The idiot’s guide to critical race theory.
Ieshia Evans is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 9, 2016, during a protest of the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling. (© 2016 Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
If you grew up like most people in the United States, you probably learned very little about the history and current realities of racism in school. If anything, you were likely taught that racism, while unfortunate, is mainly a thing of the past, something to view through the rearview mirror. In his excellent books Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America, sociologist James Loewen clearly demonstrates that racial history is routinely minimized and distorted within our (mis)educational system. Not only is it highly unlikely that you learned much of substance about race or racism at school, it is also highly likely that you absorbed racist propaganda. To the extent that our schools typically fail to teach students how to intelligently connect the racial past to the present, many of us end up with preracial or color-blind understandings of history and society.
I didn’t grow up consciously thinking about race or racism. Despite being a child of the 1960s and ’70s, and living through the civil rights and Black Power eras, my mom never spoke to me about discrimination or desegregation or anything related to oppression, really—at least, not until I began formally studying these matters in graduate school. I was one of those black kids who didn’t know they were black. In fact, I was so lost in the sauce in middle school that when our class read those precious few lines about slavery and the Civil War in our history book, I thought, “Gee, how sad for those people.” Those people. As in, the enslaved Africans and their descendants—some of whom are my ancestors!
Prior to going to college, I don’t recall having any teacher draw clear connections between past and present racism, or even acknowledge that systemic racism was a serious, ongoing problem. In schools across the country, young people are indoctrinated with a rosy origin myth of the United States, a lie that frames indigenous people as noble savages who happily sat down with the Pilgrims to “celebrate” Thanksgiving over turkey and squash as their people were being systematically slaughtered through genocide. To the extent that racial oppression is referenced at all, it is generally framed as a bad thing that happened a long time ago. One of the sad ironies of oppression is that it’s completely possible to grow up in a society ravaged by multiple forms of domination and not know that your society is ravaged by multiple forms of domination. I concur with Ibram X. Kendi, who argues that our nation’s emphasis on racial progress has obscured “racist progress”—the evolution of racist ideas and practices alongside antiracist transformations. The end result is a society where racism is routinely misrepresented, denied, and difficult to detect—unless, of course, you experience it directly and have the political and historical lens needed to know you’re experiencing it.
Critical race theory is an interdisciplinary body of scholarship that emerged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement as legal theorists grappled with naming and challenging the persistence of racism after the fall of de jure segregation. Born in the mid-1970s, critical race theory boldly embraced an overtly activist agenda: the promotion of racial justice and the eradication of racial oppression. Bridging legal analysis with storytelling that centers the experiences of people of color, critical race theorists set about to unveil and address the persistence of racism and white dominance. And, importantly, scholars in this tradition also acknowledge the intersections of racism with sexism, class oppression, and other systems of inequality. One of the most helpful features of critical race theory is its clear analysis of white supremacy in the so-called post-civil rights era, a period in U.S. history when politicians and the majority population increasingly portrayed themselves as “beyond race” or “nonracist.”
This essay is adapted with permission from How To Be Less Stupid About Race, © 2018 by Crystal M. Fleming (Beacon Press; $23.95).
Critical race theory is kryptonite for the myth of color-blindness and helps cut through the bullshit of postracial propaganda by specifying the role of social institutions (especially laws and legal practices) in reproducing racism. From a critical race perspective, the United States is not (and never was) a benevolent “nation of immigrants.” Rather, it is a nation of settler-colonialism, genocide, white nationalism, racial slavery, legal torture, and institutionalized rape. Since the inception of this country, laws and legal practices systematically favored whites economically, politically, and socially. The nation’s very first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, was explicitly white supremacist, restricting naturalization to “free White persons,” though white women were left out of this exclusionary understanding of “freedom.” Granting citizenship to free white men was quite literally a government handout—for whites only.
Critical race theorists also challenge the liberal logics that have been used to portray the United States as “beyond race,” for example, by analyzing the jurisprudence surrounding the country’s affirmative action policies. Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Derrick Bell have shown that legal assumptions about meritocracy and fairness that are used by conservatives to undermine affirmative action programs are logically inconsistent with the existence of institutional racism. Other scholars have shown that the nation’s first affirmative action programs and government handouts were conceived by white Americans for white Americans. From using racially justified mass murder, land theft, and labor exploitation to enacting racist citizenship laws, people socially defined as “white” have built generations of wealth and political power by playing the race card and founding an entire nation on white identity politics. To take just one example, the 1862 Homestead Act gleefully gave away millions of acres of stolen land almost exclusively to whites. And, quiet as it’s kept, white people continue to be the number-one beneficiaries of affirmative action today. White women are the top recipients of affirmative action, but because they typically marry white men, their affirmative action benefits are channeled toward their white families, helping maintain the racial wealth gap.
My first serious encounter with critical race theory occurred after I’d already finished my Ph.D. Although I didn’t realize it then, I had chosen to undertake my graduate work in a sociology department that was relatively conservative in terms of its racial politics. Certainly, none of my professors were intensely collaborating with critical race theorists. Nonetheless, for most of my seven years of doctoral work, I felt confident that I was being educated by some of the world’s most insightful experts on race. As well-meaning as the Harvard sociologists might have been, the truth is that their work typically downplayed racial oppression or focused on conceptually vague “cultural elements” of race rather than systemic racism. We studied racism, but the term “white supremacy” was not part of our sociological lexicon.
As a graduate student, I was trained to examine racism as a “cultural” phenomenon happening “out there” in the social world, not a structural feature of oppression that shaped what we were taught—and by whom. And so it was that I spent seven whole years of my life thinking I knew a lot about race when in fact I lacked any understanding of the racial politics shaping my own education.
By the time I arrived at Stony Brook as an assistant professor, I had published an award-winning dissertation on racism and collective memory in France, as well as numerous scholarly articles on the dynamics of racism in the United States. But, as painful as this is to admit, I still didn’t have a clear understanding of systemic racism in the U.S. until I began to break away from the influence of my old mentors and teach undergraduate and graduate students myself. I also began belatedly talking with other academics who were more politically conscious and radical than I was, the kind of people who proudly and unapologetically framed their scholarship in terms of activism. Slowly—with a mix of excitement, shame, and relief—I began to realize that there were entire fields of racial scholarship I’d ignored. I finally understood why so much of what I’d been taught to believe was “important scholarship” actually made me sick. I mean this quite literally. As a longtime practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, I found that the more I brought my attention to the present moment, the more clearly I could identify the tightness in my chest or revulsion in my stomach when reading racist scholarship. Conversely, I also noticed how invigorated and inspired I felt reading authors who frankly acknowledged the structural, political, and spiritual realities of domination.
And then, one fine day, I had the luck of encountering Charles Mills, an eminent critical race theorist and political philosopher. Mills had been invited to Stony Brook to give a provostial lecture on his famous book The Racial Contract. Sitting in the amphitheater, I listened intently as the professor threw around terms like “white supremacy” and “epistemology of ignorance,” but I confess that I had no friggin’ clue what the hell he was talking about. Back then, “white supremacy” still seemed, to my ear, like an odd phrase to describe racism in the United States. How could there be “white supremacy” when the president was black? And how could racial oppression be so persistent if I, an African American woman, held multiple degrees from a prestigious university and had garnered a highly sought-after tenure-track job?
The more I read of Mills’s work—and the work of other critical race theorists—the more I began to understand the importance of looking beyond my own individual circumstances. As I would come to see clearly, dominant discourses of individualism, exceptionalism, and meritocracy work to sustain collective denial about racism and other forms of injustice. Paying attention to the conditions of my own students at Stony Brook, a state university, also sensitized me to systemic inequalities. The gap between the limited socioeconomic resources available at a public institution versus the elite private schools I’d grown accustomed to could not be more stark and morally abhorrent. During my office hours, I met talented, brilliant students who lacked access to basic resources, worked multiple jobs, commuted obscene hours, and even struggled with homelessness. The unfairness of their predicament shocked my conscience. It’s also clear, looking back, that the death of Trayvon Martin—and the subsequent emergence of the Movement for Black Lives—opened my eyes to all that had not changed about race in the United States. I understood, then, that “white supremacy” was not merely about a few racist extremists but rather about a system of domination that stretched into the present day and affected every sphere of society.
But if white supremacy is so widespread, why has it been so difficult for some to detect? And how could I, as a black woman, have obtained multiple degrees from elite institutions and studied “race” for nearly a decade without clearly recognizing the fact that we live in a white supremacist society? In Mills’s view, white supremacy is a system of power and domination, one founded on racial oppression and which provides material benefits to people socially defined as “white.” Critical race theorists emphasize the role of European colonialism, genocide, and chattel slavery in producing intertwined ideologies of white superiority and scientific racism in order to retroactively justify the (continued) exploitation of people socially defined as “nonwhite.” Mills has convincingly argued that the maintenance of white supremacy involves and requires “cognitive dysfunctions” and warped representations of the social world that conveniently serve the interests of the majority population. These distortions and cognitive errors produce “the ironic outcome that whites [are] in general . . . unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”
This brings us back to Mills’s rather esoteric phrase: the epistemology of ignorance. The word “epistemology” refers to the study of knowledge and its formation, so an epistemology of ignorance would involve creating “knowledge” based on . . . a profound lack of knowledge or stupidity. Using fancy academic language, Mills is basically saying that whites’ ideas “about race” are fundamentally based on misrepresentations and distortions of social reality, but their “not knowing,” their ignorance, gets routinely repackaged as credible, authoritative “knowledge,” even as “science.” But racial ignorance is not restricted to white folks, unfortunately. Racist societies socialize all of us to be racial idiots, insofar as we are exposed to forms of racial ignorance. Moreover, this widespread ignorance sustains the racial power structure, and the racial order, in turn, helps maintain the economic power of capitalist elites. The powerful always thrive on the miseducation of groups they seek to exploit and control. As long as everyday citizens are fed a daily mental diet of white supremacist ideology, historical ignorance, and disinformation, the overall power structure remains difficult to detect—and oppose. Thus, becoming less stupid about race involves discovering how we’ve all been socialized in ways that obscure the realities of racial domination for the benefit of white male property owners. I would eventually come to see that even something as simple as referring to “race” or “racism” without describing the overall racial order (the approach I absorbed in graduate school) could have the unintended effect of reproducing that very same racial order.
The concepts and words we use to represent (or misrepresent) racism have a lot to do with how the system perpetuates itself. Using bland, vague words like “race” or “racial” can often disguise what racism is and how it actually works. Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields argue in Racecraft that racial domination is reinforced by mysterious references to “race” that ignore systemic racism. Describing the collective, systemic nature of racism clearly is an oft-overlooked prerequisite for taking effective action to challenge racial injustice.
Let me be clear on this point: I am not drawing a false equivalence between the racial ignorance of people of color and the racial ignorance of the white majority. The “ignorance” of a majority group and that of minority groups are not the same, especially not the same in their effect. Racial stupidity is ubiquitous, due to the violence and dominant discourses of the majority population. It so happens that this majority population is white but, of course, from an intersectional perspective, almost everyone belongs to both “majority” and “minority” groups. And though people of color are subject to being socialized in a racist society and absorbing the biases and stereotypes inherent within such a society, they are typically not as racially stupid as their majority counterparts. That’s not because they are fundamentally better than white people or inherently more insightful, but for the simple reason that they are more likely to encounter racism and therefore are able to identify it and oppose it.
The mythology of white superiority and scientific racism developed over time in the aftermath of colonial conquest and slavery to justify socioeconomic exploitation and theft. As long as the endemic, systemic nature of white supremacy is successfully minimized or denied, as long as “conversations about race” are mainly about individual attitudes, prejudice, or the actions of a few extremists, then attention is drawn away from the structures and pattern of racial inequality hiding in plain sight. Nationwide, white families hold thirteen times the wealth of black families. And, so, we come back to class relations—and why Bernie Bros get it wrong every time they insist that we should talk about class instead of race. The truth is that these two concepts are intimately intertwined. In fact, modern race and white supremacy can both be understood as capitalist inventions.
Most people only think about racism as an individual, personal trait. But if you’re going to wrap your head around how racial oppression actually operates, you have to move beyond simplistic individual notions and grasp how racism becomes institutionalized in the ideas and routine practices of our social organizations: our families, our laws and policies, our educational system, and the representation of race we absorb from the media. From mass incarceration to sentencing laws to racial discrimination in housing and home loans, the invisibility of institutional racism is maintained by the fact that it is literally hard to see.
In Black Power, first published fifty years ago, political scientist Charles Hamilton and activist Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) describe institutional racism as “less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts.” Most of us are not present when racist decisions are made in the courtroom or when laws and policies with racist consequences are being drafted. And the self-imposed racial isolation and social apartheid preferred by many whites means that most members of the majority population have no meaningful relationships with people of color and, consequently, no significant exposure to the realities of systemic, institutionalized racial oppression. Unless you directly experience the injustice of living in a polluted neighborhood decimated by environmental racism, unless you’ve being racially profiled or abused by police, how could you know it’s happening—especially if such matters aren’t addressed in school? And even if you personally experience the consequences of institutionalized racism, how could you know it’s occurring on a wider scale?
Even the language of “structures” and “institutions” can be a barrier for understanding and visualizing social relations. Most of us are not used to thinking about society in terms of historical patterns and distributions of power and resources. Hamilton and Carmichael are careful to point out that for institutional racism (and, therefore, white supremacy) to exist does not mean that every white citizen must hold racist beliefs or engage in individual acts of racism. Because institutional racism is a systemic power structure, it functions through collective action and systemic practices. As such, it is “deliberately maintained . . . by the power structure and through [whites’] indifference, inertia, and lack of courage.”
We can draw an important connection between the invisibility of institutional racism and Mills’s conceptualization of the epistemology of ignorance. Both of these ideas point to aspects of systemic racism that are difficult to detect, despite (and perhaps even because of) their durability and ubiquity. White supremacy endures, ironically—and chronically—through the widespread erasure of its systemic and chronic nature. Systemic racism is reproduced and extended through everyday practices that allow people to live in a racist society but fail to make meaningful connections between their own observations, their nation’s history, and broader patterns of domination.
Once established as an ideological and political system, white supremacy reproduces itself through repertoires of silence, denial, misrepresentation, disinformation, deflection, willful ignorance, justification, and—when all else fails—brute violence and force. As the racial order takes hold, the population that benefits from its maintenance is generally socialized in ways that ensure the system remains in place. Within white supremacist societies, members of the majority population are socialized to draw upon every discursive and coercive tool at their disposal to maintain dominance without regard to logical coherence, empirical evidence, reason, or morality. Ordinary racists and their extremist counterparts employ liberal, inclusive, and even, at times, “antiracist” ideas in order to obscure the racist intentions and effects of their actions and institutional arrangements. The combination of racist and antiracist ideas is, in fact, one of the most prominent and pernicious methods used to mask or justify continual white dominance and to uphold the “non-racist” pose that has become politically expedient in the wake of World War II and the U.S. civil rights movement.
Becoming antiracist involves developing the historical and sociological literacy needed to decode the ongoing impact of the racial past on the present. It means becoming familiar with the typical tropes of minimization, deflection, and denial that allow racism to persist unrecognized and/or justified on a daily basis. If we are ever to move beyond this racial order, then we will also have to dismantle the system of unearned privilege attached to being socially defined as “white.” If being racist is about supporting a system of racist domination, then becoming antiracist is about recognizing and opposing this system. This recognition is the very first step to becoming less stupid about race and developing strategies capable of challenging racism in the present and building a more just future.
As a system, white supremacy needs people to believe that it (1) doesn’t exist, (2) has been overcome, or (3) only exists among extremists. White supremacy can’t tolerate millions of people finally realizing that it is pervasive and systemic. It needs us ignorant and hopeful. And it needs us to cling to a particular kind of hope—a hope that reinforces racial ignorance and denial of white supremacy. A hope that sells you neoliberal inclusion and “feel-good” tokenism—the kind of hope that cannot threaten the racial status quo.
Antiracists have to learn how to recognize racism in its subtle political, psychological, and sociological forms: the workings of institutions, publications, laws, families. Adopting a systemic view of racism requires noticing the cooperation of both major parties (and corporate media) with the economic and political forces of white supremacy. And you must see how your own socialization, behavior, and choices are complicit with multiple systems of oppression, racism included. The fact that racism (and patriarchy, class domination, and so on) are systemic means that none of us are exempt from these dynamics. White supremacy continues to persist, in part, due to the widespread temptation to only see and condemn other people’s racism—racism is always someone else’s crime.
If it’s not already clear to you, there is also a moral dimension to critical race theory, for it involves challenging the values and principles that justify (implicitly or explicitly) racial domination. From a critical race perspective—one that centers the views and voices of the marginalized—we can (and must) do better than what the Founding Fathers did.
The only way a nation founded on white supremacy, colonial violence, and hypercapitalism can be framed as a moral entity is to continually devalue the lives of those it has repeatedly diminished, in our case women, indigenous populations, and black, brown, working-class, and poor people.
Wouldn’t a more perfect union be a society in which white supremacists, enslavers, and rapists are no longer honored? A society in which indigenous people, black people, people of color, and white antiracists who fought against oppression are held in higher esteem than those who defended the indefensible? What kind of transformations—social, political, economic, and moral—would need to happen to build a more perfect union?
There have always been voices challenging racial oppression, pointing out its horror and moral wrong. But throughout our history, these voices have been opposed and drowned out. We must not allow these voices to be marginalized any longer. We must be clear: racism is morally wrong and racists do not deserve to be honored, whether they were members of the Confederacy or the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. But we can certainly learn from the past. And maybe—just maybe—the way to correct the moral errors of those who came before us is to decide, with conviction, not to repeat them.
If there is anything to learn from the Founding Fathers, it’s that we have the right to call out tyranny by its name and transform our society. But we don’t have to remain enslaved to the limited moral imaginations of those who rationalized slavery and genocide. We can dream better, more inclusive dreams and create a more just society. And even if we aren’t able to bring about all the positive change we would like to see in our lifetime, at the very least, we can begin to imagine it.
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Crystal M. Fleming is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University and the author of How To Be Less Stupid About Race (Beacon Press, 2018). @flemingphd
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