To say today’s America is divided is an understatement. Traditional divisive issues, such as abortion, taxes and health care, still remain. However, events of the past five years have led to new signposts, such as Donald Trump, the validity of the 2020 presidential election and COVID-19 and its preventative vaccines. In recent months, Critical Race Theory has catapulted forward as another divisive issue. America’s political right, led by Trump and the Fox Broadcasting Network, have demonized the theory, claiming CRT is being taught in every public school, is racist against whites and is, quite frankly, dividing America.
What is CRT? To help answer this, I read the latest edition of Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.” I was curious to learn the history of CRT, where and how it is taught, as well as its major themes and goals, and these two professors from the University of Alabama are considered leaders in the field since they published the first edition of this book in 2001.
“Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” is very much an academic book. Although somewhat brief, at around 200 pages, it is organized not only to introduce CRT, but also to be a tool to engage discussion amongst its readers. Each chapter ends with a list of provocative discussion questions that explore the material, as well as suggested further reading. This theory is clearly intended for adult education, especially as a law school topic, and not for younger audiences, as claimed by Fox.
CRT is the study of the relationship among race, racism and power. It explores how racism is embedded in society, especially in the American way of doing things, from our institutions and social structures to our rules, laws and language. The theory began to be popular in the 1970s and tries to provide its students a broader understanding of our social situation, as well as tools for changing our system towards a more fair and inclusive society. CRT embraces storytelling as a teaching technique to enable people of color to recount their personal, unique experiences with race in America. The goal is to help all Americans understand the differing realities that exist in America.
A theme within CRT is that racism in America is not an aberration. Rather, it’s ordinary and the usual way our society does business. Through extensive data, CRT exposes how people of color face racism in many ways — such as when attempting to get a loan or a job, receiving equal pay at that job, acquiring housing — combined with police violence and harassment in our political justice system, as well as often poor results in basic health and life expectancy. The impacts of racism, as shown by CRT, are widespread and complicated. One example among the many provided is the fact that Black men who murder white people are executed at a rate nearly 10 times that of white men who murder Black people.
The book also discusses white privilege, which refers to the advantages, benefits and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race. CRT describes America’s system of race as a two-headed hydra: One head is blatant, overt racism; the other head is our system of white privilege. Both have a poisonous bite. The idea of “color blindness” ignores embedded racism and the routine practices that keep minorities in subordinate positions. It takes color-conscious efforts to change our culture.
CRT does not present one singular view of race and racism in America. The book describes many CRT camps, including idealists, realists, nationalists, assimilationists, moderates and materialists. Idealists “hold that racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude and discourse.” Realists hold that racism “is a means by which society allocates privilege and status.” Discourse analysts focus on societal constructs driving racism, including unconscious bias, stereotyping, etc., and their impact on our judicial system. Nationalists hold that people should embrace their racial culture, whereas assimilationists believe minorities will be better off if they assimilate into their surrounding culture. Moderates believe minorities should not try to fit into our flawed economic and political system but rather work to transform it. Finally, materialists believe that breakthroughs for minorities are allowed only when it serves the interests of those in power. Which minority group gains advancement, says this aspect of the theory, depends on which can best provide what those in power currently need. When one minority group is making progress, often another is falling back. These varying viewpoints provide the grist for robust debates amongst CRT students.
Although CRT began with a focus on Black people, many different groups look at CRT from their own perspectives, including Asian American, Latinx, Native, LGBTQ+, Muslim and Arab caucuses. Each has their own priorities. People are not one dimensional, and thus it can be difficult to pinpoint biases they may face.
Goals of CRT include increasing minority representation in institutions, rectifying racism in policing and the criminal justice system, assuring minority viewpoints and interests are taken into account, and that adequate basic services, such as health care, are provided to all. CRT acknowledges that in order to make changes palatable to white Americans, extensive effort will be needed.
The book closes with possible futures for CRT, from a peaceful transition into a more inclusive society to a complete rejection of the theory. The fever of the current attacks on CRT indicate that not only is CRT being rejected by America’s political right, but also that the right is intent on making the theory a wedge issue to get out the vote, using falsehoods to enrage its base. America’s political right is falsely redefining CRT to further divide America by convincing their constituents that teaching an honest history of racism in America is akin to telling white students to hate themselves and their country. Their broader goal is to outright ban the teaching any of America’s history of racism in our public schools, and they are rapidly passing new laws to implement this ban.
Studying race and racism in America is a sensitive topic and can be upsetting. But CRT does not condemn white people for their skin color or encourage white people to feel guilty. As a white man, I did not feel guilt reading the book. Rather, I felt inspiration to work harder towards a more equal, just and fair American society.
To learn more about critical race theory, other sources are:
• “The Derrick Bell Reader” edited by Richard Delgardo and Jean Stefancic.
• “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement” edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendal Thomas.
• “Critical Race Theory: A Primer” by Khiara M. Bridges.
• “Racial Microaggressions: Using Critical Race Theory to Respond to Everyday Racism” by Daniel G. Solórzano and Lindsay Pérez Huber.
Dave Gamrath is a longtime community activist who founded InspireSeattle.org and serves on multiple regional boards and committees.
Read more of the Aug. 11-17, 2021 issue.