By David Miguel Gray
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.
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.
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.
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 Compromise” in 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
“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.
David Miguel Gray is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Affiliate, Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Memphis.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation U.S. seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone.
Its really sad that Americans cant accept the fact that our country is flawed and has always had flaws. If you learn about our flaws then we can fix them once and for all.
When I hear descendants of immigrants who came to the US AFTER slavery was abolished echo racist comments and attitudes I KNOW that institutional racism exists. Yes, I hear vicious racist snd fascist statements “in the street” from Italian-Americans, Latin Americans Eastern Europeans, etc, really hateful statements. Unfortunately, the widespread nature of this only forces a blowback on efforts to mitigate this.
CRT is so vague Noone can explain it the same way. I actually listened to podcasts all day on this subject. Most believe it’s detrimental to society. The ones that thought it should be taught in schools can’t even answer simple questions about the subject without talking in circles and making assumptions .saw a video of THE GREAT MORGAN FREEMAN a few weeks ago….look it up…Morgan Freeman interview on race…. that man is smart.
Gina Weiss says
Local and Ray W: I absolutely love Morgan Freeman, just saw in in The Bonfire of the Vanities, I actually never saw the movie when it came out because it received such poor reviews as the book was a great read as books usually are better than the movie made for them. His ending speech in the courtroom brought tears to my eyes, about being decent human beings. I actually enjoyed the movie anyway. I would like to know Ray W critique on the book.
Democrats opposed the passing of the 14th and 15th amendments and the Civil Rights Act.
Linda Hagman says
And your point is??? This isn’t a democrat vs. republican issue….it’s an American issue and the quest for our country to live up to it’s highest potential.
Been There says
and Abraham Lincoln was a Republican (National Union Party). My how the parties have changed.
My absolute favorite piece. Enjoyed this immensely.
Ray W. says
Shortly after my father resigned his position in the summer of 1968 as the elected State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit (and his position as the president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association), he represented a Black DeLand resident in a Lake County civil matter. Scheduled to appear in court on the case, he drove from Daytona to DeLand to pick up his client. As he drove into Lake County, Sheriff Willis McCall was waiting on the side of the road. Sheriff McCall pulled my father over to ask him if he knew that he had a black man sitting in the right front passenger seat. No traffic offense. No criminal offense. Only a now-outdated societal offense worthy of a traffic stop by an elected Lake County constitutional officer. I have to wonder if that story could be taught to public school students under the terms of the statute detailed in this article?
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King wrote extensively about Lake County, Sheriff McCall and two of the three cases that meandered from a small rural Lake County outpost, Groveland, all the way to the United States Supreme Court. I have to wonder if either of both of his books would constitute legal reading assignments for public school students under the terms of the statute detailed in this article?
Kelly Ann Markowitz says
I just finished “Devil In The Grove” and it was excellent. Growing up in Florida, I was so oblivious of how prevalent that kind of violent racism was here.
The article appears to me to define CRT as a 50,000 ft look at racism and American history. The real problem with CRT in our schools, especially elementary and middle schools is what the districts and teachers put into the curriculum and then into the classroom. How can a non high school student comprehend the concepts of CRT put forth in the article? They can’t. We are relying on the, supposed neutral teacher to teach and not put their own opinions into the mix but that for the most part doesn’t happen. Therefore kids are being taught opinions and biases of the individual teachers. Not good to say the least.
I’m 70 and we were taught about slavery, voting rights for women and blacks, but we were NOT taught to hate our country, and that being white was racist. America has lost its way to the teaching of socialism and racism in our schools.
Academia and the media have created a catch-phrase, “critical race theory,” which now has generated a backlash that threatens to erode academic freedom and debate. Why not just call it “honest history,” which could include a detailed reading and analysis of our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. . The contradictions in those documents are plain to see if teachers require their students to read more than a few selective quotes such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We also could pursue “Honest Economics” so students could find out who has fared the best under our mixed capitalist/welfare system. These approaches might lead some to question whether we still need to have “affirmative action,” “diversity requirements,” veterans/minority/women’s preferences in contracting, guaranteed incomes, etc.
Mongo Jerry says
Critical Race Baiting Theory
Now that’s better
How about just teaching history, reading, writing and arithmetic. Worked for years in the past. What a novel concept! Who comes up with this CRT BS?
Been There says
It hasn’t worked to EDUCATE people. Education is more than rote memorization and indoctrination. You have to teach critical teach skills and how to COLLABORATE. You can’t collaborate on a team if you are harboring ill preconceived bias about your teammates.
Your experience is not the world. If we don’t provide alternative perspectives for students then we end up right where we are today.
I had a coworker say to me, “What ever happened to the days when you went to work, shut up, did your job and were happy to have one?” I countered with, “Was that before or after unions and labor laws?”
Why is it that every time CRT ends up in a classroom or workplace the first order of business is that white people have to acknowledge their “privilege” and admit they are racists? That’s hardly an atmosphere promoting healing and understanding. You can keep your CRT; I judge each individual on the content of his/her character, not on skin color. It’s further damaging to our society to constantly separate people by their melatonin, particularly when we do it to young people. Maybe if we stop telling young black kids that they can’t make it in the world because they are oppressed they will make it in the world. Just a crazy thought. Finally, all the CRT in the world is not going to stop black on black violence in the major cities, which is exponentially more responsible for black deaths than white police officers. Go ahead and check the facts as in numbers; I dare you.
Might want to start with figuring out the difference between melanin and melatonin before you start pulling the black-on-black-crime card.
Kelly Ann Markowitz says
Apparent that many of these commenters didn’t bother reading beyond the headline and are still as ignorant as ever as to what Critical Race Theory actually is and who is responsible for weaponizing it. CRT is not taught in Primary/Secondary school. It’s taught in college, more specifically law school. It examines racism in the context of our laws and how those laws have impacted society. But the term is wrongly being used as a catch all phrase. What conservatives and the blatherheads at Fox News are objecting to is the historical truth being taught to our young people. Truth of our country’s founding, including our violent past that dehumanized and enslaved people who didn’t look like us. Knowing and understanding history will help future generations avoid repeating it. As a parent and a citizen, it is my hope to educate our children so that they can be the agents of change to a better world. But sure, let’s keep our heads stuck in the proverbial sand and make it so our children do too.
Or we can keep telling them that they are racists and encourage them to assure that the become racist against the racist teachings after they get tired of hearing it. LET IT DIE AND IT WILL DIE. KEEP IT ALIVE AND IT WILL THRIVE
Ray W. says
Having been the subject of death threats by the Klan during my childhood because my father bypassed the grand jury process and directly prosecuted Klan members who had blocked off both ends of a St. Augustine bridge and attacked Black fishermen in the middle of the night, with the assassination conspiracy reported by an infiltrating law enforcement officer, I suspect I am more correct than Local in stating that racism will not die without educating the racists among us.
Basically, to borrow a phrase from a prominent theoretical physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, Local is not simply wrong, he is “wronger than wrong.”
One of the most difficult things in life is to not fool ourselves, per Wittgenstein.
Although this is attributed to Lincoln, I acknowledge that many quotes attributed to him are not really his in origin. Supposedly, Lincoln said that all great problems were unsolvable. If they were solvable, they would not be great problems. Famine, war, epidemic, pandemic and endemic diseases, slavery, racism in all its forms, all appear to be great problems. But that does not mean that we can think like Local and wish the great problems away.
Gina Weiss says
Ray W: IMO how about teaching CRT to the parent’s of the students first, many do not understand it, it’s like a foreign language to some and up in the clouds somewhere but I would like to share this experience which my daughter had while driving with a very close friend and high schoolmate. It was their last year in high school before college in the summer. Her friend who is a black male would find my daughter and their friends jobs to earn some spending money. This job took them to the Hamptons to one of those rich outdoor estates where they were servers for some kind of a summer bash. On the way home at about 2-3 am their car was stopped by a State Trooper, the driver of the car was my daughters friend, and there were also maybe 2-3 more persons of color in the car. My daughters friend the driver had asked the trooper why was he being stopped as he was going the proper speed limit, the trooper replied that he was maybe 5 miles over the limit. The point I want to make is this, the PANIC in the car when they were stopped as my daughter puts it was very scary and everyone immediately had taken out their cell phones to videotape just in case something went wrong. My daughter told me back then that she felt how it feels to be targeted, frightened and panicked and it was a life learning experience for her she will never forget, just imagine they thought they were going to be killed or that someone was going to get hurt.
Ray W. says
As a clarification, a hypothesis, when tested and proved, can be said to be true, or right. When disproved, it is falsified, or wrong. When one can neither prove nor disprove an hypothesis, it cannot be said to be either right or wrong. Thus, when one bases a claim on an unprovable hypothesis, it can be said to be wronger than wrong. Hence, the problem with Local’s comment that racism will die if only one lets it alone to die is that he is wronger than wrong. On the other hand, my hypothesis based on the hope, belief, delusison, etc., that educating rascists is a process that might reduce or eliminate racism might be right or it might be wrong, but at least it is not wronger than wrong.
Ray W. says
Thank you, Kelly Ann Markowitz. And, thank you, Mr. Tristam. I know it takes a tremendous amount of effort to keep this forum running. I appreciate you for keeping FlaglerLive available for contributors as diverse as Sherry, Kelly, Gina, Pogo, Been There, etc., to present multiple points of view.
Pierre Tristam says
It also links back old friends.
Ray W. says
So true, old friend.
Jean Davis says
I do not know where you went to school, but my children and I had excellent and comprehensive exposure to American history including the good, the bad and the ugly in the public school system. Today, that may not be true since the quality of our public schools nationwide are pathetic. Whether it is the parents, the teachers, or the of the students or some combination of all that is responsible, the majority of students especially children of color are not able to read or perform math tasks at grade level by 5th grade. So to try expose them to critical race theory is a joke. CRT is theoretical, not factual.
Palm Coast Citizen says
I went on an Ancestry tangent and discovered my immigrant great grandfather lived in multi-family housing up north in a segregated but diverse community (buildings were segregated but the community as a whole was not. There where white people in units a block from units solely for black people). He eventually bought a home for his family, because new laws changed the way housing could be financed. My family was never wealthy, and not only did he purchase a home like this, but his son did. That same financing for housing wasn’t available to black people (and other minority groups).
I learned that his original community had been completely red-lined and he moved out, but the same financing wasn’t available to black people. The community he lived in became disinvested, and because business and housing loans were declined simply due to the number of black people who had been living in that area, the area began to decline.
I couldn’t help but wonder how this impacted our nation socially and economically. The perceptions that would follow when communities became more segregated due to awful financing laws meant that crime would increase as people lacked access to opportunity and access to public and commercial services.
This wide-scale lack of opportunity would obviously impact families for generations. It doesn’t mean that opportunity didn’t begin to open up and that people didn’t become successful. It means there was a slow start and that the systems that overtly manipulated us into racial bias would take a long while to be sorted out.
Most of the change being forged for equality has been forged by the people who were front-and-center, and the change has always been a benefit to all of us. Imagine if we all looked at this together, as one nation of different groups of people who want our future generations to succeed. We are a nation of insurmountable potential. We have a long way to go, but we our capable and strong and can address the impact our past had on us.
Being patriotic means we look at us and our history critically. It means we do so because we believe we have insurmountable potential to be great–as a nation. We’ll be so much stronger–almost invincible, when we are all able to see how to make our systems free bias.