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For Progressives to win we must learn enough about Racism to stop using Republican talking points

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For Progressives to win we must learn enough about Racism to stop using Republican talking points

DoomsdayClock.jpg Do you know what time it is?

I am a White female scholar who has studied systemic racism for many years (50 actually if we need to talk about how old I am) and have been what on Daily Kos is often called a “lurker” since 2015 (I capitalize Race terms to call attention to their arbitrary social character – they have no natural or biological counterpart – e.g., the belief in Whiteness is a destructive fantasy). For a long time I have planned to write a diary about the troubling way Race, racism and CRT are sometimes discussed on Daily Kos. When the current discussion of CRT came up after the Virginia election results, I began writing a response. Then I read the diary “Confessions of a Racist” by BoiseBlue (11/6), and felt the issues had been stated very well and in a personal and moving way in that Diary. Thank you so much BoiseBlue! As my piece was not quite ready, I decided to post what I had written in the comments. Responses by members of the community have encouraged me to post this diary – my first. The title refers to a Black American saying from the 1960’s similar to the Doomsday Clock idea that we are almost out of time – which the much misused idea “woke” also refers to. 

The task ahead is not to diffuse CRT – as one daily Kos diary recently advised – but rather to learn about, explain, and defend the fact that the US is built on four centuries of systemic racism that continues to shape our daily lives and actions. The hesitancy of White progressives to confront Race and racism head on are giving energy to conservative efforts to divide and conquer. It also has the consequence that, with notable exceptions, when White progressives do find themselves in positions of power, they often fail to put Race issues at the top of their agenda where they belong.

Race and racism are now the primary tool being used to divide this country and undermine any hope of achieving democracy – and it is working because we have not been taught the true history of our own country and consequently, do not understand how to explain systemic racism. Pretending it is not happening – the option that makes many White people feel more “comfortable” – just makes racism stronger. In this moment, it is a matter of great urgency for White progressives to come to grips with what racism is and how it works.

Since the Virginia election there has been a lot of angst about how potent a weapon CRT has been during this election cycle. When the debate sprang up on Kos about how to “diffuse” talk about CRT, the responding diaries, even when they disagreed, involved many misconceptions not only of CRT, but about racism itself. It has been unsettling to see so many Kos regulars respond with Republican talking points. Yes, unknowingly, “innocently” if you will – certainly without intent – but therein lies the problem. CRT has proved to be a potent weapon against the progressive movement becauseso many White progressives do not understand racism or CRT well enough to respond effectively – and feel uncomfortable even thinking about trying. This must change.

As BoiseBlue noted there have been diaries and comments on Daily Kos to the effect that we should stop focusing so much on racism, because it is a divisive topic; one diary arguing that there are not enough racists in the whole US to make racism systemic – so it is wrong to blame so many current problems on racism. The misunderstandings here are profound. If this is what members of the Daily Kos community think then no wonder Democratic messaging is not effective.

Systemic racism is not caused by racists. When racism is built into laws, policies, practices, and expectations – as it has been in the US – then it is systemic. It is systemic racism that makes racists of us all – no matter how committed to diversity and equity we are – not the other way around. Until we understand that, we will keep searching for the causes of the problems we face – and not recognize that racism (and our own actions in perpetuating it) is at the bottom of almost all of it (including the new assault on efforts to reform “toxic masculinity”).

Credit should be given to the Republicans for recognizing this. It is why the CRT attack is working so well. They know how important racism is – why don’t we?

For the past six years, we have watched an openly racist effort to undermine our attempt to become democratic – I emphasize become here because our nation has not yet succeeded in granting Black and Brown Americans their full civil rights. We need to stop calling ourselves a democracy and get very uncomfortable about Race. Attempts to remain comfortable perpetuate injustice. The explicit effort to target, exclude, and disenfranchise Black and Brown Americans offends against the deepest democratic principles – and yet Democrats have failed to make a dent in its appeal. Why? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the recent openly racist effort just continues a more subtle long term effort since WWII to ensure that the civil rights first granted to Black Americans after the Civil War are never recognized in practice. None of this is new. But, we have been given a twisted version of history designed to make White people feel good. As Harper Lee wrote in Go Set a Watchman (the original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which many US high school children read about the heroic Atticus Finch), the real Atticus Finch conspired with the Ku Klux Klan to neutralize Black civil rights. 

Of course the Republican effort is well funded. But, all the money in the world would not get them anywhere if Race were not the vulnerable Achilles’ heel of White America.

It is not just that White Americans resist talking about Race – but that when they try, it quickly becomes clear that they are confident in opinions that reveal a profound underlying ignorance of what Race and racism are and how they work. White progressives don’t seem to understand the enormity of the Race problem in the US. It is literally everywhere. As some members of the Daily Kos community put their lack of understanding of racism and CRT on display – other community members have tried to point out the problems with what they are saying. But, even in doing that many have – I am sure without realizing it – defended the belief that Black Americans can be racist against White Americans, or that there are just not enough racists to make racism a systemic problem, confusing racism with prejudice, and conflating both with CRT.

I am not a Critical Race Theorist – but rather a sociologist who focuses on systemic aspects of racism in social structures, including the expectations that are institutionalized in daily social interaction. Almost everyone at the college level who teaches Race and racism is teaching some CRT. It is quite important and not mysterious. Here are some basic things to know about CRT. It did begin in law schools (see annieli’s 11/6 diary on critical legal studies). You could say that critical legal studies started things off in the 1960’s and 1970’s with research on how law discriminate against women, Black Americans – and in the Vietnam protest era – generally protected the status quo against change. It is a kind of a no-brainer that laws are set up to protect the social system that enacts them – and CRT looked at what that meant with regard to Race. If a system is based on slavery, or Jim Crow, or segregation – then its laws will reflect that, and CRT research showed what that looked like.

From 1971, when he joined the faculty of Harvard Law School, Derek Bell, the acknowledged founder of Critical Race Theory, began the transformation from a broad emphasis on legal discrimination of many kinds, to what became CRT. The research inspired by Bell looked at aspects of institutionalized racial discrimination – and the research it inspired has revealed a depth of discrimination across formal institutions in the US that was previously unsuspected even by many of the Black scholars involved. Even for those who knew – the extent of the problem was sometimes surprising.

Bell was soon joined by Kimberley Crenshaw and others, and by 1977, their work had given rise not only to CRT, but to the important conception of “intersectionality.” The latter calls attention to how the categories discriminated against by law and society (by Race, Gender, LGBTQ, Religion, Disability, etc.) combine in some persons who are then said to live at the intersection of the various categories of discrimination they face. So, for instance, a Black Female Disabled Muslim is living at the intersection of four different social and legalized forms of discrimination that all need to be taken into account. The experiences of multiple category people in the US are extremely complex and different from those of single category persons in significant ways.

There are many important precursors of CRT, going all the way back to W.E.B Du Bois in the 1890’s, who we might call the first modern theorist of Race, and certainly the first sociologist of Race in the US. It was Du Bois who first argued that Race is a social and not a biological category. He also argued that the experiences of the racially excluded are fundamentally different in a way that often confers what he called “double consciousness.” This ability to see both the world that majority people take for granted as “normal” – and therefore are not usually consciously aware of in any detail – and their own world “beyond the veil of Race,” gives Black people greater understanding of Race and racism than majority people. Yet, historically, White Americans have remained secure in their belief that they know more about Race than Black Americans – and we have not listened to Black scholars. The scholarship of Du Bois, for instance, was until recently shunted aside – and/or reinterpreted on White majority terms. The insights of Black scholars and citizens have been dismissed because White people have no experience of what they are trying to tell us about – and consequently we are secure in our belief that what they are saying is not true. Black scholars have been right all along and the only hope now is to start listening before it is too late (if it isn’t already).

While CRT began with legal studies focused on documenting the systemically racist character of the law itself — and later broadened to all institutions covered by civil rights law – it carries forward an important underlying message from Du Bois and other pioneering Black scholars (see for instance Eric Williams, 1944, Capitalism and Slavery, for the groundbreaking account of how western society and economy were and remain shaped by the priorities of the Atlantic slave trade and its legacy of forced labor). That message is that the shape of everything in our society is grounded in slavery and racism. a whole raft of new books from historians (many inspired by David Rothman and his pioneering work Empire of Cotton) have been hammering home this message. Accounting, Management, banks, mortgages, insurance, even principles of efficiency — were shaped by slavery.

CRT – along with other pioneering Black scholarship – proposes that we should not be concerned so much with either individual racists or prejudice. Why? Because the whole system is racist, and in a racist system everyone of us – even when we fight against that system – will often be doing racist things. It is pointless to talk about who is racist in a systemically racist system. It is also dangerously naïve to talk about Black people being racist against White people in a system built by White people to benefit White people. Racism by Black people in a system built on White supremacy is racism against other Black people. That is a problem. So-called reverse racism is not.

Yes, Black people can be prejudiced against White people. But, even then, the probability in any given instance is that White Americans are misunderstanding the prudence behind Black avoidance of White attention. Even the “good intentions” of White people can be dangerous. Black Americans often prefer to avoid – or minimize contact with – White people and White places because of this threat. White people often tell jokes and share confidences that are inherently (although often not intentionally) racist. Their discomfort with Race often leads them to tell Black people that they are not racist – which a Black person living in the midst of White supremacy does not want to hear. In their anxiety about Race they will tell Black friends and family that a place they are encouraging them to visit, or work at, is not racist – or even that the only racism they have seen in that place is the racism of Black people against White people (by which they really mean that some Black people in that place have felt the need to protect themselves from White people because there is racism there). It is a puzzle why White people believe that if there is racism they would see it themselves – it is not aimed at them. This all involves complicated misconceptions of how systemic racism works.

It is not surprising that Black people feel a need to avoid White people much of the time. That avoidance is not racism – it is a survival tactic that will continue to be necessary until White people shape up, or “wake up,” which is the origin of “Do you know what time it is?” and the current badly misused “woke.”

CRT has been a concerted attempt – over 40+ years to change the narrative from the talk about “who is a racist” that consumes the White population (and many members of the Daily Kos community), to a demonstration of the many organized ways in which the system itself is racist without intention. The Republican talking points about CRT focus on the idea that it tells children that White people are racist. But, that is exactly what it does NOT do. It is the White American bias toward treating systemic racism as if it were individual prejudice that fuels the Republican talking points and makes them persuasive to so many. We need to adopt the Black American understanding of racism as systemic in order to see past this threat. The efforts to misinterpret CRT are working precisely because so many White Americans have the idea that racism is something that individuals do intentionally – and therefore, the claim that in order for the system to be racist every White person would need to have been a racist from birth, seems to make sense.

The funny part (not that any of this is funny) is that this is actually the nightmare that CRT is trying to save us from. Critical Race Theorists, a group of primarily Black scholars, have been patiently explaining for decades that if White Americans would only understand that racism is baked into the system – White people could stop worrying about the possibility of discovering that they are racist – and go about the work of fixing the system and by extension themselves.

Of course, we are all being racist – because we are living in and acting out the laws, customs, and expectations, of a systemically racist system. It should be obvious. Every American, Black, White, and Brown, will at least some of the time be engaging in actions that discriminate against Black Americans and persons of color. Every single one of us. Think about that. In my own research, I have found that the expectations that create disadvantage by Race can be found in daily interactions as mundane as how we introduce ourselves to a new acquaintance. Our conceptions of what is too personal to discuss are often different – and our tolerance of (even preference for) information that reveals social status is not the same. Because we have been living mostly segregated lives for 400 years there are a lot of these differences – most of which White people know nothing about. Overall, I have also found that Black American preferences are more fundamentally democratic than those of White Americans – which should give White Americans pause.

My message for the Daily Kos community is that unless we address this issue head on racism and fascism will win. Right now, they are winning. As deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said yesterday, when asked about CRT and the Virginia election, “great countries are honest right? They have to be honest with themselves about the history, which is good and bad. And our kids should be proud to be American after learning that history.”  On the matter of CRT instruction that is NOT happening in elementary and high schools, she said that the “Republicans are lying. They’re not being honest…And they’re cynically trying to use our kids as a political football.”

How we combat this is not by diffusing CRT. We need to stop denying the racism in our lives and go on the offensive to explain and defend CRT and the impressive results of CRT researchers. High school students should be learning this. To get to that place, we all need to learn enough about systemic racism to understand how it works through us, and through the institutions we work in and depend on, so that we can identify the racism in our own lives and take responsibility for eliminating the racism that is at present built into American life. We must learn how to talk about these issues with any and everyone – including our own children. The first step is to stop protesting that we are not racist and follow BoiseBlue’s example in examining our complacency about the systemic racism in our own lives. The next step is to take a look at the research about how systemic racism shapes everyday life – which is not available to introspection.

For anyone who is willing to take this challenge seriously I have written a book about this – with my co-author Waverly Duck, titled Tacit Racism – University of Chicago Press.


For Progressives to win we must learn enough about Racism to stop using Republican talking points

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