Why You Need to Understand Critical Race Theory (CRT)

By: Jim Murphy


Why You Need to Understand Critical Race Theory (CRT)

1. CRT is a field of study that examines how systems and laws in the US have impacted (and sustained) racial inequality. It’s a discussion based on the belief that race is a social construct, created by the systems and policies in the U.S. that over the years have divided people into groups, to the benefit of some groups and detriment of others. 

2. CRT has its roots in Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell‘s desire to understand the impact of landmark civil rights cases. One of his students, Kimberle Crenshaw, introduced the term Critical Race Theory in a 1989 workshop to express “how the fiction of race was made real.”

3. In a New York Times opinion piece, Osita Nwanevu called Critical Race Theory “arguably the most important phrase of 2021.”

4. Nine US states have now banned CRT with more to come.

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham jail

A year ago yesterday an angry mob attacked the capital building in what may be the most revealing event of our time. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that 1 in 3 Americans (as well as 40% of Republicans and 41% of Independents) say violent action against the government can at times be justified. The last two years the United States has been unmistakably marked by extreme division, discontent and destructive extremists–greater than ever seen in my lifetime. And it may get a lot worse.

It’s a fear-driven time in American history, and one of the most controversial phrases of this time is Critical Race Theory (CRT). 

How CRT became a firestorm
On Sept. 2, 2020 Tucker Carlson had a guest on his show named Christopher Rufo. Rufo shared how a dangerous idea was spreading in the federal government and that “the bureaucracy was being weaponized against the American people and core American values… being infiltrated into our scientific establishment… judging people by their group identity.”

President Donald Trump saw it, sent off a tweet (NOT this one] and invited Rufo to the White House. The Rufo warning was like a fireworks sparkler handed to Carlson then passed on to the president, exploding like a firecracker, lighting up a parched and thirsty land. 

On April 28, 2021 Governor Brad Little signed bill HB 377, making Idaho the first state to ban CRT. While the bill itself doesn’t explain CRT, it has a clause that bans tenets “often found in ‘critical race theory.'” At least eight states have followed suit with more likely on the way. 

What opponents say
Here’s how outspoken opponent Kerry McDonald describes CRT:

“It’s the practice of viewing all social and cultural issues through the lens of race and racial identity and casting all human relations in terms of power structures related to that identity.” And that CRT, “as it is currently implemented in schools across the country, is a harmful and divisive ideology influenced by Marxism that moves us further away from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a nation that focuses on individual character, not color. It is important to speak out against this ideology that places group identity above individualism and creates a binary conflict between “oppressor” and “oppressed” in relation to race.”

What the original developers of CRT say
Kimberle Crenshaw, in her third year as law professor, wanted to bring together thought leaders to brainstorm “how to think, how to see, how to read, how to grapple with how law has created and sustained race–our particular kind of race and racism–in American society.” The phrase Critical Race Theory came out of that meeting. 

Law professor at the University of Hawaii Mari Matsuda describes [CRT] as a map for change: “For me,” she said, “critical race theory is a method that takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in American law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just and healthy world for all.”

According to Jacey Fortin of the New York Times, “Critical race theorists reject the philosophy of “colorblindness.” They acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions. Proponents tend to understand race as a creation of society, not a biological reality.”

“The founders of CRT critiqued liberal ideologies, and called on research scholars to seek out and understand the roots of why racial disparities are so persistent, and to systemically dismantle racism.”

CRT is not about individual racists but a story of structures. “It argues that the legacy of slavery and segregation are still embedded in society today… It’s a proxy war, not a genuine disagreement. An academic theory that’s become a weaponized catch-all term for whatever they think wokeness is, and to retain the status quo.” 
– Jane Coasten, The Argument podcast

Supporters of CRT are concerned about racial inequality and how systems in place have perpetuated differences. It’s a discussion on how laws and norms create systems that favor one group over another, and how a comfort level of “how things are” gets enmeshed in the culture such that it pushes against things that question the status quo. 

Banning CRT reduces and seeks to eliminate the discussion of race in America. 

Founders of CRT seek to increase awareness of the systems in America that have created distinct races, benefitting some, hurting others. 

The 1619 Project
One of the targets of opponents of CRT is The 1619 Project, which is an on-going initiative from the New York Times Magazine that began in August, 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.

Why you should be concerned
CRT is an idea that affects all of us. It’s asking the question: Are you willing to look at the reality of the current situation of your community and culture and see how it got to be however it is, in order to make it better? Shall we have the discussion or eliminate it?

It’s not about guilt or being nice to Black people or other minorities. It’s about doing the historical research to see whether or not the US has been marked by systems that benefit some groups to the detriment of others, and have the groups that benefited (and been empowered) sought to keep that power structure.  If that’s the case, then it’s asking how you can be a part of the solution to dismantle any parts of a system that benefits some to the detriment of others. 

What you can do today:
1. Start by watching a movie on social justice or American history, true stories like Just Mercy, which shares the amazing work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, or The Great Debaters, which tells the story of an all-Black debate team in the Jim Crowe South that had a coach who believed in them, against formidable odds. 

2. Examine your own biases. The idea is not to make anyone feel guilty (CRT says systemic racism can exist without individual racists), but to examine how to improve our country, have an open discussion about our history, and teach kids how to think independently with all the information.

3. Consider if it’s possible that you have been the great stumbling block MLK was talking about, the white moderate (like myself), who has been more devoted to “order” than to justice. Are you willing to do the hard work of examining whether you’ve benefited from a system tailored to the group you belong to at the expense of other minority groups?

4. Set aside time in your busy life to read some of the resources below. 

Personal note
Although I was born in America, I’m also half Japanese and have Canadian and American passports. I’ve definitely been very ignorant of the privileges I’ve enjoyed without doing anything to deserve them, while other minority groups have suffered from a lack of those same privileges, as I previously wrote here after George Floyd was killed. 

As I write this, I’m listening to the book The Volunteer, which is the true story of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to go to the notorious Nazi death camp to help with the resistance. 

I struggle to listen to this, realizing how most of my life has been dominated by my own hopes and fears, and not that of others. If Pilecki was a man, then I am a mouse. A family man and father of two, Pilecki volunteered for a role that meant almost certain death at the chance to save the lives of fellow countrymen. Faced with the choice of family or others, as the biographer said, he made the only choice he could: give up his life (a father and husband) for others. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions and concerns about this letter. It’s quite likely I missed some important parts of this issue and may have gotten some things quite wrong. If so, let me know! Like you, I’m just a guy who wants to learn how to love greatly and live fully. I’m no expert on law, politics or history, just someone who did some research and hopefully became a little less ignorant on an important topic facing America and the world today. 

Love Jim 
I’m writing this on a house-building trip from base camp in Mexico for a group called 1MISSION. Their mission is to give people in poverty the opportunity to earn a house by serving their community. It’s a great organization that develops communities by having the family serve (in this case 400 hours) of community service in order to get their new home. I was invited here by former pro baseball player Brian Hommel and Unlimited Potential, Inc., an amazing organization that leads service missions around the world. 

Please pray that the Barajas Matus family’s new home brings them many good things in 2022 and beyond. Please also pray for the five families who lost loved ones January 6, 2022, for our country, and the countless countrymen who live in fear every day. 

Critical Race Theory: A Brief History. How a complicated and expansive academic theory developed during the 1980s has become a hot-button political issue 40 years later. New York Times. Fortin, Jacey. Nov. 8, 2021. 

The Man Behind Critical Race Theory.The New Yorker. Cobb, Jelani. Sept. 13, 2021.

How Redlining’s Racist Effects Lasted for Decades. New York Times. Badger, Emily. August, 24, 2017.

Why are States Banning Critical Race Theory? Brookings.edu.
Ray, Rayshawn, and Gibbons, Alexandra. Nov. 2021.

Jimmy Carter: I fear for our DemocracyNYTimes.com. Guest Essay. Jan. 5, 2022.

U.S. States Outlawing Education on Critical Race TheoryThomson Reuters Foundation. Kimathi, Sharon. Oct. 1, 2021. 

The 1619 Project.The New York Times Magazine.

How does this end? Where the Crisis in American Democracy Might be Headed.Vox.com. Beauchamp, Zack. Jan. 3, 2022.

How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict over Critical Race Theory. The New Yorker. Wallace-Wells, Benjamin. June 18, 2021.

How Critical Race Theory Mastermind Kimberle Crenshaw is Weathering the Culture Wars. Vanity Fair. Omokha, Rita. July 29, 2021.

Huge Racial Disparities Found in Deaths Linked to Pregnancy. New York Times. Caryn Rabin, Roni. May 7, 2019.

The Stark Racial Inequality of Personal Finances in America.New York Times. Lieber, Ron, and Siegel Bernard, Tara. June 9, 2020.

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