Why is critical race theory so threatening to white people?

OPINION: Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founders of critical race theory talks about what it means for it to become so controversial

Professor of Law at UCLA & Columbia Law School and Executive Director of African American Policy Forum Kimberlé Crenshaw attends The 2020 MAKERS Conference on February 11, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Critical race theory, also known as CRT, has gone from a way of explaining the impact that racism has had on American life to some kind of monster that represents any discussion of race whatsoever. 

The right has demonized and weaponized CRT and created laws banning the teaching of America’s racial history. This is a very serious issue for Black people and for our children. Where do we go from here? I called my friend Kimberlé Crenshaw to talk about this topic. As a professor at UCLA and Columbia Law and one of the founding members of the field, Crenshaw is a leading scholar of critical race theory and is largely considered one of the smartest people in America. 

Touré: So, you’ve been central in advancing and explaining and articulating the notion of critical race theory, but in the years since you first articulated it, CRT has become this political football. A lot of times when the right is talking about critical race theory, they’re not talking about the concept that you defined. They’re talking about some entirely separate thing. Where is CRT now that this phantom definition has gotten baked into what it means? 

Kimberlé Crenshaw: Well, the right isn’t really having a debate about critical race theory. This is about the right weaponizing critical race theory to attack any anti-discrimination practices and more broadly to attack multiracial democracy itself. So we have to understand it in those terms. 

But I think the first thing is to set the context out of which the campaign to attack critical race Theory originated; that tells us a lot about why the distortions have been a central part of the right-wing strategies. That campaign came about in the aftermath of the most significant mobilization against racial Injustice in our lifetime. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, millions of people hit the streets all across the country. Whenever there’s a significant advance toward a true multiracial democracy, whenever there’s an appearance that momentum is growing to actually shift in our direction, there’s a backlash. Sometimes that backlash is more powerful and lasts longer than the momentum that produced it. In the backlash, racial aggression is framed as self-defense against the forward, momentum wave.

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T: Are those of us who care about race, and racial history, and critical race theory and those sorts of things—are we not losing this battle in the wake of laws being passed around the country that ban teaching CRT and ban teaching racial history? In limiting what teachers can say about race and racism, are we not losing something vital? There are now classrooms where the truth about American history cannot be discussed. 

KC: We are absolutely losing. If you can’t understand or name what the battle is that you’re in, then it’s hard to show up to do battle. But for parents of color, Black parents in particular, they practice critical race theory all the time. You sit your kids down for ‘the talk,’ you’re talking about critical race theory. It means you’re aware of the legacies of racism. We continue to shape our lives based on it and you’d be crazy to act as though we don’t. If you didn’t, you’d be totally ill-prepared to navigate life in this country as a Black or brown person. So our objective is to allow people to see that critical race theory isn’t some alien abstraction; it’s the sum total of our experiences. 

Critical race theory came out of us coming into these institutions and saying the problem isn’t just racist people. The problem is in the law and the problem is in sociology and education. It’s all of these institutions that were created when we were not part of them and they justified us not being a part of them. So now, we’re going after the structures of justification.

T: As a teacher, does it break your heart to see lawmakers saying ‘You teachers can’t talk about racism?’

KC: Yes, my heart is broken for Black and brown children whose interests are being completely thrown under the bus. For example, we’re all excited about the fact that we finally have a Black woman on the Supreme Court—but under these laws, many teachers are not allowed to explain to children why she’s the first African-American woman on the Supreme Court. They’re not able to talk about racism in the past or the way it plays out. They’re not able to explain how discrimination and stereotypes and a variety of other implicit biases made it unlikely until this moment for a Black woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Now, if you don’t know anything about the exclusion of Black people and exclusion of women and how that comes together to exclude Black women when the first Black woman gets appointed like thirty years after the first white woman does, if you don’t have an explanation for why that is, what are you going to infer? You’re going to infer that there’s something wrong with us, you’re going to infer that you don’t work as hard as us, right? So there is damage from the ignorance. 

T: One last thing. What do we do now that critical race theory is this bogeyman that’s been redefined by the right and there’s these laws that we have to fight against? How do we adjust at this stage of the battle?

KC: They are after our ability to name our experience. If you can’t name your experience, you can’t fix it, you can’t address it. You can’t legitimately talk about it. So, number one is just recognizing the fact that they’re trying to take away our ability to testify and that has been part of the history of racism for as long as we’ve been here. The second thing is we have to be aware of what is not being taught in our schools. What is being taught is the idea that this country was born perfect and it kept improving. That’s not true. There are millions of dollars that are being put to erasing our ability to tell our stories and to teach our children. We have to do what we’ve always done — we’ve got to find a way to make a way.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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