Critical Race Theory Explained

Critical Race Theory Explained

Last week, released video demonstrating Barack Obama’s close relationship with Derrick Bell, the father of Critical Race Theory (CRT). And we’ve seen Soledad O’Brien try to twist the definition of critical race theory in order to protect Obama by grabbing a quick definition from Wikipedia. But just what is CRT? Why is it so dangerous? And what role does it play in President Obama’s thinking?

Let’s begin from the beginning.

CRT was an intellectual development in the late 1970s and early 1980s in which some scholars, perturbed by what they perceived as a loss of momentum in the movement for racial equality, began to doubt that the constitutional and legal system itself had the capacity for change.

This criticism mirrored a Marxist attack long voiced in academia: that the Constitution had been a capitalist document incapable of allowing for the redistributionist change necessary to create a more equal world. To create a more equal world, the Constitution and the legal system would have to be endlessly criticized – hence critical theory – and torn down from within.

The Marxist criticism of the system was called critical theory; the racial criticism of the system was therefore called Critical Race Theory.

So, what does CRT believe? In their primer, Critical Race Theory, Richard Delgado (one of the movement’s founders) and Jean Stefancic set out some basic principles:

  1. “Racism is ordinary, not aberrational”;
  2. “Our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material.”

When taken together, these principles have serious ramifications. First, they suggest that legal rules that stand for equal treatment under law – i.e. the 14th Amendment – can remedy “only the most blatant forms of discrimination.” The system is too corrupted, too based on the notion of white supremacy, for equal protection of the laws to ever be a reality. The system must be made unequal in order to compensate for the innate racism of the white majority.

Second, these principles suggest that even measures taken to alleviate unequal protection under the law – for example, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education – were actually taken for nefarious purposes, to serve white interests. This is exactly what Derrick Bell believed: he said that Brown had only been decided in order to prevent the Soviet Union from using American racial inequality as a public relations baton to wield against the white-majority United States.

There is some internal conflict within CRT, though. For example, some CRT writers seem to take the Martin Luther King, Jr. line that race is arbitrary, a social construct; the majority, however, suggest that minorities have a special status in society, and something unique to bring to the table. As Delgado and Stefancic write, “Minority status, in other words, brings with a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.”

So here’s what we’re left with, in simple terms. Racism cannot be ended within the current system; the current system is actually both a byproduct of and a continuing excuse for racism. Minority opinions on the system are more relevant than white opinions, since whites have long enjoyed control of the system, and have an interest in maintaining it.

This is a deeply disturbing theory. It is damaging both to race relations and to the legal and Constitutional order. As Jeffrey Pyle rightly sums up in the Boston College Law Review:

Critical race theorists attack the very foundations of the [classical] liberal legal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law. These liberal values, they allege, have no enduring basis in principles, but are mere social constructs calculated to legitimate white supremacy. The rule of law, according to critical race theorists, is a false promise of principled government, and they have lost patience with false promises.

We can see the clear footprint of CRT all over the Obama Administration. President Obama obviously believes that the system is unjust, upholding racism and requiring “community organizing” to change it in earth-shaking ways. He appoints Supreme Court judges on the basis of race and gender; his Attorney General refuses to enforce the law equally, because to do so would be to enhance racism. When President Obama said he wanted fundamental change, he meant it at the deepest level.

Let’s start with President Obama’s own statements on race. Go back to his first memoir, Dreams From My Father. In that book, Obama describes his identity as the “tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds,” then states, “the tragedy is not mine, or at least not mine alone, it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children of Africa, it is the tragedy of both my wife’s six-year-old cousin and his white first grade classmates, so that you need not guess at what troubles me, it’s on the nightly news for all to see, and that if we could acknowledge at least that much then the tragic cycle begins to break down …” America is irredeemably racist, wedded to an irredeemably racist past.

No wonder Obama found Malcolm X more inspiring than Martin Luther King as a young man. No wonder Obama writes of the “unspoken settlement we had made since the 1960s, a settlement that allowed half of our children to advance even as the other half fell further behind.” And no wonder that today, he writes off violence within the black community in South Side Chicago as a result of “humiliation and untrammeled fury” – a product of a racist system. This is all the language of CRT. No wonder that Obama compared Derrick Bell to Rosa Parks during his Harvard Law School days – he buys into Bell’s philosophy.

In 2001, Obama gave a telling interview with an NPR station in Chicago. Here’s what he had to say about the Constitution:

If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court. I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order as long as I could pay for it I’d be o.k. But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the Federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the Federal government or State government must do on your behalf, and that hasn’t shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was, um, because the civil rights movement became so court focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.

This is pure CRT. And it’s what Obama believed – and believes.

And that is why Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright was so dangerous for him. Wright was a big backer of CRT. Bell spoke at Wright’s church. The problem was that Wright was a CRT supporter with the fiery passion of the critical race theorists, and without the gentle soothing language that Obama was so careful to cultivate. And so it was extremely important for Obama to disassociate from Wright, and CRT, as soon as possible during his 2008 presidential run. The conflict between Obama’s belief in CRT and his political need to move away from CRT is obvious throughout his 2008 Wright-under-the-bus speech. First, he disowns Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” He pays lip service to the Constitution. Then he proceeds to talk about all that is wrong with America and little that is right with it, to bash the America that arose under the Constitution, and to suggest that “we’ve never really worked through” the problem of race in America.

Obama threw out the CRT baby, Wright; he kept the CRT bathwater.

His administration has been an ode to CRT. He appointed Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court; she had no judicial background, and no record to speak of. But we do know one thing about her: she helped Derrick Bell usher a seminal CRT piece into the Harvard Law Review in 1985. As Bell stated, “Several editors worked with me on the piece but Elena Kagan was the articles editor … There was real dedication and support by Elena.” President Obama also appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court; this was the same woman who suggested that she had a special perspective on the Constitution because she was a “wise Latina.” And then there’s Eric Holder, the Attorney General, who said we were a “nation of cowards” on race, and who has used the Department of Justice to target racial groups unequally (see, for example, the famed New Black Panther case).

The CRT theme runs deep in the Obama psyche. And it continues to impact us each and every day. That’s why Derrick Bell is relevant. And that’s why we will continue to vet the president – and a media that covers for him by pretending that CRT is mainstream rather than extremist and destructive.


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