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Critical Race Theory: What It Is and What It Isn’t

President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which aimed to do away with racial discrimination in the law. But discrimination persisted.

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana sent a letter to fellow Republicans on June 24, 2021, stating: “As Republicans, we reject the racial essentialism that critical race theory teaches … that our institutions are racist and need to be destroyed from the ground up.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and central figure in the development of critical race theory, said in a recent interview that critical race theory “just says, let’s pay attention to what has happened in this country, and how what has happened in this country is continuing to create differential outcomes. … Critical Race Theory … is more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because … we believe in the promises of equality. And we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality.”

Rep. Banks’ account is demonstrably false and typical of many people publicly declaring their opposition to critical race theory. Crenshaw’s characterization, while true, does not detail its main features. So what is critical race theory and what brought it into existence?

The development of critical race theory by legal scholars such as Derrick Bell and Crenshaw was largely a response to the slow legal progress and setbacks faced by African Americans from the end of the Civil War, in 1865, through the end of the civil rights era, in 1968. To understand critical race theory, you need to first understand the history of African American rights in the U.S.

The history

After 304 years of enslavement, then-former slaves gained equal protection under the law with passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868. The 15th Amendment, in 1870, guaranteed voting rights for men regardless of race or “previous condition of servitude.”

Between 1866 and 1877 – the period historians call “Radical Reconstruction” – African Americans began businesses, became involved in local governance and law enforcement and were elected to Congress.

This early progress was subsequently diminished by state laws throughout the American South called “Black Codes,” which limited voting rights, property rights and compensation for work; made it illegal to be unemployed or not have documented proof of employment; and could subject prisoners to work without pay on behalf of the state. These legal rollbacks were worsened by the spread of “Jim Crow” laws throughout the country requiring segregation in almost all aspects of life.

Grassroots struggles for civil rights were constant in post-Civil War America. Some historians even refer to the period from the New Deal Era, which began in 1933, to the present as “The Long Civil Rights Movement.”

The period stretching from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which found school segregation to be unconstitutional, to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in housing, was especially productive.

The civil rights movement used practices such as civil disobedience, nonviolent protest, grassroots organizing and legal challenges to advance civil rights. The U.S.’s need to improve its image abroad during the Cold War importantly aided these advancements. The movement succeeded in banning explicit legal discrimination and segregation, promoted equal access to work and housing and extended federal protection of voting rights.

However, the movement that produced legal advances had no effect on the increasing racial wealth gap between Blacks and whites, while school and housing segregation persisted.

A young Black man on a skateboard pushes his son in a stroller on a sidewalk past blighted buildings in Baltimore.
The racial wealth gap between Blacks and whites has persisted. Here, Carde Cornish takes his son past blighted buildings in Baltimore. ‘Our race issues aren’t necessarily toward individuals who are white, but it is towards the system that keeps us all down, one, but keeps Black people disproportionally down a lot more than anybody else,’ he said.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

What critical race theory is

Critical race theory is a field of intellectual inquiry that demonstrates the legal codification of racism in America.

Through the study of law and U.S. history, it attempts to reveal how racial oppression shaped the legal fabric of the U.S. Critical race theory is traditionally less concerned with how racism manifests itself in interactions with individuals and more concerned with how racism has been, and is, codified into the law.

There are a few beliefs commonly held by most critical race theorists.

First, race is not fundamentally or essentially a matter of biology, but rather a social construct. While physical features and geographic origin play a part in making up what we think of as race, societies will often make up the rest of what we think of as race. For instance, 19th- and early-20th-century scientists and politicians frequently described people of color as intellectually or morally inferior, and used those false descriptions to justify oppression and discrimination.

Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who devised the term ‘critical race theory,’ explains what it is – and isn’t.

Second, these racial views have been codified into the nation’s foundational documents and legal system. For evidence of that, look no further than the “Three-Fifths Compromisein the Constitution, whereby slaves, denied the right to vote, were nonetheless treated as part of the population for increasing congressional representation of slave-holding states.

Third, given the pervasiveness of racism in our legal system and institutions, racism is not aberrant, but a normal part of life.

Fourth, multiple elements, such as race and gender, can lead to kinds of compounded discrimination that lack the civil rights protections given to individual, protected categories. For example, Crenshaw has forcibly argued that there is a lack of legal protection for Black women as a category. The courts have treated Black women as Black, or women, but not both in discrimination cases – despite the fact that they may have experienced discrimination because they were both.

These beliefs are shared by scholars in a variety of fields who explore the role of racism in areas such as education, health care and history.

Finally, critical race theorists are interested not just in studying the law and systems of racism, but in changing them for the better.

What critical race theory is not

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, giving his version of what critical race theory is.

“Critical race theory” has become a catch-all phrase among legislators attempting to ban a wide array of teaching practices concerning race. State legislators in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia have introduced legislation banning what they believe to be critical race theory from schools.

But what is being banned in education, and what many media outlets and legislators are calling “critical race theory,” is far from it. Here are sections from identical legislation in Oklahoma and Tennessee that propose to ban the teaching of these concepts. As a philosopher of race and racism, I can safely say that critical race theory does not assert the following:

(1) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;

(2) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;

(3) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex;

(4) An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex;

(5) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;

(6) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.

What most of these bills go on to do is limit the presentation of educational materials that suggest that Americans do not live in a meritocracy, that foundational elements of U.S. laws are racist, and that racism is a perpetual struggle from which America has not escaped.

Americans are used to viewing their history through a triumphalist lens, where we overcome hardships, defeat our British oppressors and create a country where all are free with equal access to opportunities.

Obviously, not all of that is true.

Critical race theory provides techniques to analyze U.S. history and legal institutions by acknowledging that racial problems do not go away when we leave them unaddressed.

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David Miguel Gray, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Affiliate, Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.




Does the US Have a Culture of Violence? Not the United States of Women

By Laura Flanders | Common Dreams

“Culture of violence.” If I hear that phrase wheeled out one more time to excuse a mass shooter, I’ll scream. That doesn’t mean I’ll head to the gun shop.

Which is to say, when it comes to cultures, here in the USA, we’re lucky enough to be able to take our pick.

Even a cursory scan of history reveals that we have a vast variety of options.

Starting in the way-back 1600s, the nasty Pequot Wars were bloody, but only the plundering pilgrims were set on “wiping their enemies off the map.” As historian Bernard Bailyn once put it memorably to the Smithsonian Magazine, “The Indians were not genocidal on the whole.”

Does the US have a culture of violence? Not the United States of women.

The Africans dead from slavery and the North Atlantic slave trade number in the tens of millions. Probably 30-60 million. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 6,500 white terror lynchings after that. As soon as freed Black towns got up and running, and possibly competitive, white mobs burned them to the ground, as they did immigrant Chinese settlements in the same period once the dangerous work on the Transcontinental Railroad was complete. Many thriving Mexican towns on what whites wanted to be Texas met the same fate.

Given the bloody, butcherous history of white racist violence and slaughter, it’s remarkable that aside from a few smart, self-defense committees, non-violence, lawsuits, and honest journalism have been, and continue to be, the dominant tactics of the civil rights movement.

Does the US have a culture of violence? Not the United States of women. Even after witch-burning and sexual slavery and rape in marriage and rape in bondage and domestic terror and forced childbirth and forced sterilization and sex work…. When it comes to gender-based violence, women have mostly turned to mutual aid, not mass murder. One wonders how history might have been different.

In a “culture of violence,” you’d think LGBTQI people, and especially trans women of color—the most targeted group when it comes to hate crimes—would have every right, and most certainly the urge, to commit hate crimes right back. But they don’t. They—we—make their own culture instead, and it’s a hit.

We’ve simply allowed, until recently, a bunch of white western guys, rooted in one particularly patriarchal, white, hierarchical, and militaristic set of values to write and enforce their own rules.

Finally, kids. In 2016, the latest year for which I could find numbers, 1,637 children died from firearm-related violence and thousands more fear gun violence in their schools. And yet, no kid-led army has staked out the National Rifle Association and its toadies. Not so far. They demonstrate and organize.

To repeat, when it comes to cultures, the US has lots. We’ve simply allowed, until recently, a bunch of white western guys, rooted in one particularly patriarchal, white, hierarchical, and militaristic set of values to write and enforce their own rules. That said, segregation, spousal rape, white crime on indigenous land, anti-LGBT hate crimes, and domestic child abuse were all legal until very recently. The white, male, militarist culture of violence isn’t inevitable. It’s a societal choice. Let’s switch.

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including “Bushwomen: How They Won the White House for Their Man” (2005).  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media, and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media. lauraflanders.org




Is the Nation Opening Its Soul?

Not only are statues of Confederate generals finally coming down, but Christopher Columbus—colonialist conqueror extraordinaire—apparently has also had his day, with his statues coming down all over the place. (Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr)

By Robert C. Koehler | Common Dreams

Topple a few statues, remove some iconic names from American institutions . . . and the ghosts of the past start to escape from history, filling the present moment. It’s called awareness.

Too much awareness can feel like chaos. Not surprisingly, a lot of people would prefer to stick with the old historical narrative, the one that’s so tried and true: This is the land of the free, the home of the brave, the birthplace of democracy. God bless America! (And forget about slavery, Native American genocide, racism, packed prisons, nukes, endless war, etc.)

The question of the moment is whether this narrative is gone for good. Are we merely in the process of making some superficial adjustments or has the national soul truly torn itself open? Will we stop short —once again—of creating a society of compassionate equality? Will, we eventually (as soon as possible) retreat to another narrative of American exceptionalism and . . . uh, white power? Or are we in the process of real change?

I confess to being an optimist. The ghosts of the past that are returning to the present moment could be the harbingers of unimaginable change. Even the changes that seem trivial—rebranding Aunt Jemima pancake mix, for instance—have roots that go deep into the national identity and its sources of power.

Consider, for instance, the downfall of Woodrow Wilson, former U.S. president who was also president of Princeton University for eight years. Announcing that Wilson’s name would be removed from Princeton’s public policy school, current president Christopher Eisgruber said, according to BBC News: “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”

Wow, that’s no small deal, considering how low the standards for racial stupidity were in the early 20th century. Nonetheless, he explained, Wilson—whose legacy includes barring black students from attending Princeton, who was a friend of the Ku Klux Klan—was revered by Princeton for over a century “not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.”

Princeton, he went on, “is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people.”

So America’s racist ignorance is over? Examples keep pouring in. Not only are statues of Confederate generals finally coming down, but Christopher Columbus — colonialist conqueror extraordinaire — apparently has also had his day, with his statues coming down all over the place. And a particularly racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt, depicting the conquering hero grandly astride his horse as a black man and a Native American walk humbly beside (and behind) him, will be removed from in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

And latter-day colonialist John Wayne, king of the Hollywood cowboys and icon of America’s conquest of the Wild West, is in trouble in Orange County, Calif., where Democratic political leaders are calling for the renaming of John Wayne Airport, thanks to the “resurfacing” of a 1971 Playboy interview, in which he said: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

A fascinating irony about these words is the way they bounce back to the speaker, whose ignorance of and indifference to his country’s horrific history of racism indicates he was not “educated to a point of responsibility.”

And then there are the brand names that are suddenly gone, so to speak, with the wind. These include Aunt Jemima, a product that dates back to 1893, whose initial model, a woman named Nancy Green, was a former slave. Other brands with stereotypical symbols that are on their way out include Uncle Ben’s rice, Eskimo pies, Cream of Wheat, and Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup. “Retiring these products is not ‘political correctness,’” Katha Pollitt writes at The Nation, “it is the removal of a profound racial insult from our grocery stores and kitchen tables.”

And, oh yeah, speaking of Gone with the Wind, that 1939 movie of antebellum nostalgia has been taken off HBO for the time being. Its return will include “a discussion of its historical context,” according to a network spokesperson. And the reality TV show “Cops” is gone after 32 seasons, depriving Americans of the chance to watch the law-and-order game in progress from the comfort of their sofas.

At a deeper level, police accountability is no longer a matter turned over to the police unions. Derek Chauvin, the killer of George Floyd, has been charged with second-degree murder, as have the other officers present at the scene of his death. Police departments in California, Texas, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. have banned the police use of chokeholds. And the movement to defund militarized police forces, diverting the money to other means of establishing social order, is gaining a political foothold, not only in Minneapolis (ground zero) but New York City.

All of which will hardly matter at all if the changes stop here. The undoing of American racism—of its racist infrastructure—isn’t a simple matter of making reforms or righting a few wrongs. The above changes only matter if they indicate a national rebeginning.

As a social theorist and author Joe Feagin put it in a Truthout interview: “. . . in their individual and collective protests and revolts against racial oppression African Americans have long pressed for—indeed, arguably invented—the authentic liberty-and-justice-for-all values that have gradually become more central to this country. The white male ‘founders’ version of ‘liberty and justice’ values were inauthentic, as they actually had in mind freedom for (propertied) white men.”

What matters about the present moment is that change seems to be coming from multiple directions, both outside and within the corridors of political and economic power, as our ignorance shatters and we wake up.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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