The Memo

On Friday, September 4, 2020 President Trump had a memo sent out from the White House Office of Management and Budget directing all Federal agencies to cancel any and all antiracism trainings. He referred to these trainings as un-American, divisive propaganda. In particular the specified trainings that involved talking about “white privilege” and “Critical Race Theory.”  As one who considers himself a Critical Race theorist and has worked to help white folks come to terms with their privilege, I found this order particularly troubling. At a time when people are marching in communities across the country challenging practices and policies that maintain institutional racism, this seemed like a “head in the sand” move. Government leaders need to become more open to the voices of the people not less.

Be that as it may (see my last blog for my comments on that state of affairs), it occurred to me that there may be many people out there unfamiliar with Critical Race Theory. So at the risk of oversimplifying a very robust field of study, research and praxis, I want to provide a brief synopsis of the major tenets of Critical Race Theory, commonly referred to simply as CRT.


CRT has its origins in the mid-1970s when Harvard Law School Professor Derrick Bell wrote two articles raising questions about what moved the Supreme Court to rule in favor of racial desegregation in public schools in the famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case. The general consensus up to that point was that after several previous cases seeking a similar judgment, the justices came to the conclusion it was time to end segregation in America, and this decision sent a message to that effect.

Dr. Bell proposed an alternate theory. He noted that the United States had just successfully waged a war in Europe and in the Pacific Rim protecting democracy and promoting freedom throughout the world. World War II made the United States a true super-power and a beacon of hope to the free world. And yet Black soldiers who had fought in that war returned the U.S. to find the same Jim Crow laws and institutional segregation practices they had left when they joined the military. Bell surmised that the U.S. government had a dilemma. Here they were preaching freedom and democracy around the world, and yet a group of citizens was being denied the right to vote, to live where they wanted to live, to be paid an equitable wage, and to attend quality schools. In short the U.S. was not “walking their talk” with Black folks when it came to democracy, and the rest of the world knew it.

Now Professor Bell had no proof; he was putting forth an alternative theory, but a legal historian named Mary Dudziak researched the archives of the State and Justice Departments and discovered Bell was correct. Domestic and international image concerns had played a significant role in the Court’s decision. This confirmation eventually gave rise to a conference in Madison, Wisconsin of legal scholars and students, and Critical Race Theory was born. At first CRT was only discussed within legal circles, but over time it has come into use in analyzing the effects of racism in education, sociology, literature, and much more. While the original CRT focused on the experience of African Americans, over time CRT has also led to the formation of Latinx Critical theory, Feminist Critical Theory, Asian Critical theory, Queer theory, and many more. There is even Critical Whiteness Studies, which is where I place myself in the field.

So What is Critical Race Theory?

Some people call CRT a movement, and its spread into disciplines beyond the law is proof of that, but I like to think of it has a framework for understanding how race and racism work in American society. And as I see it, CRT is shaped by seven basic principles.

  1. Racism is an ordinary part of American life. Racism is not an aberration from an agreed-upon norm; rather it is a part of every American’s daily life, regardless of racial identity or skin color. Thus, when events happen, decisions are made or media reports are broadcast, it is always important to ask: Is racism at play in this situation, and if so, how?
  2. Interest convergence is a central principle of CRT and what led Professor Bell to question the commonly accepted explanation for the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision. Because racism advances the purposes of white elites and working-class whites, there is a sizable segment of the population who have no incentive to do away with racism. So when something happens like the Brown decision that seems to benefit Blacks, it must also benefit whites too. Bell argued that advances for Blacks always seem to coincide with changing economic conditions and something that serves the interests of whites, particularly upper-class whites. The interests of whites “converge” with the interest of Blacks, and so it goes forward; if there are few benefits for whites, chances are change will be difficult.
  3. Race is a social construct. Race has no inherent fixed basis in one’s biology or genetics. Put simply, if you looked at someone’s blood or their DNA, you would not be able to tell what race the person was. Race is a social reality on which we have place great value. To be considered white carries great advantages, whereas being considered Black or Latinx or Native American is a disadvantage. This disparity is not based on biology like skin color, but on how society values one’s skin color or racial/ethnic identity over another.
  4. Different racial/ethnic groups experience racism differently. Racism comes in many forms. The dominant white society racializes and values racial groups differently depending on their perceived social and political needs. For instance, immigration from the Global South has long been seen as advantageous to certain economic sectors, especially agriculture, but now for political reasons, immigrants are regarded in a negative light. Racism works in many ways and can change, as in the case of Latin Americans, over time.
  5. Listening to the voices of the racially marginalized is critical. Their stories of those who have experiences with oppression have been excluded from the history books and need to be heard. One of the great errors of our political leaders of both major parties is that all too often they make decisions and design programs for those on the margins of society without asking them what they actually need. Storytelling, particularly stories that provide a marginalized or silenced perspective needs to be lifted up and heard.
  6. Racism is not the only form of oppression and discrimination. There is also sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, and so on. These various forms of oppression interact in unique ways so that in one category say race and person might be in the dominant group (white) but may be female and suffer sexism, and poor and face classism. This interplay of oppressions is called Intersectionality and is a key component of CRT thought.
  7. Finally, racism is more than individual discrimination. All too many people assume racism is simply interpersonal, but it is also enshrined in our laws, our policies, and the practices of our institutions and systems. Institutional and systemic racism cover the spectrum including education, healthcare, criminal justice, employment, housing, and much more. As you read through these tenets, you may be thinking: “I don’t do those things or think that way!” You don’t have to, because our institutions and systems do it for us. Much of what happens according to CRT is built into the way our systems work so that one doesn’t even know they are participating in a racist system. For that reason, CRT inherently seeks ways to work for systemic change.

Now, this is a very superficial thumbnail sketch of CRT and its application can found in many fields and disciplines. For many people, CRT takes much of what we have been taught to believe and blows it out of the water. I can see why the President might object; it causes us to examine and rethink what we believe to be true, and right and fair. It causes us to realize that racism is actually at the heart of all that is American. 

There is much more that I could say, but will leave it there. For those who want to learn more, I recommend two books:

  • Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell (Harper Collins, 1992).
  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (New York University Press, 2012).

So there you go, Now you know a little of what Critical Race Theory is, which I am willing to guess is more than the President knows because I am told he doesn’t read much. 🙂