What’s behind the outrage about critical race theory 

July 13, 2021 6:30 am
WASHINGTON, - JUNE 06: Demonstrators march past the Lincoln Memorial during a protest against police brutality and racism takes place on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. This is the 12th day of protests with people descending on the city to peacefully demonstrate in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, – JUNE 06: Demonstrators march past the Lincoln Memorial during a protest against police brutality and racism takes place on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The following headline appeared in the satirical publication The Onion in 2011: “Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried as Black Adult.” 

Here’s a sure bet: Even those who denounce critical race theory get the joke. They know they wouldn’t want to be tried for any crime as a Black man. 

At a very basic, intuitive level, we haven’t, for a very long time, needed academics or statisticians to tell us that how one fares in the criminal justice system is too often heavily influenced by such variables as race, ethnicity and income.  

In case you’ve missed the raging debate, critical race theory posits that racism is not merely a thing practiced by individuals, but one embedded in American institutions owing to a legacy stemming from mindsets and inequities up to and including slavery. It is systemic. 

It’s a theory that postulates that people for whom racism is not an active practice or credo are capable of racist acts. Racism is not so much about individual beliefs and behavior as it is a problem of policies and practices that disadvantage people of color in education, housing, lending and criminal justice, just to name a few of our systems.

This is such a scary notion that legislators around the country are busily trying to squelch teaching this theory in our schools.

Charitably, we can attribute their opposition to the way critical race theory deals a body blow to our ideals of American fair play, justice and equality. 

A for-instance on critical race theory: while education as a great equalizer is generally a truism, housing patterns and unequal funding of schools in the “wrong” zip codes undermine this. This is beyond individual prejudice; it is systemic.

Uncharitably, we can attribute the venom directed at critical race theory to a continuing desire to stoke white grievance — as in, there that racist Black Lives Matter rabble goes again, blaming whites for everything. What will they want next?

What they’ll want is real, systemic equality, not just a pie-in-the-sky ideal.

Charitably, I subscribe to the theory that most Americans want this — desire that every child can succeed in this society on level playing fields according to hard work and genuine merit.

Uncharitably, I know that the Trump years and the history preceding that time — from Jim Crow all the way back to before our founding — demonstrate that not everyone hankers to share equality. Put another way, not everyone wants to relinquish privilege; translation, power. That’s the meaning that underlies complaints about “those people” taking away “my country,” and the collective nods of agreement from all who similarly benefit or think they do from this privilege. 

“Make America Great Again” is about holding onto privilege, even if in the real world not even every white American — owing to economic class, not race — gets a share. Getting disadvantaged white people to believe they are part of the “us” and not “them” has been part of a certain party’s political strategy for a while in modern history.

Another feint from those who oppose critical race theory is their claim that it sows division. This is a variation of that old gambit that if we would just stop talking about our divisions, we will be less divided.

But there’s a real benefit to discussing critical race theory. As a practical matter, most of us know that “all men [all people] are created equal … with certain inalienable rights” is a noble concept but that it is not a fait accompli. It is something we will be working on as long as we remain a democratic republic. Holding onto our democracy is also not a done deal, as recent political events are teaching us. 

Critical race theory can help us understand how we get there, by telling us where we are now.

It is not about saying America is irreparably racist. It is about saying, there are systemic flaws we can understand to make us less so on this road to living our ideals, to achieving our more perfect union.

There are other Onion-like headlines most of us would instantly “get.”

“In hiring, court rules employers must treat all applicants as if they are senior citizens.”

“Employers agree to pay male workers as much as women.”

We “get” ageism and sexism even as we resist treating them as realities.

And most of us get that headline about a white girl tried as a Black man because we know racism is alive and well. We laugh even as we weep inside.

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O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel

O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the managing editor at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, was editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.