A Case for Critical Race Theory, and More

White privilege is a system of advantage that benefits all white people (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as white).

That racial privilege, however, is no guarantee of success or shield of protection for some individual people who are white. White people fail, white people suffer inequity and disadvantages (such as poverty), and white people in some individual cases are substantially worse off than individual Black people.

Racism is a system of power and race that disadvantages all Black people in the U.S. (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as Black).

Racism is not a universal barrier to success or happiness or achievement, but it is a pervasive burden that tints every aspect of living for any Black person.

Black people are typically more starkly aware of racism (nearly moment by moment) than white people are of white privilege; white privilege works in an invisible way for white people while racism is a blunt object for Black people.

Race, however, is not biological; race is a social construction that has very real consequences because of the systems of white privilege and racism.

Conservative white men with power, political power, have launched a campaign against their own distorted and purposefully misleading characterization of critical race theory (CRT), a narrow and complicated legal and academic term and concept.

First, CRT is not practiced or implemented in the vast majority of K-12 schools, and is rare in higher education. I am speaking as someone who has taught about 20 years each in K-12 and higher education while being a critical educator.

Critical educators are rare, and at best, we are tolerated; but being a critical educator has professional negative consequences because being “critical” is a commitment to challenging systemic forces.

As the attack on CRT shows, people take personal and individual offense when systems are challenged.

Even though white people in the U.S. on average earn more and hold disproportionate positions of power than Black people, white people perceive anti-racism efforts (which are designed to dismantle white privilege) as an attack; white people perceive a creeping loss of their privilege even as they deny that privilege exists.

To be blunt, reaching a state of equity and equality in the U.S. would be a material change in the lives of white people. Change is terrifying to those who are born into a state of advantage.

Equity and meritocracy realized, then, in the U.S. is a threat to white privilege.

Anti-racism efforts, which include concepts such as CRT, are not some sort of reverse racism, not a blanket condemnation of white people.

Again, white privilege and racism are systemic, as CRT argues, built into the fabric of most if not all institutions in the U.S. including policing and the judicial system (which CRT specifically addresses). But white privilege and racism are also built into formal education and, as the 1619 Project proposes, into the very core of capitalism and the U.S. economic system.

Anti-racism efforts, including those found in K-12 and higher education, ask educators and students to consider how racism happened (historically) and to examine critically how white privilege and racism remain in our contemporary daily lives in the U.S.

The backlash against CRT has had some high-profile consequences, including Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure at the University of North Carolina through a process that is overtly partisan politics—the same conservatives decrying CRT punishing the most prominent face of the 1619 Project, which sits at the center of this storm.

That politically partisan denial of tenure occurred around the birthday of Malcolm X, who I think serves an important point here.

Malcolm X was considered during his life a radical, in today’s language “critical,” and despite his careful and powerful rhetoric when positioned in the mainstream media of his day, he was demonized as the exact embodiment of racial threat that white Americans were openly embracing in the 1960s.

To understand racism in the U.S., consider this from Malcolm X: “History proves that the white man is a devil.”

For knee-jerk conservatives, this is proof of Malcolm X himself being racist.

But read in its full and clear language, the comment is not racist since it is grounded in “history proves.” Malcolm X is drawing a valid generalization about white people based on Black people living in the reality of active individual and systemic racism in the U.S.—from slavery to Jim Crow, from separate bathrooms and water fountains to segregated schools, from lynchings and the rise of the KKK to interracial marriage being illegal until the mid-1960s.

Racism is a set of race-based generalizations based on stereotypes, not evidence. I won’t list them here, but white racism toward Black people includes the very ugliest of claims about Black people that have no basis in fact, no historical, biological, or sociological evidence.

Part of the backlash against CRT is simply denial and racial discomfort, but that backlash is also a profound misconception about the fact of racism. Conservatives are apt to claim that the U.S. is not a racist country, and that any racism in the U.S. is merely a thing of the past.

Let me offer here two examples of why CRT and anti-racism efforts are valid, and must be central to formal education.

First, CRT argues that our current systems have racism baked into them because they were designed and created when, in fact, being virulently racist was not only socially and politically acceptable, but often a social and political advantage.

For example, Ben Tillman had a long successful political career in South Carolina (1890-1918), as governor and U.S. Senator. Tillman is something of an extreme example, but he was one of may white men who were racist and creating the laws that govern this county.

Detailed at Historic Columbia are some of the key elements of Tillman as racist politician who helped created our current systemic racism:

In a 1909 speech at the Red Shirt Reunion in Anderson, SC, Tillman boasted about his role in the 1876 murder of six Black militia members, whom he called “negro thugs.” White leaders celebrated the “Hamburg Riot” as a key victory of the 1876 Red Shirt paramilitary campaign, which successfully intimidated Black voters and stuffed ballot boxes to ensure the election of Wade Hampton III, and with it, the end of Reconstruction. Today, these murders are known as the Hamburg Massacre, one of the earliest lynchings in South Carolina.

Although he began as a perpetrator, Tillman later used his platform as governor and senator to serve as an instigator of and advocate for racial violence. Perhaps his most well-known pronouncement occurred in an 1892 speech, when, as governor [emphasis added], he vowed that “I would lead a lynching”–a claim carried by the state’s leading newspapers. His election to the governorship in 1890 unleashed what human rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins later called “an era of lynching.” By the end of the decade, at least 53 men, 51 of whom were Black, were lynched in South Carolina.

Yet, Tillman was most proud of his role in the Constitutional Convention of 1895, which introduced an “understanding clause” and poll tax as barriers to the vote, designed to eradicate Black participation in government. In a speech to his fellow United States Senators [emphasis added] five years later, he reminded them that, “We [South Carolinians] did not disfranchise [sic] the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disenfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments….” This speech affirmed a sentiment repeated throughout his career on the national stage about the role of African Americans in American democracy:

“We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”

Historic Columbia

Today, we all live in a country under systems intentionally designed to be racist—some as overt as Tillman but others far more subtle (consider the sentencing differences between powder and crack cocaine and racial disparities in police shootings).

CRT and anti-racism efforts ask us to consider how these racial disparities came to be, how they continue to exist in today’s society, and what we can do to dismantle the inequities.

Denial and neutrality allow racism and racial inequity to remain; only naming, exploring critically, and confronting racism can erase racism.

Consider this second example, drawn from headlines within the last decade.

How did the killing of Tamir Rice by a police officer occur?:

“Shots fired, male down,” one of the officers in the car called across his radio. “Black male, maybe 20 [emphasis added], black revolver, black handgun by him. Send E.M.S. this way, and a roadblock.”

But the boy, Tamir Rice, was only 12. Now, with the county sheriff’s office reviewing the shooting, interviews and recently released video and police records show how a series of miscommunications, tactical errors and institutional failures by the Cleveland police cascaded into one irreversible mistake.

In Tamir Rice Case, Many Errors by Cleveland Police, Then a Fatal One

A racist stereotype (Black males are inherently dangerous and violent) combined with implicit bias (Black children are viewed as much older and more mature than their biological ages) led to the death of Rice. This tragic event is a real-life manifestation of what CRT argues, systemic forces with material consequences for Black people.

A police officer shooting and killing a Black boy, then, does not have to be a consciously racist individual to have acted in a way that is driven by systemic racism.

As further evidence, just a few years later, Kyle Rittenhouse, then 17, shot and killed two people during protests in Wisconsin. The same conservatives attacking CRT refer to Black boys as “men” and Rittenhouse as a “boy.”

Attacks on CRT and anti-racism initiatives are embarrassing and offensive caricatures; these attacks are themselves racist and provide the evidence proving why CRT and anti-racism practices remain necessary.

We are now facing a paradox because the misleading attacks on CRT are justification for increasing CRT and other anti-racism efforts in K-12 and higher education.

CRT is incredibly rare in any formal education setting. More K-12 and higher education situations are incorporating (often begrudgingly) anti-racism practices and examinations (which may or may not have elements informed by CRT).

Diversity, equity, and inclusion experiences for children are not blaming all white people or white students simply for being white; but those discussions are designed, as noted above, to critically explore how evidence-based racial disparities came to be, how they continue to exist in today’s society, and what we can do to dismantle the inequities.

Being white is not a crime, but denying racism is itself an act of racism.

To take a stand against anti-racism (against CRT) is taking a stand for racism.

In this case, we can say “not all white people,” but clearly identify those people white or Black who are to blame when they seek ways to deny and perpetuate the racism that remains in our daily lives.