This year, Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday. You might not be particularly familiar with this celebratory day, but being a native of Texas, this is something I know well. Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery. More specifically, it marks the anniversary of the date of the June 19, 1865, the announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger, proclaiming and enforcing freedom of enslaved people in Texas, which was the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery. Texas held onto, and even spread slavery, longer than any other state because it was the most remote of the Confederate states. The Emancipation Proclamation had outlawed slavery in Texas on Jan 1, 1863, but Union soldiers weren’t there to enforce it. So it was two-and-a-half years before freedom came to slaves in Texas – and they were the last slaves freed. When slaves in Texas finally were freed that was it – that was the end of the institution of slavery in the United States. June 19th, or Juneteenth as it is called, has been a day of celebration in parts of the US since then. The celebrations started in 1866 in Texas and have spread all over the US.
There is a certain amount of irony in Juneteenth being confirmed as a federal holiday in this period of time when Black history is being outlawed throughout the US. Because make no bones about it, the official war is on Critical Race Theory, but the actual war is on Black and People of Color’s history.
Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an academic discipline composed of scholars in the United States who have examined how supposedly colorblind laws may enforce systemic racism, and how transforming the relationship between law and racial power can achieve social justice. Critical Race Theory examines how the law and institutions intersect with issues of race, and challenges mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice. It took root in the 1970s as an offshoot of critical theory and had emerged as an academic movement in the 1980s as a rebrand of Critical Legal Studies. Both CRT and CLS are rooted in critical theory, which argues that social problems are influenced and created more by societal structures and cultural assumptions than by individual and psychological factors. Critical Race Theory argues that racism is systemic and institutional, rather than just a collection of individual actions or ideas. It also views race as a socially constructed identity. It’s important to understand that CRT came out of legal studies. There is a focus on systems and institutions. CRT does not argue that a person did a racist thing, but that racism is part of the system. We’ll get to that in a moment – that’s one of the reasons some people hate it so much. Intersectionality – which emphasizes that race can intersect with other identities (such as gender and class) to produce complex combinations of power and disadvantage – is a key concept in Critical Race Theory.
There is a movement afoot in many states to outlaw CRT. As of June 2021, eight U.S. states have enacted laws banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and nine others are in the process of doing so. The flurry of activity against CRT is because, critics argue, unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, “which sought to work within the structures of American democracy, critical race theorists challenge the very foundations of the liberal order, such as rationalism, constitutional law, and legal reasoning … [while arguing] that American social life, political structures, and economic systems are founded on race,” according to the Legal Insurrection Foundation. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, says that CRT argues for “race essentialism,” and the idea that all white people are racists, which he finds an offensive position. As Nathan M. Greenfield reports, “In addition to holding that America was founded on racist principles and remains racist today, Rufo says, CRT “claims that individuals categorised as ‘white’ are inherently responsible for injustice and oppression committed by white populations in the past”.
According to Rufo, CRT theorists believe that “meritocracy is a mechanism to uphold racist structures and is derived from ‘racism, nativism [white people] and eugenics.” CRT leads ultimately, Rufo says, to a hard-line Marxist position that the solution to American racism “is to redistribute private property and dismantle the system of capitalism.’”
Basically, critics object because they say CRT teaches that America, and all white people, are racist. But I want to address this with a bit more nuance – DOES CRT say all white people are racist? Kind of, yeah. But that doesn’t mean what critics say it means. Let’s explore this.
As I have noted, CRT looks at systems and institutions. Systems are racist. Institutions are racist. Racism is not a product of individual ideas or actions; it is the systemic processes. So a person is racist because they are a part and a product of a system. Even if that person isn’t particularly prejudicial themselves, they are part of a racist system. A white person is part of a racist system or institution, and they benefit from it. They are part of a racist ideology. They are part of a racist machine. And because racism isn’t due to a white person’s individual thoughts or actions, they are part of this racist system even if they, themselves, are not particularly biased. Because the SYSTEM is biased. So one of the things that a CRT perspective invites us to do is decouple the ideas of racism and personal moral failing. Certainly, there are some people who are prejudiced, white supremacists, and that is bad. But racism isn’t a personal issue. It is the system in which you live. You aren’t bad if you are a racist – because every white person is a racist because every white person is a part of a racist system. Now, how you choose to operate within that system speaks to your character – do you seek to uphold the system, or do you try to empower Black people and People of Color? But there is a connection between whiteness and racism not because white people are bad, but because whiteness is institutional, and institutions are racist. This nuance is lost on CRT critics who hear accusations of racism and just think “they think we’re bad people!” So is America a racist country? Well, it is based on systems of slavery, colorblind (which inherently privileges whiteness) law, and policing Black and Brown bodies. That’s racist! It’s not because each American is bad. It’s because the systems we set up in the beginning were racist and those systems are still running. It’s not about individuals doing bad things (and being judged for them), it’s about the machines that run the nation and their very programming being racist.
So the opposition is all keyed up because they claim CRT says that America is a racist country. And when they make that claim the usual pattern is for progressives to say, “No, that’s not accurate.” But this time, it kind of is. CRT does argue that America is a racist country. But that means something different than what the opposition would have you believe. When critics hear “America is a racist country” they hear “All Americans are evil.” But the actual argument is “the systems of power at the root of America are biased against Black people and People of Color.” Those are two completely different things.
There is also a difference in response to these ideas. If I say, “America is a racist country” and you hear “All Americans are evil,” what is to be done? Honestly, not much. That’s just kind of a blanket statement on character that can’t really be combatted. If Americans are just bad people, then there isn’t much to be done about the whole thing. But if I say, “America is a racist country” and you hear “there are systems of power working against Black people and People of Color” then there is some hope. True, it is hard to work against systemic power, but you can work for change in that situation. You can, in fact, fight, or maybe even change, the system. You can decide for yourself if you are going to work to uphold or work to change the system for the betterment of society. But if you are talking about inherent characteristics of people – they’re just bad – then what can you do? Critics of CRT see it as a comment on people’s character, and that because it is “race essentialism” there is no hope for progress. CRT scholars are arguing no such thing. They argue that racism is a matter of systems and institutions. And those are not immutable.
But to be perfectly frank, when people fret about CRT being taught in schools this isn’t what they are upset about. Very few junior high and high school curriculums get into this kind of nuance when discussing race. And if this isn’t what kids are being taught to begin with then why is this an issue?
It’s an issue because Black Lives Matter was popular for all of two minutes in America and that really freaked out those people who MOST benefit from racist systems. It’s an issue because the 1619 Project dared to delve into Black history. And even that is a step too far for those at the top of the food chain. Because this isn’t even about CRT. Most critics of CRT don’t understand what it is or why it has been a part of law or grad classes for years or the difference between individual acts of prejudice and systemic racism – they just object to Black history being taught.
The 1619 Project was developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, writers from The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative”. It was published in The New York Times Magazine in August 2019 for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia. There were many criticisms of the 1619 Project and some of its initial claims had to be softened as historians weighed in on the lofty project. But the goal of writers and journalists, to center Blackness in our American history, proved to be so controversial that there were some people who wanted laws written that it could not be taught in schools.
Let’s be clear – this was Black history. And Black history was so radical, so uncomfortable, such an affront to the “normal way things are” that some people were ready to punish teachers for teaching it.
We have Black history month. But what is that? MLK? George Washington Carver? What about Ida B. Wells? The Tulsa Massacre and Black Wall Street? The social justice work of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers?
As we have noted before, whiteness is embedded all throughout our educational system. As we have argued previously, whiteness is an assumed part of our education. Our entire system is predicated on that. We teach whiteness from the moment our students enter into their first days of pre-k and kindergarten all the way through upper education. That’s why people freak out about diversity credits. Because they run counter to the hidden curriculum.
And that hidden curriculum has done a great job of supporting the powers that be for generations. People who benefit from whiteness benefit from a system that teaches whiteness. They support each other.
So it makes sense that people who benefit from empowered whiteness, which let’s face it, is all white people, might be frightened by programs that teach something other than that program of whiteness. Education is, and has always been, designed to support whiteness. And systems of gender and class. And these systems create hierarchies in politics, in business, in the home, and in culture that set up boundaries for anybody who isn’t white (or otherwise buoyed by the educational ideological system). So for some people these diversity programs seem legitimately dangerous. They threated a way of thinking. A way of life. A way of seeing and operating in the world. They threaten the structures that have kept them safe and empowered for years.
Teaching Black history is a direct affront to that whiteness. And I want to be really clear, here – this isn’t even teaching “diversity” or “inclusion” or whatever buzzword you want to throw in there. I’m just talking about teaching the history of Black folks. Just straight up history. Teaching the history of Black people, or Native people, or Latino* people is such a challenge to white supremacy that people in power are trying to outlaw it. Forget the theorizing or the critical approach to history that CRT or CLS asks of you – we are talking about just teaching straight up history. But because it is Black history or Native history it gets labeled CRT and banished. Because anything other than a white story is an affront. We are so fragile and tenuous in our positions of power that we can’t even allow anyone else’s story to be told. So people are telling teachers they can’t teach the histories of non-white people. That’s not just white supremacy. That’s ethno-fascism.
If the goal were to teach “diversity” or “inclusion” or, God forbid, about systemic racism, we’d be talking about what makes a community. We’d be talking about how we construct identity and the narrative and mythic nature of history. We’d be talking about ethics and human nature. But that’s not what’s going on, here. People are arguing over whether things should be taught that actually happened.
Arizona passed a law this spring that barred discussions that would make anyone feel guilt, anguish, or any psychological distress on the basis of their race, sex or ethnicity; another section prohibited lessons that would make a student feel responsible for “actions committed by other members of the same race, ethnic group or sex.” So they literally outlawed discussions that might make anyone feel uncomfortable. Just think about that for a moment – Black children and Children of Color all over the United States have been hearing white history, a history that glorifies slave-owners and segregationists and demonizes some of the greatest activists for equality in American history, but the moment those lessons might make white children uncomfortable they are literally banished.
If Critical Race Theory actually had any purchase at any level in American education, then these efforts would be recognized for what they are – an attempt to erase People of Color from the American narrative. This is not an argument about Critical Race Theory. It is nowhere near that nuanced. This is about the actual voices and lives of non-white people and whether they have a place in America. And fifteen states are arguing that they do not.
The irony, of course, is that CRT helps explain this. Through the lens of CRT we can understand that the educational system is, like all American institutions, entrenched in whiteness, and when there were noticeable efforts made, like the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project, to challenge whiteness, our institutions doubled down.
As Black voices and Voices of Color demand to be heard and to take their place in the American narrative, white systems, instead of expanding or changing, are clamping down. Those who benefit from these systems fear a loss of power if the institutions and the systems change, so the responses to these demands from marginalized voices are vitriolic and severe. We accuse those of trying to include their stories in the American narrative of “racism” or “provocation” just for trying to tell what happened to them.
I have taught college classes in some form or fashion since 2003. And many of those classes have dealt with American history on some level because I teach political rhetoric. One of the most profound lessons every year is the lesson on segregation. My students know segregation was what kept Black people and white people separate. But that’s it. That’s the end of their understanding of it. They have no concept of it as a pernicious system designed to oppress people – to keep them poor, repressed, sick, and ignorant. They have been told segregation was bad, but they honestly have no idea WHY. And when we talk about this – when they learn what segregation was – there is always this kind of shock. And the response is almost always, “Why didn’t I know this?” There’s a lot we talk about in class that leads them to ask, “Why didn’t I know this?” But that one is fairly common. They ask the same thing about the radicalness of MLK or the idealism of Malcolm X. And I try to let them make the connections. Why wouldn’t you be taught about segregation? Who wouldn’t want you to know about MLK’s ideology? Who benefits from that? And some of them make the connections. And some of them just put it away and try not to think about it.
Having them read MLK’s “A Time to Break Silence” or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” isn’t CRT. It’s just providing a primary source. Having them ask why those messages have been hidden from them DOES address the systems of power that they live in.
But a high schooler who learns that MLK thought that white moderates were the biggest enemy to equality isn’t a victim of CRT – they’re a learner of history.
Which is why we really need to understand what’s going on, here. This isn’t an argument about CRT. It’s nowhere near that sophisticated. This is a war on marginalized people’s stories themselves.
By the time Juneteenth rolls around again I expect it will have been completely co-opted. There will be Juneteenth TV sales and drink specials, and various corporations will mark the day with a special logo. So it’s up to us to keep this story viable. Juneteenth is the story of emancipation of our Black brothers and sisters – we have to keep that narrative alive. It is an important part of Black history, and we can’t let that story be swallowed up by systemic, pervasive whiteness. We literally have to fight the system.
*We thought hard about what term to use here. Latinx seemed inauthentic and using both Latina and Latino didn’t seem any more inclusive than just Latino. Hispanic didn’t encompass as much as we wanted. We considered Chicano but decided on Latino. We hope this is not exclusionary to any of our listeners.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.