“Critical Race Theory describes racism like a living organism - like a tree.”
You ask anyone, no matter their educational background, socioeconomic status, or racial/ethnic identity, how do we end racism? You will get a wide range of answers - even answers that completely deny the existence of racism. Finding consensus about how to handle racism can be like pulling teeth.
Why is that? Racism doesn’t just exist in one-on-one interactions between people, but it exists within systems that set the grounds for who is included and who is excluded. However, interrupting such a system is bound to ruffle feathers.
Let’s talk about the latest example: Between September 2020 and January 2021, the federal government and several states deemed the subject of race and racism in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training and school environments as “divisive concepts”. “Divisive” and “race stereotyping”, in particular, are terms critics have used to describe a burgeoning anti-racism movement. Recently, those critics have honed in on the issue of Critical Race Theory (CRT) particularly in schools as the focus of their critique.
On its face, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a concept that helps us understand how racism is perpetrated systemically in the United States; specifically, how racism is deeply embedded in American society, going beyond the attitudes and choices of individuals.
CRT describes racism like a living organism - like a tree. A tree has roots that run deep into the ground and spread wide in whatever area it's planted. A tree starts from a seed, a seed that contains all the genetic makeup of what that tree is to look like and produce throughout its life course. You can’t change the tree by tending to its branches, nor can you change the fruit it bears. If I were to use my grandmother’s wisdom, she’d say, “you can’t plant an apple tree and get mad when it doesn’t grow oranges.” That tree will be whatever that seed says it will be. Racism operates similarly as a deeply-rooted, self-reinforcing system limiting what choices are available to people of color through the use of laws, policies, and/or procedures (i.e., the seed).
While racism can come from individual people just as that tree has branches; it functions more as a rooted institution in its own right than as the prejudice of a select few. Enter systemic racism...
Of the many reforms intended to combat systemic racism, CRT is one that was formed over 40 years ago out of the frustrating reality that racial reform in the United States was moving at too slow of a pace. Before CRT came on to the scene in the 1980’s, gains in trying to appeal to the American people’s empathy concerning race relations were far and few between. So, CRT emerged as an academic framework (a sort of philosophy of sorts) to target the root issues of racial injustice by explicitly laying out the racial landscape of the US.
CRT originated in academic and legal communities and possesses strong “rock the boat” qualities. CRT argues that racism is undeniable and that in order to progress toward just and equitable treatment for all people, certain principles about racial injustice in the United States must be acknowledged.
To get a full idea of CRT, I want to offer a look at its main principles.
A CRT framework helps us understand:
- Racism is common because it’s systemic, not a product of individual prejudice. CRT acknowledges that racial inequality is primarily fueled by systems - namely, the procedures and policies of those systems that privileges a few and not the whole. Think of it this way, on the other side of privilege is prejudice. So, it's an important practice to question whether what you have is a result of someone else not having it.
- Racial justice is supported as long as it benefits everyone, not just marginalized groups. This principle of CRT says that progress toward racial justice is something that those in power will support as long as there is “convergence” between the interests of the powerful and the marginalized. A classic “what’s in it for me?” scenario.
- Race is a made-up social construct, historically used to benefit White people and exclude people of color. There is no scientific differentiation between humans based on race, only cosmetic, making race (and thus racism) a man-made creation that can be unmade. Despite the superficiality of race as a defining trait, these identity labels have served as a basis for access to housing, employment, schooling, and so many other social opportunities.
- School curricula are designed around mainstream, White, middle-class values, but storytelling and counter-storytelling dismantles this notion. The histories of marginalized groups paint the bigger picture of American history - both victorious and grim. By grazing over the pivotal histories of those who were directly (and heavily) involved in the establishment of this nation, you restrict the identity of a people. Counter-storytelling ushers in an “unlearning” of one-sided truths and thus, restores a sense of dignity to the marginalized.
- Lastly, white individuals are the actual beneficiaries of civil rights legislation. The controversial policy of affirmative action serves as a fitting example here. While it is a policy that is most often associated with upward social mobility for minorities, statistics show that White women have been the majority recipients of affirmative action hiring policies.
From school systems, to healthcare, to housing, and governance, racism has historically been and remains painstakingly evident; its impact and nature mostly affects those who do not have the power to dismantle it themselves. Critical race theory is far from a framework that pits people of different races against each other. Rather, CRT is about understanding what created racial divisions in the first place, what sustains them, and lighting the way towards how we all rise above them once and for all. You want to know more about why a tree grows the way it does? Consider its seeds. Acknowledge its roots.Then, we'll have sufficient knowledge of what contributes to the ecosystem the tree supports, and the fruit it bears. Just as CRT uncovers the harsh reality of how race and racism functions in American society, we invite you to acknowledge the ways you think about systemic racism as we dive into our next series article, “40 Examples of CRT in Real Life”.