We’re observing a growing debate about “critical race theory.” Unfortunately, both sides talk past each other by making disconnected comments as if reading from different scripts. For example, each side accuses the other of being structurally racist.
Traditionally, racism is defined as having prejudice or antagonism toward another person based on race or ethnicity. It’s often manifested by an act detrimental to others, such as some form of discrimination. Uninformed observers must realize that CRT isn’t using traditional definitions for many critical words such as racism.
Careful study of Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to be an Antiracist” shines a bright light on reasons for much of the confusion. Here is Kendi’s definition of racist: “One who supports a racist policy through action or inaction or expression of a racist idea.” An antiracist is: “One who is supporting an antiracist policy or expressing an antiracist idea.”
What makes a policy racist or antiracist? Suppose someone is making a distinction in favor of, or against an individual, based on race. That’s racist, right? Not necessarily, argues Kendi. That action isn’t inherently racist because for determining racist discrimination, “the defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.”
Kendi uses the term “equity” to describe different groups being on “approximately equal footing.” Equity refers to “equal results” rather than “equality of opportunity.” Here are other related ideas that seem to be basic tenets of CRT:
- Discrimination against white persons can’t be racist. According to antiracist theory, that action is actually promoting equity, and is therefore antiracist. If discrimination against any group advances “equity” it cannot be considered racist.
- Kendi explains that the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. That seems to reflect what Justice Harry Blackmun meant in 1978 when he wrote: “In order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
- Racism and antiracism complete the spectrum of racial actions. Neutrality has no place in this theory, except for the assertion that claims of race neutrality are prime examples of racism. Colorblindness is simply impossible.
- Here’s one of Kendi’s most surprising assertions: “The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a ‘race-neutral’ one.”
- In order to escape being a racist, one must pursue antiracism through personal actions. It seems that if you aren’t an antiracism activist at some level, you are a racist.
CRT definitions and rules aren’t simply ideas being offered for consideration as we search for solutions to racial issues. Many CRT supporters anoint the theory as the one and only appropriate way to address the racism problem. But this raises important questions. Is equity possible? Who will define equity and measure success? Does outlawing the traditional civil rights goal of achieving “colorblindness” doom the movement?
CRT and its recent intellectual “engines,” such as Ibram X. Kendi and The 1619 Project, have introduced new perspectives and definitions, and that fact isn’t adequately understood by CRT opponents. Consequently, the debate goes nowhere – or more accurately, the concept of CRT gains ground.
Those resisting CRT curricula in schools wouldn’t be fighting such a frustrating uphill battle if, after educating themselves, this resistance movement were to inform the public on how antiracist language and theory differ from traditional “colorblind” and other goals of the civil rights movement. CRT detractors believe Martin Luther King Jr. and CRT have parted company in many important ways – something most CRT proponents deny.
Will the participants in this debate ever agree on a common language and definitions? That’s impossible. Realistically, for either side to accept the other side’s definitions won’t happen because that would amount to conceding defeat. Nevertheless, since clarity promotes discussion and understanding, all participants should understand these semantic differences and publicly acknowledge how their “languages” differ, and how that affects public confusion.
Somehow, we need get beyond semantics to start answering important questions such as: What is CRT? Is CRT taught in our classrooms? And, is the objection to teaching CRT a refusal to discuss important racial issues?