Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a body of scholarship created by U.S. civil rights scholars that describes systemic racism in our society. This once obscure academic theory has made its way into political conversations across the country in the last year. Right-wing policymakers and commentators have utilized the phrase “critical race theory” as a way to dismiss the topic of systemic racism, as it addresses the role of white people as oppressors.
The origin of critical race theory begins with the scholarship of Derrick Bell and meets us in our current time with law professor Kimberle Crenshaw. Crenshaw is a pioneering scholar and civil rights activist known for coining the terms “intersectional” and “critical race theory.” Crenshaw studied similar issues as Derrick Bell, a civil rights lawyer who worked to expose racism in the USA following Brown v. Board of Education and became the first African American tenured professor at Harvard Law. Critical race theory grew from critical legal studies, making it a decade-old, in-depth piece of academia that attempts to better understand these social issues.
To find out more about CRT for myself, I sat down with Professor Michael Burns who teaches English here at West Chester University. When asked to basically define critical race theory, Professor Burns said, “Critical race theory is concerned with looking at the ways that the law has limits in terms of addressing racial inequalities or any inequalities, really.” From his knowledge, I learned that it takes more than the law to determine who is equal, and in which ways. “And critical race theory takes its interest in looking at where those spaces are,” said Burns.
However, some do not have any interest in participating in the acknowledgement of systemic issues. Despite not even being able to define CRT, many spokespeople on Fox News referred to CRT as a “cult,” and an attempt to “brainwash.” According to an analysis by Media Matters, Fox News mentioned the term “critical race theory” 901 times in June 2021 alone. Even though many are disinterested by the idea of this academic discourse, a lot of right-wing policymakers as well as some media outlets are visibly concerned with the topic.
In mainstream media, critical race theory is a topic still being tossed around with little recognition of its definition. I continued my interview with Professor Burns to pick his brain about CRT’s representation in our country’s current climate. “It’s attempting to stifle what could be a potentially really important conversation,” said Burns. Clearly, across the U.S., a lot of Americans are muffling one of the most vital conversations of our history. Kimberle Crenshaw described the right-wing focus on CRT as part of a wider “post-George Floyd backlash” that began after his murder in May 2020.
Professor Burns describes most of the recent critique as a “bad faith argument.” He reinforces the point that it is a poor opposition if one takes an “antithetical” stance to this topic when they have never spent any time reading theory, listening to Black people, or trying to listen to Black people’s perspectives. “If you’ve never done anything for Black people and you come out and negatively critique Black people or initiatives or changes in the legal structure that would benefit Black people, that’s anti-Black,” said Burns.
I originally connected with Professor Burns by taking his “Black Critical Theory” course this semester. When addressing the course itself, and its differentiation from critical race theory, it is important to see that despite the course being its own undergraduate-level English class, there certainly is some beneficial overlap, whether intentional or not. Reflecting on our course, I wondered what kind of response or benefits our university would receive if CRT began to be implemented. Burns said, “Would the university community benefit from helping students and other members of the community develop a more critical awareness of the way that race functions? Yes, I think so. Would there be some discomfort and pain involved? Yes, probably. There would also be the potential for growth and the potential for us to really see things as they are…”
With growth, there is always pain. Education is one of the greatest imperatives we have as human beings, which makes our outlooks on the world become broadened, as the world is larger than ourselves. Professor Burns also mentioned the 1619 project, a long-form journalism project created by Nikole Hannah Jones at the New York Times which aims to place the contributions of Black Americans at the forefront of national narrative; an important perspective to obtain. Noting “a more diasporic understanding” of African heritage identity and Indigienous peoples, Burns said, “There are ways of existing in the world that were sustainable and stable and viable before European intervention.”
After discussing these issues with Professor Burns I have come to see a new outlook on the emotional outcomes of social change as well. Empathy may have nothing to do with it. Learning about the struggles and histories of our neighbors could give us more empathy, at least that’s what Professor Burns would hope. But he also said, “I think that empathy is overrated as for enacting social change… Empathy is great, but it’s not a criteria for acting towards justice.” Professor Burns noted that he doesn’t need to completely understand what it’s like to be a woman in order to support women’s rights. Similar to our own struggles, we don’t always need others to step directly into our shoes in order to have our best interests at heart. “We all have an idea of what’s right and wrong for us,” said Burns.
Just by sitting down with Professor Burns and asking a couple questions, I found myself immersed in a topic I once knew little about. When hearing of the background, acknowledgement, and the yearning for critical race theory to be taken seriously in America, it became clear to me that we are only getting a glimpse of what we really should be talking about next as a country. It is up to every citizen to determine if they’re ready for that kind of discourse.