a time of incredible material abundance in the post-war era by my grandparents’ generation — such a cruel and unnecessary missed opportunity to level the playing field. Hate, bitterness and distrust persisted, and still persist. And yet, five years out from the Civil Rights Act, 10 years out, 15 years out, many white people blithely insisted that all had been made right, downplayed the injustice, and blamed the victims. I would say that my own education as a child in the 1980s and 1990s left me with a watered-down sense of what has occurred in our country. Maybe that was due to my own inattention, but my understanding of slavery and the Black experience in America was never anything close to visceral until my 20s. The pioneers of critical race theory saw the profound corruption of this — a system that oppressed Black people and insisted it did not — and married their impatience for change with a scholarly movement in legal theory that questioned the system down to its footings. Voila, critical race theory.
How much of this theory can be taught to schoolchildren? I’m guessing not much. And unless teachers really are telling students that they’re “bad” because of the color of their skin, as Pringle fears, I applaud more robust primary school education about America’s record of racism and oppression. To me, a lot of the pushback against critical race theory looks like white people with their fingers in their ears, humming loudly to drown out unpleasant truths. We’re born into (or immigrated to) a culture with massive built-in problems, the depths of which we can probably never fathom, thanks to the thumbs up America’s Founding Fathers gave chattel slavery. We are affected by that. Today. Pretending we aren't is harmful, and white Americans have exhausted many non-white Americans by pretending this all along.
Here critical race theory offers a framework. Racism is so “ordinary” in American life, Delgado writes, that it goes unacknowledged by white people, who “cannot easily grasp what it is like to be non-white.” Minority status “brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.” A big emphasis of critical race theory — in fact one of its few positive recommendations — is to encourage non-white people to tell their stories to counter the dominant narrative, one that rarely broaches the subject of atoning for the sin of slavery (“We fought the Civil War! What more can we do?”). The dominance of that narrative for 400 years means that when a state lawmaker says he wants to ban critical race theory, a portion of the country refuses to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s racist, they say. And that’s a reaction I can understand, one which serious people who object to critical race theory should take into account when they enter the public sphere to debate its ideas.
Because we do need to be able to debate these ideas. Despite my view that it brings a necessary corrective to a white-washed understanding of history, critical race theory is intertwined with an ideology in which, by default, all white people are perpetrators of racism and all Black people (and Latinos, and Asian-Americans) are victims. There is perhaps a loose sense in which this is true, but it can start to feel absolutist, condescending, unhelpful, and not something most Black people I speak with would agree to. What about human agency? At what point can we be judged on the content of our character, and not the color of our skin? Of course racial oppression is central to the history of the United States of America. But is that the overriding way to understand our country, our neighbors, and ourselves in 2021? How can we move forward together when some of us, at least in the abstract, reject the entire American experiment on grounds it was always an oppressive White Lie?
So even though they're not well-informed, and undercut by their country’s atrocious record on racial justice, and probably in some cases just plain refusing to acknowledge the history of America, I think these outraged lawmakers across the country are responding to something real. When you burrow into the ideas behind critical race theory, one of the things that’s at stake is whether there can be a positive, unifying, forward-looking vision for America, one that somehow atones for the nation’s sins but also protects the multicultural freedom and prosperity it has achieved.
Does critical race theory offer that? Some of its defenders would say that’s not its burden. But it makes demands on all of us, and those demands come with a set of assumptions. If power is the only thing that matters, and the ideals of the country are irredeemably corrupt, if laws and speech and even “rights” are just tools to perpetuate white power, and if Western society is to its very core racist, what’s the next step?
Angela Harris, the law professor at UC-Davis, wrote an essay in 1994 that’s helpful on this front. Critical race theorists, she wrote, must break with critical legal theory in that they must work to “reconstruct political modernism.” In other words, critical race theorists can’t completely throw out the ideals of America. There’s a tension, she wrote, between the need to reexamine concepts like objectivity, neutrality and individual rights, and the fact that we all live in a reality shaped by those concepts — “we cannot step out of it.” She calls for a more “sophisticated modernism” but also “a healthy recognition of rationalism’s limitations.” The goal, she said, should be “not to abandon the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and liberal democracy, but to make good on their promises.”
Reconciling what’s bad about America with what’s good about it, even for the few who have actually tried, is obviously a terrifically difficult task. People like Harris have tried. Whether the nuance of her work carries through to the work of Ibram X. Kendi is another question. And no, I don’t think an objection to some of the ideas associated with critical race theory ( Kendi’s assertion that inequality equals present-day racist policy, or his charge that President Barack Obama is racist against Black people) is necessarily an objection to a clear-eyed acknowledgment of America’s sins. Something’s gotta be done to make good on America’s promises for Black people. We do need a shared vision for the future. I don’t believe critical race theory has that. But I also have to conclude, citing Harris, that critical race theory leaves the door open for such a vision. And to me that’s encouraging.
Apologies for the three days of silence. Been wrestling with this topic, and learning as I go, and didn’t want to screw it up. Please shoot me a note if you think I got it wrong. Links will return Monday.
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Thanks for taking the time to bring all those pieces together. I think you articulated the nuances and challenges very well.