The basic tenets of critical race theory (CRT) emerged from a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s which was developed by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others. CRT is an academic concept that delineates race as a social construct and racism as an embedded systemic feature of our society, not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice. It offers a lens through which both history and the present can be understood.
This definition of critical race theory is frequently obscured by divisive rhetoric and inflammatory inaccuracies. To take one example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz claimed last year that “critical race theory says every white person is a racist,” before going on to pronounce it to be “every bit as racist as the klansmen in white sheets.”
In light of recent misrepresentation in popular media and the subsequent widespread misunderstanding and hostility, establishing an accurate definition of CRT is necessary. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken last year, thirty-three percent of American adults believe CRT “says that white people are inherently bad or evil” or that “discriminating against white people is the only way to achieve equality.” (It does not). According to that same poll, twenty-two percent of those familiar with critical race theory think it is taught in most public high schools. (It is not). The outcome of such misinformation: heated local debates, harassment of students of color at school, and a conservative media frenzy.
Though facing simultaneous criticism from the left for being too moderate, President Joe Biden is vulnerable to accusations of radicalism by conservative pundits on news outlets that drip with inflammatory rhetoric.
Fanning the flames of an already tense situation, prominent Republican political figures have weighed in on the national dialogue. Critical race theory offers an easy opportunity for candidates to flaunt their conservative credentials. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Republican politicians are framing the revolt against critical race theory as akin to the Tea Party wave from a decade ago in hopes of mobilizing conservative voters. Most notably, Glenn Youngkin placed the issue of CRT at the center of his 2021 campaign for Virginia governor, capitalizing on a conservative backlash against the theory and pledging to ban its implementation in the state’s public schools.
Some conservatives fear CRT. Its targeted use of critical perspectives threatens allegiance to rosy historical narratives that ignore centuries of oppression, as well as perceptions of a just America. What’s more, it risks the constructed image of selfhood. If our dearly-held meritocratic systems are tarnished by a history of subordination that continues to uphold social hierarchies, do we really deserve our lot? Does seeking to preserve the status quo mean complicity? And finally, what would change mean?
That being said, despite the fervor of its opponents and the success of Youngkin and his imitators, a recent CBS poll shows that most Americans—65 percent—have heard either “a little” or “nothing” about critical race theory. Among those with an opinion on the matter, 49 percent hold a very or somewhat favorable view versus 51 percent with a very or somewhat unfavorable view. Republicans have only seen moderate success in capturing the public mood on this issue.
However, CRT remains subject to the critique common to all critical lenses: by definition, it imposes a perspective that is predisposed to patterns reflecting hierarchies of social power, imbalances of opportunity, and inequalities that fall along racial lines. True. For example, CRT can be employed to analyze law and legal traditions through the history and contemporary experiences of racial minorities. In the context of social infrastructure that—according to distinguished federal judge, Robert L. Carter— “[sacrifices]…the disempowered…on the altar of a substantively biased notion of efficiency,” a historical analysis focused on the experiences of racial minorities is likely to spotlight injustices. Yet stripped of these critical lenses—racial, feminist, post-colonial etc.—what is history? A bare-bones, unbiased conception of an unbroken sequence of events told with utmost accuracy? Unfortunately, not: history is never just fact.
Even the English word “history” is frustratingly ambiguous: it is used to describe both what happened in the past and the study of what happened in the past. German has two different terms: the events themselves, “historische Ereignisse,” and then their history, “Geschichte.”
Evidence is always partial. Information is not knowledge. And history is not as simple as “what-really-happened-in-the-past” but is rather the method we have evolved to organize our ignorance of the past. “Historische Ereignisse” does not equate to “Geschichte.”
First, there is the problem of the quality of evidence, witnesses, and testimony. History is the aggregate of evidence from fallible and biased witnesses who are susceptible to self-righteousness, pride, vanity, and—if not an outright and intentional perversion of the truth—at least a subconscious contortion of reality. Yet even without the added complication of second-hand testimony, even video evidence cannot produce satisfactory proof. As demonstrated by the ongoing speculations about President Kennedy’s assassination that was caught on tape, the human propensity for variable interpretation prevails, despite the “facts” seeming to exist right in front of them.
Then there are the questions of how and by whom history is told. Though its true origins are unknown—further evidence of the gaps in historical knowledge—the adage “history is written by victors” is frequently attributed to Winston Churchill, who implied that it is the winners’ interpretation that prevails. Throughout recent centuries, the academic field of history has been (and remains) dominated by white men from affluent socio-economic backgrounds. The identities of those who write history are important. Not only do these writers often hold a more conservative stance that may influence their rhetoric, but their selected narratives often exclude the lives of minorities, women, and the working class. Subsequent attempts to make up for such exclusion are a testament to the gaps in mainstream curriculum and knowledge. Examples include titles such as “The Women’s History of the World,” “Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance and Rebellion,” and the growing genre of historiography that centers of the overlooked roles of minorities across the millenia, seen in “The Color of Law,” “The Warmth Of Other Suns,” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Of course, equal historical treatment of every individual over the past two thousand years would be impossible. Yet the near-exclusive emphasis on the impact of great men (i.e. the Great Man Theory) paints a skewed view of history in which the George Washington’s, Woodrow Wilson’s, and Martin Luther King Jr’s. play an outsized role. Of course, even these figures are not given accurate representation; rather, they are sanitized and selectively fashioned into idols that align with contemporary conceptions of morality, leadership, and patriotism.
Great Man Theory is often complimented by Whig historiography: another popular approach that presents history as a journey from a dark and terrible past to a “glorious present.” The tendency to frame what are really a series of disjointed events as a seamless, linear narrative further complicates the legitimacy of “fact-based” history. History is often taught as an explanation of a particular past event in terms of reasons predating it. Unfortunately, over-stated causality often leads to the superimposition of narratives that fit with contemporary perspectives and agendas. These top-down approaches that force history to conform to convenient narratives of heroes and progress brings history further afield from “what-really-happened-in-the-past.”
The “history” we learn from textbooks is already blurred by multiple lenses colored by present-day political realities. Arguments in favor of critical race theory are abundant. Mainstream education is smeared with racial myths about Indigenous “savagery” and benevolent slavery. Americans deserve strong analytic frameworks with which to critically consider our cultural narratives and the ways that racism continues to impact our lives. Given that all of history is viewed through a lens, perhaps one that encourages consideration of the ongoing lived experience of racism would be a useful tool for building an anti-racist future. As stated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum and early CRT proponents, critical race theory is “simply about telling a more complete story of who we are.”
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