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Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference National Town Hall

Source: Jemal Countess / Getty

Last week Kimberlé W. Crenshaw sat down with NewsOne’s Asha Bandele to discuss the 70th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board decision. Professor Crenshaw, who holds dual appointments at Columbia Law School and the UCLA School of Law, is a towering scholar in the field of law, an author, the co-founder and executive director of African American Policy Forum, and perhaps most notably, the architect of the current iteration of Critical Race Theory (CRT), work she began as a student at Harvard’s School of Law in 1981.

Professor Crenshaw chose to attend Harvard because she wanted to study under Derrick Bell, a pioneer in the study of race and law and the original architect of CRT.  But the first Black man to be tenured at the School of Law left just before Crenshaw arrived. He’d tendered his resignation in protest against Harvard’s lack of commitment to hiring and tenuring Black women and women of color at the law school. But even as he served as Dean of another school, Crenshaw connected with him so that she and her cohort could learn from and build on his work.  

Roughly 10 years before, Bell had defined and created a course of study called Critical Race Theory, a critique of America’s legal system and institutions. Bell’s driving point was that there was no colorblindness in the law.  Rather, he’d argued, the nation’s legal pathways did what they were originally designed to do: serve the interests of the powerful and function without any measurable impartiality.  Bell’s “Interest Convergence Theory,” which Crenshaw touched upon in last week’s discussion, asserts that significant legal advances for racial minorities only occur when they also benefit the interests of the white majority. 

In her own work, Crenshaw went on to build out CRT by introducing the concept of intersectionality, highlighting how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics must be factored into the law because they create overlapping systems of discrimination. She argued that traditional civil rights discourses and (white) feminist theories often ignored the unique experiences of people who are marginalized in multiple ways.

In her seminal 1989 paper, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex, Crenshaw articulated the need for a framework that could address the complex interplay of race and gender. Her pivotal 1989 workshop, New Developments in Critical Race Theory, in Madison, Wisconsin, organized by Crenshaw and other scholars, was instrumental in formalizing CRT as a distinct academic discipline. Students can now major in CRT at distinguished institutions like St. John’s University, UCLA School of Law, and the University of Denver.

In this second part of her discussion with Bandele, Professor Crenshaw unpacks the attacks on CRT as a way for white supremacists, right-wing and liberal, to avoid accountability through the use of the sort of mass social gaslighting and lies exemplified by former President Donald Trump and his MAGA followers. She explains the true essence of CRT, the actual evidence-based content it teaches, and the cost of allowing the MAGAs and any other white supremacists to continue to spread harmful, sometimes deadly disinformation about Black people, human and civil rights and it will take America to finally set out on a path that leads to true democracy.

The following has been edited for length and clarity


Asha Bandele: Professor Crenshaw, Kim, thank you again for giving me so much time. I’ll begin this final part of our discussion with what’s happening today in education—specifically the attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT) that have allowed schools to further entrench ahistorical curricula—lies.  To level set, please define CRT for us. 

Kimberly Crenshaw: Critical Race Theory as we know it today, was a student-based development. We were that generation who watched the Civil Rights Movement on television or had big brothers or sisters who were deeply involved in expanding its scope, including its implications, not just for voting or for employment, but for knowledge itself. What was the role of colleges and universities in the work of liberation? What skills need to be imparted to people who are coming into these institutions and presumably will one day serve American society? 


ab: What did the answer to those questions look like for Black students?

KC: There was a very strong sense that attacking segregation wasn’t just for personal benefit. It wasn’t just to let some of us in so we could say we’d arrived. 

There was a broader sensibility that we were involved in a liberation project, and many of us went to school with the goal of learning the skills necessary to give back to our communities. At Harvard, where Professor Bell had been teaching, we saw a guiding light. Of course, by the time we arrived in 1981, he’d left. But we knew we needed to continue the educational investments that Professor Bell had made in us and the law.


ab: Was Harvard receptive to that?

KC: Harvard’s goal was to simply turn us into whatever cookie-cutter lawyers typically came out. The idea that there was any value or mission in undertaking our work by looking through the lenses of communities that the law locked out of society was the furthest thing from their minds. They literally didn’t know what we were talking about when we said we wanted Bell’s course on race and the law to be taught. We said we wanted to use the moment to bring more African-American professors into these institutions—and more people of color while we’re at it. Both they and the traditional, broader civil rights community were very critical of us. They called us reverse racists because we wanted Black people and people of color to be represented at all levels in the school. The older civil rights folks said our ask was contrary to the grand vision of the Civil Rights Movement.


ab: That’s so painful. I know a little bit of that feeling because of the pushback we got in the 90s as student activists. Pushback from the people we’d assumed would be our natural allies.

KC: It is painful. But if we allow it to, out of pain can come insight and creativity. That’s what Critical Race Theory is: something born out of pain but grows to see possibility anyway. CRT brought critical thinking tools to the rationalizations that were given for ongoing inequalities throughout American society. 


ab: With all the coverage of Black celebrity antics, it can feel as though we’ve abandoned any hope of repairing the harms done to us over centuries, harms that cost us generational wealth and stability. Harms that still play a central position in many of the lives in our communities. 

KC: Yes.  In addition, there’s all the coverage and validity given to those who refuse to be held accountable for past actions because they didn’t steal the original capital and labor. But they have no problem living off the dividends of that stolen capital that was sanctioned by white supremacy’s laws and policies. You can’t whitewash that. You can’t launder it. It was what it was, and members of the modern generations who didn’t commit the original crime, are still fully implicated in it…


ab: …which brings us back to the question I asked last week about Brown and whether or not the center held.

KC: I would say the center was never there because there wasn’t agreement around what true desegregation meant. They could certainly dial back some outward segregationist policies to the extent it was felt they were disruptive to America’s PR campaign and its soaring aspirations about being viewed as the leader of the free world. But many of those who were centrists or liberals were taken aback by how quickly committed segregationists were able to corral sentiment against the spirits of Brown and desegregation. Affirmative action quickly became reverse racism, not a correction of hundreds of years of brutal exclusion and harm. Brown was a takedown of the separate but equal doctrine, a call for a remedy we’ve still not seen realized.  And liberals, who likely never really studied the depth of America’s racial history, legal and otherwise, were then unable to advance a strong, robust argument in their communities about how the segregationist mindset was built into the nation’s institutions, even liberal ones. 


Now we’re in a situation where an already weak version of diversity, equity and inclusion has been so underfed by a weak understanding of structural racism,  that just recently somebody told me that one of the very organizations that does equity and inclusion work has taken out the terms diversity and equity. 


ab: What should we be doing to mitigate and roll back the expansion of racial harm? 

KC: We have to be far more literate. We need to know the language and the consequences of retrenchment—even when it’s spoken by people who look like us. We need the gift of discernment because, without it, we can be easily confused and manipulated. I am afraid of this movement toward the unsaying of our history, the unsaying of interventions like diversity, the unwillingness of the center and people that we’ve elected,  to get into the fight for us. 


That terrifies me because things are unraveling at a rate that is a hundred times greater than the time it took to put it together. So now it’s so much easier to disarticulate what Critical Race Theory, anti-racism work and being woke are all about. Now those terms have been co-opted and used as code words to undermine the work to end structural racism. This is retrenchment politics.


ab: Against the gains and awareness that occurred in the 2010s?

KC: It’s retrenchment against the symbolic value of having had a Black president for eight years. Retrenchment against the fact that racial injustice actually did motivate millions of people to step out of their homes into sustained protest before George Floyd was killed and certainly after. We are feeling the backlash to that expression of power, that expression of legitimate demands for greater equity in policies and in practice. 


And that backlash includes making it so our children are being denied the right to say or name their experience. And if you cannot name your experience, you cannot transform it. Because when you know what’s going on, when you can read about your circumstance, or write about it, you are in a better position to actually transform it. 


ab: And that actually impacts the possibility of a realized American democracy…

KC: There’s a 900-page document that’s coming from the Heritage Foundation called Project 2025. It’s like the 90s-era Republican Contract with America–but on steroids. They are going for everything in this document, including the elimination of thousands, probably even tens of thousands of federal employees–and replacing them with Trump loyalists. Why? Because they want to dismantle the Department of Education. They want to repeal the parts of Title VII that protect people on the basis of sexuality and gender identity. They want to take away the ability to actually collect racial data so that we can’t track racial profiling. We can’t show where and how much we’re underfunded.  Or talk about mortality differentials. So again, if we cannot name the situation, we cannot transform it.  


Without full literacy, we’re unable to connect the dots between the attacks on Black people with the attacks on democracy. You’ve got well-known popular culture people saying stuff like, what good was diversity anyway? It was too limited anyway.  But what’s the thought process there? If it was limited, is the answer to get rid of it? And if so, why? Because things are fine with Black people in America? Or are they thinking that somehow, someway,  something more robust will take its place? 


ab: It’s similar to the reductive argument around voting. I understand the challenge when all you see before you is either Biden or Trump. But if voting wasn’t important, why are there such Herculean efforts made to keep specifically Black people from the ability to vote? The same can be said about diversity, equity and inclusion. If it wasn’t important, why go to such lengths to disrupt it? 

KC: Exactly. Because people in power who remain in power, don’t waste their time on insignificant matters. We might. But they don’t. So for me, the struggle is,  how do we get back in alignment with one another?  The history of our liberation movement is also the history of our tactical and theoretical differences. But there was a relative alignment among the actors who were pushing things towards a greater reckoning with white supremacy and the ways our community was being contained and treated. Across the spectrum, we all agreed that there was a real problem in America.

I’m not sure that we are on the same page right now even as the problems with America have metastasized.  The harm done to our communities impacts us much as it did in 1960.  We still have yawning, racialized gaps that require policy, law and practical interventions despite the election of Barack Obama. But the need for the symbolism of his election seemed to outweigh the need for us to continue to address the hard racial contours of our society. 

Obama was an alibi for many people. 

And now that alibi is gone—along with a strong and broad commitment to continue to address the promise and hope of Brown that we want to believe his election secured. Now, racial justice work doesn’t get the platform it needs. But the good news is that Brown is still on the books and we have the opportunity to infuse it with deeper, more robust commitments to eliminate anti-Black racism and all its varied articulations. We have the ability to return to a period of time in which we weren’t confused by some of the claims being made by MAGA people and their allies. We have the ability to tell each other and our children the truth about what we’re facing and how we must respond. But will we make the choice to do so? Will we choose ourselves? 

That to me is the open question.


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