April 21 2024

Banning Critical Race Theory - Can They Stop a Rising Critical Popular Memory?

Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary

At least twenty-seven states are now moving to restrict education on racism, often with bans and rhetoric against critical race theory (CRT). This is largely a drive by conservative politicians to exploit widespread ignorance and denial about race and racism, and then to drive a politics of defamation of CRT that enhances the position and power of largely white and wealthy strata in the United States.

At the same time, though, there are eleven states now expanding their education programs on racism. I propose that it is helpful to consider the current anti-CRT moves as attempts to block a rising “critical popular memory” of America’s past, that might transform the nation’s present and future.

“Popular memory” was a term used by early CRT scholar Kendall Thomas in a 1995 book on the key writings of CRT. Prior to CRT, for decades within grassroots social movements, everyday people struggled against racism and poverty, as they always have and still do, and they did so working largely outside official legislative and university settings. When their children in the 1960s and onward began to enter higher education, they brought that popular memory with them. CRT is one valuable manifestation of the power of this public memory and its movements. It certainly is not perfect. CRT may be better at identifying what many term the “microaggressions” or embedded ideologies in social and legal structures than at tracking the more macro-assaults of white supremacy in US war and empire operations that other scholars, such as Kathleen Belew and Nikhil Pal Singh show as interacting with racism in US policing, prisons and paramilitary groups.

I have taught critical race theory for over fifteen years at Princeton Theological Seminary. I hesitate to jump into the fray of conversation about CRT only because the many explosions of political emotion today do not invite careful deliberation. Moreover, there have already been many helpful rejoinders, by Adam Harris in The Atlantic and Emma Pettit in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Gary Peller, one early critical race theorist, has offered his recent clarifying essay. All these supplement basic introductions to CRT that have been available for twenty years. But let me push back from the perspective of years of teaching CRT in a politically centrist, predominantly white institution in Princeton.

First, two stories that invite some clarifications about CRT, at least for those who care to know.

The first is a vignette of an encounter with a colleague. As a white scholar teaching students from all backgrounds about CRT (also about other theories of race), I often had students read the large number of works in Black theology and in theologies from other communities of color (Latinx, Asian American, Indigenous, Arab, and Mexican-American, too). In response to this, a white faculty colleague of some renown once remarked to me, “I don’t think theologies can be categorized by genetic groups.”

This betrayed ignorance of just one key tenet of CRT and of most careful thinking about “race.” When we are asked on census forms to identify our “race,” the options given us are not genetic categories. No DNA test can discern what the public often discusses as race. A test might show ancestry traced to certain regions of the earth where distinct peoples have lived and to whom we—usually colonizers—have given racial names. Complex histories then develop which assume and assign racial advantages and disadvantages to those groups—often to lethal effect when this race-making process marks some people for enslavement and colonization. Challenges to popular views of public race-talk as genetically-based have been offered by evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves and also by historian Barbara Fields and sociologist Karen Fields in their book, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in America. Their critique of genetic-based “races” is a staple of CRT.

My second story shows a different kind of ignorance, one from today’s politics. Note a recent statement by US Representative Glenn Grothman (R-Wisconsin) in defense of his bill, “Ending Critical Race Theory in DC Public Schools.” Overall Grothman faults CRT because it retells American history “to set American against American.” Supposedly the “CRT curriculum . . . teaches our children hate.” Then Grothman perversely twists the oft-quoted lines in Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Dream Speech” intoning, “students are being taught [by CRT] that they are defined by the color of their skin, not by the content of their character.”

Must we remind Grothman of the obvious? That many in CRT claim a shared legacy with King and his egalitarian ideals? One example is Harvard University Law Professor Derrick Bell, often designated CRT’s “founder.” Bell himself rightly questioned that designation. What is noteworthy here, though, is that he and other CRT scholars were all about challenging judgments of people based only on “the color of their skin.” CRT’s egalitarian intent is evident in Bell’s essay “A Holiday for Dr. King” in which he affirmed King’s call for a comprehensive “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait (1964). Bell insisted that the “bill’s benefits should not go to blacks alone, because poor whites, too, were the derivative victims of slavery.” This historical claim about the toll slavery took also on poor whites is substantiated by numerous analysts, from W. E. B. Du Bois to historians who inform CRT today. 

No surprise here: CRT’s critics show ignorance of CRT core tenets and overlook its defining ideals. So, how might we state what CRT is?

Can We Say What is “Critical Race Theory”?

Begin with a simple exercise. In a sense, CRT is not hard to define if you ask yourself some simple questions.

Have you ever wondered about “race” or about the origin of the term? Do you occasionally ask how it was used in the history of the United States and elsewhere? If so, as a first step and obviously, you are interested in “race.”

Moreover, do you want to think about these questions, read a book or article that might enhance your reflections on this notion and its public usage, past and present? Well then you are interested in race “theory,” about how writers develop their thought on race. Such “theory” need not be elitist and academic; it is often an openness to considering what other people are thinking so you can develop your own thinking. That’s the “theory” part.

But then maybe you also wish to think in a careful way. You want to test your own and others’ assumptions about race. If you are like most of the students in my classes on CRT, you prefer to undertake this testing as free as possible from being indoctrinated by any one perspective. You don’t want opinions and half-baked ideas. Surely you do not want them to be poured into your mind without your having a chance to ask questions—to learn from but also challenge your books and teachers. Well then, you are also ready to be “critical.”

Taking these points together, you are interested in “critical race theory.”

Of course, the matter is not that simple. “Critical race theory” has more specific meanings shaped by the way it has emerged in the academy over the last four to five decades and then engaged the wider public. Over this time period, of greatest import has been the synergy between this theory and social movements. And so we must return to history and politics.

CRT as Movement and the Critics’ Fear

CRT itself began as a kind of movement. It arose among law students of color who sensed the erosion or incompleteness of Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s. When these young law students brought their communities’ ongoing struggle with racism into higher education and law school, they found the offerings meager. They wanted theoretical attention given to persisting dynamics of race in legal structures and society. They therefore mobilized themselves, organized special conferences, even their own supplementary class for a different take on race and law—this primarily at Harvard University Law School of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Derrick Bell was himself a product of these students’ organizing. He was the first and for a considerable time the only African American on the Harvard Law faculty. His roles as theorist and creator of allegories (or “chronicles”) have been collected in The Derrick Bell Reader. Bell, whether in  meticulous legal arguments or in his creative story-telling, made his contributions as one who was embedded in a long journey of African American struggle. He noted—as in his essay “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?”—that CRT’s legacy includes even “the Spirituals,” a kind of “theology in song” bringing to struggles for Black equality an emancipatory enlightenment, instead of the kind of quietism that Christian slave masters’ bible-teaching aimed to instill in slaves. In the same essay, Bell gave a fine summary of CRT that foregrounded key aspects of movements’ dynamism. CRT, he wrote “embraces an experientially grounded, oppositionally expressed and transformatively aspirational concern with race and other socially constructed hierarchies.”

This movement matrix for CRT is also evident in one of the many texts I have used over the years. It is edited by several of the law students who were in struggle at the early formation of CRT: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas, published as Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement.

One of the book’s editors, Kimberlé Crenshaw, has shown that CRT was not just interested in race matters. In keeping with expansive egalitarian ideals, she took note of movements for freedoms from other oppressive practices too. Analyzing court cases involving poor Black women especially, Crenshaw developed her theories to redress the disadvantages born by the poor generally, by women, by the many suffering gender-, sexual-, and other forms of discrimination and violence. Crenshaw is widely known for the notion of “intersectionality.” The term is uttered sometimes like a kind of mantra by those wanting to pose as “in-the-know,” and it is also all-too-glibly invoked in “anti-racist training” seminars today. But read Crenshaw’s many articles on intersectionality, and you will note how this term is carefully crafted from her exacting analysis of court cases and of concrete social movements, thus laying bare the complex interplay of different forms of oppression which, she argues, the law must recognize.

I submit it is precisely the power of these movements that provokes CRT’s critics, whether the movements are those of students of color into law schools or of CRT working in tandem with broad social movements for justice in American history. The critics should not just be dismissed as foolish and uninformed. Knowing little of the origins or theory of CRT, they nevertheless sense and fear the fusion of CRT’s knowledge content with movements for racial justice. As Bell anticipated from the beginning, CRT can be a “most fearsome power—the power of commitment to change.”

What is feared? We get important clues from several grassroots educators fighting on the frontlines for quality education for America’s poor and especially in black and brown communities. Journalist Jeff Bryant recently interviewed one of these grassroots educators, James Ford, a former North Carolina “teacher of the year” and current representative on the North Carolina Board of Education. Reflecting on bills in North Carolina and in other states, which would ban or restrict CRT, Ford reported to Bryant that “none of this is really about critical race theory.” CRT actually remains undefined by its critics and is mainly a negative symbol, part of a scare tactic to drive another agenda.

What might that agenda be? It is to block any official support for educational approaches that bring a critical lens on wealthy white communities that corral the majority of funds for education. The critical lens is resisted because it is allegedly “divisive.” But those who charge CRT with “division” are, Ford observes “overwhelmingly white, wealthier folks who have benefited the most from the nation’s education system.” These already sequestered white, wealthier groups are threatened by critical narratives about American history that expose a long-existing alliance between the creation of predominantly white schools and the privatization of public education. This is part of the legacy of US structural racism, in short what Bryant, whose beat focuses on the charter school system and the privatization of education, documents as the well-established synergy between racism and private white schooling. That synergy is still at work in the “school choice” movement’s advocacy of programs that sustain predominantly white homeschooling and voucher-enabled privatized schools. It long has been helped by major right-wing (and sometimes liberal) corporate funders who champion states’ rights and who resist any restrictions on the wealthy minority’s “liberty” to accumulate as they please. Here perhaps is the really “divisive” force: white, wealthy folk dividing themselves off from the majority of society to pursue their own privileged lifestyles and agendas.

In spite of the conservative attack continuing to come at CRT today, it should be noted that the primary target of CRT, in its origins especially, was not so much political conservatives but liberals in the law schools and higher education. These often lacked the courage to challenge the conservative movements or were toothless in the face of them. The “Introduction” to Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement points this out, emphasizing CRT’s challenge to liberalism. A special concern was liberals’ suppositions that racism concerned largely isolatable acts of “prejudiced” individuals rather than so much structural patterns at work in the larger society and in the law. Other problematic forms of liberalism privileged exclusively racial oppression, largely neglecting the class and gender/sexual dynamics that King, Bell, Crenshaw and others argued always intersect with race.

CRT’s “Critical Historical Method” for a New Critical “Popular Memory”

But whether engaging conservatives or liberals, it was CRT’s engagement of “critical historical method” that allowed it to be more than just a perspective in law schools and to proliferate across disciplines and into wider society. This brings us back to Kendall Thomas’s notion of “popular memory.” As Thomas explained in the concluding essay of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, the term “critical” meant also a grounding of the more traditional and institutionalized histories of constitutional law within “popular memory.”

Such popular memory, when carefully recovered and examined, could prompt, he wrote, a “rigorous reconstruction of our national past from the bottom up.” Thomas names this a “cultural history of constitutionalism” in America, contrasting it with the more predominant approach in law schools of an “institutional history” focused around “great” cases, courts, and judges. Thomas and CRT at its best, then, resituate institutional history in a cultural viewpoint of law and society that comes “from the underside” of our social and political order.

This was not just CRT’s act of compassion or moral solidarity with the dispossessed on history’s underside. It was a moral act, to be sure, but it was also an act of rigorous thinking. It was to perform what a thinker pursuing excellence does in scholarship: examine, criticize, and allow oneself to be criticized by especially those whose viewpoints have been neglected and marginalized, excluded and repressed in the intellectual life of the academy. If not always correct in their specific claims, these critical voices are essential to intellectual communities that really care about truth. (On this view of inquiry and truth, see prolific Latin American philosopher, Enrique Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation (141–156, 291–303) on the role of victims’ voices in processing truth claims in intellectual inquiry.) 

We do well to recall, though, that this kind of critical historical work had long been in the making before CRT of the 1970s. It also continues today across many fields whether instructors teach critical analysis under the name of “critical race theory” or not. Consider how early Black scholars undertook this kind of “critical historical method” examining the US nation as product of colonialism, racial enslavement, and the supremacy of propertied classes. W. E. B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction in America (1935) and Eric Williams’s Capitalism & Slavery (1944) provide still-essential histories that analyzed Black suffering in the matrix of capitalism’s brutal economy.

We need to cite this literature of emancipatory movements, not to be pedantic but to understand what CRT is. CRT is not just about “being woke” or committing to antiracism as important as that can be. We’re talking about a decades-long effort, still under way, of disseminating knowledge of our nation’s real past.

In this way, a critical popular memory can still rise. Black scholars continue the early legacy of writers like Du Bois, Williams, and more. See again Fields and Fields’ Racecraft, critically analyzed but acclaimed in reviews for its brilliance, especially in its exploration of the 1660s colonized America, when legal codes were developed for the marking and disciplining of African bodies for enslavement. Craig Steven Wilder in his book Ebony & Ivy shows how Christian seminaries, major universities and early propertied interests built their distorted educational institutions while dispossessing indigenous and enslaved African peoples of land and life. Dare to read also the work of imprisoned intellectuals, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal in Writing on the Wall; Jamil Muntaqim in We Are Our Own Liberators; and Russell Maroon Shoatz in Maroon the Implacable . All these Black scholars—not to mention poets, novelists, artists of every form—keep this Black “critical popular memory” alive for CRT to harness.

It is not just Black scholars who have been doing this history. Many non-Black scholars across many fields have also undertaken such “critical historical method.” They trace out historical and structural connections between African slavery and the dispossession of indigenous, Asian, Latinx peoples (See Mishuana Goeman's Mark My Word: Native Women Mapping Our Nations; Lisa Lowe's The Intimacies of Four Continents; and Paul Ortiz's An African American and Latinx History of the United States).

Moreover, the cancel-culture critics of CRT remain woefully ignorant—again, I know they don’t care—about the many white scholars who also contribute to this critical historical method. Edward E. Baptist details the filaments connecting everyday slavers’ finances with the nation’s slave economy in his study of “slavery and the rise of American capitalism.” William Dusinberre offers just one of many books about one of the fourteen of the first eighteen US presidents who owned slaves in his volume, Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk. These are just two of a burgeoning number of white scholars doing this work (see also Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Caitlin Rosenthal, Joshua D. Rothman).

Still, though, as we create a new critical popular memory from these oft-unsettling histories, recall my main point. The critics—whether from Fox News, Newsmax, ultra-white majority Republicans and the unthinking sectors of Trump world—these, and especially their big donors, sense what is at hand. Their time in a white hegemonic and corporately-schooled America may be running out. Fear of losing this “America” persists and generates anxious forms of what sociologist Ashley Jardina terms “white identity politics.” This conjoining of white supremacy and corporate power may be the most “divisive” threat in our emerging polycultural and non-white nation. CRT and a popular memory that value “critical historical method” are actually resources for rising to meet this threat. 

Mark Lewis Taylor is Princeton Seminary’s Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture.


Image: Harvard Law School student activists demonstrate on campus, demanding the creation of a critical race theory program among other changes on December 7, 2015. Photo by George J. Lok for The Harvard Crimson.