The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How — and why — we study critical race theory

Shacora Blunt Simmons, 35, is seen outside of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Ward 8, where her 8-year-old son was recently assigned a worksheet she felt was inappropriate on Nov. 05 in D.C. As a result, she turned the assignment into the school's principal and was provided an apology. "This is why critical race theory needs to be taught in school," she said of the incident.
Shacora Blunt Simmons, 35, is seen outside of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Ward 8, where her 8-year-old son was recently assigned a worksheet she felt was inappropriate on Nov. 05 in D.C. As a result, she turned the assignment into the school's principal and was provided an apology. "This is why critical race theory needs to be taught in school," she said of the incident. (Amanda Voisard/Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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In his Dec. 26 op-ed, “The common enemy of the left and the right,” George F. Will stated that critical race theory “subsumes individualism, dissolving it into group membership — racial solidarity.”  

My understanding of critical race theory is that it is the reverse: It is a factual analysis of economic, cultural, historical and political structures that negate Black Americans’ individual rights. Throughout history, Black Americans were not treated as individuals; they were and are treated as a group — a despised group. As a group, they were enslaved.  As a group, they were denied the right to vote. As a group, they were redlined out of neighborhoods, denied government services and consigned to poor schools and poor jobs. Because of their membership in a group, Black men are presumed to be criminals, jailed in staggeringly disproportionate numbers and murdered by police and White vigilantes.  

Critical race theory holds that Black Americans possess individual rights — and it exposes and condemns the history, culture and institutions that deny the enjoyment of them. Mr. Will, given his career-long defense of individual rights, should be CRT’s foremost proponent.

Holly Burkhalter, Washington

George F. Will cited the great British thinker Michael Oakeshott to argue that the invention of the individual occurred with the emergence of modern democracy. 

Perhaps the concept of the conscious individual as an existence separate and apart from the group arose much earlier. From Julian Jaynes’s book “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” we may conclude that there was a point when language enabled the individual to realize that he or she was mortal and would die and the group would live on. If so, the liberation of the individual and individualism could be seen in early literature — in “Beowulf” or in “The Iliad.”

The fathers of sociology, such as Emile Durkheim, saw society as always exercising coercive control over us; the individual is a creation of the group, controlled and shaped by a dominating society and the collective consciousness, not the other way around. This can be seen through the development of institutions, mores and customs. More recent sociologists and psychologists see the individual as a complex of forces or, more precisely, the resultant of the interplay of a great number of social and physical pressures. Philosophers similarly examined the antinomy of the individual and the group, shaped by the periods of history and the dialectic.

A comparative study of civilizations might yield that the nature of consciousness and the role of the individual as distinct from the society developed in manifold ways. Indeed, the invention of the individual might have occurred when civilization began and the predominance of hunter-gatherers receded.

Joseph Drew, Washington

The writer is editor in chief
of the journal Comparative
Civilizations Review.

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