The Origins of Critical Race Theory

Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Then, references to CRT started to appear frequently in the news. There were, for example, reports coming out of Florida and Texas that CRT has been banned from public schools.

As a result, I have been puzzling over the meaning of “Critical Race Theory” and why it has become such a hot-button issue. One write-up I found to be very helpful is an article by Jelani Cobb in the September 20, 2021 issue of The New Yorker. In the print version, the title of the article is “The Limits of Liberalism” with a subtitle of “How Derrick Bell’s pioneering work gave rise to critical race theory” — in the online version (linked above) the article is dated September 13, and its title is “The Man Behind Critical Race Theory” with a subtitle “As an attorney, Derrick Bell worked on many civil-rights cases, but his doubts about their impact launched a groundbreaking school of thought.

In a recent conversation, my friend Joan asked me, in the context of CRT, what is the meaning of the word “woke”? I would say, as an extension of the awareness of racism and social injustice, it would include the ideas that these features are systemic and have been intractable. Not just the province of individual citizens, in other words.

I wondered about my own wokeness, and how it was that I had been unaware of CRT until recently. So I did a little (very little!) research on the topic, which included searching the Washington Post website for references. Sure enough, when I searched for “critical race theory” I was given 405 entries, the earliest one dating back to April 26, 2011. The striking pattern that emerged, however, confirmed that very few (only 46, or about 11%) of those references were more than seven months old.And most of those earlier articles were about Bell or other legal scholars, about free speech in academia, or about sensitivity training for police or private company employees. It has been only in recent months that CRT has become the straw figure of the self-styled conservative movement.

I could cynically point out that the very thing that “conservatives” are trying to “conserve” are the very social structures that CRT criticizes as being racist and unjust.

My take on things is that, until recently, the discussion of CRT had been largely confined to academia, where it was debated mostly in law schools. It seems too arcane a topic to have been taught, as some conservatives claim, in the public school system. My understanding is that Bell’s premise was that racism is nearly impossible to overcome, since it is baked into our legal system (and other institutions).

I am more optimistic than was Derrick Bell, as described by Cobb. I see a cohort of young people growing up in a more tolerant world, ignoring racial stereotypes when choosing their friends. I have been called “colorblind” in this regard (it was not meant as a compliment) and I can identify with the young people I know who are disregarding traditional categorization.

This does not mean that racism is going away anytime soon.

Bell saw in the [Bakke] decision the beginning of a new phase of challenges. Diversity is not the same as redress, he argued; it could provide the appearance of equality while leaving the underlying machinery of inequality untouched. He criticized the decision as evidence that the Court valorized a kind of default color blindness, as opposed to an intentional awareness of race and of the need to address historical wrongs.

Color blindness comes in many flavors; ranging from one extreme exemplified by my earlier naiveté to the other end of that spectrum: a deliberate attempt at whitewashing. Color blindness, as the phrase is used in the quotation just given, implies a denial of racism (as opposed to simple unawareness of racism and its consequences). One recent example is the law passed in Texas (cited above) that bans the teaching of racism. It is hard to get to the point of addressing historical wrongs if you deny they ever were perpetuated. Which, I suppose, is exactly the point, and simply reinforces Bell’s pessimism that racism is so thoroughly built into our culture that it can never be eradicated. Unlike Bell, as I mentioned, I hold out hope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.