States around the country are banning lessons on systemic racism and critical race theory. Many on both sides having no real idea of what it means.
At a Glance
On June 16, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law forbidding lessons about critical race theory or systemic racism. With the passage of this bill, Texas joins other states that have passed similar bills, claiming to take politics out of schools. The debate about passage about these bills is fierce, exacerbating the already strident political divide, and further poisoning relationships.
Over the past few months, I have spoken with a number of people who are estranged from their families because of differences in political viewpoints. I have listened to people with pain in their hearts and voices as they describe how hard it is to feel so disconnected from people who have endorsed racist and ethnocentric behavior without recognizing what they were doing. If you fit this description, this blog post is written for you.
Here are a few examples. One colleague explained that her father was racist, sexist, and homophobic, yet thought he was fully accepting of people of color. Some people told me that their relatives thought the whole notion of structural racism was a lie made up by progressives and the elite progressive media as a way to win elections. They were dumbfounded when told by their relatives that they (my colleagues and clients) were the ones being deceived.
Some have just stopped speaking to their relative or friend – or that person has stopped speaking to them. Others have tried to get through obligatory family holiday gatherings as best they can without creating a ruckus. Yet they go through the holiday dinner distressed because they hear their relative or friend say overtly prejudicial things and then have to sit there, feeling that they’re selling out by not speaking up. How can they be an ally, they ask me, if they sit and listen to racist tropes for the sake of family harmony?
The estrangement and distress I am hearing about is starting to concern me. The political divide is even worse than I feared. More than once I have been asked how to respond to these statements.
I wrote the following Q&A based on questions that my clients and colleagues want to know how to answer. None are made up. Some of these answers may seem self-evident to some of you. I suspect that few of you will know all of the answers. If you do, I would love to hear them. And of course, you may have better answers.
I welcome your feedback. I won’t know which questions are important to you in your particular situation and which are not unless you tell me. Leave a comment below or email me. I would love to hear from you.
Q: What is critical race theory anyway?1
A “critical” approach seeks to examine structural causes of a problem. It goes beyond individually based finger-pointing or solutions to look at how a system is organized to predispose individuals to act a certain way. For example, public health experts refer to this country’s “obesogenic environment.” Sugary, weight-inducing foods are everywhere – at sports games, on television advertisements, in snack machines and waiting rooms.
By the same token, a critical approach requires us to examine systems and structures that predispose individuals to carry out acts that have a disproportionately harmful impact on some racial groups, whether intentional or unintentional. Just as those who install a snack bar at a workplace may have no intention of creating conditions for people to become overweight, so it may happen in the workplace that hiring policies predispose White people to have a leg up in being considered for promotion. Critical race studies seek to uncover such policies to level the playing field.
It is generally agreed that racism has no place in today’s society. A vast majority of the American public claims they have no specific antipathy toward another group. Even the Ku Klux Klan’s website claims they are not racist. With all these people proclaiming they are not racist, why are there such differences in the education, health, and incomes among the races? Could it be that there are vestiges of racism that continue today because of how this society is set up? Critical race theory seeks to uncover these so that we may take remedial action.
Q: Don’t Black and Brown people bring their conditions on themselves by dropping out of school, having babies they can’t afford, and engaging in illegal activities?
Let’s assume that those who are asking this question are sincere. If so, then the question itself illustrates why we need critical race studies. As more and more people come to understand structural barriers to “getting ahead,” those asking questions like this will be able to easily get an informed answer. For now, I will say that if you really want to know how to answer this question, pick up The Sum of Us by Heather McGee and read the first few chapters.
Q: When taught in school, isn't the aim of critical race theory to make White students feel guilty?
Absolutely not. As the brilliant Tim Wise explains, “critical race theory really isn’t about critiquing people, as people, at all. It’s not concerned with personal racism, per se. Rather, it’s aimed at examining social structures and institutions as the cause of racial inequities.”2 The goal is to make informed citizens who are able to think critically about existing social policies, workplace policies, and their day-to-day interactions, so as to foster a society in which all of us have the opportunity to fulfill our potential and to get along with one another. Unfortunately, because policies of the past have bled into politics of today, it is important for all of us to understand how we’re continuing the policies that maintain inequality.
Here’s a simple example: 20 years ago, most textbooks and advertisements on television showed mostly White people. Only since the late 20th century have TV advertisements and textbooks consistently shown people from different racial backgrounds. Before then, most White people would have proclaimed they were not racist. The fact that the television advertisements and schoolbooks showed mostly White people had not registered as a matter of concern to them. To people of color, it was blatantly obvious. Making textbooks and television advertisements multicultural is one example of how proponents of critical race theory have benefited society by diminishing the impact of this particular form of racist policy.
Q: What is White fragility? And is it really a thing?
Frankly,[White fragility, blog #2] is what leads to all of these questions. Black and Brown people are used to being criticized as a group, as shown in the third question above about Black and Brown people having babies out of wedlock and so forth. We are accustomed to such accusations being made against us as a group. Many White people are not. Instead, they are accustomed to being treated as individuals, with characteristics of Whites as a group not identified. They are not accustomed to having their group membership challenged. They assume that an accusation about White people as a statistical group is an indictment against them personally.
The truth is, Black and Brown people are over-represented in the criminal justice system. But not all Black or Brown people have been in the criminal justice system. To say that we are over-represented as a statistical group is not to indict any single person. It’s simply a statistic.
Yet many White people are unaware of how mass media fosters negative racist stereotypes by focusing on the prison population rather than the innumerable achievements of Black and Brown people throughout history. For example, while some White people knew about Katherine Johnson prior to the blockbuster film Hidden Figures, most did not. (She was the Black NASA mathematician who, with her colleagues, helped the Apollo astronauts reach the moon.)
White fragility occurs when this is pointed out. White people take the accusation personally and as a personal indictment against their own individual selves, rather than considering that what is being critiqued is a statistical characteristic of White people as a group. So when things are pointed out, White people get their feelings hurt, feeling ashamed and unfairly indicted. Those who are offended then shut down and refuse to consider how the legacy of slavery and segregation continue to infect this country, let alone other parts of the world.
White fragility shows up when White people attempt to refute structural racism, focus on their affection toward individual people of color (or women or LGBTs) and talk instead about the dangers of CRT. As Plummer explained in a brilliant article about CRT, “By maintaining ignorance about CRT, Whites hope to eliminate the racial anxiety that stems from knowing.”4
Q: What is institutional racism? And is it really a thing?
I have given several examples of that already. Institutional racism is what occurs when policies and practices are enacted that have a disproportionately negative impact on people of color. It occurs without anyone’s intentional act. A workplace policy that bans certain cultural hairstyles on Black women is just one example.5
Q: What's the difference between institutional racism, systemic racism, and structural racism?
Some people make a distinction among these terms. For our purposes, we can consider them roughly equivalent.
Q: The Heritage Foundation called Critical Race Theory “divisive and damaging.”6 If you focus on race, doesn't it do the exact thing you are trying to avoid. Aren't they right?
Refer to our previous blog on colorblindness [blog #26]. It’s a catch 22. If we claim to be colorblind, then we can never identify racial disparities because we are claiming to not see color. How can we identify anything that we are claiming we don’t see?
Could critical race theory be divisive? Yes, White people who are subject to White fragility will certainly experience it that way. Those who choose to embrace multiculturalism and seek to learn ways in which we can all get along better together and in our different social groups will find knowledge about it liberating.
My model for this is Star Trek. On the Star Trek Enterprise, the cultural norms of the different species were celebrated. Members of the Star Trek crew went with the warrior Worf to his home planet for a cultural ritual. No one expected him to have the empathy of Deanna, the cruise counselor who was half-Betazoid, or the logic and intellect of Mr. Spock from the planet Vulcan. Members of different species were valued and respected for the gifts their cultural backgrounds brought to the crew. They understood completely that diversity and inclusion were the secrets to their success in patrolling the galaxy.
Q: My parents say that they had nothing to do with slavery since they weren't even born then. And segregation is over. Why focus on it?
First, it’s important to know that it is really not over for people of color. Does your family have an ethnic tradition that you are still carrying forward? Are you proud of your Catholic heritage? Or your Celtic heritage? If not in your own family, do you have friends who carry on ethnic traditions from long ago?
I was raised with stories of how my great-grandparents survived in the transition from slavery to emancipation. I heard stories of how my grandparents and parents used wit, grit, and strategy to make a living for their families despite the repeated impediments put in their way by White society during the segregation years. I personally have vivid memories of it. For me it’s not over. For many of my friends it is not over. It continues in our memories and we witness it in the structural habits of today’s society. Many neighborhoods and schools have been re-segregated. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in this society. And it bears repeating that the current state of our prison system is in essence the new Jim Crow.7
While your parents believe they have nothing to do with slavery and segregation, income disparities in this country suggest otherwise. Without their knowledge, many White people benefited from a system that privileges their families at the sacrifice of people of color. Imagine two friends. One is the great-granddaughter of a plantation owner. The other is the great-granddaughter of a slave who worked on that plantation. Guess which one of the two friends is likely to be financially quite well off with many properties in a large stock portfolio. And guess which one would have virtually no wealth to speak of?
Q: My parents grew up poor. They were Polish and ostracized. Now you're calling them White, which sets them off because they remember being discriminated against.
Yes, the unfortunate reality is that many, many White people and religious groups were socially ostracized and encountered fierce discrimination. The hardships they endured should be remembered and honored.
However, the White ethnic groups had advantages that Black people did not have. First, White ethnic groups could be assimilated into Whiteness, classify themselves as White, and automatically enjoy the benefits of being White. At the time the ethnic groups came to this country, they were able to enter industries and opened the door for their cousins and friends to get to that same industry: the Italians into the garment industry in New York City, the Irish into police and firefighting. Jews went into the garment and diamond trades.
When Black people entered an industry the regulations were changed; they were terrorized out of business. Think of the Tulsa race riots, which are finally getting recognition. Think of the jitney cabs in New York City. When Black people started taking over the industry, the city imposed heavy license fees that were beyond what the Black taxi owners could afford and they were driven out of business.
Q: Why do critical race theorists believe that we don't have a real meritocracy? Isn't that an argument to let unqualified people get ahead?
There are zillions of studies that show how discrimination happens in the workplace. Here is an obvious example. Most people know that the way to get a job is through friendship networks. If jobs are filled through referrals, then people are most likely to refer people who remind them of themselves or who are in their friendship circles. That’s another example of a structural barrier that keeps Black people from rising in the organization through promotions or even from being hired.
Q: This country was built on the bedrock of individualism. Critical Race Theory sounds un-American, and as though you're endorsing communism.
Actually, this country was not built on the bedrock of individualism. People banded together. Communities banded together to help one another out. Since everyone in those communities looked alike, no one noticed that those were White communities. Within the band of a White community, individualism can apply. If people looked like one another and spoke like one another and had cultural norms like one another, then merit processes worked. Those who had more of what the job required were able to succeed.
Poor White people did not think that individualism applied to them. Those who were admitted to Ivy League schools easily recognized that the norms and cultures and expectations were not made for people like them. Read or watch Hillbilly Elegy8 to see how this played out for poor Whites.
As for endorsing communism, that’s confusing an economic system with an individual achievement system. Even in communist countries, there are hierarchies and people rise according to their talents, opportunities, and connections just as in this country.
Q: Isn't it better to not talk about politics at work at all?
Unfortunately, in today’s society with mass media and social media so all pervasive, it’s hard to avoid it. Many people I know who avoid political talks with their families are also avoiding those family members. Just last week I was speaking with someone whose White colleague made a casual offhanded remark before a Zoom meeting, and now my friend is avoiding that colleague. The colleague has no way of knowing this happened. She may notice that my friend has cooled off, but doesn’t have a clue as to why. I asked my friend, is there any way you can talk with her about it? She insisted absolutely not because discussions about race and politics are strictly off-limits.
Do you really want this to happen in your workplace? Much better to provide training on how to have difficult conversations. If the organization had opened the door for that type of conversation, my friend would have felt free to tell her colleague what offended her and why. The colleague would probably have been horrified at how her offhanded remark was interpreted and made a correction. Then everybody could get back to work in a collegial atmosphere. As it stands, the tension has been swept under the rug and people are stumbling over it every day without knowing why.
Q: Why isn’t it enough just to tell people to be kind and to respect one another? Why do we have to focus on what happened in the past?
If only it could be so simple! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where everyone treated each other with respect and kindness! Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. It would also be wonderful to live in a world where people told the truth, went by the same set of facts, didn’t steal, children weren’t starving to death, and pandemics didn’t happen. Wonderful if this country had realized with horror that we had enslaved fellow and sister human beings and sought to make restitution as did Germany for its Jewish citizens. But that’s not the country we live in. And now people want to skip over the apology and restitution step and go straight into harmony.
Bridging the racial divide is full of land mines. Respect and kindness are only the first tools that can be used across those divides. Those who learn to use those tools will be ahead of the game. Those who deny that other tools are also necessary will be left wondering why the workplaces they go to every day are not safe havens.
This last question is what my clients and colleagues ask me. Let me know your thoughts.
Q: About half of my relatives have been told not to believe anything I say, because I'm educated and voted for progressives. They were told I am dangerously misinformed. What should I do?
When I grew up, my parents distinguished between White people who treated them with kindness and courtesy, and those who treated them despicably. For centuries, we as Black people did not have the luxury of deciding that we wouldn’t talk to someone, or be discourteous to someone, because they were racists. We did not have the luxury of believing we could change the attitudes toward us in one conversation. We did what we were supposed to do and provided information that we hoped would cause them to at least think about their attitudes whenever we could without badgering them to change. Some approaches are described in blog #27.
If you love your relatives, then consider having a 3- to 5-year plan to inspire them to rethink their attitudes. Certainly don’t think it can be achieved in one conversation. Please do what you can to avoid lecturing. Look at blog #40 on how people change.
The sad irony is that people have to feel accepted to be motivated to change. Your rejection of your relatives, your disdain for them, your pressuring of them has backfired if they are rejecting what you have to say. Consider a new strategy. Go back to remembering why you love them in the first place and accept them for who they are. Then treat the prejudices as a bad habit.9 And slowly but surely use cognitive dissonance so that they feel the disconnect between their beliefs and what their logical mind tells them is so. If you aim to flip-flop attitudes, it won’t work. If you aim for cognitive dissonance served with a plate full of loving acceptance, you stand a chance.
Those of you who choose to be allies might also choose to think carefully about your change strategy with the people in your lives who respect or work with you but hold offensive beliefs. If you choose to do so, it could be part of your work.10 As the saying goes, each one, teach one.
My fervent hope is that you will be willing to do this. Your prejudiced relatives would never listen to me. If they are to change, it will be because you paved the way for them to do so.
Questions to ask ourselves:
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