I have been wanting to write about Critical Race Theory because there seems to be a lot of controversy around the issue lately.
You can read more about this here: What is Critical Race Theory and Why Is It Under Attack?
But before I get into the specifics of Critical Race Theory, I want to tell you some related stories.
A Few Stories
When I was young, I saw the series Roots on television. It is a story about slavery. I was about nine when I saw it, and I felt heartbroken about the way that slaves were treated in the past. My family is Quaker Christian, and I found out that Quakers had been instrumental in helping many slaves escape from slavery in the underground railroad. I felt proud of my Quaker heritage. And I wanted to help make sure everyone was treated with love and dignity.
Lucretia Mott: Quaker and abolitionist
Also when I was young, I went to private school that was 99% white. One time I heard one of the leaders of this school joke to one of the other leaders of the school that biracial children looked weird. This was in public, in ear shot of dozens of students. They both laughed at his comment. I felt troubled. (By the way, other people in this school taught me good critical thinking skills that enabled me to critique what I heard these men joking about.)
One time, one of my church friends told me she wanted to date an African-American friend at school. But her father told her she wasn’t allowed to date African-American or black men.
When I was a little older, I started noticing that a lot of neighborhoods, churches, and schools were all or mostly white. And this started to bother me.
I learned about de jure and de facto segregation. De jure segregation occurs when races are segregated by law, like they were in the U.S. until after the Civil Rights movement. De Facto segregation occurs, not because of actual segregation laws, but because people adopt attitudes, practices, and habits, that actively discourage one race from integrating with another.
My husband and I wanted to understand this problem better. For this reason, as well as others, we moved to a racially diverse neighborhood. We lived there for twenty years. At one point I realized that almost all my neighbors I would have gone to in an emergency were black and Latinx. They were kind, caring neighbors and hard-working people.
When I was a young professional, I was in several settings that happened to be mostly white. Several times, I heard people making disparaging jokes about minorities or disparaging their intellectual capacities. This really bothered me. (And there were also people in these settings who also modeled behavior that helped me critique these practices.)
A little later, I went back to graduate school to earn my PhD in philosophy. In my program, I read almost entirely white, male authors, although good African-American, Black, and Latinx philosophy is out there. (I am also grateful for the philosophers in my graduate program, including my advisor and other professors who made me aware of this problem and are working to change it.)
This is a problem in philosophy programs nation-wide that, thankfully, is starting to change. It is a problem I still struggle with in teaching my own philosophy classes. And I am trying to change.
When I was older, I was teaching Education for Social Change at a local college. We read a book together called Savage Inequalities by a man named Jonathan Kozol. He researched inequality in schools across the United States. Schools are funded by property taxes in the United States. So, if you live in an impoverished neighborhood with low property taxes, your schools will not be funded adequately.
As a result, many students of color go to schools today that do not have proper funding. They lack books to study; science equipment to do labs; working bathrooms to use; or even teachers to teach their classes consistently. And often when students in these neighborhoods try to go to better schools, the parents and students in such schools actively resist their ability to do so.
When I was older, I read an article about black men and women whose skin was lighter, and their parents taught them to pass as white people. Their parents told them that they would have a much easier time in the world. You can read this article here: ‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing in White America.
A few years ago, a student of mine requested that we do an independent study on black philosophy.
We read W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Soul of Black Folks. In it, Dubois writes that after slaves were freed, no white people in the South wanted to teach them. And most of the slaves were unable to teach each other because their former slave owners prevented them from learning to read or write. So, most of these former slaves had no one to educate them. And then because they couldn’t read or write, they were not able to get a job.
Many white people after the Civil War criticized black people who were unable to educate themselves and get a job. These folk suggested the former slaves were lazy and unwilling to work. Many police forces began around this time in the South to monitor the supposedly “shiftless” black citizens. They were, in essence, slave patrols. (You can read more about this here: How the U.S. Got Its Police Force.)
Around this time, a white friend of mine who lives downtown found out that one of his black neighbors was being harassed.
Apparently, a local real estate owner liked buying properties downtown and flipping them to sell for a profit. The real estate owner, who was white, had a history of harassing minority house owners with petty fines so that they were debilitated financially and forced to leave their house. My friend was able to work with his neighbor to stop this pattern of abuse and harassment, but this person is likely is still doing it to other people who don’t have friends to fight with them against this harassment. And, in fact, people of color across the nation regularly face this and other types of discrimination or harassment, in the housing market.
A little later, I was teaching Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in one of my classes. We were talking about why some people oppress other people. I suggested that sometimes it was because they didn’t know what they were doing. A young black man in my class, a top student, told me about jokes that fellow college students had made about minority people at his expense. He looked at me with a deep sadness in his eyes and said, “They knew what they were doing.”
Soon after this, I was teaching the book Just Mercy to one of my classes. Just Mercy is written by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works to get unjustly accused people on death row exonerated. Minority people are disproportionately represented on Death Row. And as Bryan Stevenson has discovered through his work, this is usually because they have had shoddy representation. Or in their haste to resolve crimes, law enforcement frequently pin crimes on black people, even when evidence is lacking.
In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson writes about a black man named Johnny McMillian whom Stevenson helped to get exonerated. Police accused McMillian of killing a white woman in his hometown.
McMillian was a business owner with no police record. Dozens of McMillian’s fellow church members (also black) testified that McMillian couldn’t have killed the woman. At the day and time he was supposed to have done so, he was on the other side of town at a fish fry hosted by his local church. It turns out that McMillian’s conviction rested solely on the testimony of a convicted felon, a white man, whom the police pressured to falsely accuse McMillian in exchange for a more lenient sentence. This is one of many such similar cases Stevenson has worked on.
You can read and watch more about these issues here.
Around this time, I taught an ethics and criminal justice course.
Our course textbook explains how very few police officers receive any kinds of training in ethics, cultural bias, or prejudice. At the time same time, these same police forces are under increasing pressure to demonstrate high arrest and conviction rates.
Also around this time, I watched the Black Lives Matters protests. These protests occurred after George Floyd died because of police brutality, a death which later resulted in the conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin. I heard people call these protesters thugs and radicals although 93% of the protests were peaceful.
These stories are just a handful of such stories that I could tell from my life. There are many more like them. And they relate to Critical Race Theory.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory is a broad discipline with a lot of different ideas. (You can read a good introductory article about Critical Race Theory here: Critical Race Theory and a more in depth one here: Critical Philosophy of Race.)
One of the ideas central to Critical Race Theory is that racism isn’t just an isolated event that occurs with individuals. Rather, Critical Race Theory suggests that racism is embedded in habits, thinking patterns, and institutions all throughout American culture. This is often referred to as systemic racism, and that is the idea I will focus on in this post.
We should not find the concept of systemic racism very surprising. For most of its history, the U.S. relegated people of color to second-class citizenship. It permitted slavery until 1864 when the 13th amendment was passed abolishing slavery. And it permitted segregated schools, restaurants, and drinking fountains even into the 1950s.
As late as 1967, interracial marriages were banned in many states. (You can read about this here: Loving vs. Virginia: Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute.)
It was the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that banned segregation in public places and banned race-based employment discrimination. You can read more about this here: Civil Rights Act of 1964.
And we should note that so many white people fought against the Civil Rights Act (even violently) that President Lyndon had to send the national guard to protect the famous Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. You can read more about this here: LBJ Sends Federal Troops to Alabama to Protect a Civil Rights March.
In addition to this, both Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X, major leaders in the Civil Rights movement were assassinated because of their work. And many black people faced church bombings, lynching, and police brutality during this time.
This means that until recently–basically fifty to sixty years ago—racism was a common part of every part of U.S. society. And the law and law enforcement agencies reinforced these racist practices. Racism indeed was systemic. And people fought tooth and nail to keep it that way.
It would be unreasonable and unduly optimistic to imagine that the racism that existed for hundreds of years in every aspect of our country has magically disappeared today. It is much more reasonable to assume that while we have made progress, systemic racism still exists today in various forms. It’s much more reasonable to assume that we still have work to do.
(Update: I think it is important to a note that a white person could not harbor any kind of prejudice or racism but still unwittingly be a part of institutions marred by systemic racism. And in such cases, people shouldn’t feel ashamed of having unknowingly been a part of such an institution. But they should be willing to help change the institution or to listen to folks affected by it.)