White People Have Noting to Fear About Critical Race Theory

by on February 22, 2022 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Education, Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Joni Halpern

Today there is a raging controversy, especially on the part of White Americans, about “critical race theory.”  There seems to be a belief commonly held among White Americans that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 schools, or that teachers who might have learned about it in the course of their academic education are going to use it to make White children feel guilty about their race and culture.

People who believe this do not know what critical race theory is.  They are wrapped in rage without understanding the theory.  In the process, they are making school boards and teachers afraid to engage in any legitimate teaching about the racial history of this country.  The unfortunate truth is, most people who oppose critical race theory don’t even know what it is or how it came about.

To begin with, critical race theory is NOT taught in K-12 schools.  It arose from academic discourse among scholars in law and other disciplines who were examining how racial power operates to exclude people of color even when laws are neutral on their face.  It is a theoretical lens that allows scholars to question the institutional systems with which we all interact to discover how they exclude people of color.

As Prof. Roy Brooks of the University of San Diego School of Law recently explained in a public presentation on the subject, critical race theory is unconcerned with motives behind exclusionary policies, practices and protocols, even if those motives are benign.  What matters is that real human beings – people of color – are hurt by our failure to identify these sources of exclusion and do something about them.

Yet many of us White Americans are reluctant to explore this failure, whether through the lens of critical race theory or any other theory.  We feel uncomfortable, and sometimes resentful, as if we are being portrayed as the “bad guys,” when most of us feel we have not engaged in, or supported, acts of racial injustice.

In recent years, we have seen horrible events of racial animosity unfold.  We have been confronted with greater detail about the agonizing array of injury that Black Americans and other people of color have suffered throughout our history.  It has been hard for us to absorb this knowledge – which comes to us so long after many of us thought racism was receding into the archives of history.

But this is the precise moment when we are most susceptible to reasoned change – when we feel the pain of having been unaware, uninformed, and even unconcerned about the harm our countrymen of color have been suffering.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s called attention to the legal segregation of Black Americans that persisted long after slavery was abolished, long after passage of the 14th Amendment guarantee of Equal Protection and the 15th Amendment guarantee of voting rights.

The Movement gave White Americans a clear view of how deeply race hatred penetrated our country.  The images we saw on TV and in print revealed a level of racial animus that broke all values of civil society.  It also forced White Americans to acknowledge that racial prejudice was not confined to the South.  It was everywhere in our country – in the segregated neighborhoods of our cities; in the dead-end, underpaid jobs to which Black Americans were relegated; in their dismal employment prospects; in their crushing poverty; and in the policing, prosecution and imprisonment of Black Americans at a rate greatly disproportionate to their representation in the overall population.

Most White Americans who watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold did not regard ourselves as race-haters.  Yet we were confronted with the morally uncomfortable accusation that we had settled into the fullness of our rights as American citizens without any real concern that nearly all our Black countrymen lived in a category of exception in which there was no injury too heinous to impose upon them, and no recourse for any wrong done to them.

Perhaps we found this hard to bear.  What were we supposed to do about it?  How could we absorb the anger we witnessed as the scab of racial injustice was ripped away from the skin of Black Americans, and we finally heard them scream in pain and anger?

Many of us who witnessed the Civil Rights Movement instinctively understood that doing something about racial injustice would involve change for White Americans.  We would have to make room for Black people.  The U.S. Supreme Court and Congress already had begun opening doors in places where we were not accustomed to seeing people of color.  Racially restrictive covenants in property deeds were struck down.  So was segregation in public schools.  Denial of access based on race was made illegal in employment, public accommodations, recreational facilities, and government benefits.

Many White Americans were unnerved by all this change.  Most of us understood the need to move away from laws purposely written to exclude on the basis of race.  But what came after that?

In the 1990s, shrewd politicians cultivated an additional worry – that one day, minorities could grow so numerous they could become the majority and overwhelm White America.  What would happen if we became a minority of the population?  Would the new majority be so angry they would be blind to our humanity?

As time went on in the post-Civil Rights era, it seemed there was no place where White and Black Americans could speak safely about our fears, how to navigate our relationships, how to replace our mutual distrust with greater understanding.  So we all just went on, most White Americans thinking the problem had reached a stable state of race-neutrality, Black Americans thinking this can’t be all there is, because we’re still suffering in the same terrible ways.

But some scholars among Black Americans and other people of color kept developing the case that race-neutral laws alone were not enough to overcome racial injustice.  There were other ways racial power operated to exclude, even where motivations were benign.  There were unseen barriers operating under the guise of merit.

In 1982 at Harvard Law School, where only one Black professor had been hired by that time, Black students made the case for hiring more.  Students argued they needed the perspective of accomplished lawyers of color who understood what it meant to practice law in a society afflicted by racial injustice.

The Harvard Law School Dean, a White man, claimed he couldn’t find qualified Black candidates at that time.  Faculty candidates needed a degree from one of a handful of acceptable elite law schools, service on the Law Review, and clerkship for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.  The students argued those requirements were not the only legitimate measures of what a faculty member could contribute to the students or the school.

There were plenty of White lawyers in the pool of faculty candidates.  But think of what a typical journey from childhood to that pool might have entailed even for a White person:

Good public or private schools, plenty of security in youth so a student could do their best in school, ancillary support that allowed them to round out their youthful resumes for acceptance at an elite undergraduate school, money to take the prep courses for entrance exams to undergraduate and law school, references from members of the community who had already achieved notable standing, and finally, acceptance to an elite law school.

In law school, the typical successful student would not be working a job or scrambling around for money while serving on the Law Review and maintaining excellent grades.  The student would focus on meeting expectations, earning the merit badges necessary to distinguish an application for a Supreme Court clerkship.  A journey like that was long and arduous, and one in which nothing must go wrong.

Not every White person could make that journey, but the 60:1 ratio of Whites to Blacks on the Harvard Law School faculty back then suggested it was much more possible for Whites than for people of color.

And yet, Harvard’s measure was race-neutral — the same for everyone.    How could it imply the misuse of racial power?

In the post-Civil Rights era, many White Americans believed race-neutral laws pretty much gave access to anyone who could prove merit.  Sure, there were instances of individual racism in institutions.  But American society had confronted its demons and tamed them.

In fact, by the 1980s and early 1990s, many White Americans felt that as taxpayers and fellow citizens, they had done about as much as they could for Black Americans.  It was time for Black Americans – and anyone else who claimed they needed help – to do for themselves.  “Personal responsibility” became the byword of the new conservatives.  “Everybody who wants to get somewhere in life has to pay their dues.”

On the surface, these aphorisms captured American values around which there actually was a great deal of consensus by people of all races:  hard work, self-reliance, sacrifice, tenacity – those values are as American as apple pie.  They support the myth that anyone can make it in America as long as they work hard and “play by the rules.”

We tend to think of merit as something everyone can earn to get ahead in life.  Thus, with encouragement from political leaders, many White Americans came to view Black Americans as perhaps missing some critical elements of character.  Black people who resided in poverty or prison after 100-plus years of emancipation might actually be more inclined to crime and less inclined to honest work, more inclined to welfare and less inclined to self-sufficiency, more inclined to instant gratification and less inclined to long-term goals that demanded tenacity and endurance.

Of course, there were exceptions – people of color whose individual physical or mental capacity was so apparent and outstanding they could not be denied.  They were proof that race-neutral laws and policies reward everyone who deserves it, regardless of immutable characteristics like race.

But scholars still contended there were plenty of examples of Black Americans who had exhausted themselves in lifelong labors that took them nowhere.  There were others who had gained partial entrance but were cut off from advancement or deferred to lesser paths, for reasons having nothing to do with individual tenacity or capability.

If everything was so fair and devoid of racial considerations, why was it that Black Americans were still under-represented in so many areas of American life where positive outcomes are possible, and so over-represented in areas where negative outcomes are common?

What were the obstacles?  How did they operate?  Were the country’s institutions constructed on foundations that were acceptable to a dominant culture, but exclusionary for an oppressed people?

Critical race theory is one of several methods of inquiry designed to address these kinds of questions.

Like all theories, even the most sacredly religious ones, critical race theory has some adherents who embrace extremes.  But at its heart, it is a theory that questions the hidden sources of exclusion that White Americans may not see in our institutions, because we have never been victimized by them.

Critical race theory asks how the residue of our cultural advantage moves the fulcrum against Black Americans and other people of color.

Today, many White Americans correctly sense that their struggle to remain in the sunshine of the American Dream is getting harder.  But it is not because we are competing with Black Americans.  We have not properly identified the reasons.

For example, we hear terms like “income inequality” without understanding that they describe an increased likelihood that any common life event –  like illness, disability, divorce, loss of a job, reduction of work hours – any life event that stresses our financial lifelines — can force us downward from any point in the middle class, with much less chance of regaining our former economic position.

The buffers that used to protect White middle class Americans have diminished.  We are now spending our income, savings, equity, and assets to help our children and grandchildren stay afloat in a chaotic and unpredictable global economy.  At the urging of corrosive leaders, we have been encouraged to blame others for this reality.

But despite our fears and discomfort, our arguments and failures, most White Americans have been willing to concede that racial injustice still exists, and it is a moral imperative that we address it.  How we address it, how much discomfort we can bear as we come to terms with it, how it will affect us – these are the questions that naturally arise from our efforts.  But the important question is:  Are we willing to let the inquiry proceed?

Race neutral laws and policies that came about because of the Civil Rights Movement have been a great step forward.  But as John F. Kennedy said in 1963, after sending troops to ensure the safety of two Black students admitted to the University of Alabama, “Law alone cannot make men see right.”


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