Racism and “Critical Race Theory” in the Age of Reagan
When I began teaching almost 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan was president. Denouncing affirmative action and “welfare queens,” and endorsing “states’ rights” and Apartheid South Africa, Reagan described the America of Jim Crow as a golden age, the “shining city on a hill.” Racism increasingly appeared to be woven into the fabric of national and international politics with no way to unravel it.
At that time, progressive scholars at universities across the country began to discuss “structural” – also called “institutional” or “systemic” — racism. In fact, the argument went, all racism was structural. Whereas bias, prejudice, chauvinism and ethnocentrism were individual failings, racism was a legal and extra-legal system that favored white subjects while condemning non-whites (Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans), to social and economic ostracism and early death. The function of racism was to divide the low-wage workforce against itself, encouraging poor whites to disparage Black and Latinx workers, and make alliances with wealthy, white capitalists and conservative politicians. Structural racism is why Reagan got elected and why Democrats put up so little effective resistance.
Racism was manifested in multiple ways, including housing and job discrimination, educational advantages for the children of rich (white) parents, and a criminal justice system that specially targeted Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans. It also took the form of psycho-social domination: Centuries of denigration of Blacks, for example, had a powerful, cumulative impact upon the subjectivities of both Blacks and whites, as W.E.B Du Bois and James Baldwin argued. For Blacks, it was a matter of double-consciousness, the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” For whites, it was the unshakeable conviction that they possessed rights and privileges that others should not have — the doctrine of “white supremacy.”
The point of the Critical Race Theory that emerged in the 1980s and 90s, pioneered by Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and others, was to closely examine the origin, development, and persistence of structural racism, with the goal of challenging it. One of the key texts back then – and still powerful today — was Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” published in 1993 in the Harvard Law Review. In that article, Harris argued that from the time of the founding of the United States, whiteness granted its possessors measurable value. Moreover, that value was inherited, an unearned legacy that bolstered white achievement and prevented Blacks from attaining the same social and economic standing. (Prof. Harris recently published an important reflection on her earlier essay.) To be sure, many whites were also poor, but they were still better off than Blacks. As Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction in America (1935), quoted by Harris:
The theory of laboring class unity rests upon the assumption that laborers . . . will unite because of their opposition to exploitation by the capitalists . . . . This would throw white and black labor into one class . . . . [But] it must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference . . . because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes treated them with…leniency.
The remedy for structural racism and inequality, Harris wrote was “distributive justice”, and more specifically, “affirmative action” an idea addressed by the legal scholar Ronald J. Fiscus among others.
Affirmative action, Harris writes, “[ensures] that individuals receive that share of the benefits they would have secured in the absence of racism.” In 1993, when “Whiteness as Property” was published, affirmative action was still in the ascendant. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, where I taught from 1984-98, I regularly served on (and sometimes chaired) the Faculty Affirmative Action Committee. Our job was to make sure that teaching and administrative positions were defined in such a way as to attract the most “minority” (the preferred term at the time) applicants, and that searches were conducted without prejudice. Some departments and offices hated us; if we believed a search was faulty, we shut it down. But we were also remarkably successful, helping to hire many brilliant, Black, Latino and Asian American scholars, and making it possible to appoint a Black, college president.
By the late 1990s however, a slew of statewide, so-called “civil rights” initiatives — in California, Michigan, Texas, Florida and elsewhere — derailed affirmative action. And it’s been a see-saw ever since. The election of Barak Obama in 2008 partially restored the former impetus, but in 2018, Trump rolled back Obama-era educational guidelines. On his first day in office, Biden revoked Trump’s roll-back.
Structural racism is probably as pronounced today as it was back in the age of Reagan when Critical Race Theory was announced. Indeed, the gap in wages between Blacks and whites is greater now than it was then. The same is true for wealth, with white households having an average net worth ten times greater than Black ones. The incarceration rate of Black men is three times that of whites. And even though whites and Blacks use illegal drugs in more or less equal measure, the latter are much more likely to be arrested and sentenced to prison. Police violence is the sixth leading cause of death among young, Black men. Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans suffer worse health than whites, as the recent pandemic has proven, and have lower life expectancies. Non-whites are also much more likely to be impacted by environmental pollution and climate change. Despite a general decline in air pollution over the past generation, Black and Latinx communities still experience dangerously high levels of particulate pollution, the most dangerous part of fossil fuel emissions from cars, factories and power plants.
Current Responses to Structural Racism
At my current (soon to be former) institution — Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois — faculty and students receive regular emails from the administration supporting racial justice, and pledging to end structural racism in all its forms. The tide of such communications became a flood following last year’s civil rights protests after the police murder of George Floyd and others. Here are two recent examples of the messaging, jointly authored by the president, provost, the office of Equity and Diversity and others:
The persistent, systemic nature of police brutality can take a psychological toll on many in the Northwestern community, particularly Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). For Black people, who are disproportionately shot and murdered at the hands of the police, these killings are an all-too-frequent reminder of the urgent work that needs to happen to ensure issues of systemic racism and all forms of oppression are addressed. This is the only way we will create a truly equitable and just society in which marginalized people can safely live. (March 13, 2021)
We, as a University, will not stop until our institutional structures are equitable and just. We invite our community to join us in affirming our commitment to the pursuit of systemic change, to reexamine community safety and the carceral state, and to end anti-Blackness, racism and bigotry in all forms. (April 19, 2021)
These messages are powerful and even stirring, but the measures taken by the university, are tentative and few. They include allocating funds to re-furbish the “Black House” — an academic and social center for Black and African students established in 1968; a million dollars for a “Good Neighbor Racial Equity Fund” to support outreach to the diverse city of Evanston – though that program, among others, has been in operation since 2014; an uncertain number of “Racial Equity and Community Partnership Grants”; and the launching of a “Social Justice Website.” In addition, the university has supported equity training for senior administrators and similar courses for hundreds of staff managers. There are also plans to introduce required, “digital, anti-racism training courses” for students and faculty.
Equity training, formally called Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), has grown into an industry, an Anti-Racism Industrial Complex. There are multiple schools and professional associations of equity trainers. (The median salary for a trainer is about $72,000.) In 2020, American companies expended about $8 billion on DE&I, and that number is sure to grow this year. Nearly all Fortune 500 companies run DE&I programs and half of S&P 500 companies have a Chief Diversity Officer, as do most major colleges and universities. Their purpose is 1) to reduce costly payouts due to racial bias and sexual harassment lawsuits; 2) recruit a more diverse and productive workforce; and 3) public relations. Evidence for the success of DE&I at any of these is uncertain at best. Indeed, what evidence there is, indicates that some of the most popular equity interventions make businesses and educational institutions less, not more diverse. The reason, according to researchers, is that these programs feel coercive to participants, generating greater antagonism toward targeted communities than before.
Even more doubtful is DE&I’s success at the more exalted ambition articulated by administrators at Northwestern and other universities: reducing or ending structural racism. The reason is plain: Structural racism is not primarily an issue of thought, communications or personal behavior; it’s a problem in political economy that equity training cannot reach. As indicated earlier, structural, or systemic racism is a political, legal and social order that affirms hierarchy and divides and disempowers the working class. What university-sponsored DE&I programs do is promote a shallow politics of identity while avoiding discussions of structural change like the plague. My own art history department at Northwestern recently participated in such a program, (virtually that is). Each hour-long session (six in total over two terms), was intended to focus on a single theme, but with ten-minute warm-up exercises and multiple break-out room side-conversations, it proved hard to stay on track. Attendance dwindled from session to session.
The themes we discussed included the impact of personal formation on racial attitudes; “who carries the most power” in department meetings; and micro-aggressions. One exercise especially revealed to me the superficiality of the endeavor: We were shown a sentence and asked how we would respond:
You are in a department meeting devoted to graduate student enrollment, and a colleague says: “As you all know, I’m strongly in favor of recruiting as diverse a cohort of Ph.D students as possible, but we also have to maintain our high, academic standards.”
We all quickly scrambled to signal our disdain for the hypothetical speaker, and repeat what we sincerely believed to be true: that diversity was not in conflict with “high, academic standards.” If the equity trainer was giving out grades, we’d all have scored an A. But we never addressed what the benighted, fictional speaker probably meant, and what all of us (white and non-white faculty) have said at one time or another:
“The graduate class we recruited is well prepared to excel. But we need far more Black, Latinx and Native American applicants. Of those that applied, only a few have the appropriate academic background. How can we change the American educational and economic system so that more non-white kids have access to the arts and reason to believe they can earn a decent living with a humanities Ph.D?”
The basic point here is that if we want to address structural racism, we must do so at a structural level.
A Nine-Point Program of Structural, Anti-Racism on Campus
The choice facing students, faculty and administrators at Northwestern and other universities is whether, as political theorist Nancy Fraser puts it, “to double-down on the forms of shallow identity politics that drive cancel culture and diversity fetishism,” or engage in a more radical practice that actually dismantles the political and economic structures of racism. Such a program of distributive justice on campus might include the following:
1) Ending affirmative action for rich, white people. “Legacy admissions” — by which the children of alums have an admission advantage — perpetuate inequality and enhance white privilege. Also: stop the focus on recruitment from posh, mostly white, suburban high schools and colleges; and end reliance on SATs and GREs — student scores are improved by test preparation, available only to wealthy families.
2) Break down the barriers between town and gown, especially in communities with high Black and brown populations. When colleges and universities invest in their local communities, they improve the social and economic lives of students and residents alike. Universities like Northwestern, University of Chicago, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia and USC, should heavily recruit from their urban surroundings, offering college preparatory courses in the high schools themselves.
3) Ensure that university endowment portfolios do not perpetuate systemic racism, for example by investing in for-profit prisons; chemical industries that produce guns, tear gas and other chemical weapons used against BLM and other justice protesters; drug companies that target opioids to poor people and communities of color; and fossil fuel companies whose pollution disproportionately impacts Black and brown neighborhoods. Review real estate investments to ensure they don’t support de-facto red lining and other forms of housing discrimination.
4) Wealthy institutions like Northwestern (endowment of $12 billion) should pay educational reparations to the descendants of those who have been systematically excluded from Northwestern, especially Black, Native America and Latinx students. This could be in the form of additional scholarships or preferably, shifting endowment to colleges and universities, including community colleges, HSBCs and tribal colleges that educate these students. Also, instead of establishing satellite campuses in Qatar or Abu Dhabi, (Northwestern and NYU), universities should locate them in low-income urban or rural locations, tribal lands (if invited), and state or federal prisons.
5) Work cooperatively with other universities to demand better state and federal funding for K-12 education and lobby to end differential funding based upon local tax revenue. Better primary education will create a more diverse pool of college-ready applicants. Primary school students of color should have the same access to education in the arts and sciences as white students.
6) Be responsible in university spending. Here are examples of reckless expenditures from Northwestern: Salaries of $5 million for a football head coach, $2.5 for an assistant coach, $1.5 million for a basketball coach, $1.5 million for a university president and $1.3 million for a business school dean. Spending almost $300 million for a football practice facility should be considered theft of endowment. Many other wealthy universities have their own, ridiculous boondoggles.
7) Reduce support for university business schools, like Kellogg at Northwestern. They play a major role in buttressing the racist, national and global system of labor arbitrage — the moving of fixed capital from areas with high paying jobs, to locations with low paying or non-union jobs and a non-white workforce. All people deserve a living wage. Business schools also promote an ideology of growth-at-any-cost, regardless of environmental consequences for marginalized communities.
8) Demand that our university medical schools focus their attention not on profit and growth but on society’s greatest need: public health, and especially the compromised health of underserved communities. For that reason, medical school administrators and doctors should demand single payer health insurance, or even better, nationalized medicine.
9) Universities should challenge war and militarism. The global victims of war are mostly non-white. Annual U.S. spending of $900 billion for the military equals disinvestment in safe, healthy, and prosperous communities at home. Universities should end cooperation with military recruiters, as well as with the CIA, NSA and other agencies that promote war and environmental devastation. The U.S. military emits more CO2 than most countries, impacting U.S. and global communities of color most of all.
Perhaps the most profound expression of racism at American universities is that which perpetuates the myth that racism is a matter of individual thoughts and speech acts or arises from insufficient respect for cultural difference. Prejudice, bias and chauvinism of all kinds (national, cultural and gender) should be attacked and uprooted. But Racism is a political and ideological structure that sickens and kills millions and threatens the survival of human civilization itself. Progressive faculty and administrators can’t by themselves make a revolution, but they can join a national movement that challenges structural racism and inequality through a coordinated program of distributive, educational and social justice.