Critical Race Theory divides America
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US mayors caught up
in nation’s culture war
July 2021: US mayors are once again being forced to take sides in America’s culture wars. A new front opened with the police killing of George Floyd and the intense backlash on city streets. Many American cities were already advancing equity initiatives when Floyd was killed, but his murder prompted renewed efforts by mayors to achieve racial justice by rethinking policing, and, provocatively for some, applying critical race theory to teaching, training, and discussions on equity.
Critical race theory looks at power relationships in the United States through the lens of race. It explores how racism and inequity can become a part of everyday American life by examining the historical record and current laws and social practices. The goal is to promote a more equitable society through dialogue, understanding, and the implementation of more equitable and inclusive processes. While critical race theory has been taught for 40 years in the United States, it has recently come under political attack, with US mayors often drawn into the controversy.
Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory is not a new concept in the US. The large and influential civil rights, student, labor, and women’s movements of the 1950s through the 1970s exposed structural inequities in the American economy and the historical effects of centuries of enslavement of African-Americans and genocide of American Indians.
In the late-1970s, a small group of legal scholars began to research and explain how racism is embedded in American laws and legal structures. They showed how equality before the law for Blacks did not translate to equal power or equal living standards with whites. Often, they found, American ideals such as equal opportunity, meritocracy, and color blind justice actually serve white Americans by masking and reinforcing society’s deep structural inequities. The scholars called their work critical race theory.
The research of critical race theorists challenged contemporary instruction about inequity. One consequence of the mid-twentieth century social movements was that, by the 1980s, education regarding diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness became part of the academic content taught at most American universities, secondary schools, and primary schools, as well as part of the training curriculum of many American businesses. Students and employees began to learn the value of understanding and respecting different perspectives.
Racism, according to most such diversity instruction, was primarily the result of bad behavior by individual racists. Critical race theory probed deeper. It demonstrated how racism is systemic; that is, embedded in American laws and attitudes and institutions. Despite its importance, critical race theory remained a small voice in the debate over discrimination and tolerance, confined largely to selected university classes.
Another consequence of the civil rights movements of the 1950s through the 1970s is that, for a time, the larger US society set itself on a path of truth seeking and awareness building, demanding an end to the war in Vietnam and an end to poverty, evidenced by the massive peace movement of the 1970s, federal social welfare “War on Poverty” legislation to keep people out of poverty, affirmative action to achieve equity in employment, school busing to racially integrate public schools, prison reform, women’s equity and reproductive rights laws, the beginning of national public media, and other significant initiatives.
A generation later, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing widespread civil unrest in American communities, activists demanded a renewed and updated effort to educate Americans about current and historical injustices. The disproportionate incarceration and killing by police of the poor, particularly the descendants of enslaved Africans, was only one factor in calls for more education, more awareness, and a new awakening. Activists also pointed to the low pay and job insecurity of workers at hugely profitable companies; trillions of dollars spent on the military instead of local infrastructure, social services, and quality public education; and high rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual violence against women and children, homelessness, dropping out of school, and gun violence throughout America.
Each of these problems is related to race and inequity, as certain groups are negatively impacted more than others. Each of these problems has its own unique characteristics, yet each is part of the same American political, social, economic, and legal system. Within that system, two actions need not be identical for one of them to facilitate or support the other. One action can create political precedents and habits of thought that ease the way for new problems.
This is a primary insight of critical race theory and a main reason why it is being rediscovered in America in the 2020s. (1)
Mayors caught up in controversy
In recent years, urban mayors in the US have taken the lead in attempting to broaden the knowledge base regarding systemic racism and inequity. Following police killings of unarmed African-Americans in recent years, several American mayors created or expanded equity offices in their city governments. The city equity offices have different missions, but common goals include training city staff on racial issues, bias, and other forms of inequity, eliminating bias and inequity from city policies and practices, and advancing the discussion of race and inequity within the community.
Austin, Texas is emblematic of how the process of creating equity offices has unfolded in many American cities. In 2016, following a highly-publicized police killing of an unarmed Black man, Austin Mayor Steve Adler formed the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities. In 2017, the task force issued a report addressing Austin’s history of racism and providing over 200 recommendations for improvement. In 2018, the City of Austin’s Office of Equity was established. The goal of the office, according to Mayor Adler, is to “create an institution solely committed to reversing structural racism with the authority to advocate within the local government for more equitable policies.”
Currently, more than 30 US cities have formal equity offices, and many others have staff dedicated to advancing equity in city policies and services.
Former president Donald Trump ignited a national controversy over critical race theory and anti-racist and anti-sexist education in general. In August 2020, following months of social media attacks on urban mayors by the former president over their handling of civil rights demonstrations, the Trump administration’s Justice Department opened an investigation into whether the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative training for city employees violated federal civil rights law, “a stunning illustration of the administration’s warped priorities,” according to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “In the midst of a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism and police violence, the administration is considering suing the City of Seattle for a training we provide that specifically seeks to combat racism and advance equity.”
In September 2020, Trump issued an executive order banning federal agencies, government contractors and subcontractors, and recipients of federal grants, including universities and nonprofit organizations, from conducting any education, programming, or conversations that directly address systemic racism in America. Trump called critical race theory and similar academic concepts “propaganda” and “distorted” views of American history.
Several cities pushed forward in spite of the controversy. One of the mayors targeted for criticism on social media by former president Trump was Mayor Lovely Warren of Rochester, New York. In June 2020, Mayor Warren and the Monroe County Executive commissioned a study of local laws and policies regarding policing, housing, health care, employment, education, and social services that either promote or are intended to eliminate institutional and structural biases, racism, and inequities in the community.
The study, which was co-chaired by former Mayor William A. Johnson, Jr. and uses a critical race theory framework, was completed in March 2021 and recommends enhancements to local laws to increase their effectiveness, laws which should be eliminated, and new laws or policies to close identified equity gaps.
In January 2021, President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s diversity training restrictions and proposed that the US Department of Education fund curriculum in public primary and secondary schools about racial bias and discriminatory policies in America.
In response, Republicans in Congress and several state legislatures proposed bills to bar public schools from teaching such concepts as white privilege and racial equity. Like Trump’s executive order, the legislation often uses the term “critical race theory” to prohibit just about any anti-racist and anti-sexist education.
Mayors are not immune to the controversy, which rears its head in different ways.
In response to ongoing community debate, Mayor Andrew Hosmer of Laconia, New Hampshire (population 16,000), a registered Democrat, was directed by City Council to report whether city public schools taught critical race theory. Mayor Hosmer reported to the Council that Laconia schools do not teach critical race theory, which satisfied opponents of the theory but disappointed supporters.
Mayor G.T. Bynum of Tulsa, Oklahoma (population 400,000), a Republican, stated, “I don’t support the teaching of critical race theory in schools,” calling it “divisive”. Mayor Bynum made his pronouncement on the eve of the centennial commemoration of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the single worst white supremacist atrocities against Blacks in American history. Mayor Bynum’s comments baffled many in the community, given the Mayor’s previous acknowledgments of persistent racial disparities in Tulsa and the role of the city’s history in creating these disparities.
Mayor Linda Gorton of Lexington, Kentucky (population 320,000), a registered Republican, was criticized by residents for proposing to divert funds from a city program that helps low-income individuals pay their rent to training on systemic racism for city employees. Critics were not opposed to the content of the training itself, but the diversion of city funds from “poor people to train rich white people,” in the words of one community activist.
Engaging with simple truths
In speaking about the importance of addressing systemic racism, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, says, “Don’t be afraid of this. Dealing with this subject is not an indictment of people’s character or the goodness of mankind, it is simply recognizing pretty simple truths, and it begins with being brave enough to actually engage in an honest conversation, to be willing to share personal experiences and where you come from individually.”
One of the simple truths, implicit in the need for city equity offices, critical race theory, and many anti-racist programs, is that neither past discriminatory laws nor the historical trauma of slavery and genocide simply disappear with time, certainly not when the conditions of life and consciousness perpetuate them. Rather, the trauma affects the assumptions and behaviors of current generations, what we believe and how we act, and thus the need for honest conversation.
Honest conversation about where you come from individually, that is, your reasons for believing what you believe, ultimately involves coming to terms with the past. Honest conversation about systemic racism is not an indictment of any specific person’s character, as Mayor Adler notes, since living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did. Yet, we are responsible for the society we live in, which is a product of that past. Realizing this means acknowledging responsibility, and assuming this responsibility can provide a means of change. As Derrick Bell, one of the founders of critical race theory, wrote, “Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.”
A new reality requires
education and discussion
After the fall of Nazi Germany, its leaders were publicly ostracized, tried, convicted, and executed for war crimes. Nazi society members affirmed that the Holocaust occurred, and some were forced to visit concentration camps only feet from their place of residence. The Nuremberg Trials revealed not only the horrors of Nazism but also more than a century of persecution of Jews in Europe that preceded the Holocaust. Under truth and reconciliation, German society began to rebuild itself, and the world was made aware. An enlightened, or “woke”, world led to the Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Germany and numerous other countries adopted Holocaust-denial laws. This is how German society moved from one reality to another, transforming the world’s understanding as it moved. (2)
A formal and official truth and reconciliation process is probably not realistic for the US, but widespread education and discussion about the current and historical forces that shape people’s lives are feasible. The City of New Orleans, Louisiana, for example, conducted community dialogues and launched 22 Racial Reconciliation projects over three years. “If you scratch just below the surface like we did,” said former New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu who led the effort, “there is hidden from view a very deep cut that goes to the very heart of our nation. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place.”
For a new reality of inclusiveness and equity to be realized in America, it will require extensive educational programs and discussions of systemic injustice. Critical race theory is a way to help people identify and critique the causes of inequity in their own lives, understand shifting power relationships, create spaces for people to feel safe, and create a consensus for the government’s role in eliminating inequities. “It’s about changing our national debate and, ultimately, changing policies,” says New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
(1) The discussion of racism in this section borrows from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s excellent An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press 2014), especially pages 229-230.
(2) This paragraph paraphrases a quote by Leo Killsback in Dunbar-Ortiz, op. cit., pages 204-205.
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