My limited understanding of critical race theory is that it investigates the role and place of race at the intersection of law, social mores, and political power. Not exactly a new thing, it’s been around since the 1970s. It threatens right wingers partly by the assertion that race played a central role in structuring American society, and partly by academics drawing from Marx that social problems are more a function of social systems than of individual beliefs and attitudes.
The right wing seems terribly threatened by something most people outside the academy have never heard of. Trump issued an executive order in 2020 demanding that federal funds be prohibited from underwriting teaching critical race theory. Arizona and Idaho have passed bills against teaching it in their public schools. Right wing groups are apoplectic about it. Sen. Scott’s rebuttal to Pres. Biden’s speech to Congress asserted boldly that the United States is not a racist country. It causes one to wonder what could be so frightening to them.
We can’t pretend that race is not a factor in American society. No matter how much we desire to believe we’re all made of the same stuff, and that all lives matter, we have been diligent about prejudicially dividing the population into discrete groups according to skin color, countries of origin, and ethnic traditions. Examining race in the context of law, social mores and political power requires understanding the experiences unique to each race. Critics call it identity politics, and complain that it divides us into competing minorities when what we need is greater unity as Americans. Michael Ramirez published an April 26 editorial cartoon in which the left side of the panel labeled “Liberals” listed dozens of race, ethnic and social subsets. The right side of the panel labeled “Everyone Else” had only one category: American. His point? The left is dividing us against each other; everyone else sees only Americans. His cartoon reflected a common belief that until recently there was a common narrative defining America and Americans that worked to unite us in common purpose. Liberals are destroying that narrative. In truth, it was a narrative held in common only by portion of white America that assumed everyone else could easily assimilate into it if they wanted to. If they didn’t or couldn’t, there was something wrong with them. Never-mind that the legal structures of the nations worked against them.
Moynihan called it benign neglect, but there wasn’t anything benign about it. The old common narrative was blind to the history and social structures that prevented non-whites from assimilating; it reserved for itself the right to dictate terms and conditions for what assimilation meant; and it was disinterested in how the values and traditions of others might add to create a different common narrative. So entrenched is the old narrative that even today there are efforts to enshrine Anglo-Saxon culture as the official definition of America and Americans.
To its critics, critical race theory is a frontal attack on the glorious story of how Anglo-Saxon culture built the nation. The attackers they point to are academics whose voices angrily accuse white America without mercy or desire for reconciliation. But critical race theory is not a thing. The many books that try to say ‘This is It’ can’t agree with each other on a common definition. It’s a wide ranging field of study with no fixed dogma. Academic work in critical race theory is an essential key that helps unlock a more complete and honest understanding of American history. It focusses on the stories of each of our people, told in their own voices about the roles they played in the building of the nation.
There are many strands to the story of who we are woven into the fabric that is American society. Some fear that examining each strand will deconstruct the fabric so that it can never be put back together. I think it will help us up better understand how the fabric was woven so it can be repaired where torn, and made stronger to last longer. Shared knowledge of how the American fabric is woven is what can create a new common narrative that celebrates the dignity of each of us.