* (jedifreac) wrote,

On Obama, Bell, and what Critical Race Theory is to me

First it was "social justice."

Given its liberal bent, the term " social justice" was always going to be somewhat open to interpretation. Glenn Beck said that "social justice" is a "perversion of the gospel", and ever since then politicians have been wary about using those two words.

In speaking about social justice, Beck also said that "Progressives are good at changing words." I would argue that it's not just progressives. Now, conservative right wingers are gunning for Critical Race Theory, too.

The editor in chief of Breitbart showed a video of President Obama (then a law student at Harvard University) embracing Derrick Bell, the first tenured professor of color at Harvard Law and one of the founders of critical race theory. This hug took place at a rally to encourage more diverse faculty at Harvard Law. It was 20 years ago.

Two black guys hugging! Someone call the whambulance!

Yesterday, the editor in chief of Breitbart dueled with CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien about whether or not this is a Very Big Deal.

Pollak: Derrick Bell is the Jeremiah Wright of academia. He passed away last year, but during his lifetime, he developed a theory called critical race theory, which holds that the civil rights movement was a sham and that white supremacy is the order and it must be overthrown.
O'Brien and Pollak fight over whether his definition of CRT is correct.

Pollak: Well, wait a minute! You’ve made a claim that my characterization of critical race theory as the opposite of Martin Luther King is inaccurate. You’re telling your viewers that, but you’re not telling them what it is.

O'Brien: Critical race theory looks into the intersection of race and politics and the law and as a legal academic who would study this and write about it, [Bell] would advance the theory about what exactly happened when the law was examined in terms of racial politics. There is no white supremacy in that. It is a theory. It’s an academic theory and as one of the leading academics at Harvard Law School, he was one of the people as part of that conversation. So that is a short definition.

Pollak: I’m glad we’ve got you saying that on tape because that’s a complete misrepresentation. Critical race theory is all about white supremacy. Critical race theory holds that civil rights laws are ineffective, that racial equality is impossible, because the legal and Constitutional in America is white supremacist.

Pollak goes on to say that CRT is anti-semitic and that Obama "forced his students to read Derrick Bell" when he was a law professor at University of Chicago. O'Brien says, "A lot of law students read Derrick Bell."

Okay, so...they're both correct. And they're both wrong.

A Common Lexicon for Conversations About Race

I've written previously about how we really need a new lexicon to talk about race. The academic definitions of concepts like racism and white supremacy are light years away from how those terms are used in every day life.

It's like trying to convince someone that "irregardless" isn't a real word, or that they are using the phrase "that begs the question" incorrectly. Good luck.

That's what is happening with this CRT debate right now. Pollak has insight on the democratizing power of language. Conservatives are crowing about this, because Soledad O'Brien is kind of wrong. Critical Race Theory does talk at length about "white supremacy." Just not in the way Pollak is trying to lead people to think.

When Pollak says that CRT thinks that "white supremacy is the order," he knows that viewers will hear that and substitute "white supremacy" for "dudes in white hoods." That is not the "white supremacy" CRT talks about. When Pollak says critical race theory talks at length about "white supremacy," he knows that means this:
"[By] 'white supremacy' I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic, and cultural
system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread,and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings." Ansley, F. L. (1997) from Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror

The CRT perspective says: "Hey, there are a lot of white people in the United States. All of the Presidents of the United States have been white except for one at this point, so maybe being white is still important and conveys some advantages. You are more likely to avoid being sent to jail for petty drug crimes if you are white. You are more likely to go to college if you are white. Most of the 1% is white. Is this a coincidence, or does history have something to do with it? Is it really that radical to wonder if a country founded by people who did racist things might still have issues with race?"

But let's backtrack a bit. What is CRT? The wikipedia page is under bombardment by dueling editors right now, so I will use the 101 definition presented by social work students at UCLA in 2009. Since this summary is still a bit tl;dr, I will simplify it further:

CRITICAL RACE THEORY 101 (obviously coming from someone like me and not from someone like Pollak)
  • Can and does the law really treat people equally, to the point where race is never a factor? Do historical circumstances or biases get in the way? These questions, posed by lawyers of color, began to revolutionize legal scholarship's approach to race.

  • CRT is a way of looking at race, and by extension, diversity in the United States. Can we use this lens to make things more equitable? (social justice.)

  • CRT is different from "multiculturalism" or "colorblindness." CRT argues that race matters. It mattered historically (your race allowed you to be a citizen or not, allowed you to vote or not, etc.) It also likely matters today, because many racial disparities cannot be explained by pure coincidence or meritocracy alone.

  • CRT argues that "racism" is a fact of life in American society--not because everyone is a bigot, but because discrimination occurs on institutional levels. Because of this focus on institutional discrimination, CRT's definition of "racism" is broader than the "person-on-the-street" definition of "racism," just as it's definition of white supremacy is different from dudes in white hood.

  • CRT argues that in addition to macroaggressive forms of racism (hate crimes, dudes in hoods) people of color also experience common, every day forms of microaggression. These are tiny paper cuts that build up over time.

  • CRT argues in support of the concept of intersectionality**. This means that there are several different forms of oppression, such as class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Discrimination is complicated. For example, CRT would say that a gay, black woman who is a wealthy doctor may have more "class privilege" than a straight white man who is unemployed. However, this straight white man would have more "white privilege," "straight privilege," and "male privilege." The fact that the black woman is wealthier than him does not negate the fact that she experiences more institutional racism, sexism, and heterosexism than he does, and vice-versa.

  • CRT argues that race is "socially constructed." This is not too far off from people who say "there is just one race, the human race" with one key difference: Even though there is just one race, the human race, society pretends there are several other races and that some are better than others. We need to address those inequalities and call out racism if we ever want to get to the point where race stops mattering.

  • In addition to the position that race is a social construct, CRT argues "differential racialization." Different groups are racialized in different ways. For example, Irish people used to not be considered "white" and now they are. Asians used to be viewed as "lazy" but now they are viewed as "hard working." Why?

  • Critical Race Theory also proposes the idea of "interest convergence." People start to care when it affects them. This makes it hard for the majority to care about minority interests. (eg. If you are straight and have no gay friends you might not care as much about gay marriage as someone who is straight but has a lot of gay friends and family members.)

  • CRT scholars have proposed the concept of "white privilege." In a nutshell, it proposes that being white makes some aspects of life much easier than being a person of color in the United States, the same way being rich, Christian, male, straight, college-educated, etc. comes with certain advantages in our country. This does not mean that all white people have silver spoons in their mouths or do not experience bigotry for being the other or even for being white (see intersectionality.) It does however, mean that people who are white are able to go through life breezing past barriers created by institutional racism.

  • As Pollak noted, CRT argues that the Civil Rights Movement hasn't completely fixed racism. What Pollak neglected to note was any context as to why CRT would argue this.

  • My personal opinion is that CRT focuses more on differential impact (is there a difference in how groups are impacted by this policy based on race) than intent. The road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions. This ties into CRT's emphasis on narratives and how no matter what, they cannot be objective. Some narratives are more silenced than others. (eg. Invisible Children's #KONY2012 voice is louder than that of actual Ugandan activists)

It sucks, because using CRT, if I were to say (god, this is going to be taken out of context, huh) that "The Academy Awards is a white supremacist institution" it would be taken in different ways.

Because there is such an extreme difference in definitions, there is no conversation. This is a major shortcoming of CRT that unintentionally also reinforces the persistence of white privilege. The white majority's definition of "white supremacy" (KKK, evil bigots, completely removed from every day experiences of racism) dominates the conversation over the minority definition.

CRT scholarship would argue that it does not run counter to Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideals, but is complementary to and even inspired by his ideas. King's most popular speech is about judging people by the content of their character versus the color of their skin. CRT bemoans the reality that even today, this is still not happening. To me, CRT is a clarion call demanding that we all work harder to do MLK justice.

This means that when someone using a CRT lens is talking about racism, they are not merely talking about "whites only" signs on drinking fountains. Let's look at two examples, Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin

Till was a 14 year old boy who was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 when he was killed by two men, Roy and J.W. Milam, after he reportedly flirted with the 21 year old wife of the men. He was beaten, shot, and dumped in the river.

Martin was a 17 year old boy who was visiting his father in Florida in 2012. He walked to 7-11 to buy snacks and was on his way back to his dad's house when he got into an altercation with George Zimmerman, a neighbor and neighborhood watch member in the area who had called police and reported Martin for "suspicious behavior" and subsequently followed Martin in his car. Zimmerman shot Martin.

Does race play an important role in these two cases? CRT scholars would argue, yes. Given the amount of explicit racism in Mississippi in the 1950s, can we extrapolate that the Milam brothers freaked out because Till was a black person flirting with a white woman? Or were the Milam brothers simply control freaks who would have killed anyone who dared to flirt with Roy's wife? The Milam brothers were acquitted. A year later, they confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. In that same interview, J.W. Milam also said: " I'm no bully; I never hurt a n-- in my life. I like n---s."

CRT would argue that race did matter with Emmett Till, and that the Civil Rights Movement did not protect him from being attacked. Till was killed just months after the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that schools had to integrate black and white students. Milam's professed affection for n---rs did not protect Till, either. As far as I am aware, there is no case that is inversely equivalent to Emmett Till (a case where two black men kill white boy for flirting with a black women and are acquitted, and admit to the crime in a magazine.)

As for poor Trayvon Martin, shot just yards from his father's home? Is it significant that Zimmerman, who has not been charged, was white, while Martin was black? Zimmerman was told by 911 dispatchers to stop tailing Martin and wait for police to handle it. His response was "those people always get away." Here again we see a grey area where it is impossible to prove intentions, only impact. CRT asks that we be cognizant of the role racism may have played in these cases.

It's hard, though, to talk about CRT given how mixed up all of these definitions are, and Pollak obfuscating things does not help. The truth is, people have been concern-trolling CRT for decades. Why are conservatives speaking out against CRT, and why now? From a CRT lens, I might argue that this is due to interest convergence.

My guess is that Pollak is trying to argue that Obama thinks that white supremacy is par for the course, and that Pollak trying to suggest that Obama is a radical for assuming that such a thing as white privilege exists. It's not a new argument. Beck has speculated that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred of white people." People don't like racists. Maybe the belief that Obama is racist will make Obama lose votes.

Or maybe the fear is that more people will study CRT and begin to critically apply it to examine how unevenly power is distributed in this country.

A lot of politicians have a far more concrete connection to "white supremacy" (both the CRT and general-public definitions.) Widely-renowned Democratic Senator Robert Byrd founded a chapter of the KKK in his youth. Strom Thurmond was a segregationist and his history was dragged back up when Chris Lott suggested things would have been better if Thurmond had ever been elected president. I have a hard time equating that to the President, twenty years ago, as a black law student, hugging the founder of CRT.

But CRT is framed as an "ideology" that is an attack on white people. Pointing out that being white comes with some pretty handy racial privileges is a threat? Why? A threat to those privileges? The fact that the President gets CRT is enough to discredit him? A lot of students read Derrick Bell, because CRT is an important post-modern legal theory, and I would frankly be appalled if Obama, the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, on Harvard's campus while the concept was being floated, was not familiar with CRT and could not recognize it's importance as a part of legal pedagogy. The fact that Obama read CRT and liked Bell's work makes him educated and realistic, not radicalized and racist.

The Breitbart argument is basically saying that discussing racism and trying to address racism makes you more racist than ignoring racism. The issues raised by this "controversy" are totally what CRT is talking about. Here, wealthy white men are telling the people of color who designed CRT and use CRT as a tool for social justice, "No, we are going to tell you what CRT is really about. No, you don't get to argue with us about the definition of CRT. No, we get to declare that CRT is bad for America, your opinion on it doesn't matter. If you challenge us, if you challenge the system, then you are the real racists--just like President Obama."

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