Friday, July 9, 2021

#190 / CRT

Critical race theory is an intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour. Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

"Critical Race Theory" (CRT) is in the news. It is also quite controversial. It is not a topic I find easy to address. However, as difficult as it may be to address Critical Race Theory, it seems pretty clear that we do need to address it. We do need to try to solve the puzzle that it propounds. In doing so, it is necessary to address the issue of exactly who this "we" is that "we" often mention as we discuss social, political, and economic issues. In other words, when I say that "we" need to address Critical Race Theory, who is this "we" that I am talking about?
One of my favorite phrases is the claim that "we are all in this together." I think of this statement, first, as one that speaks to the profound truth of our mutual interdependence. Second, I think of this statement as a unifying way to urge all of us to engage in collaborative and cooperative efforts to address the challenges and opportunities we have in common. However, any claim, explicit or implicit, that there is an inclusive "we," particularly if made by someone who is white, is subject to rebuttal by Critical Race Theory. At least, that is how I am understanding the situation.
Derrick Bell, pictured above, is sometimes called the "Godfather of Critical Race Theory." Click on that link, for instance, to read a Wall Street Journal book review by Adam Kirsch, which calls Bell exactly that. Bell's book, reviewed by Kirsch, was published in 1992 and is titled, Faces at the Bottom of the Well. According to the review, Bell's book "blends the genres of fiction and essay to communicate [a] powerfully pessimistic sense of 'the permanence of racism,' [a phrase which is] the book's subtitle." As the review puts it:

Are Black people at home in America, or should they think of themselves as sojourners in a land that will never belong to them? Is racism a social problem that can be solved, or is it a permanent condition like mortality, which can only be met with defiance?
As I am understanding Kirsch's review (since I have not read Bell's book myself), Bell basically says that the separation of whites and blacks in this country into two different groups, never to be reconciled, is, in fact, a "permanent condition." The review sums up the message of Bell's book as follows:
In the conclusion to “Faces,” Bell argues that the struggle for racial equality is worthwhile even though it will never succeed. Like the French existentialist Albert Camus, who saw Sisyphus’s eternal effort to roll a boulder uphill as a symbol of human endurance in an absurd world, Bell demands “recognition of the futility of action” while insisting “that action must be taken.”

To the journalist and historian James Traub, who profiled Bell for the New Republic magazine in 1993, this amounted to a recipe for paralysis: “If you convince whites that their racism is ineradicable, what are they supposed to do? And what are blacks to do with their hard-won victim status?”

For his supporters and critics alike, Derrick Bell remains a central figure. Nearly three decades after the publication of his most widely read book, his stark vision of the racial divide in American society and history has retained its power to provoke debate and activism across the political spectrum.
Kirsch's review of Bell's book prefaces the concluding statements I have just cited with the following discussion, illuminating the fact that Critical Race Theory tends to strike people quite differently, depending on whether they are white or Black.  
Faces is, significantly, a series of essays based in "science fiction," with Bell's fictional stories helping to convey the points he wants to make: 

Not every story in “Faces” has a dark ending, but most do—especially the last and most famous, “The Space Traders.” In this tale, aliens arrive on earth and make the U.S. government an offer: In exchange for miraculous technologies that can heal the environment and ensure prosperity, they demand to carry off the entire Black population of the U.S. in their spaceships. When a referendum is held on whether to accept the aliens’ offer, “yes” wins with 70% of the vote.
Since the U.S. population was about 12% Black in the 1990 census, Bell is suggesting that the overwhelming majority of white Americans would agree to send their Black fellow citizens to an unknown fate. This conclusion reflects his theory of “interest convergence,” which says that white Americans will only act in the interests of Black people if it also serves their own interest. When the interests of whites and Blacks are opposed, Bell argues, whites will always choose to put their own interest first.
For Bell, this is the lesson of American history. As he observes in “The Space Traders,” “Without the compromises on slavery in the Constitution of 1787, there would be no America.” Similarly, after the Civil War, whites in the North and South sacrificed the rights of former slaves for the sake of sectional reconciliation. Bell suggests that the same thing would happen in the alien scenario, and the story ends with a nightmarish vision of Black Americans being herded onto spaceships: “Heads bowed, arms now linked by slender chains, black people left the New World as their forebears had arrived.”
The image suggests that 400 years of American history have changed nothing in the relationship between Blacks and whites. At the heart of the debate over critical race theory, then and now, is whether such a view is justified. Ms. Alexander, author of the 2010 bestseller “The New Jim Crow,” wrote in the foreword to a 2018 reissue of “Faces” that “As a law student, I read nearly every word Bell wrote; as a civil rights lawyer, I was haunted by his words and ultimately forced to admit the truth of them.”
Other commentators have strongly disagreed. The political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., whose work focuses on race and inequality, wrote about a conference he attended at Harvard Law School in 1991, where “I heard the late, esteemed legal theorist, Derrick Bell, declare on a panel that blacks had made no progress since 1865. I was startled not least because Bell’s own life, as well as the fact that Harvard’s black law students’ organization put on the conference, so emphatically belied his claim.” Mr. Reed dismissed the idea as “more a jeremiad than an analysis” (emphasis added).
With these long quotes, you are reading almost the entirety of The Wall Street Journal review. If Kirsch is properly articulating Bells' message, as I think he probably is, then that message is very definitely a "powerfully pessimistic sense of the permanence of racism." Other recent discussions reinforce this conclusion. 
Esteemed author Michelle Alexander, for instance, is quoted as saying that Bell is regrettably right in arguing that "nothing has changed" over 400 years in the relationship between Blacks and whites. This means, as I read it, that Alexander agrees with Bell that there is no common cause between whites and Blacks - and that there won't ever be one, no matter how much whites may want to claim there is. In this view, CRT asserts that there is not, and never will be, an inclusive "we" that includes us all. When a white person says, for instance, that "we" must work to eliminate racial injustice, CRT would seem to label such an assertion as an effort to deflect attention from any real commitment by whites to do something that would result in actual equality.
This is, for instance, what seems to be a major claim of Catherine Pugh, a Black attorney. She reinforces a pessimistic message about Critical Race Theory in her online article: "There Is No Such Thing As A White Ally." For Pugh, white-Black contention and opposition is baked right in at the most profound level of our human interactions. Pugh's companion piece, "Humor Me: Let’s Play “Spot the White Supremacist,” is withering in its conclusion that white efforts to denounce "White Supremacy" are really an effort (implicitly insincere) to distract attention from "everyday racism," which is omnipresent in our contemporary society, and which none of the white people standing strong against "White Supremacy" have any intention of giving up. 

Pugh is writing on the "popular" level. Tommy J. Curry, now a professor at the University of Edinburgh, writes on the academic level. His article, "Will The Real CRT Please Stand Up?" warns readers that white academics are infiltrating Critical Race Theory, and diluting its essential message. It is critically important, he says, not to "cuddle white associations [in an effort to] advance the ideals of peaceful racial coexistence."
Critical race theory is best construed as being a relentless and restless advocate for justice such that, to the extent that race remains a permanent feature of social reality, there must be constant vigilance for justice. There can be no determination of the absolute arrival of true racial justice; its advent forever deferred, its pursuit reaches no termination. Consequently, the insomniac career of critical race theory is one without end.
Efforts to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory, particularly in the South - now a major political ambition of "conservatives" - can certainly be seen as a way that whites can avoid having to confront the endemic racism that has permeated almost every aspect of our political, social, and economic life. These efforts reinforce the idea that whites simply don't want to admit the truth of the racism that characterizes our society. The Atlantic has a pretty good article on this topic, titled, "The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession." 

Chase Iron Eyes, who proclaims his admiration for what Catherine Pugh has to say about purported white "allies" (namely that there aren't any), nonetheless urges all of us to make an alliance with those striving for racial justice. His powerful appeal that "We Must Teach Critical Race Theory" is heartfelt: 

So what is CRT, exactly? CRT is not a curriculum; it is a lens and a practice. Simply put, “In the K-12 classroom, CRT can be an approach to help students understand how racism has endured past the civil rights era through systems, laws, and policies — and how those same systems, laws, and policies can be transformed.”
Practically, including CRT in the classrooms means tearing out racism, patriarchy, and colonization — root and stem — before they have a chance to blossom. All Americans were raised under these systems and we continue to be affected by them today.
It’s time to start teaching history from a place of truth. We have to be brave enough to lean into our discomfort. Right now we can deepen our allyship for our Black relatives and honor the next seven generations, not just by creating a “holiday” that acknowledges the enslavement of Black People, but by including CRT in our K-12 public school classrooms (emphasis added).
"It's time to start...from a place of truth." 
This is the advice of Chase Iron Eyes, urging that we start teaching Critical Race Theory in our schools. That certainly seems like good advice. Starting from a place of truth is always good advice, whatever the subject to be addressed. However, without starting to sound too much like "Pontius Pilate," what is the truth? What do we think is that "place of truth" from which we can address Critical Race Theory?

A profoundly pessimistic view of our situation is advanced by Derrick Bell, the "Godfather" of Critical Race Theory, whose views are seconded, in various ways, by the others I have mentioned in this blog posting: Michelle Alexander, Catherine Pugh, and Tommy J. Curry. These Black voices, all of which I came across quite accidentally, and independently, tell us that there is no inclusive "we," and that the essence of Critical Race Theory is to understand this truth, and to admit that whites have constructed a politics, economy, and society that is unremittingly oppressive and unfair  to Blacks, and that there is no common humanity or common cause that can ever overcome this fundamental reality, and that can bring Black and white together in a place of racial justice. 
The "Dream" of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, apparently, just that, a dream.
The most extreme statement of this view suggests that claims by whites that they want to achieve racial justice and reconciliation are either intentionally or unintentionally simply ways to perpetuate a world that has been constructed of, by, and for white people, and that white people's interest is making themselves feel better, as opposed to changing the world to be more just. To repeat a quote from the review of Bell's book: 

When the interests of whites and Blacks are opposed ... whites will always choose to put their own interest first.
Is this "the truth?" Is it impossible for either a white person, or a Black person, to say "we," and in saying "we" sincerely and genuinely to include everyone, Black and white together? The readings I have been doing seem to say that my statement that there is such an inclusive "we" should be suspect. Such statements, in fact, may be counterproductive. 

Because I continue to believe that "the truth" is that "we" are "in this together," Critical Race Theory is making me think. And what I am thinking is that when I talk about the social, political, and economic issues related to racial justice, I had better not assert that "we" should do this or that
Where racial justice is concerned, in other words, it's time for some "I" statements. What "I" will do, not what "we" must do, needs to be the focus of our policy prescriptions. There is a long therapeutic tradition that says that this is an important insight
If CRT helps to get us to such insights, it will be doing some good! 

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