Can Critical Race Theory Reframe American History Successfully?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

For the first time in four decades, we have a new national holiday, the Juneteenth National Independence Day. It celebrates the liberation of Black American slaves from the last city enslaving them in Galveston, Texas.

All the Senate Republicans, and all but fourteen of the Republicans in the House, voted in favor of establishing the holiday. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mt., released a statement before the vote that captures Republican concerns that are festering within their ranks: “This is an effort by the Left to … celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.” As a result, Republicans have begun a national campaign opposed to teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools and in some state universities.

However, Michael Eric Dyson, author of Long Time Coming, told MSNBC that June 19 as a national holiday would not have happened without CRT moving people to grapple with race in our history and having to deal with it now.

Rosendale and Dyson’s comments reveal a divide in this nation from when the first African slaves were brought into the North American Colonies in 1619. It is a battle over who has the political power to interpret our nation’s history and shape our future. Critical Race Theory is the current battleground.

Stephen Sawchuk, in a May issue of Education Week, aptly captures both sides in this struggle when he asks, “Is “critical race theory” a way of understanding how American racism has shaped public policy, or a divisive discourse that pits people of color against white people?” However, he quickly notes, “the divides are not nearly as neat as they may seem.”

Standardized history textbooks often credit the Civil War as the final resolution in achieving political equality of former African slaves as U.S. citizens. But some critical historical elements are often ignored.

First, by our constitution, “All persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Importing slaves was outlawed in1808. One could argue that all slaves born in the U.S. after 1808 could be considered citizens.

Second, the 13th amendment passed nearly 60 years after the last slave was admitted. According to the Stanford School of Medicine’s Ethnogeriatrics: in 1860, only 3.5 percent of the slaves were over sixty. Consequently, over 95 percent of the slaves were technically already U.S. citizens since they were “persons born in the United States.”

Third, the Constitutional Convention declaring that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining representation in the House of Representatives. This measure acknowledged slaves as persons and not simply property like livestock.

Even though the constitution recognized and allowed slavery, it was silent on the status of the slave’s children. A legal argument could have been made that those children automatically were citizens and that their continued enslavement was a violation of their constitutional right.

Why wasn’t that legal avenue taken? Because the slave-owning states could stop any such legislation in Congress. They were disproportionately represented in the House of Representatives.  Sixty percent of their slaves figured into the number of representatives that they could send to Congress. In addition, they could influence the makeup of the Supreme Court to the extent that the court’s Dredd Scott decision would forcibly send a free slave in a non-slave state back to a slave state to be shackled again.

When considering these conditions in our history, one can understand why Eyson says that CRT began with legal scholars who saw that systemic racism was embedded in the law. He concludes that our laws have not been a neutral arbitrator on race relations.  Those biased laws extend from the federal to the state to the municipal level.

And that brings us to where we are today. The fear, spearheaded by the Republican Party, is that CRT demeans America by suggesting that our laws since colonial days have been biased against black slaves and then their decedents. After the Civil War, that bias was most evident in the national politics in the presidential elections of 1868, which blatantly raised the fear of blacks having more political power than white voters.

To some degree that happened, the participation of Black voters was critical for Republican Ulysses S. Grant being elected president. The Democrats, whose motto was “This is a White Man’s country, let White Men Rule,” ran Horatio Seymore. He lost by 305,000 votes; however, a half-million newly enfranchised Black men voted for Grant. Seymore had supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have guaranteed slavery in the constitution to end the Civil War.

Despite Grant winning, the former slave-owning states instituted laws that effectively eliminated Black political and economic power. They passed segregation and Jim Crow laws that ignored two constitutional amendments that they were expected to accept as a condition to being back into the Union. Those were the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 granting Black Americans the rights of citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 giving Black American men the right to vote.

When the South went about adopting Black Codes designed to “replace” Black’s slavery with some as close to it as possible, Northern States moved onto other concerns. Black Americans outnumbered and lacking the resources to fight against stronger forces were abandoned to go it alone in trying to achieve full citizenship.

But CRT goes far beyond the machinations of the Southern slave-holding states. It raises questions of how laws at all government levels have hindered Black Americans’ power to exercise citizenship on par with white citizens. And that theory assaults the American narrative that we have been taught, America is the land of opportunity for all.

When CRT attacks that storyline, it is seen as betraying our traditional image of a great, generous, and unique America. This tradition is based on the belief that a market economy can best provide those opportunities. Critical Race Theory appears to threaten the sanctity of preserving an unregulated marketplace when it shows how slaves were commodities in the market and the source of significant profits to their owners.

Professor Matthew Desmond at Princeton University wrote how the combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. Cotton was the nation’s most valuable export grown and picked by enslaved workers.

Two professors reviewing the 1860 census data reported that the median wealth of the wealthiest 1% of Southerners was more than three times higher than for the wealthiest 1% of Northerners. However, after the slaves were freed, who were considered personal property, the top 10% of the Southern wealth distribution experienced a 90% drop in the value of their personal property, while real property wealth was cut approximately in half. Consequently, the wealthy oligarchy of the South was crippled, but not down.

For the next 100 years, the new stratum of upper South wealth persuaded the white working poor that the freed Black slaves and their offspring would take jobs away from them. It was a fear also publicly expressed by many white workers in the North.

Due to the power of state’s rights, what followed was a torrent of segregation and Jim Crow laws in many states. The segregationist influence was also a powerful voting bloc in Congress that lasted from the 1870s to the 1960s. They almost defeated President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Before then, segregationists pushed FDR’s federal programs to deny services to Black citizens. Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson has documented, it was mainly at the behest of Southern Democrats that farm and domestic workers — more than half the nation’s black workforce at the time — were excluded from New Deal policies, including the Social Security and Wagner Acts of 1935 (the Wagner Act ensured the right of workers to collective bargaining), and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a minimum wage and established the eight-hour workday.

These are historical facts. Conservatives may not want to dwell on them or even discuss them. However, what frightens them is the Theory of Critical Race, which links the long-lasting effects of slavery with systemic racism ingrained in America’s laws. The laws that have shaped our politics, culture, and social relationships.

Conservatives believe this all-encompassing perspective has turned an enjoyable movie about our history into a horror show on whites oppressing Blacks. According to an Education Week analysis, that anger has resulted in legislators in 21 states, as of June 16, introducing bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Five states have signed these bills into law. Opposition is not just concentrated in the South.

Idaho Republican legislators cut $2.5 mill from their 2022 state budget from colleges and universities, citing the teaching of CRT, which “seeks to highlight how historical inequities and racism continue to shape public policy and social conditions today.”

They also passed a bill that bans the teaching of critical race theory in public and charter schools and universities in the state. But according to Republican Sen. Carl Crabtree, one of the sponsors, they declined to define critical race theory in the bill because “everybody has a different view” of what the term means.

Crabtree was honest. There is no set definition of Critical Race Theory because, as a theory, it is constantly changing. It’s been around for forty years. As any social, political, or legal theory ages, there will be multiple interpretations. That’s true of theories originating from either the left and the right: constitutionalism, socialism, and all the “isms” have spawned schools of thought that debate how to describe what they believe.

Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law that prohibited teaching that “individuals, by virtue of race or gender, are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” From what I’ve read, CRT does not focus on individuals being racist but institutions that promote policies that discriminate against people of color.

For example, Kiara Alfonseca of ABC news wrote in her piece “Critical race theory in the classroom: Understanding the debate” that CRT “analyzes benefits white people have in society, which is sometimes referred to as “white privilege.” This refers to the concept that white people continue to be protected from the effects of systemic race-based discrimination because of their skin color.” That may result in a white person feeling guilty. But that’s up to the individual.

However, advocates of CRT may also be undertaking a “mission impossible” in trying to convince most people in a nation that they must do something to help a minority which may result in fewer benefits to themselves. A noble and just pursuit, but one that doesn’t have many successful historical incidents to rely on for a proven path forward.

Another approach articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and Columbia Law School professor is to see critical race theory as a discipline that seeks to understand how racism has shaped U.S. laws and how those laws have continued to impact the lives of non-white people. It’s an approach that opens a discussion about what has happened in the past and how it continues to affect everyone.

However, Stephen Sawchuk makes an astute philosophical observation that may just cut to the core of why there is so much resistance from some to CRT. He maintains that CRT is an extension of postmodernist thought, which is “skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism—tenets that conservatives tend to hold dear.”

If CRT is rejecting those beliefs, then it has a steep hill to climb. Because universal values, objective knowledge, etc., are held dear by more than just conservatives. They are pretty much the groundwork of our society. Such an approach would put C.R. Theory on the defensive. Advocates would be forced to describe what beliefs would replace them. It doesn’t seem like a winning strategy for converting the entire nation to a new theory to live by.

On the other hand, many of the CRT critics make claims that the proponents don’t make. Such as trying to indoctrinate children that the United States is inherently wicked. Or, when a Republican Texas lawmaker believes “the term “white privilege” blames children for actions of racism in the past and says critical race theorists believe if someone can’t acknowledge white supremacy or white privilege, then they are racist.”

If that approach were taken, CRT would be accused of identifying individuals as racist if they disagree with the theory. Some advocates may say those things, but as I pointed out, all theories have multiple and conflicting believers. Taking quotes from one or two people does not define an entire theory.

What is needed at this time is recognizing what has occurred in the past and how it has shaped our present reality. That is not a theory, so much as an exercise in understanding and thinking. It is a rational process that many of us do hold dear. And it can lead to changing the laws so that we treat one another as citizens within a democratic and just society.

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.

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