What is Critical Race Theory and why are Republican governors and state legislators saying such terrible things about it? If you are among the 99% of Americans who had never heard of this theory before a month or two ago, you might be forgiven for believing that it poses a grave threat to the United States through the indoctrination of our schoolchildren. To clarify the reasons behind the sudden rise in attacks against this little-known theory, it can first help to consider an earlier campaign of silencing in US history—the effort to shut down any discussion of slavery in Congress through a gag-rule that lasted for almost a decade in the 1830s and 1840s.
In 1836, in response to a flood of anti-slavery petitions, the House of Representatives passed a resolution (Rule 21) that automatically tabled all petitions on slavery without a hearing. By doing so, they effectively prohibited even the discussion of slavery in Congress. The Senate, for its part, regularly voted not to consider such petitions at all. Southern Representatives and their Democratic allies in the North believed that any attention paid to slavery was divisive in that it heightened regional tensions and promoted slave rebellions. They argued that the drafters of the Constitution never intended for the subject of slavery to be discussed or debated in Congress.
At the beginning of each session after 1837, during discussion of the House rules, the ex-President and then Representative John Quincy Adams would attempt to read anti-slavery petitions he had received. Originally, only Whigs supported his efforts, but more Democrats joined him each session, so that the majority against Adams gradually decreased until the gag-rule was repealed at the beginning of the 1845 session.
Parallels between the gagging of anti-slavery petitions and the campaign to prohibit the teaching of Critical Race Theory are clear, if unnoticed before now. Like the Southern delegations who opposed discussion of slavery, opponents of Critical Race Theory believe that any discussion of persistent racial inequities in legal and other institutions is unacceptable because it is "divisive." Ben Carson and Christie Noem (Gov. ND-R) have asserted that Critical Race Theory is "a deliberate means to sow division and cripple our nation from within."
In fact the theory, based on an understanding that race is not biological but socially constructed, yet nevertheless immensely significant for everyday life, provides a way to investigate systemic racism and its consequences. It recognizes that racism did not exist solely in the past, that structures embedded in laws and customs persist in the present and permeate social institutions. These structures, intentionally or not, lead to the treatment of people of color as second-class citizens or less-than-full human beings.
As their central charge, critics frequently take the theory's argument that in the US racism is "structural" or "systemic" as synonymous with saying that the United States is "systematically" or "inherently" racist. However, doing so conflates "systemic" with "systematic": "systemic" practices are those that affect a complex whole of which they are a part; "systematic" practices are planned and methodical. To say an attitude or pattern is structural does not mean that it is unavoidable and unchangeable, that it cannot be addressed and its effects reduced through reforms. Indeed, a central tenet of the theory is that racism has produced its effects through specific, historical institutions, and that reduction of racial inequities can be accomplished, but only once the existence of such injustices is recognized.
Most lines of attack on Critical Race Theory depend in similar ways on misunderstandings or distortions. Whether subtle or not-so-subtle, unintentional or willful, their effect is the same: they misrepresent the theory. The opponents criticize what they call the theory's "race essentialism"— their misconception of Critical Race Theory as saying that an individual, based on their race, is "inherently" racist or oppressive. Against the idea of structural or "inherent" racism, the critics assert that racism only expresses personal choices and actions. But we need not accept their assumption that racism must be either structural or personal; both can surely exist at the same time.
Nor do we need to agree with the opponents that the theory considers all white people "inherently privileged" because of their race. In the 1930s, Social Security benefits were denied to domestic workers, the right to organize a union was withheld from propertyless farmworkers, and federally funded mortgages were denied to people of color generally through the practice of "redlining." The vote was denied to many people of color via poll taxes and other legal obstacles. Recognizing this pattern is not the same as saying that white workers, voters, and mortgage holders are "inherently privileged." Yet recognizing such a pattern does mean that some of the inequalities and disadvantages under which people of color have labored as a result of discriminatory legislation can be addressed through reformative legislation.
When State Senator Brian Kelsey of Tennessee supported a ban on teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools, he stated that the theory teaches "that the rule of law does not exist and is instead a series of power struggles among racial groups." However, to acknowledge that laws have been shaped by social structures and cultural assumptions of a particular time does not mean that the rule of law does not exist. Rather, it poses a challenge for us to root out the racist patterns and practices that have been invisibly at work in the idea of "equality under the law."
Finally, the detractors charge teachers with "imposing" or "forcing" the theory on their students. But these critics are not in fact calling for independence of thought. Rather, their charge seeks to suppress thought that questions historic and continuing inequities and inequalities, just as, almost two hundred years ago, representatives of Southern slave-owners and their Northern sympathizers imposed a gag-rule on their anti-slavery Congressional colleagues.
It is instructive that opponents of Critical Race Theory deny what the theory does not assert—that each white person is inherently, essentially racist, and that the institutions of American society are fundamentally, unchangeably racist. It may be easier to legislate these denials and to gag educators than to acknowledge what the theory does assert, and then work to make the difficult changes that are called for in the legal and the educational systems of our country. By denying that racism is entrenched and unyielding, they render it more entrenched and more resistant to attempts to address its consequences.
Frank Palmeri is Professor of English at the University of Miami and author of State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse. Ted Wendelin is an Instructor at the University of Colorado, Denver.