I’ve Been a Critical Race Theorist for 30 Years. Our Opponents Are Just Proving Our Point For Us.

“CRT is not a racialist ideology that declares all whites to be privileged oppressors, and CRT is not taught in public schools.

But over the past nine months or so, first slowly in right-wing media conversation and now quickly in state houses and even mainstream newspapers, conservative activists have branded all race reform efforts in education and employment as CRT—a disinformation campaign designed to rally disaffected middle- and working-class white people against progressive change.

If you understand what CRT actually is, though, it’s easy to see that it has nothing to do with the cartoonish picture of reverse racism that its critics depict. And, more importantly, CRT is a pretty good lens for understanding why the campaign against it has been able to spread so fast.”

CRT, in the real world, 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 wouldn’t fit easily into a K-12 curriculum. Even law students find the ideas challenging; we ourselves struggle to put it in understandable terms. We embrace no simple or orthodox set of principles, so no one can really be “trained” in CRT. And if teachers were able to teach such analytically difficult ideas to public school students, it should be a cause for wild celebration, not denunciation.

The common starting point of our analysis is 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.

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 theorists analyze 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. We reject “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 appealing 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.

So, in thinking about police reform, a CRT perspective would focus 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. (The idea of imposing race-neutral standards of “reasonableness” on police is hollow in the actual context of white suburban police officers sealed off in high-tech patrol cars patrolling the urban streets of Black neighborhoods.) Similarly, to counter claims that “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, in real estate, in education and healthcare—that built and still underlies the economy we have today.

We likewise question the traditional ways that liberals have defended affirmative action as a useful exception to a presumed race-blind ideal of “merit.” To us, the very definitions of merit reflect racial and other forms of social power.” 

“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.”

“It makes sense that the depictions of CRT by its opponents bear so little resemblance to our actual work and ideas. Like the invocation of Willie Horton in the 1980s and affirmative action after that, the point of those who seek to ban what they call “CRT” is not to contest our vision of racial justice, or to debate our social critique. It is instead to tap into a dependable reservoir of racial anxiety among whites. This is a political strategy that has worked for as long as any of us can remember, and CRT simply serves as the convenient face of the campaign today—a soft target.”

LC: I’m skeptical about the arguments about merit. Are the standards of merit really too white, or is the larger issue the disadvantages preventing some blacks from reaching the standards of merit? 


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