During Tuesday’s presidential debate, dread overtook any residual humor as Trump coupled his attacks on critical race theory with a refusal to denounce his white supremacist supporters, instead asking the Proud Boys to “stand by” and encouraged voter intimidation, defending the actions of volunteer poll watchers who have shown up at election polling locations. Like the president’s claim that global warming is a Chinese plot to hurt U.S. manufacturing or that the coronavirus will magically disappear, the administration’s escalating attacks on critical race theory are part of its ongoing attempt to wish away basic facts at odds with reality.
Critical race theory arose to explain why structural racism endures. Given the racial conflicts roiling American politics, scholarly analysis of the causes and consequences of racial inequality may be more important now than at its inception.
As a sociologist whose work draws on critical race theory, I find the president’s caricature of the scholarship unrecognizable. There are good-faith critiques of critical race theory, and much debate among academics about the validity and usefulness of the framework. But the administration’s targeting of critical race theory draws on a hodgepodge of concepts — like diversity training and unconscious bias — that are similarly concerned with America’s continuing racial inequality. A lot of scholarship critiques racial inequality, because in the reality-based community outside of the Trump administration, racism is a pressing social problem. But not all of the scholarship concerned with racial inequality is critical race theory. The administration’s shallow understanding conflates (and maligns) these ideas without considering their potential utility for solving entrenched social problems. For an administration whose support is grounded in White grievance, distinctions between ideas are apparently immaterial. Any research showing the depth and continuity of White anger is a threat.
According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, critical race theory arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s to explain the country’s stalled racial progress following the civil rights movement. The massive Black protests of the 1950s and 1960s had pushed Congress and the courts to extend some legal protections to Black Americans. These protections included the Fair Housing Act outlawing housing discrimination (which a Trump family’s company was sued for violating), the Voting Rights Act protecting Black people’s franchise rights (which a conservative Supreme Court gutted and the GOP has systematically undermined), and Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed state-sponsored school segregation.
By the 1980s, it was clear that Civil Rights victories represented what Derrick Bell, another founder of critical race theory, called “temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain White dominance.”
The White backlash against anti-discrimination policies led legal scholars interested in racial inequality to question what went wrong. Searching for answers, they turned to the history of insurgent Black scholarship and activism, drawing ideas from giants like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Legal scholars and critical race theorists developed a loose set of propositions about race and the law including: racism is structural and built into the law, racial progress is not automatic, race is a social construction (humans are a single species and the meanings we give to race are social and political, not biological), people of color can explain their own experiences of marginalization, and oppression is intersectional (race, class, gender and other identities may compound inequalities).
Lawyers and academics get paid to argue, so there is some disagreement about these tenets’ relative importance. Despite internal disagreements, critical race theorists have documented a stunning (and disturbing) array of racial inequalities that can’t be explained by the acts of individual racists. Philosophers such as Charles Mills have shown how race was used to exclude people from legal protections and basic human rights. In education, scholars have documented deep inequalities and the resegregation of America’s schools. In my field of sociology, scholars have shown how a new — but plausibly deniable — language of colorblind racism evolved in response to the civil rights movement. For example, racially coded language is familiar in the Trump era, with “best Black friends” used to deflect from charges of racism and euphemisms like “the suburbs” standing in for White spaces. Given the impact of the theory since its development, my discussion here is necessarily partial. But I encourage those interested in learning more about the work to read this classic collection of early writings.
Perhaps the most controversial proposition of critical race theory is the idea that racism is built into American law and everyday life. The law has defined who counts as White and non-White, legal documents often include information on racial identity and many laws — by design or through omission — perpetuate racial inequality and White privilege. Our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods and social interactions are influenced by historical and contemporary patterns of discrimination. Scholars disagree on the causes of the nation’s entrenched racism, but the persistence of racial inequality is an empirical fact.
Ironically, Trump’s most recent executive order banning racial sensitivity training confirms critical race theory’s central point: Racism is embedded in the law. The order assumes that teaching employees to be sensitive about racial difference is divisive, implying that the normal, well-documented racism structuring the American workplace isn’t divisive.
Critical race theory also argues that racial progress isn’t linear and that when one inequality-producing mechanism gets shut down, new methods of exclusion emerge. An employer doesn’t need a “No Blacks” sign in the window to discriminate against Black job applicants. But a host of studies show that hiring discrimination remains common and hasn’t decreased since the 1980s. Contrary to the triumphalist narrative of a slow but steady moral awakening on the part of some White folks, critical race theory adopts the realpolitik position that racial progress has typically occurred when White and Black interests converge. Alliances are temporary, and when group interests diverge, progress is undermined.
Since the start of his campaign in 2015, Trump has relied on stoking racial division. Many have chronicled his seemingly infinite dog-whistles, and I won’t rehash them here. Given his presidency’s context and content, it’s easy to see why Trump and some of his followers would feel threatened by critical race theory.
Practitioners of critical race theory want to explain racial inequality in the hopes of finding interventions and pushing for greater equality. Trump’s brand of racial nationalism mythologizes the United States as near-perfect from its inception, blames the historical victims for challenging this narrative and also blames them for their own oppression. Even a brief look at current events — the Black Lives Matter movement’s highlighting of racialized police brutality, the disproportionate deaths of Black and Brown folks from the coronavirus, entrenched and rising economic inequality — shows that the country has yet to deal squarely with racial reality.
Pretending that critical race theory is dangerous may be politically advantageous, but like the president’s avoidance of other inconvenient truths, pretending doesn’t get us any closer to solving collective problems.