During the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020, President Donald Trump was asked to explain a memo published by his administration’s Office of Management and Budget that stopped training programs for government workers. The memo in question also singles out “critical race theory” and “white privilege” as examples of ideas that portray the United States as “an inherently racist and evil country.”
His answer? “I ended it because it was racist.”
And it’s not just an issue exclusive to America. During a debate in the British House of Commons on Black History Month in October, Tory minister Kemi Badenoch MP expressed her opposition to allowing teachers to “teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt.” She said any school that goes to such lengths to feature this theory in their curriculum is “breaking the law.”
Let’s just stop right there.
Comments like this are ridiculous. We cannot discount the desire to create a fair nation governed by a like-minded justice system. But doubt lingers about whether people like Mr. Trump or Ms. Badenoch have any decent understanding of this so-called “toxic propaganda.”
Let’s separate the facts from the fables.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic practice conceptualized by legal scholars of color during the 1980s, including Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Derrick Bell. In its earliest forms, the theory attempted to explain the disproportionate punishment of Black citizens in the justice system, despite the formal guarantee of equal rights.
In an interview with CNN, Crenshaw explains that it is an approach to “grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”
CRT’s existence stems from the material realities of present-day America. Look at our schools, where white school districts receive almost $2,000 more than nonwhite districts per student enrolled. Look at our prison systems, where Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white citizens, with some states being nearly ten times more.
On a more relevant matter, there are often methods that teachers can use to equip themselves and their students with proper knowledge and teaching of racism in the 21st century.
On a more relevant matter, there are often methods that teachers can use to equip themselves and their students with proper knowledge and teaching of racism in the 21st century. Many students are left to encounter teachings of racism through the means of acclaimed literature that can exacerbate racial trauma, or not at all. Following a report by the British race equality watchdog, the Runnymede Trust, many teachers have expressed that they are severely under-equipped to address matters of race confidently with students. This is where having alternative means like CRT can help — the framework helps to focus on issues that disproportionately affect certain groups.
While critiques of the practice can be made, such as its detachment from the economic structure we live by, to pretend that CRT is an illegitimate and biased form of academic inquiry is preposterous. For Crenshaw, the criticisms levied against the practice of being “anti-American” is only another barrier to acknowledging events of the past and of the present. In her words, “it bears acknowledging that we’ve been here before.”
And she is right. During his lifetime as a civil rights advocate, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most disdained popular figures in America, and was even targeted by the FBI alongside other social justice movements and advocates under COINTELPRO.
Black Lives Matter has been repeatedly labelled a “terrorist organization.” And now, we see frequent smears against Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times for creating the 1619 Project, the celebrated journalistic project that views the course of American history from the struggles and contributions of Black Americans.
It’s a shame that today’s politicians would rather reproach and censor alternative material like CRT instead of engaging sincerely with it—whether they are state legislators acting against their principles of free thinking and free speech, or a high-ranking cabinet minister whose role is dedicated to highlighting and eliminating inequality in all its forms.
To not acknowledge a whole side of history and identity is tantamount to erasing it from existence.
To willingly call out or to criticize a nation’s problems is true patriotism.