Twice during last year’s American presidential election campaign, the US president attacked Critical Race Theory (CRT). The first time, on Constitution Day in September, Donald Trump called the critical school that developed from Critical Legal Theory in the late 1980s “ideological poison” because it foregrounded the racial aspects of American history in the school curriculum.
The 1619 Project developed by scholars and the New York Times was “radical”, he declared, because, among other things, it began American history with the arrival of the first slave in Jamestown, before calling for it to be replaced by “patriotic education”.
A month later, during the first debate with then Democrat challenger Joe Biden, the president trumpeted his executive order that cancelled anti-bias training in all federal departments and cut federal funding for such training in colleges and universities.
“I ended it because it is racist … a lot of people were complaining that … a radical revolution was taking place in our military, our schools, all over the place.”
Not to be outdone, a few weeks later, Kemi Badenoch, the United Kingdom Equalities Minister, told the House of Commons: “We don’t want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt.” Warming to her theme – and blind to the irony that she was speaking during the debate to mark Black History Month – Badenoch declared: “Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory … without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”
The attacks on CRT hardly surprised professors Jane Gordon (University of Connecticut), Lorenzo Baber (Loyola University Chicago), Adam Hochman (Macquarie University in Australia) or Phila Msimang (Stellenbosch University in South Africa). Each of these scholars told University World News how CRT illuminates how American (and Western) society racialises groups and places them on what amounts to a ladder at the top of which is ‘White Privilege’.
According to Baber: “Trump’s attacks are ahistorical and acontextual. They de-centre racial analysis and come from someone who has no understanding and desire to have an understanding of racial history. The critique, if you can call it that, amounts to ‘I’m uncomfortable with this’. It is meant to maintain the status quo.”
In their Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, published in 2001 when CRT was focused mainly on legal issues, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic wrote that CRT was “a collection of activities and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power”.
Turning a CRT light on the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision that banned segregation in America’s public schools, Harvard University Law Professor Derrick Bell argued that the US Supreme Court was moved less by formal legal principles or by natural justice than by Cold War politics and even fear of domestic unrest by African-American servicemen who had served the nation’s cause of democracy in the Second World War and recently concluded Korean War.
America’s need for allies in the Third World in the Cold War made images of dogs being set on black protesters and lynchings decidedly problematic.
Legal scholars were by no means universally receptive to Bell’s analysis, some going so far as to call it cynical. Despite the outrage engendered by Bell’s article, the analysis stuck – and was buttressed a decade later, Delgado and Stefancic note, when legal historian Mary Dudziak uncovered “a flood of secret cables and memos outlining the United States’ interest in improving its image in the Third World”.
Today, CRT has become a common, if – by significant numbers of politicians and academics – unwanted analytical framework. The day I started researching this article, for example, at least 10 American universities were seeking to fill positions that required expertise in CRT.
And, not long after President Trump’s second attack on CRT, the deans of five University of California law schools published a public letter criticising the Trump administration’s claim that CRT views “white people as ‘inherently racist or evil’”.
After pointing out that a central principle of CRT is that there is nothing “inherent” in race, the deans continued: “Rather, CRT invites us to confront with unflinching honesty how race has operated in our history and our present, and to recognise the deep and ongoing operation of ‘structural racism’, through which racial inequality is reproduced within our economic, political and educational systems even without individual racist intent.”
‘Not replacing Marxist analysis’
What, besides law, does a CRT approach allow professors to illuminate? According to Professor Baber, CRT centres race in the critical conversation and does not, as Professor Mike Cole of Bishop Grosseteste University College in the UK asserts, replace a Marxist analysis of class.
In a 2009 article Cole critiqued CRT for abandoning the Marxist idea that social/historical forms are dependent on the “mode of production”. “Neo-Marxist analysis and CRT complement each other. But neither Marx nor his followers centred their analysis on race,” says Baber.
When I asked him for a specific example, Baber, who is a professor of education, brought up the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) that is required of foreign students coming to study at American (and Canadian) universities.
“You can read all of the TOEFL policy documents and you will not find any formal example of racism in them. But, then you have to ask yourself who is required to take the test?”
Canadians and students from the UK who want to come study in the United States, he says, are exempted. “By contrast, students from countries like Jamaica, Barbados, Kenya and Uganda, where, unlike the United States, the official language is English, are required to take the test. What distinguishes these students? The majority are black or brown.”
Political Science Professor Gordon’s writings on Frankenstein (published in 1818) also indicate how a CRT reading of this work goes far beyond the traditional reading that the book deals with science run amuck, which I taught many times.
Gordon shows how 130 years before the French West Indian philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks (one of the foundational texts of the anti-colonial movement), Mary Shelley intuited the three-part movement Fanon discusses of the colonised, of the beings ultimately judged monstrous by the coloniser.
When, learning the master’s language fails to open a place for them in society, Frankenstein and the colonised seek redemption in personal relationships. Famously, this is denied to the creature when his creator, Dr Frankenstein, destroys the female he had agreed to make.
Finally, Gordon argues, each turns toward violence. “The key difference is, however, that Frankenstein’s ends in failure, either on a funeral pyre or disappearing into the frozen Arctic, while Fanon goes on to write more books and take part in the anti-colonial movement,” she says.
Once attuned to race and the issue of colonisation, the book, Gordon argues, is fairly littered with such references. Captain Walton, to whom Dr Frankenstein tells his doleful story, is an Arctic explorer representing British scientific imperialism. The creature even promises that he and his helpmate will go to the wild lands of South America.
As he learns language from the De Lacey family (while hiding unseen) and later through his own reading, Frankenstein weeps over the “hapless fate of the original inhabitants” of the Americas during colonisation and how the vast majority of people were condemned to be slaves, “doomed to waste [their] powers for the profits of the chosen few”.
Though the not-yet 19-year-old Shelley wrote Frankenstein on the isolated shores of Lake Geneva, “the entire geography of colonialism is there,” Gordon says.
Gordon’s reading of this classic work allows her to turn her class’s attention back onto their own institution. For, like the famed land-grant colleges (for example, the University of Michigan or Ohio State University) that dot the Midwest, the University of Connecticut owes its existence to dispossessed Indian lands.
In the mid-19th century, Yale University was given scrip (paper ownership) for newly ethnically cleansed land in what became Wisconsin; the land was sold off and the funds established Connecticut’s state university.
The wealth generated by the sale or possession for farming by white settlers of dispossessed Indian lands was, Gordon shows her students, one of the twin pillars of American economic success in the 19th century.
The other was plantation slavery, which allowed the development of the North’s banking and other industries that by the 1860s no longer needed slavery. “We simply have an incomplete understanding of the nation’s wealth and economic history,” Gordon says, “if we don’t include indigenous genocide and dispossession of their lands, and the labour of enslaved blacks in the story.”
Race as a social construct
One of the central tenets of CRT is that race is a social construct and not a biological category. Ironically, many opposed to CRT argue that CRT divides people up into racial boxes. While he disagrees with this charge, in our discussion, Hochman, whose area is the philosophy of race, was at pains to warn against what he calls “groupism”.
“Just because an individual is part of a racialised group, say, Latinx Americans, doesn’t mean that every member of that group thinks alike.”
A stark reminder of this appeared in a New York Times article a few days after the election. Despite the calumnies Trump heaped on Latinx Americans, in the recent election he improved his performance among Latinx voters, especially in South Texas.
Individuals have multiple what Baber calls a “tapestry of perspectives” that influence how they may vote. A straight, male, Latinx with a good job and regularised immigration status may have voted for Trump because he cut taxes or because of the president’s opposition to so-called ‘queue jumpers’ at the immigration office.
Still, Hochman argues, while we must recognise the diversity within a group, “that doesn’t mean you cannot talk about racialised groups”.
The key word here is ‘racialised’ and not ‘race’. Studies show that when most people talk about ‘race’ they think it is a biological category. This “reifies race”, he says and makes it seem as if there are deep and significant biological differences between peoples of different skin colours.
Instead of thinking of ‘race’ as something one has, Hochman argues that we should think in terms of “racialised groups” and understand racialisation as something that happens, “the result of socio/historical processes”. (Hochman’s point is borne out by America’s racial thinkers who in the early years of their immigration did not consider either the Irish or the Italians as ‘white’.)
Understanding how these processes work in countries like the United States and Australia provides, Hochman believes, an important argument in support of affirmative action programmes. “CRT thinkers can respond to the conservative critique, ‘What’s all this talk of dividing people in the academy?’ by saying, ‘We’ve already been divided. What we need is to make reparations for the wrongs that have been done if we want to make a more equitable society’.”
As Msimang told University World News, CRT is not only useful to illuminate racialisation in majority white countries. According to this philosopher of race, “racism has been catalytic in the spread of racial ideas, terminology and understandings” across the globe.
Race concepts have shaped the terminology, social positioning and self-conception of most people on the planet and how they relate to each other on the local community level, within a country and even more profoundly in the relationship of those people and the rest of the world.