In April of this year, Georgia became the latest of 15 American states to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools.
In celebrating a similar ban in Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves recorded a video in which he claimed, without evidence, that school children had been “dragged to the front of the classroom and coerced to declare themselves as oppressors” and made to “feel guilty because of the colour of their skin, or that they are inherently a victim because of their race.”
In a recent political rally, former U.S. President Donald Trump stoked the hysteria even further, calling the fight to eradicate critical race theory “a matter of national survival” and urging his followers to “lay down their very lives to defend their country.”
Properly understood, say University of Alberta experts in Black Studies and political science, there is nothing all that radical about a theory that helped introduce concepts many now take for granted – the social construction of race, systemic racism, racial inequity, unconscious bias and intersectional identity.
So how did a set of principles created by legal scholars in the academy suddenly become such a lightning rod for white racial anxiety?
The theory was first developed by black legal scholars in the 1970s to explain why such meagre racial progress had been made in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
They strove to understand how institutions like the justice system and social housing practices perpetuate racial inequities. Over time, they argued, racial privilege becomes structurally entrenched, normalized and therefore difficult to see, at least for those who share in the privilege.
Since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, however, the theory has become grossly distorted, says political scientist Andy Knight, mostly by those on the political right who suffer from what some call “white fragility.”
“It’s basically an ideological war,” he says, an emotional, knee-jerk response by white supremacists who don’t actually know what critical race theory is but fear losing “what they consider to be white America.”
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According to Knight, the primary culprit for the current hysteria is Fox News and other neoconservative media outlets that “hammer away” at a narrative meant to scare whites. It uses critical race theory as its bugaboo, despite the fact there is little if any evidence the theory is taught in public schools.
“And now they’re finding ways to turn this false narrative into legislation,” Knight said.
Michael Bucknor, Canada Research Chair in Black Studies, points out that critical race theory is not an ideology so much as a way to interrogate power – “how power is achieved and maintained, how it circulates and structures a society and who benefits from it,” he says. “You cannot stop people from asking those questions.”
Asking those questions is one way to avoid romanticizing history, he adds. America’s self-conception is dominated by a kind of “white amnesia” that avoids responsibility for the nation’s racist foundation, and especially the thorny issues of reform and reparations.
“The question of giving back, of giving up some of that privilege – these are the uncomfortable questions that critical race theory might raise,” he says. “That amnesia needs to be troubled because it’s how we fool or trick ourselves, tell ourselves lies about the ways we have done things.”
One repercussion of white amnesia is what English professor Teresa Zackodnik – an expert in African-American feminisms – calls post-racial ideology, a conservative view that race no longer determines social relations or identity in the United States in any significant way. In other words, it’s no longer a problem.
Seen from that perspective, calling out racism at all is itself racist.
“The ideology circulates in a way that when anyone says racism is located in a given place, that itself becomes a racist act. So the argument then becomes that universities don’t have a licence to teach these things.
“It makes it very difficult to argue that racism is structural and systemic, rather than a matter of individual bias,” says Zackodnik.
Knight agrees there is a kind of cognitive dissonance at play in post-racial ideology that can’t, or refuses to, accept systemic racism without taking it personally. But recognizing white privilege does not mean every white person is racist, every black person a victim, he says.
“We have to get away from the personalization of this. We’re not blaming white people for all the sins of the past. We’re saying everybody needs to know the history and legacy of slavery because it’s had tremendous negative impacts for generations.”
Some have described the legacy of slavery, how it continues to structure American society, as the “concrete plantation.” As Bucknor puts it, “the inheritance of that structure is given to all of us – all of us are guilty, if we continue to be complicit with hegemonic agendas.”
For Canada’s part, Zackodnik, Knight and Bucknor all agree the recent “Freedom Convoy” – partly directed and funded by white supremacist groups, some of them American – is a worrying trend. While racial strife might appear more pronounced and divisive in the U.S., they say, Canadians must guard against self-satisfied complacency.
“I don’t think we’re fundamentally different in Canada,” says Zackodnik. “We have some pretty deep-rooted white supremacist organizations, and we have not been very comfortable confronting our own settler-colonial history.”
Says Knight, “Our universities must continue to teach critical race theory, regardless of what governments may want to do or what certain factions in society want us to do.
“It’s the only way people will learn lessons of the past, and young people are hungry for it.”
| By Geoff McMaster
Geoff is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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