Critical Race Theory Should Not Have the Only Seat at the Table

There’s no greater demon these days than Critical Race Theory (CRT), a field of criticism devoted to understanding the ways in which racism has systematically harmed people of color. Or at least that’s how it would seem, judging by the number of op-eds and media discussions from both conservative and liberal sources that regularly denounce it. It’s infiltrating our schools, we’re told. It’s quickly becoming the primary ideology that undergirds all of our most sacred American institutions, from schools to businesses to government. We must root it out or risk going down with the sinking ship that is American culture, critics lament.

And then there are those who see CRT as savior to a country filled with systemic racial injustices and rampant inequality. It’s a way to finally help people understand some of the most glaring differences between communities when it comes to resources, funding and upward mobility. For those who advocate using CRT as the primary lens through which to see the world, all social problems stem from racial inequality and inequity. To correct this and to guarantee that the world becomes a better place for marginalized communities, we must understand everything from a position of race first and foremost.

CRT was defined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s to describe the intellectual movements that begin to emerge in the 1970s in the circles of activists and academics who felt that the work of the civil rights era was incomplete. By the early 1990s, CRT had become a full-fledged school of literary criticism — a way of reading not just literature and film in classrooms but also everything that we come into contact with in the world. For many proponents of CRT, racism is not something that happens between people on an individual level. It’s structural. It undergirds every single one of our institutions going back to and preceding the founding of America. This means that even if the majority of individuals are not racists, the effects of racism will continue to be seen because they are embedded in everyday life. Racism is inescapable.

It does feel that CRT is suddenly everywhere, and if it is, it’s because our collective moral outrage following the killings of unarmed Black people at the hands of police officers has propelled it to the top. When we are angry at someone or something, it’s all we see. There’s a reason the phrase “blind rage” exists. When we feel powerless in the face of righteous anger, our outrage increases exponentially. Sometimes, as a result, we become blinded.

Outrage is important. Without it, there wouldn’t have been a civil rights movement, a women’s suffrage movement, or a Boston Tea Party. The Stonewall Riots, which ultimately increased legal protections for the LGBT community, wouldn’t have happened without outrage. Nor would the Free Soviet Jewry movement, which resulted in the release of countless Russian Jews from the Soviet Union, have transpired if people hadn’t gotten angry. So many moments in American history that make our country what it is could not have happened if people had not become outraged by the injustices they saw around them. Often it takes getting really angry to effect necessary change. Outrage is vital. But if not carefully calibrated, moral outrage can quickly descend into something less moral and increasingly unethical.

That seems to be where we are now. Critical Race Theory, a valid and important way of looking at societal structures, has become caught between the imperative to right historical wrongs when it comes to race and the importance of acknowledging that there are many factors, not just race, that contribute to problems in American society.

Unfortunately, CRT is often misused in a way that reduces every problem to race, giving people who do not have an understanding of the field the idea that race is always the only factor at play. Is a person of color poor? It’s because of racism. Is a person of color being denied a job? It’s because of racism. Are there a disproportionate number of non-Black students enrolled at a university compared to Black students? It’s because of racism. And sometimes — a lot of times, actually — it is because of racism.

But there are also times when it isn’t about race. That it can also be about class and other forms of power is a lesson we are beginning to learn the hard way, if the recent situation at Smith college, where a janitor and cafeteria worker were accused of racism, is any indication of the direction these discussions are beginning to take.

Many conservatives and an increasing number of liberals see flaws in an argument that blames all inequalities on systemic racism. They see it as a revival of segregation. They see it as an attack on free speech, a movement that keeps shifting the goal posts for what is acceptable and discovering new marginalized groups to protect and new words to render inappropriate. It’s a war, they believe, that can never be won. They aren’t entirely wrong in this regard. In the early 1990s, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote an essay called “War of Words: Critical Race Theory and the First Amendment” for a collection he co-edited about some these issues. “By progressively redefining our terms,” he wrote, “we could always say of the economic gap between black and white America: The problem is still racism . . . and, by stipulation, it would be true.” Writer Wesley Yang, among many others, sees in Gates’s words an implicit dismantling of the CRT movement that was to come.

They see CRT as an attack on free speech, a movement that keeps shifting the goal posts for what is acceptable and discovering new marginalized groups to protect and new words to render inappropriate.

The irony is that Gates’s work is often taught in university CRT courses as part of the canon. The work of CRT writers and thinkers may be demonized as an enormous behemoth moving to swallow American culture, but the truth is that there are also dissenting voices within its ranks. However, average Americans — Americans outside of academia, that is — don’t know this.

Perhaps this ignorance exists because voices like Ibram X. Kendi are elevated above all others. For Kendi, one is either a racist or an anti-racist (someone working actively against racism). It’s not enough to simply not be a racist. One must become an activist. It’s an argument devoid of nuance and complexity and critiqued fiercely by many other Black scholars like John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes and Glenn Loury, among others. But those voices tend to be ignored or silenced by the masses because they distract from the popular and simplified discourse about racism in America.

The result of ignoring such voices results in more than half the country seeing CRT as not just problematic but also toxic and dangerous. In response, people lash out against the teaching of CRT in schools or the application of it to social situations and civil liberties. It’s become the dirtiest of phrases.

Progressives, on the other hand, see this attack on CRT as a blatant expression of racism that proves how necessary the field is. It’s Black ideas that are being attacked. It’s the truth of a history of racial oppression that is being questioned. They see conservatives as wanting to paint anything that addresses the problem of race as evil. And this argument is all the more reason to double-down on the rhetoric of racial essentialism. The idea of color blindness is anathema to those who push for CRT, given that we must see a person’s Blackness or whiteness to understand where they are in the binary of oppressor and oppressed.

Even those who fight on behalf of what’s labeled as CRT are not necessarily fighting for the Black voices that push back against some of its tenets. They are fighting instead to maintain the simplistic idea of the oppressor and the oppressed as the foundation for our society. And in this model, people of color are the oppressed and those who are white (or “conditionally white” or “white adjacent,” terms often applied to Asians and Jews) are always the oppressor no matter how hard they work against oppression. Given that skin color cannot so easily be changed, one wonders if there is any way out of this dichotomy.

If you’re someone with the gift of being able to look at both sides objectively, you might see that they are both right and both wrong. This leads me to one question: what if the problem is not CRT itself, but rather that it has replaced all other means of examining history and culture?

There’s no question that racism is perpetuated by some of our legal structures, for example. This is not a partisan statement. CRT exists as an important tool to examine those structures so that we can understand how they can be improved. While many thinkers within the school of CRT continue to see Jews as “white” or part of an oppressive group, it’s also a tool that can be used to discuss legal discrimination against Jews in the United States, as scholar Mia Brett has noted. And if it’s an important tool in the legal world, why shouldn’t it also be an important tool in institutions of learning, where the point is to learn how to think? And if there are elements of it that become problematic for Jews or other groups, why can’t that be discussed too?

Regardless of how important a tool it is, it’s not the only tool. The proposed California Ethnic Studies curriculum, for example, passionately debated in many Jewish circles, uses CRT as the basis for all analyses of race and ethnicity. People on both sides have different motives for either supporting or opposing the curriculum. But given how one-dimensional parts of it seem to be, one wonders whether it won’t hurt the very groups that it is most intended to help by depicting them as victims first and foremost and ignoring the positive role models in minority groups. Some argue that it will promote victimhood and violence.

Regardless of how important a tool CRT is, it’s not the only tool.

As more and more situations where CRT is misused in classrooms come to light, this argument gains momentum. At an elementary school in Cupertino, California that is 94% non-white,  young children were forced to deconstruct their racial identities and rank themselves “according to power and privilege.” Many parents, some of whom fled Communist regimes, see the division of children into oppressed and oppressors as not simply divisive but also reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Contrary to what some proponents of CRT would have us believe, some individuals within non-white groups want to see themselves as integral parts of society rather than victims of it. The situation in Cupertino sounds like an anomaly, but ideas borrowed from CRT are being infused into school curricula across the country. Curricula from organizations like Black Lives Matter in School and Teaching Tolerance (recently rebranded as Learn for Justice) are increasingly popular, especially in Los Angeles private schools. Teaching Tolerance, for instance, advocates “centering Black and brown children” in the classroom and argues that math should be political. It’s no wonder that people who want to work actively toward equality see CRT as destructive when it is being used in this way.

And as the situation at Smith suggests, when we discard all other tools for understanding oppression in favor of using just one, we run the risk of hurting people in unrecoverable ways. The janitor and cafeteria food worker at Smith, both of whose annual salaries are far less than what the accusing student pays in yearly tuition, were painted as racists for asking a Black student not to eat in a dorm that was off-limits to everyone — a label that has destroyed their lives. Even though they are now exonerated from these charges, the damage remains.

How different would the situation have been if, instead of jumping to one conclusion (race), multiple conclusions were considered before taking action?

As a literature professor, I used to ask my students a seemingly silly question. Let’s say this room were to be emptied out entirely, I would say. No more chairs, tables, desks, humans — except for one. Imagine that one is you, standing in the center of the room, looking around the empty room, with no objects obscuring your view. There’s nothing in your way. What can you see?

Despite the fact that nothing but one person remains in the room in this fictional scenario, the resounding answer from students was always: everything, we can see everything. But I would remind them that there’s one thing they can’t see, something hidden. In courses that draw heavily on critical theory, students often think they are being asked to over-think the scenario or that it’s a trick question, and that they are being charged with out-thinking the professor. But the answer involved no trickery. “You can’t see what what’s under your feet. It’s where you’re standing that’s the problem. And even if you move in an attempt to reveal that which was hidden, you’ll simply be standing elsewhere, creating one blind spot after another.”

We all have blind spots. Although I typically used this lesson as a starting point to talk about trauma studies, it works for other critical lenses as well. We need to allow space for other perspectives. We need to be in dialogue with each other rather than attempting elevate one perspective as the only or most important one. When I taught Critical Theory at various universities, I would ask students to choose a “lens” through which to read the same novel. Some chose Critical Race Theory, while others chose Feminist Theory or Postcolonial Theory or Psychoanalytic Theory or Marxist Theory, among others. Students would then present the novel to the class through the lens of their chosen school of thought. The result was vastly different readings of the same story. They weren’t in competition with each other. They were all allowed to exist at the same time. They all had a seat at the table.

It might be hard to figure out how that works in the real world, but maybe we should be up for the challenge. Dialogue is never easy, but that’s no reason to shut it down in favor of one perspective. And besides, it’s not always about having to choose. Nothing is more revolutionary than the idea that the needs of different communities can be met simultaneously. Nothing is more radical than embracing the idea that we can reject classism, sexism, and anti-Semitism while fighting against racism. We can look simultaneously at how issues of race, sex and class intersect in our society without putting the fight against racism on a backburner. CRT deserves a seat at the table. But there are other seats at the same table that can be filled with other ways of analyzing our country’s problems.

Monica Osborne is a writer and former professor of literature, film, and trauma studies. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.” Follow her on Twitter: @DrMonicaOsborne


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