Denying systemic racism means blaming Black people for their status in America — and that’s far more offensive.
To hear conservatives tell it, Critical Race Theory — their newfound buzz phrase for virtually any anti-racist analysis or argument — is fundamentally un-American, and even racist itself. By suggesting that the country is systemically unjust, they argue, CRT is rooted in a rejection of the United States as a “good and great” nation. And by insisting upon the existence of white privilege as a social and economic reality, CRT is, they say, racist against white people.
But amid the uproar over anti-racist scholarship, equity trainings, and the movement for Black lives, one important thing has been overlooked. Namely, the alternative to the analysis offered by Critical Race Theory is far more troubling, offensive and racist than anything being forwarded by the Crits themselves.
After all, if disparities in labor markets, education, housing, and the justice system are not the result of deeply embedded systemic racism — meaning the sedimentation of unequal opportunities resulting from a history of white racial domination and ongoing discrimination today — what’s left to explain them?
Frankly, there is only one possible answer: if the problem isn’t America, then it must be Black people.
But to suggest that there is something wrong with Black people as a group, something dysfunctional and pathological, is to forward a racist proposition by definition. So how exactly can the critics of CRT say it’s racist to suggest whites have privilege but acceptable to say Blacks are defective? The former, after all, is a sociological assessment, while the latter is a characterological one. Situating white people within a sociological context of power and relative position is not a judgment upon them as human beings. But placing Black people in a basket marked “inferior” in some way — whether biologically, as in the arguments of The Bell Curve (a book rejected by few conservatives and written by a very prominent one), or culturally — casts precisely such a judgment.
So why is this not being screamed from the rooftops in response to the recent anti-anti-racist backlash? First, because we’ve been bogged down trying to demonstrate how the things being critiqued aren’t really Critical Race Theory or insisting that CRT isn’t really being taught in middle and high schools.
While true, this is a losing strategy of value to no one but scholars and academics. As Christopher Rufo — the researcher who initiated much of the anti-CRT push — said recently in a televised interview, he “doesn’t give a shit” about the specific minutiae of CRT. He knows, as does the entirety of the right, the label’s value as a memetic device. The word critical, to the masses, means being critical of them and the country they love (how dare we!). At the same time, theory triggers images of academics who get paid to ponder intellectual and philosophical issues while “real Americans” have to work for a living. It’s tailor-made for resentment and backlash.
So while we argue the finer points of Derrick Bell’s parables in the book And We Are Not Saved or Kimberle Crenshaw’s theories on intersectionality, the other side is looking to invalidate all anti-racist thought in the hopes that any challenge to the existing racial hierarchy can be resisted.
Meanwhile, no one is holding them accountable for what their rejection of the systemic racism thesis requires of them; namely, an alternate explanation for ongoing racial disparities in American society. And in practice, that explanation — what we can call conservative race theory, or the other CRT — is one that intrinsically necessitates a racist assessment of Black people.
Rather than arguing detailed academic theory, we must answer the right-wing assault on anti-racism by demonstrating the real motives of those who have launched the attack on it. And in this case, their motives are to cast aspersions upon the victims of racial injustice, to pathologize Blackness. For 400 years, it has been their chief project: the very project about which they would keep our children ignorant, even as they continue to further its aims.
Anti-Blackness was at the heart of the nation’s founding. First, it came in the guise of spiritual supremacy, as in, these heathens are cut off from the salvific balm of God, cursed by Ham, meant to be slaves, and instructed, as such, to serve their masters.
Then it morphed from the religious to the scientific, as Blackness came to be seen as a lesser form of human evolution. And so there was phrenology, and the measuring of the facial slope, and later the giving of IQ tests. Black folks were, on this account, inferior not because of God but because of nature. Lesser opportunity, segregation away from whites, and second-class citizenship were appropriate, to hear the nation’s leaders tell it, for Black people were incapable of higher development and accomplishment.
After the Second World War, which was fought in part to smash the notion of racial science, the idea of Blackness as a biological pollutant became a harder sell. Oh sure, there were still true believers and others who might not have gone full-tilt Hitler but nonetheless continued to endorse the idea of biological superiority for whites, alongside definitive inferiority for Blacks. But for most, a new school of analysis was needed.
Enter the idea of cultural pathology. Beginning in the 1970s, in an attempt to fashion a kinder, gentler anti-Blackness, conservatives turned to a critique of Black communities, family structure, and Black culture more broadly. Black folks, on this accounting, didn’t sufficiently value hard work, education, or marrying before childbirth, valorized and glamorized criminal behavior, and generally preferred reliance on the government and various welfare programs to steady employment. Far from proving systemic injustice or inequality of opportunity, racial gaps in educational outcomes, employment, poverty, and crime rates — according to cultural critics — reflected deep-seated pathologies within Black America as a whole.
Although some versions of this argument at least allow that these presumed cultural tendencies were adaptations (or maladaptations) to past oppression — aversion to work stemmed from past exploitation, and devaluing schooling stemmed from having been denied access to it — others were less ecumenical. Dinesh D’Souza, for instance, argued in his book The End of Racism that Blacks under enslavement had been treated “pretty well,” and that only when they decided to close the “civilization gap” with whites and Asians would the problem of inequity disappear. To this way of thinking, Black people are a deviant sub-group of lazy, fecund brutes, criminals, and welfare parasites, fully deserving of scorn from the rest of us.
But remember, CRT is the racist worldview.
Never mind that the vast majority of Black people do not receive so-called welfare benefits, or that out-of-wedlock birthrates in the Black community have plummeted (contrary to popular misconception), or that Black crime rates are far lower today than 30 years ago, or that Black educational attainment is at an all-time high. Never mind, in short, facts. The proponents of the anti-Black cultural critique know what they know — and more importantly, they know that a white public fed a steady diet of this kind of racism for generations will believe it.
And now is the time for them to push it. In the past year, the defenders of white hegemony have been confronted with a mass movement, led by Black folks, but to which millions of previously unmobilized white persons attached themselves. Even though white enthusiasm for the uprising has waned from its high-water mark a year ago, ongoing support for racial equity (especially among the young) has left many of the old guard nervous. What better way to stem the tide than by launching an assault on anti-racism, not only with police in the streets but also against teachers in the schools?
The latest freakout is part and parcel of what Carol Anderson documents in her book White Rage. Every step forward on the road to Black liberation — and surely the uptick in support for racial justice in the past year would constitute that, at least symbolically, to the right — has been met with pushback by white America. Combined with a shifting popular culture and demographic changes that will soon render whites a plurality of the country rather than the majority, the ingredients for a white existential meltdown have been duly gathered.
Into that breach have stepped political Trumpism — itself a movement marinated in nostalgia for a fictive time of national glory and greatness — and anti-wokeness. While the latter is a reaction, in part, to the admittedly clumsy machinations of a racial justice movement finding its legs, it has been weaponized by those who disagree with more than just the specific narrative chosen by the left or with its particular tactics. Anti-wokeness is firmly attached to a political project that seeks to stifle police reform, derail policy changes to better equalize economic resources, and commit memoricide — the extermination of truth and memory — within the halls of academia.
We must do more than merely argue arcane theoretical points with those who attack the racial justice movement. Debating those who seek to reinforce systemic white supremacy by denying it exists is a fool’s errand. Better to expose them for what they are and what their politic portends. Better to make them explain their theory for racial inequities in America. Make them defend scientific or cultural racism. In short, better to out them as the racists they are and have always been.
Because the problem is either with America or with Black people.
And if you believe it’s the latter, the problem is also with you.