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The real reason people fear critical race theory

September 14, 2021, 4:48 PM UTC

Critical race theory helped produce one of the greatest cohorts of Black leaders in the modern era. Maybe that’s why everyone is so afraid of it?

Critical race theory (C.R.T.) is an academic field of legal scholarship that explores how racism functions within large institutions. It is taught in law schools. It decries liberal notions of “colorblindness” in laws and policies, and seeks to prove that they can have inadvertently racist outcomes. It uses concepts like “intersectionality” of identities — race, gender, disability, LBGTQ, class — to explore how power dynamics play out in society. It’s complex stuff.

But now, thanks in large part to a concerted effort from Republican lawmakers, it’s become a battle cry, equal parts familiar and bizarre. 

The current wave of race curriculum anxiety is investigated in wrenching detail in Southlake, a new must-listen podcast from NBC news. The details are specific, but the story is now increasingly universal. In 2018, a video of high school students chanting the N-word rocked a once proudly civic minded and inclusive community. In a laudable attempt to understand the context behind the video, the school board hosted a public meeting to hear from parents and students on the issue of race and microaggressions. As Black residents stepped forward to share stories of racist harassment, their testimonies affirmed a need for some sort of action. The school board attempted to address the issue with a “Five-Year Cultural Competence Action Plan“— a nominally aggressive set of ideas to raise cultural awareness within existing anti-bullying campaigns, be more responsive to “diverse student populations,” add more cultural topics to programming and curriculum, and increase diversity training for staff.
Instead of making things better, the board’s plan to help their school district match the community’s idyllic reputation for inclusiveness devolved into a community-wide critical race theory screaming match, and fodder for a future award-winning podcast.

I first heard of critical race theory by way of introduction to the work of one of its many original scholars

Derrick Bell was a civil rights attorney-turned-academic and the first tenured African-American professor of law at Harvard Law School. But his contribution to the theory that is making white suburban mothers wild with anger started as a mature reflection on the efficacy of his civil rights work. 

At some point he realized that, well, nothing he was doing seemed to be helping.

“He drew an unsettling conclusion: racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it,” says Jelani Cobb in this short, but essential piece about Bell and the backlash to C.R.T. “Racism, he began to argue, is permanent. His ideas proved foundational to a body of thought that, in the nineteen-eighties, came to be known as critical race theory. After more than a quarter of a century, there is an extensive academic field of literature cataloguing C.R.T.’s insights into the contradictions of antidiscrimination law and the complexities of legal advocacy for social justice.”

I first learned of Bell during a 2018 conversation with and tribute to former American Express CEO Ken Chenault. The program, produced by The HistoryMakers, included rich biographical details that proved foundational to Chenault’s later success. But what really got my attention was how many future Black executives were shaped by Harvard Law School during the 1970s, and by Derrick Bell, specifically.

In addition to Chenault (Harvard Law class of ’76), there was John Payton, the future head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Charles Ogletree, who went on to produce ground breaking work as an author,  Harvard  professor, and as the Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice; Franklin Raines, the future CEO of Fannie Mae; Kurt Schmoke, a future mayor of Baltimore, Md; and Ken Frazier, the future CEO of Merck. For starters.

I bought Bell’s textbook immediately. (You will see it behind me if we’re ever in a Zoom call together.)

So, while we fret at the political machinery that has turned a conversation about what we teach children about our shared history into an ugly proof point for Bell’s own conclusions, it’s worth thinking about the seeds that Bell planted in the young minds that would go on to apply their understanding of systems into a world misshapen by race and inequity.

“Derrick Bell actually helped us think that lawyers had a special responsibility,” says Frazier in The HistoryMakers video. And when he spied Bell’s imposing red textbook behind me in a recent conversation we had about his post-Merck commitment to hire and train a million Black workers in ten years, he smiled. Seeds grow into plants that make more seeds. “I think about Professor Bell almost every day,” he said.

And if we’re lucky, we will too.

Ellen McGirt

On Point

A new education initiative aimed at Hispanic students  The White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics aims to address “systemic barriers” faced by students throughout their academic careers, including racial disparities in education financing. The initiative will be chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and will feature an interagency task force consisting of representatives of 24 agencies or departments. From the executive order establishing the initiative: “We must enable Hispanic and Latino students to reach their highest potential through our Nation’s schools and institutions of higher education. The Federal Government must also collaborate with Hispanic and Latino communities to ensure their long-term success.”

Adobe announces major grant to HBCUs It’s a nice bit of news as the post-George Floyd donations have begun to taper off. Today, Adobe announced partnerships with two HBCUs—Bowie State University and Winston-Salem State University—and one Hispanic-focused institution, San José State University. The occasion was the company’s Adobe For All week. Each school will receive $1 million each. The company also announced a series of scholarships for students of color, regardless of their school of choice. “It’s a deep, focused partnership and it really allows us to expose students to careers within the tech industry,” Brian Miller, Adobe’s chief talent, diversity and inclusion officer, tells Fortune.

A newcomer quietly wows at the Met Gala Though we can all breathe a sigh of relief that Rihanna finally showed up, the first post-quarantine Met Gala came and went with only a few fashion tragedies. But Indigenous model Quannah Chasinghorse was reason to celebrate. Chasinghorse’s ancestry is Hän Gwich’in (from Alaska and Canada) and Oglala Lakota (from South Dakota) and has already made an impression on the fashion world. Discovered in a 2020 casting call for a get-out-the-vote campaign hosted by Calvin Klein, she’s quickly bringing her own vision to the industry. “I was obsessed with watching runway shows on television—Dior, Chanel, Prada—and I was always posing for pictures,” she says, but because of this lack of representation, “it was really hard for me to feel like I had the potential to be a model.”


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

The history of fashion has an overlooked chapter  In this fascinating piece by historian Jonathan Michael Square, he raises interesting questions about how enslaved people saw themselves. They didn’t just pick the cotton, they also had a point of view about how they wanted to look. “The experiences of enslaved people were not always deemed important enough to record for posterity, and the glimpses that have been preserved are often distorted by interventions of enslavers,” he writes, looking to early art and photography for clues. “Sometimes, the only information about enslaved people can be gleaned from photographs: a sly smile, the cock of a hat with panache, dapper suiting styled with individual flair.” Bonus: Check out his humanities project, “Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom.”

What it really means to be an elite high school P. L. Thomas, an education professor from Furman University and former high school English teacher, takes on the inherent class and racial bias behind the designations of “elite public schools.” His object lesson is South Carolina, a state which ranks in the bottom ten of high poverty states and a high Black and Latinx population. An article in the local press explaining “what it takes” to be a high-performing school in the state triggered this pointed critique. “Across the U.S., there are some harsh facts about measurable student outcomes and demographics of students being served,” he writes. “Race, poverty, first language and special needs chiefly among them.” Therefore, these rankings and labels such as “elite” are gross misrepresentations of school quality, he says. And then, this: “Imagine if we had some hospitals that admitted only well patients and then ranked those against the hospitals serving curably sick patients as well as hospitals only admitting the terminally ill.”
Radical Scholarship



RaceAhead-Quannah Chasinghorse
Serving looks, tradition, history, anti-colonialism, style, confidence, modernism—all in one. Quannah Chasinghorse attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City.
Arturo Holmes—MG21/Getty Images

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