Critical Race Theory in Practice

Critical Race Theory thrives in academe after the anti-racist activism of the 1960s and early 1970s expires: MLK’s direct action strategy for change through a multi-racial, class coalition; and the subsequent selective embrace of Malcolm X’s focus on combatting the exploitative domination of black communities. When the political tide turns conservative and support for liberal movements wanes by the mid-1970s, anti-racism as a broad-based focus for change is replaced by “diversity” and a stress on the cultural positives of racial identity. This is evident in the Democratic Party which has owned the anti-racism narrative since the Civil Rights Movement. It began to abandon the working and lower classes for the middle and upper classes, the issues of economic inequality and class disappearing from its rhetoric and policies. Subsequent to the McGovern loss in 1972, the Party moved to the right to compete with the Republicans and regain the presidency. The New Right was gaining ground by the mid-1970s and poised to mount the offensive to take Congress in 1978.

Race and its link to the Weather Underground is symptomatic. This spin-off from SDS, popular in the early 1970s, made many of Malcolm X’s concepts central to its agenda. It gave race relative priority in its stress on the class struggle and imperialism, rejecting MLK’s notion of integration for that of community empowerment. Its inability to garner sufficient support among the public, to a great extent the result of its aggressive rhetoric and destructive actions, led to its members going underground during this turning-to-the-right decade.

Diversity as such has always been a valid idea since integration—its conceptual kin—was key to racial justice for MLK. But it was also integrally linked for him to the economic issues of class and inequality. “Diversity” in the mid-1970s, as Walter Benn Michaels has shown, becomes a more limited notion, a substitute for the broader, anti-racist assault against the existing order, which means forgetting the critique of capitalism and the growing income and capital gap (Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality). Not that the Party and activist cultures aren’t supportive of anti-racism, but the focus shifts to the positive virtues of racial identity which is part of the larger shift to identity politics of that era and the rejection of broad universal narratives symptomatic of postmodernism, the academic fashion that explodes on the scene roughly around this time. According to Stephen Sawchuk, “critical race theory emerged out of postmodernist thought which tends to be skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment, and liberalism” (“What is CRT, and Why is it Under Attack?” Education Week, 5/18/21).

This ism was spawned from the failure, by the late 1960s, of the utopian movements for change which were premised on large stories and universal truths that so many came to distrust. This skepticism bred the attraction to the championing of multiple narratives with the potential to garner smaller, and more reliable pragmatic truths.

So instead of grounding the positives of diversity in the critique of capital and systemic blockages, the effort was to bring in as many people of color—especially blacks—as possible, integrate them and their positive qualities into the white dominated society to combat inequality. This was mostly about demographics, not sociological or political-economic truth, and offered little guidance in narrowing the inequality gap.

The practical consequence of this shift was the emphasis on working the system versus fundamentally changing it. Greater inclusion and a stress on positive cultural identities translated into Affirmative Action, an adjunct of the Civil Rights legislation from the prior decade. Designed as a boost for blacks to compete by giving them the nod in employment when equally qualified with others—especially whites—it often became a means for the active recruitment of blacks without regard for competitive qualifications. But this was a success, the decade of the 1970s witnessing a sharp narrowing of the inequality gap with whites, and despite the legal challenge from the successful Bakke case in 1978 which rejected quotas in racial hiring and the priority given to race. With the weakening of Affirmative Action beginning in the 1980s and its further weakening by the Supreme Court in the 1990s, the picture changes and the inequality gap widens (though the decline of Affirmative Action was surely not the only cause).

As mainstream institutions refuse to fundamentally eliminate racism—at least the early, Civil Rights’-inspired version—many black leaders fall into line, supporting the larger neoliberal turn that’s been responsible for widening the inequality gap for all citizens, whatever the color or category. Many even agreed with the weakening of Affirmative Action, arguing that it taints success. Given this turn, there was little interest in improving the plight of lower-class blacks, those likely impacted most by the legacy of slavery. With this attention to the top tier in the black community, the upper-middle and upper classes expanded their relative positions of wealth which now approximate the income and capital gaps in the white, Hispanic and Asian communities. That is, the aggregate 1% structural imbalance forever identified by progressives is essentially replicated within each cultural group.

The CRT revived—from its incubation in academe for more than four decades—by the events of the past year or so reflects these biases. Despite a lot of rhetoric about “revolutionary change,” the attention has mostly been on the educated with links to mainstream institutions and corporate America where consultants apply the tenets of identity politics through workplace diversity training. They discuss how to unlearn “white supremacy” through a sort of therapy or attitudinal adjustment and reject certain turns of phrase or assumptions as problematic while reinforcing the positive images of blacks and tolerance for all aspects of black culture. This is all relatively comparable to BLM’s window-dressing of the historic Black Panthers on their website while becoming quite cozy with the world of corporate endowments.

There are clear positives here, but it has become open to criticism. This initiative’s application tends to be an all-or-nothing process which violates the classically liberal ideas about free speech (in the 1980s and 1990s CRT was already sympathizing with actions to restrict certain First Amendment rights in relation to campus speech codes because they favored certain interests). It has developed into a religion of sorts, according to John McWhorter, where so much of the focus is on the matter of language and enforcing the rules of how to talk about things properly, those refusing to do so branded heretics (“Does Teaching America It’s Racist Make It Less Racist,” The Argument, 5/10/2021). As a result, the full truth has been sacrificed to ideology. This has alienated many who otherwise support anti-racism, spawning an us-versus-them mindset.

Instead of this parochial focus, many claim the resources would be better served in addressing the inequities outside the schools and workplaces, in the poverty cultures of race that have been truly victimized. According to Michele Goldberg, changing the way school funding is allocated, or changing the way school districts are drawn, would produce more useful consequences in completely changing who constitutes the student body (in The Argument, 5/10/2021).

This top-down pressure is evident in the striking increase of blackness in the commercial ads of many media venues, but this boost has apparently endowed mostly seasoned professionals, or at least those who already have a foothold in the industry. The funding doesn’t seem to be filtering down to those who need it most. This despite BLM’s considerable stash of wealth which could be used for eradicating one of the great deficits in black communities, the lack of investment (as William Julius Wilson’s research has shown). But instead much of it has found its way into the coffers of the leadership, a few managing to secure some valued properties.

This might help explain the decline in support for BLM by more than the usual Republicans and some whites (Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson, “Support For Black Lives Matter Surged Last Year. Did It Last?” New York Times, 5/13/2021). And there’s a perception of privilege that’s percolating resentment in some circles due to the belief that the black elite are consuming most of the resources, and there’s been little discussion about what this means.

One of the issues that should bear on this potential discussion—and what’s promoting division—is the way the concept of systemic racism, a significant adjunct to CRT, is interpreted. Its implementation by the Democratic Party, as expected, reflects its mid-1970s shift away from a full anti-racism focus and toward “diversity” and the positives of black identity, as mentioned above. Racism is not the expression of toxic attitudes toward one racial or ethnic group by another—though they can certainly cultivate it—but the effect of power, victims being subjected to prejudices that impact their daily lives and careers in corrosive ways. Racism therefore is embedded in the system’s structures. But these structures are mostly eliminated from the equation, race as a category becoming privileged in the relation. Society, it is claimed, is racist since race is invested in these structures, and the incidence of skin color is the dominant lens through which racism is conceptualized.

This stress has provoked a strident response from some progressive anti-racists and a noxious reaction from many on the right. Donald Trump’s executive order 13950—“Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping”—is typical of the latter: “This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”

The right’s reaction to the discourse of identities is provocative but limited, and it has nothing to replace it with but “common status,” a myth that evades the reality of how our society is structured with groups and segments which have different cultural traditions. These differences attach to varying statuses which compete for recognition and power, and this dynamic result creates friction and the potential to breed racism. Eliminating these variances and conflicts can lead to the construction of an America as redeemably racist. The right has no interest in fully evaluating what CRT is. It effectively dismisses it in fact while cleverly keeping it in the newsy-inspired faces of citizens to angst them from discussing what matters: health care, Medicare expansion, mandatory family leave and vacations, federal child care subsidies and other elements of the progressive agenda (Chris Orlet, “Critical Race Theory is Just Another Shot in the GOP’s Culture War,” CounterPunch, 6/4/2021).

As the right befuddles the populace with mystical jabs at CRT, the left—or more accurately Democrats and “liberals”—diverts its attention away from important issues, especially inequality, with its “all about race” misrepresentation that applies policy through a limited view of systemic racism. The issues that commonly arise when identifying systemic racism are housing, health deficits, criminal justice, day-to-day life, food and nutrition, work and wealth, and school and childhood. It is through these issues that prejudices and unfairness are revealed.

Property ownership is commonly referenced since possession of capital assets presents the potential for advancing upward mobility. The fact that blacks as a group lag behind in owning their own homes is due to reasons that tend to be prejudicial. They often get sub-prime loans with higher rates that contribute to foreclosures. And redlining is a practice that has historically restricted blacks to certain less-desirable neighborhoods. The effect of these practices is to repress their capital accumulation. While the origins of redlining stem from segregation—the desire to exclude blacks from society—its current-day practice has a lot to due with real estate players doing the bidding of those who fear they will lose equity if blacks move into their neighborhoods. Their perception is that blacks tend to get foreclosed more often—foreclosures tend to decrease the value of nearby properties—because of their riskier loans, deficient income and general credit situation. Getting more money into the black community to establish relative parity can reverse these perceptions. And the creation of more community banks that service them can help by charging a fairer interest rate for loans.

The impoverishment of the black community produces many spin-offs that are correctible if systemic racism is considered along with systemic classism, a factoring of race with class, a funneling of income and capital into the pockets of the blacks who are truly victims. But the lower-class victims in other ethnic and racial groups experience the same deficits of capital and income. So, the privileging of skin color—though a significant factor—can distort and hide fundamental causes.

Healthcare is another issue. The greater incidence of pre-existing conditions and decreased life expectancy in the black community were thrown into relief during the pandemic, inviting charges of racism. But access to health care in this country is linked to good paying jobs so the deficits in employment, especially in the temp-work industry, foster this limitation (though the mainstream media invariably ignores this broader problem). Access to vaccinations was also targeted, the participation rate in the black community being significantly less. But transportation and employer issues explain much of this and not the exclusive targeting of skin-color. And again, these are issues faced by many lower-class residents in other ethnic groups.

Criminal justice is especially relevant in the light of the shootings of blacks in recent years. As a group blacks are treated prejudicially, and particularly young black males who are profiled and detained by the police more frequently than whites from an early age. These prejudices continue through their adult years since once these males are in the system their rights tend to erode further from more intense profiling. Plus, they have fewer family connections to access the legal help to expunge their records. But the greater attention to young black males is also driven by the fact that they commit a significantly greater amount of crimes, especially violent ones, than their counterparts in the other ethnic groups, including whites. And since police officers are 70% white, they’re put disproportionately in the line of fire, and this contributes to potential friction. The high incidence of crime is conditioned by the lack of a substantive post-slavery reconstruction, evident today in the lack of good paying jobs, the lessened income and wealth leading to innumerable deficits (like the hit on taxes from lower-valued properties which starves funding for the schools that can vault students to success).

Again, the embedded structures that create unfairness and prejudice and a greater incidence of damage to blacks—leaving in place the fact and perception of racism—also impact those in the lower classes of other racial and ethnic groups. This means that the privileging of a particular race through constant race-based messaging will tend to provoke reactions from these other races and ethnic groups, as Elizabeth Suhay suggests. They’ll stop supporting policies that they otherwise believe are fair because of this selective treatment (in “Racial Equality Frames and Public Policy Support,” by Micah English and Joshua Kalla, Center for Open Science, 4/26/2021). This partially explains why some Hispanics and Asians have migrated away from the Democratic Party in recent years and toward the Republican Party. This was especially evident in the 2020 election. This suggests that the Democratic Party has conformed its identity politics into another big narrative of truth.

But an exclusive focus on class that marginalizes race is no solution either. In the polarized, unequal, and toxic-anti-“socialist” world of the current America this will lead to a backlash from the middle and upper classes. What is needed is a multi-racial, class coalition—buffeted by a redesigned Affirmative Action policy factoring in class—that works to prevent all divide-and-conquer damage so that neither the racial and ethnic groups nor the impoverished class will become alienated and lose hope. And the power of such a coalition is the best hope to challenge the constituencies—especially the Republicans—that trash CRT, a strong anti-racism that includes an assault on inequality, and the Democrats’ overriding attention to rights, identities, and skin color. Such a coalition need not interfere with work to get a CRT more serviceable for multiple interests, or the good work that’s already in progress in identifying the stubborn pockets of racism.

A recent piece in The Guardian by Cas Mudde reveals how difficult this will be. The author castigates “some liberals and leftists” for claiming that “race and racism distracts from the real progressive struggle between labor and capital.” Old white men are the force behind this struggle, obsessed with a working class made up of nativist white workers. They feel “betrayed by center-left parties” that support cosmopolitan urbanites and a “symbolic politics about issues such as gender-neutral bathrooms, rather than offer real material remedies on traditional bread-and-butter issues” (“Critical Race Theory is the Right’s New Bogeyman. The Left Must Not Fall for It,” 6/25/2021).

He lambasts white male progressives lost in the 1960s, implying that progressives today are of the same ilk, but they clearly aren’t. Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager was an indigenous black woman who brilliantly articulated race and its relation to class, all impoverished classes not only the white working class. This is more name-dropping to drive home the refrain that this controversy is all about ubiquitous white supremacists threatened by people of color. The author never discusses the complexity of the class system present in all racial and ethnic groups. CRT is simply an inviolable presence. But we can’t correct racism without tackling the larger class problem as it has shaped the destinies of all these groups and exposing the limits of identity politics. Not all members of specific identity groups are equally exploited or demeaned. And this single focus activism allows the right to monopolize the big picture and the larger narrative to enhance its ability to win elections.

The failure to marshal a multi-racial, class coalition will only spawn a surplus of supremacies…

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class