As I wrote in Part 1 and Part 2: In recent months, Republican fascists have launched a nationwide assault on the right of students to learn the true history of this country, whipping their “base” into a frenzy to stop schools from teaching “critical race theory” (CRT)—a catch-all buzzword for any discussion of the actual history and reality of systemic racism against Black people and other people of color. In line with their flagrant disregard for the truth about elections, history, vaccines, and just about everything, most of the Republican fascists attacking CRT don’t even know or care what it is. Others consciously distort it and lie about it.
The truth is, the theoretical framework pioneered in the 1970s and ’80s by law professor Derrick Bell which eventually developed into critical race theory, was an insightful critique of how civil rights law was insufficient to address racial inequality and oppression. Here I am going to briefly sketch out the real problems CRT is addressing, the important truths it confronts about racial oppression in America, and at the same time why it is not scientific about the fundamental problem or the actual solution, and ultimately won’t be able to stand up to this fascist assault.
The Essential Problem That Derrick Bell Addressed
Bell analyzed how civil rights laws targeting overt Jim Crow racial discrimination failed to address the many ways racism and white supremacy manifest in this society, and how the law has continued to reinforce racial hierarchy even when it appears to be equal and “race neutral.”1 This is a profound truth, and something which is explored at great length in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. From the conscious policies of the ruling class like the “war on drugs” (which was a way to target and control Black people, while appearing not to), to the structure of the laws themselves (like the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity), to the unequal impact of the laws in a society divided into haves and have nots, to the selective enforcement of the laws by racist police, to the unequal access to a fair trial and juries who are conditioned by the media and culture to view Black people as criminals… the end result is a whole section of people locked up, and millions of lives destroyed.
Bell’s critique of the limitations of civil rights was a direct ideological challenge to “liberalism,” to the idea that the ending of overt legal discrimination was leading to a post-racial society, and the notion of a moral arc bending toward progress, and that racism was now just a matter of individual prejudiced people and isolated incidents. In fact, Bell pointed out, in many ways this framework of “colorblindness” has actually made things worse. It masks the ways in which law and institutions continue to perpetuate white supremacy in new forms, and ends up blaming Black people for their own oppression.
Racial Oppression CAN Be Ended, but Not Under This System
Pulling the lens back, Bell looked at the scope of U.S. history and how progress for Black people has always been limited, temporary, and repeatedly reversed—from the violent betrayal of Reconstruction to the vicious counterattacks on affirmative action in the late 1970s and ’80s (Bell did not live to see the all-out fascism we are seeing now from the Republicans and their rabid MAGA base). He looked at the persistent tendency of most white people to grab hold of the benefits they get from the system of white supremacy, rather than uniting with Black people in a common struggle. And he concluded that racial oppression is not an aberration, not a flaw that would be corrected if only America could be pushed to live up to its promise, but “an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society.”
Yes, the history of this country is one of unrelenting horror for Black people, where hopes and dreams have been repeatedly dashed and victories snatched back with a vengeance—where most white people have been the active perpetrators, or passive spectators to this horror, most of the time.2 But within this horror there is the potential for something radically different, IF you take a scientific approach to analyzing the capitalist-imperialist system we are up against, and the possible pathways for revolutionary change that lie within it. The problem with Bell’s “realism” is that it’s a realism trapped within the narrow horizons of this system, that neither gets to taproots of this oppression, nor offers a real solution.
The essential reason civil rights have not brought about fundamental “progress” is because this capitalist-imperialist system is still in place. As Bob Avakian put it in his speech, Why We Need an Actual Revolution and How We Can Really Make Revolution:
Certain government concessions to the fight against injustice—for example, civil rights legislation; DACA, which granted temporary legal status to some immigrants brought here as children; court decisions establishing the right to abortion and gay marriage—were hard-fought victories, but the problem is that they are, and can only be, partial victories, dealing with only some aspects of oppression under this system, but not eliminating the oppression as a whole, or the source of this oppression—which is the system itself. And even where such partial victories are won, so long as this system remains in power, there will be powerful forces who will move to attack and undermine, and seek to reverse, even these partial gains.
For a full discussion of how white supremacy was poured into the foundation and social fabric of this country, how segregation and discrimination has been reinforced by conscious policy of the ruling class and by the basic functioning of the capitalist economy, and why really moving to overcome this would tear this country apart, read this and watch this.
While Derrick Bell and others in the field of Critical Race Theory point to the connection between white supremacy and capitalism, they do not take the next logical step: that you can't eliminate one without eliminating the other. They don’t dig deep enough into the roots of this oppression, and therefore they can only see how to ameliorate this oppression, but not end it.
Harmful Anti-scientific Currents Within Critical Race Theory
Within the broad category of what is now considered “critical race theory” there have emerged some very harmful approaches which lead people further away from a correct understanding of problem/solution and undercut the necessary search for the truth and the fight that must be waged, including against the fascist forces now attacking CRT. These approaches would be damaging at any time—but they are significantly worse at a time when the question of “race” that has been so central to American society will be resolved, to paraphrase Bob Avakian, either in a very reactionary and potentially genocidal way… OR, a revolutionary and emancipating way.
- The idea that people of color have a special grasp and authority to speak about issues of race and racism that others don’t have, including its root causes and solution.
- The idea that the way to challenge the dominant white supremacist “narrative” is with “counter-narratives” from people of color.
It’s one thing to recognize that people of color experience racism, that these experiences should be listened to, and that these experiences can be an important part of deepening the overall understanding of the effects of this evil and how to go to work on it. It is another thing entirely to think that simply being a person of color automatically gives you an understanding of the systemic cause and solution to racism, and that white people cannot arrive at this understanding. The absurdity of this theory is proven every day by people like Larry Elder and Candace Owens.
Racial oppression in America is systemic and objective. It is not just a collection of experiences. And it is not a matter of opinion. If the reality of racism gets reduced to a subjective narrative, how can that stand up to a narrative with more power behind it? It cannot. At a time when Republican fascist forces are aggressively moving to impose a white supremacist whitewash of historical truth, backed by law and the mob, we have to stand on and fight for the truth.
Stop the Attacks on Critical Race Theory!
On one level the fascists attacking CRT are going after a fictional version of it. On the other hand, the things these fascists want to ban from being taught are actually core tenets of CRT: the idea that racial oppression is foundational and integral to this country, not aberrational; the idea that racism is institutional, and not just a matter of a few racist white people; the necessity for a race-conscious approach, rather than a “colorblind” approach, to overcoming this oppression. All of this is anathema to these fascists and an obstacle to the “patriotic” lies they want to brainwash people with, and the false-victimhood they want to claim while they perpetrate even worse oppression and atrocities against people of color.
Even with its limitations and anti-scientific currents, CRT offers important insights into the reality of racial oppression, and as such it is a valid undertaking and should be taught. It should certainly NOT be demonized and banned.
Stay tuned for Part 4: What Is Needed to Defeat the Fascist Offensive In Education, as Part of Ending Racial Oppression and Emancipating Humanity