There is a certain narrative about racism that White America has long believed in. It would like us to believe it too.
According to that narrative, racism is something done by individuals — hateful, evil individuals. Acts of racism are tragic but rare. Slavery and segregation are things of the past, and through peaceful protests and activism, the civil rights movement helped accomplish equality in America. Today, Americans of all races and backgrounds have an equal shot at success as long as they work hard.
It makes sense why White America is so comfortable with this narrative. Most White Americans are distant from the realities faced by communities of color nationwide, and they rarely get to witness the disparity in infrastructure, wealth, education, safety, healthcare, and basic living standards between White families and most Black, Brown, and immigrant neighborhoods. The fact that racism is not always something done by individual bad people but a trend that has been deeply embedded in the institutions and systems that define America is a startling and uncomfortable idea to many. Any attempt to challenge systemic racism is seen as an attempt to challenge the foundations of America itself.
It also removes a sense of responsibility to combat racism. There is a common and completely misguided “mission accomplished” attitude when it comes to racial injustice, rooted in the belief that the civil rights movement and leaders like MLK had achieved true equality, that racism was to be taught in the past tense, and that any racist incidents in the modern day are rare, one-off events that individual bad people can be blamed for. This overlooks the racial disparities grounded in every sector of public life, from housing to criminal justice to access to education. White America can pat itself on the back for eliminating racism and celebrate leaders like MLK while ignoring one of his most central goals — the complete overhaul of a socio-economic system that preys on the Black, the Brown, the immigrants, and the poor while firmly guaranteeing power for those already at the top. It should come as no surprise that those at the top strongly tend to belong to the same racial demographic that has always hoarded American wealth and resources.
This gap in understanding racism between White America and communities that actually experience it is being made clear by the current efforts to ban “critical race theory” in schools nationwide. Conservatives have been shocked, outraged, and horrified by (what they wrongfully think is) attempts to teach critical race theory to children in public schools across America.
Critical race theory (CRT) is the antidote to everything White America misunderstands about racism. It is essentially an approach to education that acknowledges the profound role that race and racial injustice play in modern-day society. It does not see racism as a historical evil but as a socio-economic reality that continues to shape the lives of millions of Americans today. It does not see slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, or other racial injustices as just history lessons but as widespread policies and practices that have left an enduring, deeply felt legacy of division that still needs to be countered and confronted. It recognizes the ways racial subjugation has taken root in the most fundamental systems of society and how its continuing existence can be felt in the fields of education, healthcare, housing, employment, and the American experience itself. In the words of the American Bar Association, “CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
According to CRT, the most visible and talked-about acts of racism are not isolated, rare incidents. They represent much deeper, systemic issues that stem from centuries of injustice and destructive, divisive government policies. They are not exceptions — they are examples. CRT acknowledges that such racial division is literally encoded in law, established in societal structures, and embedded in public policy. America is neither “colorblind” nor meritocratic. It continues to operate fundamentally as a hierarchy, in which a complex web of social and economic realities constantly hinder the progress of communities of color and disadvantage Americans from a minority background. Any understanding of American society and any policymaking that aims to tackle this inequality must recognize that the playing field is not level for all. “Racism must be addressed not just by punishing individuals, but by shifting structures and policies”, in the words of the Texas Tribune, explaining a core concept of CRT.
CRT emerged in the 70s and 80s following the civil rights movement, studying how racial injustice persisted despite multiple landmark laws and new policies aimed at achieving greater equality and combating discrimination. This field examined how such laws, despite all they accomplished, failed to touch on the forms of systemic racism that shaped institutions, wealth distributions, and ways of life across America. In other words, the deep economic and social divisions resulting from slavery and segregation would require much more radical policies that challenged White America’s understanding of how racism truly operates.
Unsurprisingly, such a theory has provoked a backlash from Republicans and conservatives. In September 2020, then-President Trump issued an executive order banning federal funding for any diversity and inclusion programs that teach “divisive” concepts, including critical race theory. According to the American Bar Association, the African American Policy Forum launched the #TruthBeTold campaign to expose the harm that the order poses. Reports indicate that over 300 diversity and inclusion training have been canceled as a result of the order. And over 120 civil rights organizations and allies signed a letter condemning the executive order.
Numerous conservative leaders — unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly White — have criticized CRT, attempting to ban any teaching of it in schools. Also, unsurprisingly, it is clear very few of these people fighting against CRT have a genuine understanding of what it is. A current Senator from Texas called CRT racist, comparing it to the actual KKK. Parents in Maine campaigned furiously against a school that condemned White supremacy following the murder of George Floyd. The governor of Georgia signed a bill forbidding all public schools from teaching anything similar to CRT.
To these people, who represent exactly who I’m talking about when I say White America, the idea that racial injustice is alive in the United States and needs constant, radical action to solve, is a horrifying idea. They are comforted by their belief that racism is a thing of the past and that Americans of all backgrounds and races enjoy equality and peace in the modern-day. Any challenge to the structures and institutions responsible for present-day racial injustice seems like a challenge to America itself.