Know Your History
Trymaine Lee: Critical race theory. It kinda feels like all of a sudden this term is just everywhere. Republican-led states all across the country are introducing legislation to ban it from being taught in K through 12 schools. And white parents are in hysterics at school board meetings.
Archival Recording: You're teaching children to hate others because of their skin color.
Like a cult, they specialize in severing God-ordained healthy bonds while stoking the fires of discontent and bitterness.
Archival Recording: This is child endangerment. Parents just like myself want our children to be educated, not indoctrinated with your racist ideologies. You are instilling hate into our children for America and each other. (CHEERS)
Lee: Let's get a few things straight. Critical race theory is not taught in public schools. You typically wouldn't study it unless you go to law school. Most people don't even know what the term means. So let's define it. Here's what critical race theory is.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Critical race theory is a legal study of the ways that race has been created, embedded, facilitated, and in many ways, insulated by law. That law wasn't simply a neutral referee; the law played a role not only in allowing racial discrimination but defining what it actually meant to be Black.
Lee: And here's what it's not.
Crenshaw: It is not a study of inherent qualities of race. It is not saying that people are racist by nature of their genetics. It is not saying that there is even race by nature of genetics.
Lee: That's Kimberlé Crenshaw, the law professor who coined the term and helped to establish this legal framework way back in the '80s. This current frenzy over critical race theory didn't happen overnight. Last summer, a conservative activist and writer named Christopher Rufo weaponized the term. He started writing about critical race theory, connecting it with anti-racist trainings across the country, saying it was humiliating white people.
Christopher Rufo: I'm declaring a one-man war against critical race theory and the federal government. And I'm not gonna stop these investigations until we can abolish it within our public institutions.
Lee: That's Rufo on Fox News with Tucker Carlson. His Fox appearances caught the attention of former President Donald Trump who last September signed an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity trainings.
Donald Trump: Critical race theory is being forced into our children's schools. It's being imposed into workplace trainings. And it's being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.
Lee: President Joe Biden rescinded that order in January and the discourse quieted down only to reemerge this spring with a vengeance. Between March and mid-June of this year, the phrase critical race theory was mentioned on Fox News almost 1,300 times. And while it might be easy to dismiss this as just another battle in the right-wing culture war, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw says it's much more serious, much more alarming than that.
Crenshaw: When we start dictating what can be taught, what can be said, and what is unsayable, we are well, well down the road towards an authoritarian regime.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, a conversation about the origins of critical race theory and how this backlash mirrors the ugliest parts of America's racial past.
Crenshaw: I guess what is most disturbing about this moment is, given how utterly predictable backlash politics have been throughout our history, why we always seem to be taken aback by it. This was in the making since September, and now it has basically shown its full ugly head. And we're scrambling to respond and it didn't have to be that way.
Lee: Kimberlé Crenshaw is a law professor at Columbia and UCLA. She's also the executive director of the African American Policy Forum and, as I mentioned, one of the founders of critical race theory.
Crenshaw: Well, you know, nothing proves the need for an educated, literate public than seeing these videos of parents crying, saying, "I don't want my children to be taught critical race theory." (LAUGH) And you ask them, "So what is critical race theory?" and they couldn't tell you.
The ability to generate mass hysteria, the ability to create a moral panic, the ability to create the kind of desire to go out and destroy something that they're afraid of, this is a sentiment that has deep roots in our history. Now, I don't want to say that what's happening now is the equivalent of the worst things that have happened in our history. But it's not not on the continuum, right? It is--
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Crenshaw: You know, you feed people reasons to be upset, you prey on their grievance, you point the finger at some other that they don't understand, you do it to distract them from what's really taking away their future. And that has been a formula that has won over and over and over again. So our hope is that, if you know your history, you have a chance at not repeating it.
Lee: Wow. You know, I'm glad you brought up, you know, the word "continuum," right? And history. And in this show, we like to give people a context from which to view, like, what's happening now through the lens of the past. And I want to go back to the soil from which you and so many of your colleagues kinda emerged from the '70s and talk about Professor Derrick Bell who, in so many ways, is considered the father of critical race theory. And I wonder if you can kind of break down for us what made his early seeds of the theory so groundbreaking.
Crenshaw: I first encountered Derrick Bell when I was in undergrad, Africana studies major at Cornell University. And I got ahold of his book called Race, Racism, and American Law. And in the first few pages of the book, there's a lithograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing with their Black power, you know, salute in the Olympics when they had won in track and field.
And they were representing what I think the text represented, a willingness to run the race, to play the game. And to excel in it, but always to do it reminding the audience that they are part of a population that is a population that hasn't received full citizenship. And they were going to occupy that space fully as African Americans.
That's what Derrick Bell was to the study of law. It's a brilliant treatise on the law and its relationship to racial power. So he was not going to marginalize questions about, "Well, how did the law help facilitate the subordination of people of color?"
Derrick Bell: If we face up to the reality of racism and the role it plays in this society, that it's not simply an aberration, that it's a necessary stabilizing influence in a society like ours, that doesn't mean that we give up.
Lee: Here's Professor Derrick Bell in 1992 on the PBS show The Open Mind.
Bell: It means that we are able to face the real problems, the real enemy if you will, and to fashion tactics and strategies that are likely to be more effective. Not guaranteed, not likely even to bring about the kind of era we thought about when we sang, "We shall overcome," but likely to lead to a more meaningful endeavor than we're now engaged in.
Crenshaw: And that was distinct from how a lot of other law professors thought and wrote about law in relationship to race. Race was often a secondary or even a tertiary concern. It was always balanced with federalism and with other aspects of the constitutional order that were taken as a given, that were never interrogated.
Well, Bell interrogated how the very Constitution itself was ground zero in understanding racial power. So a lot of us said, "Well, we wanna go study with this guy," (LAUGH) right? So I set my sights on attending Harvard Law School. And as they say, when I arrived, you know, Elvis had left the building. (LAUGHTER) Derrick Bell had left.
Lee: What happened to Professor Bell?
Crenshaw: Professor Bell was an activist inside the institution. By that I mean he was challenging the law school's belief that the only people that were qualified to come to teach at Harvard were pretty much people who either went to an elite school or clerked for an elite judge or pursued some of the topics that traditionally people who teach at Harvard taught.
And our view, as he laid it out, was that this is exactly how these institutions stay all white and all male, continuing to do the same thing, continuing to value the same thing, continuing to elevate the same kinda concerns. And so he just grew frustrated with the slow pace, and so he just was tired of it and left and went to Oregon.
Lee: So Elvis had left the building. You get to Harvard with a bunch of other people and Professor Bell's gone?
Crenshaw: He is gone. So when we got to Harvard and he wasn't there, we were disappointed, but we thought surely you are going to find someone to teach this important course. And while you're at it, we look around and we see that there are, what, two Black faculty. One--
Crenshaw: --tenured Black faculty out of a faculty of about 70. This is a liberal institution? And the university's response was lackluster to say the least. They were basically of the mind that that was not a critical course, it was not essential to the study of law.
We could try to put it together with a placement in legal aid and constitutional law. And we were like, "No. Actually, we want to learn about the relationship of race and law. We want to learn the full picture: the good, the bad, and the ugly."
And, you know, we had a struggle. The university didn't want to do it; we did. So we set about creating an alternative course. We brought law professors from across the country who were willing to teach a chapter out of Derrick Bell's book.
And about three years after that, I was a young law professor and worked with a few other people to say, "Look, let's bring all of the folks together." And that was the beginning of what became critical race theory. So you know how people say that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, his absence was the mother of our effort to create what we would have learned, we believed, had he been there.
Lee: The deeper you got into the practice, and the more you, you know, got invested in this, how were you changed personally?
Crenshaw: Oh, that's such an interesting question. I mean, in some ways, I would say that it was demystifying. So, you know, I went to law school thinking, "I'm here to learn the magic. I'm here to learn, you know, how we go about making possible and realizing the full extent of what had been started." And reading Derrick Bell and then getting there was, in some ways, a rude awakening. It turned out there really isn't magic there. There's no abracadabra. There's (LAUGH) no, you know--
Lee: No boppin' your head with a law book and there it is?
Crenshaw: Yeah, none of that. Like, you know, the whole (LAUGH) scales of justice thing, actually, she does kinda pull up her blindfold and say, "Wait, who's callin'?" (LAUGH) Right?
Lee: It's a mesh blindfold. It's like--
Crenshaw: (LAUGH) It's mesh.
Lee: --nothin' but holes in it. (LAUGHTER)
Crenshaw: Exactly. And, you know, it did create more of a realist out of me. I'm optimistic at heart. I believe that all things are possible, but I also believe all things are possible. We can move forward in tremendous leaps and bounds, and we can move backwards in tremendous leaps and bounds. That's what our history has taught us.
And the real challenge today is whether that history is accessible to this generation, whether we're reading this chapter and saying, "You know, is this the sequel to what happened after the end of reconstruction?" And if we start recognizing the patterns, our hope of course is that we can dedicate the time and the attention and the resources to redirect this ending.
So we're not looking at another 60 or 70 years in which we're pushed out of the political arena and pushed out of institutions and subordination is completely rationalized by a nationalistic story that basically says that everything American is good and everything critical is unpatriotic.
Lee: For those that don't know the fall of reconstruction, it was bad. The redemption period, it was bloody--
Lee: --and violent. And there have been some real concern that we are headed in that kind of-- the pendulum is swingin' back. And I wonder, do you sense a danger in this work? (LAUGH) Really uncovering America for what it is? We see the backlash, and we saw January 6, and we see the weaponized whiteness.
Lee: Is there danger in it?
Crenshaw: Of course there's danger in it. I mean, you know, Martin Luther King was at one point called the most dangerous man in America. Just let's sit with that (LAUGH) for a minute.
Lee: That's crazy.
Crenshaw: Right? The man who, you know, marched and preached the gospel of what true love really is: Love of country, love of one's fellow citizens, love of all of us. That this man was framed as a danger to America, it does make you ask at least, "Well, what do you think America is about?"
So the same people who underwrote that, the same think tanks that have enabled the sense of grievance and righteous indignation, out of whole cloth, these are the same people that are feeding us the lies about critical race theory. So if we can't trust them to tell the truth about critical race theory, about what's going on in the classroom, about our past, whether people know critical race theory or not, whether they care about critical race theory or not, they need to look at who these people are and what they are promoting.
And understand what risk we all face if they are allowed to dictate what can be said, what can be taught, what can be learned, who can vote, and who can protest. This is a recurrence of redemption. All of these things are exactly what happened at the end of reconstruction.
Lee: We have to take a quick break. When we come back, Professor Crenshaw and I talk about how this discourse has infiltrated state politics and classrooms across the country. Stick with us.
Lee: We're back with Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founders of critical race theory. This conservative uproar goes well beyond the framing of the actual theory. Since January, lawmakers in 27 states have proposed some kind of legislation to limit anti-racist training in schools.
In at least five states: Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, and Tennessee, these bills have been signed into law. Most of this legislation doesn't name critical race theory outright, but they are filled with vague language about race or sex scapegoating; basically, they limit what teachers can say about racial equality and structural oppression.
And they call back to that executive order from former President Trump which calls for a, quote, "patriotic education." Professor Crenshaw told me the only thing that's been surprising about this backlash is that we haven't learned from the past, that we've actually allowed it to get this far.
Crenshaw: I will tell you what I'm surprised about, honestly. In September, when Donald Trump fast-tracked this executive order to ban diversity training, critical race theory, the 1619 Project, implicit bias, and when he framed racial justice as discrimination against white people, I thought pretty much everybody would see this for what it is, all justice-loving people. And would join the effort to try to block it and prepare for this to become the new campaign after the election.
And so what was surprising to me was how hard it was to get people concerned about it. And I would say across the board: civil libertarians who generally are big free speech people didn't seem to see this as a Trojan horse that would ultimately explode into statutes and school board decisions to ban teaching that made certain students feel a certain way. Can you imagine the legality of what you can teach turning on whether a certain student is gonna feel, you know, a certain way about it?
Lee: Students in classrooms for a long time have been some sort of way about the lessons they were being taught. (LAUGH)
Crenshaw: That's exactly what I've been-- like, so when do our feelings, you know, count? And that's even assuming that these things are symmetrical, which they are most decidedly not. It was a perfectly lobbed firebomb that had a long fuse. And it exploded in the last six months.
And now, so many folks are asking, "So what is critical race theory?" rather than, "What is this effort to control teachers, to fine them?" In Nevada, Trymaine, they want to put body cameras on teachers to make sure they're not teaching our racial history.
Now, these are probably people who don't even want to put body cameras on police officers who (LAUGH) are killing people. But they are willing to put body cams on teachers. So, yeah, I would say the condition of its possibility is the fact that our conversation about structural racism and our past has been so anemic for so long.
There's been so much absenteeism in the public square that, when the right decided to politicize critical race theory and throw everything having to do with racial justice, racial history, structural racism, implicit bias in the pyre, people were standing around and asking, "Well, what's that burnin'?" (LAUGH) Rather than, "Okay, we've gotta douse these flames."
Now, I think, you know, the tide is turning. But it does tell us that there was a cost over the last several years to actually playing along with this idea of colorblindness. There was a cost in thinking that we were post-racial. There was a cost in people not knowing about what happened in Tulsa and all of the other race riots that have happened across the country. So we're now starting to see that, when we don't tell that history, the effort to suppress its coming to fore are easier for the right wing to succeed in because we really aren't aware of what we're fighting for.
Lee: You're talkin' about in Nevada, but then there's also this Texas bill. And I wanna pull it up now, House Bill 3979, and I wanna read some of this. It doesn't mention critical race theory by name, but it prohibits teaching that, quote, "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously." That language, baked into the way we're teaching our children, and that finding its way in the state houses, what ultimately do you think that does to the truth of our history and teaching that truth of our history to our children?
Crenshaw: Well, it turns Juneteenth into simply a day that somethin' happened, you know, over 100 years ago, but we are not gonna talk about what preceded emancipation. We're not gonna talk about the fact that it took several years before Black people learned they were free because of embargoes on information that are playing out right now.
So, yeah, we'll talk about the past as long as we bury the past, we don't talk about its contemporary significance, or as long as nobody's offended by it. But the moment its implications become evident, that's the moment it becomes illegal.
It's content discrimination. It's viewpoint discrimination. And most problematically, it's a v-- version of a mythical past that has been the precursors to some of the worst episodes in human history. When we start dictating what can be taught, what can be said, and what is unsayable, we are well, well down the road towards an authoritarian regime.
People keep asking, "Can it happen here?" If you look at Black history, it has happened here. Racism will be the vehicle through which authoritarianism rises in this country. That's what we're seeing happening right now. And the only question is whether people who believe in this country, if they recognize that they have a dog in this fight. Only if people wake up and see that this implicates all of us can we have hope that this is not gonna be a replay of redemption in the 19th century.
Lee: Do you think those people who are armed with the firebombs right now and they're sellin' their constituents and their loyalists a certain kinda story, do they believe what they're sellin'? Do they believe? (LAUGH)
Crenshaw: Oh, yeah. (LAUGH)
Lee: Do they believe it, or?
Crenshaw: You know, I almost wanna quote Jimmy Baldwin here when he was-- I think it was Dick Cavett's show. There was this amazing clip with him. He used to say, "I don't know what you really think."
James Baldwin: I don't know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don't know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me, that doesn't matter, but I know I'm not in their unions. I don't know if the real estate lobby has anything against--
Baldwin: --Black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keepin' me in the ghetto. I don't know if the Board of Education hates Black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to.
Crenshaw: And I would say, you know, with the folks who are selling this, all I know is they are willing to set this country aflame in order to hold onto power. Just like the president was watching while the mob took over the Capitol, I think there are people who are watching while demagogues take over politics.
This is clearly a strategy that they're willing to put a lot of their chips in. And the only measure of whether it should or should not be done is whether it's working. And in fact, you know, I'll say if you look at some of the, you know, main characters in this, they will tell you exactly what they're doing.
There's a lot of money behind this. There is a lotta organizing behind this. Whether they really believe that critical race theory is taking over America, you know, it's kinda hard to look at America and think that suddenly, you know, Black people (LAUGH) are runnin' the show, right?
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Crenshaw: But the grievance is palpable. My colleague, Luke Harris, has a frame that he calls diminished overrepresentation which is to say, you know, we're not talking about any real loss of absolute power. If you look at corporate rooms and you look at Congress and you look at statehouses, you are not seeing, you know, even a full biracial, multiracial democracy. You're just not seeing a absolute all-white space. This is the cause of existential crisis for people. And it is what is driving so much grievance and anger and unfortunately, violence. This is a very volatile situation for our country.
Lee: Kimberlé Crenshaw is a law professor at Columbia and UCLA, and the executive director of the African American Policy Forum. Tell us what you think about this week's episode. You can tweet me at TrymaineLee, that's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or write to us at IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. that was IntoAmerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I dot-com. Send your thoughts, your ideas, or stories you'd like us to cover.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Aisha Turner. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.