Have you read “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin? Beneath Omelas, a city of prosperity and contentment, lives a child in misery. We’re told that her unwilling sacrifice is necessary for the rest of the citizens to be happy. Sometimes, when people discover the child’s situation, they refuse to participate in the system so they leave Omelas. Other times, most often, they stay. Willfully ignorant at best, or actively participating in the beatings at worst, they perpetuate the system of oppression: one person’s life for a town’s prosperity.
But what if we reject the narrator’s testimony? What if, instead, we unlock the shackles that bind the child? What if we raise her up, feed her, make amends for the years of ongoing trauma we’ve subjected her to? What could she do in society if she were free? This is what Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) seeks to do. It’s a way of looking at how society is organized. It asks, “What are the power lines and mechanisms for enforcing rules? How do those mechanisms affect different populations differently?” In other words, CRT rejects the idea that anyone needs to suffer to create another’s prosperity. It has, at its core, the belief that everyone deserves to prosper, to live authentically and safely. For the purposes of this post, I’ve pulled extensively from the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.
In the 1970s (ish) legal scholars began looking for a way to talk about larger US systems that affect people differently based on their race, gender, sexual identity, etc. It’s complicated work, and it requires us to develop a new way of seeing, as well as a new vocabulary to describe what we see. For example, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe ways people experience life, and ways society fails to meet their needs, based on their multiple defined identities, like being Black and female, one would have some different priorities and needs than someone who is Black and male, or white and female. And a Black trans woman, or a Latiné nonbinary person, would have different experiences than all of them.
CRT in Real Life
When I park my car at night, I’m very aware of the lighting and who is parked next to me. Sometimes I park further away from the door in order to be directly under a light and away from other cars. My husband just looks for the spot closest to the entrance and calls it good. Half the time, he doesn’t even know whether he locked the door or not. I always always always double click the lock, and then click it again as I’m walking, just to make sure. Sure, there are laws against hurting people, but because those laws are incomplete, or unenforced, and because I take my vagina with me everywhere, I have different needs in order to be safe than my husband does. I need a well-lit parking lot. I need laws that fully address the commission of rape, and money to support rape investigations, and a society that supports women who come forward.
How would CRT address my needs as a woman? CRT looks at the mechanisms, legal and otherwise, that prevent those things from happening. It also looks at the underlying power differentials behind any form of oppression, and how those might differ with my race, sexual identity, body type, etc. “[CRT theorists] also built on feminism’s insights into the relationship between power and the construction of social roles, as well as the unseen, largely invisible collection of patterns and habits that make up patriarchy and other types of domination” (Delgado, 5). Some of those patterns we know well (for instance, the pattern that says women are largely responsible for outmaneuvering sexual aggression rather than a pattern that would demand that men control their own aggression.) Other patterns we’re just now starting to understand. And, I hope, in the future we recognize even more, so we can do better. CRT, after all, isn’t an end-game. It’s “a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power… [and] places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious” (Delgado, 3).
What else is CRT?
Generally recognized foundational principles:
- Favorable legal precedents erode over time and with narrow interpretations from lower court judges (Brown v Board is not the landmark case today that it was in the 50s).
- Society is a collection of patterns and habits that we often don’t recognize because we’re swimming in the soup.
- Our nation is founded on historical wrongs that need to be addressed before true equity can occur.
- Triumphalist history (God led Christians to a virgin land; Manifest Destiny; etc) doesn’t accurately represent all perspectives.
- Theory should have practical consequences.
- Communities and groups should be empowered.
- There is often interest convergence but also disparate needs for individuals within groups. We need more voices in order to meet more needs.
- Those in power, or with privilege, will not voluntarily give up their power or privilege.
- Personal narrative adds to the body of academia in vital ways.
The idea of looking directly at how society is structured can be quite scary if you’re intent on holding onto your power. That sounds snarky. I don’t mean it to. It is, for some, a very frightening proposition. I want to name that because maybe you’re feeling the same way I did when I first heard about Critical Race Theory. Maybe you’re also concerned that, if we empower groups that are historically kept out of the power structure, they’ll do to us what we’ve done to them. The comedian Gabriel Iglesias told a largely white audience in Houston, “I know where you keep your brown people,” and that’s what we, as white people, are sometimes afraid of. What does #landback look like? Will white people be kept on reservations without electricity, running water, healthcare, or decent educational opportunities? If we issue reparations to people affected by enslavement, will we, as white people, be forced into ghettos where disproportionate numbers of police officers are allowed to shoot us without consequences? If we ensure that trans individuals have access to all educational resources, will they take over our sports? If we allow women to lead corporations, will they force men to accept less pay for the same work, as women have been forced to do for (checks notes) centuries?
As I read it, CRT isn’t retribution for past wrongs, or punishment for ongoing inequities. CRT is, at the heart, about expanding the power base so that every person in America has a healthy, prosperous experience. It’s about taking a hard look at how “blind justice” isn’t really neutral. Our laws were based on the English system which favored wealthy landowners to the detriment of all other members of society. Remember jolly old England, where men who hunted merely for sport could have a person sent to an Australian penal colony for hunting solely to feed their starving family? Where women weren’t allowed to own property but were allowed to be beaten by their husbands? That society’s laws are the basis for our current laws. Looking critically at the historic patterns and assumptions giving rise to those laws benefits most, if not all, of us. After all, as a woman and a wife, I’m not really excited about the prospect of bringing back wife-spanking or having my daughters drowned as witches, all structurally supported practices that detrimentally affected one segment of society more than others. In our modern world, while I appreciate lights in parking lots, I would prefer to get rid of the threats to my safety (for example, by changing how consent is taught in schools and what modesty looks like so I’m no longer held responsible for sexual assault). In other words, CRT would ask why some men are allowed to prey on women, what laws enable that predatory behavior, why current laws don’t work, and how to change those laws so that women don’t have to carry a can of bear spray to ward off would-be attackers.
Yes, it means some adjustments. It means acknowledging, for example, that America wasn’t empty when Columbus stepped onto it (terra nullis). It means understanding how Manifest Destiny led to the genocide of Indigenous populations. It means beginning our history not with the Declaration of Independence but before, when enslaved people were forced from their homeland to labor, for free and under excruciating conditions, to build a nation which then enacted laws to relegate them to outsider positions. It’s understanding how all of that history, all of those individual stories added together, have created an unjust society–one that still has to address the past, undo the laws and policies that operate to keep people in (and out of) certain places, and move forward.
But moving forward without reconciliation is not moving forward at all. And we have to be honest about what keeps us from reconciling. There are certain groups of people who want to leave the curtain over the Wizard so we can’t see how power is generated. But, like Dorothy, it’s only by pulling back the curtain and exposing the truth that we can ultimately attain those things that the entirety of our broad American family needs in order to enjoy true equity. “The decade of the nineties saw the beginning of a vigorous offensive from the political Right. Abetted by heavy funding from conservative foundations and position papers from right-wing think tanks, conservatives advanced a series of policy initiatives, including campaigns against bilingual education, affirmative action, employment and educational set-asides, and immigration. They also lobbied energetically against hate-speech regulation, welfare, and governmental measures designed to increase minorities’ political representation in Congress” (Delgado, 114). People with money and connections lobbied to reduce all the ways we have of increasing education, employment, and representation of people across communities. In other words, the powerful fought to keep their power.
Power-maintenance isn’t a new idea either. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Not only is it never voluntarily given, but those with power will fight, claw, and destroy rather than see one single drop of power go to those they oppress. At the heart of anti-CRT speech is fear: fear by those in power that they will one day become the oppressed. But this assumes that someone needs to be oppressed in order for society to function. CRT rejects the premise of the Omelas story. CRT would have freed the child.
(Part 2 will be published today at 12:00 PM Pacific time)
Thank you for this. It’s easy to see why CRT makes white people uncomfortable, and also makes it hard for white people to admit WHY we/they are uncomfortable. I can also see why specifically Church members/leadership would recoil. For one thing, we are CHAMPS when it comes to congratulating ourselves with a triumphalist narrative. Columbus is inspired by God, destined to come to this land, as were the colonists per the BoM. God led the Saints west. What happened to everyone else who was already here… well, they were the sinful fallen remnants of a righteous people, cursed by the misdeeds of their forbears (again, per the BoM). Saying out loud “hey maybe God loved Indigenous peoples as much as he loved Europeans and was not at all pleased by the whole lies/genocide/land grab/enslave/oppress thing, and thus was not the inspiration behind it” undermines our own myth about ourselves. I know that starting to see all the ways my advantages came from my own ancestors that I never met – property across generations, education across generations, social connections across generations. It’s uncomfortable. But it isn’t wrong, or dangerous, or bad.
Thank you for this breakdown of what CRT is and what it seeks to do. I think you nailed why people are afraid of it, which is the same reason why it is so needed.
Beautiful. Would it be OK to post links to these essays on FB for a friend who is discussing this topic?
Thanks for asking. I’m okay with that. Feel free to DM me if you want additional support or resources.