Who's Afraid of Critical Race Theory?News at Home
tags: civil rights, legal history, critical race theory, Derrick Bell
Harvard Law Student Barack Obama with Prof. Derrick Bell in 1991, during HLS student protests demanding more faculty diversity at the school.
In 2012, as Barack Obama ran for reelection, the right-wing website Breitbart set out to examine his time at Harvard Law School. They were looking for a scandal. They found a tape of Obama, then a law student, speaking at a political rally. He praised one of his professors, the controversial African-American scholar Derrick Bell, and hugged him. Bell, it turned out, was a practitioner of something called Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic field far less controversial then than it is today. Guilt by association had been used against Obama before, most notably in regard to his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008, but this time the attempt fell flat. The media moved on, and CRT ceased to be of public interest for almost ten years.
Under examination by more than thirty states, CRT is now back in the spotlight. Then, as now, it is more controversial than radical. For thirty years, CRT has been a school of thought among a small, informal, group of professors, mostly in law. These writers examine disparate topics, but all view the law through the prism of America’s fractured race relations. A Columbia University law professor, Kimberle Crenshaw, coined the term. For her, CRT was “a way of seeing… the ways that our history has created these [racial] inequalities that now can almost effortlessly be reproduced unless we attend to their existence.” Examining how our history created racial inequalities remains worthwhile, even if it makes some people uncomfortable.
CRT has been reinvented by Christopher Rufo, a right-wing activist and frequent guest on Fox News. He is proud of his fantasy vision of critical race theory: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory’.” Rufo brags about how conservatives having been able to “recodify” the term CRT, but he hasn’t recodified anything, just distorted the truth. CRT has become a dog whistle, designed to stir up white animus against people of color without using inflammatory language. The strategy is working for Rufo; thirty state legislatures are considering legislation regarding CRT, or have already done so.
CRT is an intellectual movement, yet critique of its intellectual project has lacked a key element: examination of the views of the professors involved in the movement. It is hard to summarize easily, because it is not a monolith. Nevertheless, to understand CRT it is worth starting with Derrick Bell, the professor who made the news for a day in 2012. If anyone could be described as a founder of CRT, it would be him. Bell began his career as a civil rights lawyer working for the Justice Department in the 1950s. In 1959, the Justice Department, convinced that his membership in the NAACP would compromise his objectivity, demanded he that resign his membership. He refused on principle, left the department, and began a new career as a law professor.
Bell’s academic career was built around a critique of mainstream Civil Rights discourse. In an early article, “Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation,” Harvard Law Review (1983). Bell drew on his formative experience as a lawyer who worked against long odds to win school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Litigators had few tools to deal with “massive resistance” to the decision in the 1950s. Private segregationist academies opened in much of the South, and in many places whites essentially opted out of public education. Even when courts ordered busing in large school districts such as Detroit and Boston, the sheer geographical size of the districts posed obstacles to providing integrated schools, as did white flight to the suburbs.
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