Critical race theory (CRT) is under attack. From the Republican Party and its allies, the political right globally, reactionary academics and defenders of white power on social media. Unsurprisingly, the Conservative Party jumped on the bandwagon.
It is hard not to laugh at the absurdly unlikely image of Conservative and Republican politicians engaging with the intellectual writings of critical race theorists such as Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw and David Gillborn. It is clear that CRT is something they know very little about. For them, it is no more than a catch-all term for anything deemed to challenge the racial status quo. In fact, it is a theoretical framework that allows us to better understand racial disparities in society and see how racism is deeply embedded in social structures and systems.
After a year of Black Lives Matter protests, the scaremongering is part of a concerted backlash against anti-racism. It is an attempt to consolidate conservative power by attacking ideas as well as actions. It reveals a fearful defensiveness about the power building in our movements. It should spur us on.
In the UK, the Conservatives have identified education as a battleground: a potential site to consolidate conservative ideology. This is not new but rather a reassertion, an escalation, of a longstanding practice of domination. Myths about leftists, Marxists and anti-racists taking over education provide cover for the consolidation of an education system that – under the cloak of ‘neutrality’ – only promotes values that are already dominant. But these values must be questioned. These values kill. In a society with so much injustice, we need liberatory frameworks – in education, politics, and across our society – to be free.
CRT poses a threat because it rubs up against the myths that the establishment relies upon. It encourages us to look not only at racism in the streets but deep within our institutions, the state, its laws and its policies. When we look with that critical eye, we see that schools reproduce racism; that it runs amok in all aspects of policing and endures in housing provision, healthcare, border policies and counter-terror strategies.
Racism is present too in the overrepresentation of black people in prison populations, unequal wealth distribution, infant mortality and life expectancies. Structures of racism render some people more vulnerable to Covid-19, make the path to justice for Grenfell more difficult and facilitate the continuing plunder the global South.
CRT enables us to see these structures as more than coincidence. However, perhaps the biggest threat it poses lies in its insistence that we take action in the pursuit of social justice. It teaches that we cannot remain silent, and that we have a duty to fight for a better world, particularly for those people the establishment consigns to the margins.
Radical anti-racist interventions, whether from CRT or elsewhere, should be the bedrock of any society with moral conviction. CRT is not a monolith, not without limits and not the only framework needed for liberation. Nevertheless, if taken seriously, its teachings hold the seeds of the social transformation that we need.
Desmond Tutu said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ At its foundation, CRT urges us to be on the side of the oppressed.
Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Sociology at the University of Manchester. This article originally appeared in issue #230: Struggles for Truth. Subscribe to Red Pepper today!
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