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What is critical race theory, President Trump’s latest political target?

President Trump spoke to the White House conference on American History at the National Archives museum Thursday in Washington, D.C.
President Trump spoke to the White House conference on American History at the National Archives museum Thursday in Washington, D.C.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

President Trump directed his ire last week at a growing movement among educators to teach more rigorously about race and racism in America, announcing his intention to sign an executive order creating a “1776 Commission" that would “finally restore patriotic education.”

“The left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” Trump said in a speech at the National Archives Museum last Thursday. “It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

In addition to disparaging the works of Zinn — the late Boston University historian who authored the popular “A People’s History of the United States” — Trump singled out “critical race theory," an intellectual movement and analytic framework devised by legal scholars of color for understanding systemic racism and its consequences.

This isn’t the first time the White House has taken aim at critical race theory. Earlier this month, the director of the Office of Budget and Management issued a memo instructing federal agencies to halt racial sensitivity trainings on white privilege and critical race theory, slamming these programs as “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”

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Scholars say the president’s remarks prove he fundamentally misunderstands critical race theory and its aims.

“I am 1,000 percent sure that Trump does not know what critical race theory is. I have never been more sure of anything in my life‚” said Khiara Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and author of the textbook “Critical Race Theory: A Primer.” “And he certainly doesn’t understand the debates within and about critical race theory.”

Scholarship on critical race theory emerged in the 1970s and ’80s in response to “what legal scholars perceived to be the failures of traditional approaches to thinking about race and civil rights,” which tended to conceptualize racism “very narrowly,” according to Bridges, as a problem of individual bad actors. The movement’s architects included the late Derrick Bell, the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, who first coined the term “critical race theory.”

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Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law, pictured in a 2018 file photo.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law, pictured in a 2018 file photo. Kathyrn Gamble

“Critical race theory explains the complexity, the messiness of race and racism in our society in a way that is much more detailed, much more rigorous, much more complex than the simple narrative we’re told as children and that so many people continue to think and believe as adults,” said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law and an expert on critical race theory.

“Racism is not extraordinary,” she continued. “Race and racism are basically baked into everything we do in our society. It’s embedded in our institutions. It’s embedded in our minds and hearts.”

Despite the progress and promises of the civil rights movement, critical race theorists argue that racism infects all of our societal institutions — from public education to the criminal justice system. Although race is a social construction, rather than an immutable biological truth, the repercussions of “racialization” are real, they say, resulting in the profound racial and ethnic disparities laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic or the disproportionate rate at which Black Americans are killed by police.

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“What appears to be progress in the law is actually concealing a new modality of structural, societal, systemic racism,” said Rajesh Sampath, an associate professor of the philosophy of justice, rights, and social change at Brandeis University. Namely, our laws and constitution don’t protect everyone equally, he said.

“What the law promises in this color-blind way and in this utilitarian way... that applies to white supremacy and white structures of power,” Sampath said. “But what we see underneath that is the real reality, that something really bizarre here is going on.”

Critical race theorists support an “expansive view of racism,” Bridges said, that demonstrates how institutions uphold white supremacy and reinforce our racial hierarchy through “race-neutral” policies. They believe inequality cannot be solved through “color blindness,” Onwuachi-Willig said, but “color consciousness.”

Onwuachi-Willig notes critical race theory tends to make people uncomfortable, especially white people, who are raised to believe even acknowledging race is impolite or racist itself.

“Really, ignoring [race] when it’s salient is what actually continues to make race matter, is what perpetuates racism, is what allows for certain inequities to continue to persist and even deepen and widen,” she said.


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.