We need to talk about critical race theory

June 23, 2021, 6:23 PM UTC

Here’s the new math of the modern age: Disinformation + ignorance = Chaos.

I’m talking about the current “debate” around critical race theory, a non-controversial, forty-year-old academic concept that posits that racism is a social construct — and not an issue of personal prejudice — and explores where racist ideas are embedded in legal systems and public policies.

Not if, where.  

This would include things that we’ve explored often in raceAhead, like persistent disparate health outcomes by race, persistent discriminatory lending practices once codified by law, persistent bias in policing and sentencing, persistent disparate outcomes in public education. 

There is now an enormous body of serious scholarship attached to critical race theory, and some vital social science offshoots. But I would be remiss if I did not highlight three key legal figures who are foundational to this work. One is Kimberlé Crenshaw, the  lawyer, civil rights advocate and researcher who created the term “intersectionality.” The second is Richard Delgado, a lawyer and professor whose published work on race and justice has earned him eight national book prizes and a Pulitzer nomination. (He is also the eighth most-cited legal scholar in history.) And the third is Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell, whose groundbreaking scholarship may have produced some of the most dedicated and inclusive Black executives in history. (More on this in a future update.)

Lately, critics have worked themselves into a frenzy, some in an attempt to willfully mislead people by purporting that crt is Marxist. (No.) That it’s a form of identity politics that encourages people to see themselves as victims. (No.) That it seeks to address racial equity imbalances that are embedded in policy and the law. (Yes, that was a trick one.)

Despite the fact that crt is primarily taught at the college and graduate school level, it has now become a political wedge issue and a mid-term election hot button, ripe for hysteria and bad behavior.

Ignorance comes with a cost.

Which is how we get scenes like these in Loudon County, VaLouisville, Ky, and Fort Worth, Tx, now set to play out all over the country. Now, “parents” — accompanied by well-organized activists — are shutting down civic gatherings, waving incoherent signs in what appears to be a full-on race panic. Some fifteen states have introduced or passed legislation that limits the way teachers can discuss race, history, and policy in the classroom. Idaho’s governor signed an education bill this spring that banned critical race theory by name.

If it is too uncomfortable to talk about our own legal and legislative history, then let’s try the math another way.

A typical Black college student graduating this spring holds an average of $52,000 in student loan debt, some $25,000 more than their white peers. Their white counterparts were raised in families that likely held twelve times the wealth of their own. And even if they were lucky enough to live in home of their own, their proud parents were likely to be just the latest generation who had been relegated to sub-standard, low-equity communities, thanks to federal housing policies that had been enforced throughout the twentieth century.

Here’s the new, new math: What are the prospects for this promising young person, overburdened by debt, underserved by the health care system, overcharged by credit markets, and underestimated by society?

Crt deniers are asking us to ask this young person to bootstrap their way out of the public policies and practices that were designed to favor one race over another for generations. It is not racism to point this out. And as uncomfortable as it may be to consider, crt isn’t about what is in your personal heart. It is, or at least can be, the basis of a productive series of conversations designed to make life easier and more fair for people.

So, what is keeping us from having these productive conversations?

Ellen McGirt

On point

Segregation was a design victory Mark Lopez, an award-winning director of motion design films, has created an outstanding animated short based on The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, an award-winning book by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is not new to this conversation; he is a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, a senior fellow emeritus at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a senior fellow of the Haas Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. The film explores in an easy-to-understand way how explicit federal, state, and local policies intentionally segregated metropolitan communities across the country throughout the 20th century. His argument that these provisions were unconstitutional and must be remedied makes sense, but so does the moral argument that hangs in the air: The conditions that made Ferguson’s Michael Brown’s short life so tragic were preventable.
Segregated By Design film

Low-income housing programs are keeping cities segregated This analysis from The New York Times has found that in the country’s largest urban areas, low-income housing projects that rely on federal credits are disproportionately being used to build in majority non-white communities. “What this means, fair-housing advocates say, is that the government is essentially helping to maintain entrenched racial divides, even though federal law requires government agencies to promote integration.” People from more affluent communities, with better schools, services, and amenities, tend to turn out in droves to turn away low-income projects proposed in their zip codes. In one protest letter aiming to stop an affordable home initiative in a more upscale section of Houston, one resident wrote to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that the approval affordable units would draw an “unwelcome resident who, due to poverty and lack of education, will bring the threat of crime, drugs and prostitution to the neighborhood.”
New York Times

Redlining needs to be addressed Redlining, the practice of lenders to deny certain communities access to affordable capital based on race, is still very much a thing. This story explores the 2015 HUD settlement with Wisconsin’s largest bank for discrimination against Black and Hispanic mortgage borrowers in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota from 2008 to 2010. They were people who were exactly as credit-worthy as white borrowers on the other side of the red line. But the story is a reminder that historic redlining, which began in the 1930s, is an integral part of the American experience for many people. “If your family was denied a mortgage in the 1930s, or the 1950s, or the 1970s, then you may not have the family wealth or down payment help to become a homeowner today.”
Washington Post

Turns out the office didn’t work out all that well for Black employees before the pandemic I’m flagging this data from Future Forum, and this helpful blog post about its findings, as employers struggle to find a workable back-to-work formula. According to Future Forum’s Remote Employee Experience Index, most knowledge workers prefer an at-home or hybrid working model, but the already underrepresented Black knowledge workers are the clear outliers. A full 97% prefer some form remote work going forward. The findings show that during the pandemic Black workers reports of feelings of belonging doubled, along with a 64% boost in managing stress and improved work/life balance. More from the survey: Only 53% of Black knowledge workers agree that they are “treated fairly at work” vs. 74% of white workers.
Future Forum

When groups are more diverse, people are less likely to “go along with the crowd” It’s bigger than just group-think, or letting the one bad idea to come out of a meeting get a budget and a timeline attached to it. While the original research isn’t new, it feels more vital in the modern age – individuals within a group tend to “agree” with the majority position, even when the conclusion is clearly wrong. But this version of the research found that racially diverse groups reduced homogeneity, specifically, “white participants in racially diverse groups were significantly less likely to conform to a clearly inferior decision compared to white participants in all-white groups.”



This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

Today's Mood board

RaceAhead-Sha'Carri Richardson
21-Year-Old Sha'Carri Richardson — Black excellence at an Olympic level. Talk about a Big Mood.
Patrick Smith—Getty Images

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