Critical race theory. It’s difficult to think of an academic concept that causes more angst among politically conservative whites (and the small percentage of African Americans who are their allies). Critical race theory (CRT) is the newest boogeyman that is vexing the far right, perhaps even surpassing “socialism” as America’s greatest danger — as opposed to the white nationalists who the FBI identifies as our No. 1 domestic threat. (I’m not being hyperbolic; one can witness borderline hysteria in certain news outlets, on social media platforms and in town hall meetings.)
Irrespective of whether one favors or opposes CRT, is it too much to ask that they take the time to actually learn what it is? Or, equally as important, what it isn’t? In the Dark Ages (i.e., the days before Google), one had to physically go to a library to find information on any number of topics. One could peruse microfiche or even — gasp! — find books to read! (This ordeal is no longer necessary, though I highly recommend it.) While I often criticize people who use Google as a primary research tool, it can be helpful in offering a basic understanding of various topics, including CRT.
In a very small nutshell, CRT is an academically based ideology which emphasizes the role that racial discrimination has always played in America. It is particularly focused on the historic inadequacies of legal remedies. For example, CRT examines the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to ensure greater racial equity, largely due to its “incremental” approach.
Having grown out of critical legal studies, CRT challenges traditional progressive approaches to fighting racial inequity, primarily by attacking systems of power. CRT seeks to ensure that Black liberation moves from analysis in the classroom to action in the courts — and in the streets. In short, it is not sufficient merely to be a scholar; those who genuinely believe in racial equity must actively engage in the struggle to achieve it. Its ethos owes as much to the Black Panthers as it does to Black intellectuals.
Sadly, conspiracy theories about CRT abound among conservatives. Many claim that school systems are introducing CRT by calling it something else (e.g., social and emotional learning). To be charitable, social and emotional learning is not critical race theory. Those who claim that it is are either intentionally lying or don’t know what either discipline is.
I cannot overemphasize the fact that CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools. It is taught in a few undergraduate courses but is mainly reserved for graduate school. (I marvel as I watch parents express outrage at the thought of CRT being taught in their kids’ school — especially since virtually none of them can even define it.)
To be sure, there are reasons to be critical of CRT. For one, like most esoteric academic disciplines, it is in danger of collapsing under the weight of ever-expanding jargon — and increasingly narrow definitions. Further, one simply doesn’t need an advanced degree to (for example) fight police brutality effectively. But that’s a story for another day.
Fear is at the core of conservatives’ complaints. One fear is that children of all races will learn more about America’s extremely troubling racial history, thereby stoking “division.” (Apparently, telling the truth causes more division than the police who summarily execute Black folks.) Such fear is coupled with the fact that right-wing “news” outlets continually whip up racial animosity, including by pushing so-called white replacement theory, which was advanced by the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. (Tucker Carlson and other apologists push it as well.)
The bottom line is that millions of whites are genuinely afraid that America is becoming irrevocably Black and brown. They believe that, once whites become a numerical minority, their privilege (which many of them vehemently deny exists) will evaporate. Further, many of them believe that people of color will exact “revenge” for “past wrongs.” (I’m old enough to remember this concern being voiced before Barack Obama assumed office.)
White America must understand that a racial reckoning is coming. It has been coming for 400 years. I, for one, don’t believe that it will be a violent one — unless we take seriously the threats of right-wing extremists. (Why would Blacks want a race war when racial “peace” puts us through hell?)
Critical race theory is not the problem; it merely exposes it.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.