Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a co-founder of critical race theory (CRT), explained the importance of “looking at history to understand our present” while calling for youth to “understand the ground upon which we stand is ground that’s soaked in blood of theft.” She warned of the outcome if the “other side gets its way,” declaring “the road to authoritarianism will be paved through white supremacy.”
Crenshaw made her comments while appearing on British-American TV anchor Mehdi Hasan’s eponymous Sunday night MSNBC program, The Mehdi Hasan Show.
"One can understand why @billmaher actually thinks that stuff because he probably never learned what the truth is."
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) November 8, 2021
Hasan attributed Republican Glenn Youngkin’s recent “upset” victory in the Virginia governor race to the latter highlighting CRT — which the MSNBC host described as an “academic legal theory,” which is neither “critical” nor “theory” and which many “haters” admit they do not fully grasp.
“[Youngkin] went all in on CRT which is nothing if not a buzzword for all the racist words you are not allowed to say and for all the history you’re not allowed to teach about America’s past,” he said. “And surely the issue motivated parents. But as a wedge issue, it really motivated white voters.”
“According to the exit polls: among voters who said, ‘parents should have a lot to say in what schools teach’ … Youngkin got 90 percent of the white vote and only 19 percent of the black vote,” Hasan added.
Crenshaw, who is also executive director for the African American Policy Forum and helped form CRT in the 1980s, described the concept as “a way of looking at the world that we have inherited after a legacy of segregation, of slavery, of Manifest Destiny, [and] of genocide.”
Calling it a link between “contemporary issues around racial inequality” and the “laws and policies that produce those very inequalities,” Crenshaw said, “it’s basically looking at the grounds upon which we stand, excavating those aspects of our history that have produced many of the problems that we still deal with.”
As an example, she cited current differences between black and white wealth being attributed to “how the suburbs were built and [how] they excluded African-Americans.”
“So it’s basically just looking at history to understand our present, that’s it,” she added, “but that’s not why they’re against it.”
Hasan then sought to clarify that CRT does not teach that white children are “oppressors,” made to “feel guilty” or “evil” for their white skin, and black children are “victims” — “as Republicans and even some self-proclaimed liberals like [HBO Real Time host] Bill Maher claim” it does.
In response, Crenshaw referred to such depictions as old and false arguments, though she avoids explaining how.
“The oldest page in the book pushing back against racial integration has been to frame it as an attack on white people,” she said. “Civil rights laws were framed as discrimination against white people, integration of schools was framed as an attack on children, [and] reconstruction was framed as an attack on white women.”
“These arguments are the oldest ones in the book,” she added. “The only thing that is shocking about it, honestly, is that it is so easy to repeat them, it’s so easy to rehearse them.”
That is why, according to Crenshaw, Bill Maher “actually repeats that stuff — because he probably never learned what the truth is.”
Crenshaw also warned of the threat of authoritarianism in the event that “the story” is banned.
“If the other side gets its way, which is to completely ban conversations, books, [and] histories that tell the story, then a whole ‘nother generation will believe these lies and will not be able to understand that the true threat that we face right now is the threat of authoritarianism,” she said.
“That’s what this is about: the road to authoritarianism will be paved through white supremacy,” she added.
Calling responding to right-wing attacks on CRT education as a “catch 22,” she clarified that “no students in K-12 are being taught the Dred Scott case that said black people can never be Americans but what is taught is the history of slavery, a little bit of it; what is taught is the Trail of Tears, a little bit of it,” she said.
“So the point is that there are moments where our young people should learn our history. They should understand the ground upon which we stand is ground that’s soaked in blood of theft,” she added.
Claiming “racial appeals work in this country because there is still a lot of racism or at least racial resentment in America today,” Hasan followed up by saying that many, including Democrats, are “uncomfortable about suggesting a lot of white voters are susceptible to racist dog-whistles” and choose to hide behind euphemisms instead.
In response, Crenshaw claimed that was “precisely what critical race theory has been about all these years.”
“Many have been focused on how the inability to talk about race, the inability to see how it’s structured in our society, the inability to think about racism as anything other than moral turpitude or a psychological problem, has made it impossible for the media and others to identify racial projects when they’re happening,” she said.
“That is not an approach to deal with racism — we saw that on January 6 with the confederate flag marching right back into the capital,” she added. “So if we don’t have the ability to address racism, we won’t be able to save our democracy.”
Hasan concluded by claiming the “books they are always offended by or consider explicit … it always seems to be books from black authors or about black historical themes,” to which Crenshaw agreed, saying that books about social injustices “cause discomfort” and therefore are not welcome to be taught “so nobody has to find the actual definition of critical race theory to know what this is about.”
“This is what’s motivating the racial justice movements, so don’t let them take away what we want to pass on to the next generation: the ability to read our history and to know where the fight has to be,” she added.
The battle over CRT in schools has resulted in nationwide tension in recent months.
The theory, which is promoted by many on the left, claims that American institutions — the government, economy, and culture — are based on racial hierarchy and aim at maintaining the dominance of white people, and even that which appears race-neutral is, on closer inspection, rooted in racism.
As a result, it urges reform in virtually all of the country’s institutions.
The theory’s architects have argued that the U.S. was founded on theft of land and labor, with federal law maintaining the unequal treatment of citizens by their race.
CRT advocates have also expressed the belief that race is culturally invented, not biological.
Last week, a Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) educator and administrator in the largest school district in Indiana addressed parents in a video in which he asserted when school officials say they are not teaching CRT, “we’re lying.”
In June, a former Democrat congressional candidate called on Americans to listen to black parents who oppose CRT “indoctrination” in schools, while calling on black Americans to reject the Democrat Party’s race narrative and, instead, realize “that their skin color is not a barrier to their progress,” adding that Democrats use race to galvanize black electorate support though many black Americans actually “have conservative ideals.”
Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.