You may have noticed that Republicans are now setting their sights on Critical Race Theory as the next red herring to feed the culture wars. You may even be asking what, exactly, is Critical Race Theory.
Well, don’t look to Vernon Jones for an answer. Jones became a Twitter laughingstock when he appeared on “Black News Tonight,” Marc Lamont Hill’s Black News Channel show, last week.
Jones is a former Georgia lawmaker and Black Republican who — taking his cue, Soviet-style, from party propaganda — is running a rather quixotic campaign for Georgia governor on a platform of banning Critical Race Theory from public schools.
“You oppose Critical Race Theory,” Hill, who is also a professor of media studies at Temple, told Jones. “What is it?”
“I can tell you, but it’s left up to you to, I can’t make you understand,” Jones arrogantly told Hill, before refusing to tell the professor what it is and then personally insulting him after Hill repeatedly asked the gubernatorial candidate to explain the concept he’s campaigning against.
Hill posted a short clip of the exchange to his Twitter account on May 5, the day Wednesday Journal’s sister paper, Forest Park Review, published an editorial called “Turbulent bars.”
Forest Park is currently dealing with a local crisis related to late-night crowds of bar-goers on Madison Street. The crowds have naturally prompted a robust community response in the form of increased police officers and complaints, among other things.
The elephant in the room is that a relatively new bar on Madison Street in Forest Park has been attracting more late night bar-goers who are Black.
The editorial — which was written by our publisher, Dan Haley, who is white, and which I along with one other staffer, who is also white, reviewed and signed off on — urged readers to acknowledge race as a possible complicating factor in order to guard against any response to the crisis that may disproportionately harm and/or penalize Black business-owners and Black bar-goers.
Some people called the editorial racist for pointing out that race might play even a minor role in the crisis (“this isn’t about race, it’s about bars and drunk people; besides, I complained about the crowds and I’m not racist,” was, in a nutshell, a common retort).
Others called the editorial racist for assuming that most people in the crowd were Black. Still others claimed the article was racist for reasons that were never really explained.
Multiple people called for whoever wrote and/or edited the editorial to be terminated and shamed.
I wrote this column Monday night, before a scheduled virtual community discussion about the editorial I was supposed to moderate on Tuesday evening.
That said, I don’t want to unduly antagonize anyone, or disparage readers for having opinions or attempting to hold the newspaper accountable. I respect our readers and I think we need to engage with you much more consistently and directly, hence the community discussion.
I will not, however, advocate for my own cancellation; neither will I attempt to hide my perspective on this issue.
The truth, my truth, as a particular Black man in the United States, even in the relatively diverse and culturally welcoming suburbs of Oak Park and Forest Park and River Forest, is that those Black bar-goers, even if they are not a majority of the crowd, are a mob — not necessarily by virtue of their actions or their dispositions or any quality inherent in their characters, but because of a strange alchemy.
This is the kind of alchemy that transforms a mob of sports fans burning police cars and garbage cans into a “rowdy” or rather “unruly,” albeit celebratory, crowd.
This is the alchemy that turns voters in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia into frauds, and violent thugs attempting to overrule an election into overzealous “insurrectionists” (a term that leaves too much wiggle room for moral ambiguity and that becomes particularly problematic on closer inspection; for instance, today we might also consider a slave or abolitionist who sided with the British in the War of 1812 an insurrectionist).
This is the alchemy that turns hard-working mothers into welfare queens and welfare recipients into hard-working farmers and hard-working farmers who are Black into welfare queens; that turns a 17-year-old suspected of killing two men with an AR-15 rifle into “just a kid” and a “poster child for armed self-defense,” while turning a 17-year-old dead kid, shot 16 times for having a knife and slashing tires, into a monstrous criminal.
This alchemy, I believe, was in the air one night during my junior year in college, when I was walking hungrily to my campus apartment, minding my business, a plastic bag containing a carton of succulent chicken tenders I’d just ordered in my left hand, plastic flip-flops under my feet.
As I made a bee line through a darkened parking lot on my way to my apartment — better to avoid the busy, bar-lined street full of drunk partiers — six or seven police officers appeared out of nowhere. They encircled me, one flashing a light beam into my face and interrogating my very being.
Once it was over and they were convinced that I was not the suspected burglar they were looking for, I was allowed to continue on my way, but by then I had lost my appetite and a deep fissure had opened up in the ground of my relatively sheltered, suburban existence.
That was my first problematic encounter with the police and my innocence and naiveté were permanently shattered in the wake of it.
There is no denying that this alchemy is both fantastical, a phenomenon born of our collective social imagination and, indeed, sometimes a figment of our individual imaginations, and yet simultaneously real — a sort of Black Magic (itself a term that is problematic for the obvious reasons).
I nonetheless believe we need to always acknowledge this strange alchemy, being as pervasive and deeply rooted in our national heritage as it is. It should never be dismissed, not ever — not even when it comes to events as quotidian as bar-going or walking home. And if to acknowledge the alchemy and believe in its continued potency is to be racist, then I am racist (blame the Urbana Police Department).
So, now what do we do?
‘Faces at the bottom of the well’
“On Day One, through executive order, I will immediately instruct the Georgia Department of Education to prohibit the teaching of Critical Race Theory within our public schools. It is time for our schools to stop teaching our kids to hate America,” Vernon Jones wrote on Twitter on May 3, in a tweet that by May 10, had gotten 12,000 likes and 2,700 retweets, many of them, no doubt, owing to his dustup with Hill.
The first comment underneath Jones’ tweet is the most salient: “It’s not taught in public schools,” notes one person.
Of course, that’s true. The chances of the average elementary, high school or college student ever encountering Critical Race Theory is probably on par with winning the lottery, considering that the discipline is taught mainly in law schools.
But that doesn’t matter to Jones, whose feigned outrage with Critical Race Theory is purely performative — a spectacle to arouse attention to his own magical thinking, which entertains the silly idea that the Republican Party cares about his candidacy beyond its utility in upholding the make-believe that Donald “Look at my African American” Trump has a more than marginal appeal to Blacks.
The irony of Critical Race Theory’s recent resurgence among Republicans as a target of animus is that its roots go back to an iconoclastic take on the liberal civil rights consensus that, on the surface, may actually resonate with Black conservatives like Jones.
One of the intellectual fathers of the Critical Race Theory movement, the late Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, prompted outrage among liberals in the 1970s when in a series of essays he criticized the enforcement of Brown vs. Board of Education — the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that, at least on paper, outlawed the racial desegregation of schools in the United States.
Bell may be considered an early adopter of an argument that, curiously enough, I’ve heard throughout my life among my Black grandparents and aunts and uncles, in conservative-leaning churches and barbershops, and that you may hear in Jones’s house if you were a fly on the wall.
That is, ‘What good did integration really do? After all these years of integration, what do we have to show for it? We were better off segregated,’ goes the common refrain among Blacks, particularly those who are old enough to romanticize about life before Brown.
This line of thinking (no doubt rife with cognitive bias) is not the same as white racists advocating for outright racial separation, because what these Blacks are lamenting is not integration itself, but that its attendant promise of equality, in their minds, has not materialized.
For conservatives, this thinking is a tool to absolve just about anyone and anything in the present, and particularly the government, from any responsibility whatsoever for rectifying the racist caste system in America.
Indeed, I’ve heard conservatives deploy this line of thinking to argue that against government intervention on principal, because government, being always bad, will only make racism worse; therefore, let whatever systemic racism exists work itself out, ideally in the free market.
Bell’s argument in those foundational essays — first “Serving Two Masters” and then “The Interest-Convergence Dilemma” — may appear congruent with the conservative argument against interventions like Brown, but that’s only based on an intellectually lazy and/or bad faith interpretation of his work.
What Bell argued in those essays might be put in the form of a guiding question that is still useful today: By all means, integrate, but at whose expense? If Black children, through that strange alchemy, had to be turned into martyrs in order to fulfill this country’s integrationist ideal, Bell didn’t want any parts of that ideal.
“The problem, according to Bell, was that the civil rights’ lawyers’ commitment to integration “often flew in the face of what was best for [their clients], African-American communities they legally represented, or what those communities themselves desired,” write the editors of “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement,” where you’ll find both essays.
What was necessary, Bell argued, “was a race-conscious perspective that focused on the effect of integration on the black community. That change in perspective is the intellectual starting point of Critical Race Theory.”
And for that, for centering the experience of Black victims of pervasive racism and de-centering the perpetrators, Bell, who died in 2011 at age 80, has been pilloried as a racist and blasphemer by those on the left and the right.
Another essay that’s considered an intellectual precursor to CRT, “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination through Antidiscrimination Law” by Alan Freeman (also in the book), argues that legal doctrine legitimates racial power by presenting itself as a “neutral and objective” arbiter between the “perpetrator perspective” of racism and the “victim perspective” of racism.
Freeman argues that we should conceptualize racial discrimination more from the perspective of the victim than of the perpetrator, because it is from the victim’s perspective that we understand “those conditions of actual social existence as a member of a perpetual underclass.”
This is exactly what so many of our institutions (the media and the courts included) have failed to do, preferring instead to focus on a simplistic, outdated hero vs. villain narrative of race (Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Bull Connor) — a narrative that has allowed white supremacists to quietly dismantle the Voting Rights Act and to make a mockery of Brown.
If there is no proof of the racist perpetrator, then racism must not exist, the racist perpetrators say. ‘Bye, bye now. Nothing to see here. You can go home.’ That’s the first step (i.e., the Supreme Court in Shelby County vs. Holder effectively ending federal oversight of states with histories of voter suppression).
The second step is gradually re-introducing the essence of the old-fashioned Bull Conner-style racism under the cover of modern color-blindness (i.e., making racist voter suppression laws that necessitated the Voting Rights Act in the first place, even to the point of reproducing the racist dog-whistling of the past in phrases like “purity of the ballot box” and “election integrity”).
Critical Race Theory figured out that in order to avoid being coopted by racist perpetrators, we need to shift our focus from the perpetrator to the victim and the social conditions (including the very laws of the land) that victimize.
By zeroing in on the strange and ubiquitous alchemy of racial prejudice and discrimination, the Review editorial, I believe, was attempting to do what Freeman outlines; that is, to consider the crisis on Madison Street from the perspective of the class of people likely to catch the most hell from the authorities once they put the hammer down. We were attempting, however awkwardly, to look at the situation through a critical racial lens.
The problem I believe some good-faith critics may have with the editorial is that it focused on Blacks preemptively, some would say needlessly, because racism had not been explicitly “perpetrated,” so therefore why bring race up?
Perhaps some Black readers of the editorial may have felt this way. Who, after all, wants to be considered part of a “perpetual underclass”? And who wants to think of themselves as a perpetual victim all the time? Why are we bringing race into this? Why do we need some white man playing savior by writing about “crowds of Blacks”?
On this point, the CRT framework is instructive. Critical Race Theory does not call for individual Blacks to consider themselves perpetual victims nor whites to think themselves saviors — quite the opposite.
The theory calls on us as a collective, as a society, to redistribute the burden of racism by shifting away from the perspective that the absence of explicit racial discrimination, the absence of an explicit perpetrator, roughly equates to the absence of racial inequality and racial inequity.
It calls on us to consider, as Bell famously wrote, “the faces at the bottom of the well,” which is an act that requires us to strain our eyes to see the living, breathing human beings we, at first glance, may not think are there — an act that requires constant vigilance, an act that requires that we acknowledge racism’s pervasive alchemy, so that we may, once and for all, puncture the myth.
It also calls on us to shift our perspective away from the mistaken belief that bringing a specific perpetrator to justice is the rough equivalent, or can be considered a placeholder, for systemic equity and equality.
“The perpetrator perspective,” Freeman writes, “presupposes a world composed of atomistic individuals whose actions are outside of and apart from the social fabric and without historical continuity.”
In other words, the neoliberal, market-dominated world we currently inhabit, where, as journalist Matt Taibi writes, “The solution to most things follows the logic of Stalin” or your typical corporate titan or the country’s celebrity ex-president or too many dopamine-addicted, self-righteous social media users over-eager to cancel the next perceived perpetrator they set their sights on: “No person, no problem. You’re fired!”