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Ideas that make up critical race theory have been around long before it got its name


Critical race theory, or CRT, has been discussed in academic circles for nearly 40 years, but the term has only recently been weaponized in backlash of the racial reckoning that spread across the country following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020. Law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw is a pioneering scholar and writer on race, civil rights and law. She teaches at Columbia University and UCLA. She's also a co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum. I spoke with her about CRT and its importance in this moment.

So, Professor, since you coined the term critical race theory, could you start us off with what it is?

KIMBERLE WILLIAMS CRENSHAW: It is effectively an embodiment of what I call racial literacy. How do we read the world? How do we understand the relationship to its history? We frame it that way not simply as a way of marking history and showing, for example, how segregated neighborhoods were the product of federal policy that continues to create material differences in wealth and in health to this day. It's important to understand the history of it to do something about it.

MARTÍNEZ: You wrote an article - an op-ed actually - in the LA Times in January, and the headline is "Martin Luther King Was A Critical Race Theorist Before There Was A Name For It." In what way, Professor?

CRENSHAW: Well, in several ways. No. 1, he was a critic of the contradiction between what America says it is, what its deepest aspirations are and what its material reality is. You know, a lot of people like to quote his March on Washington speech, particularly the part where he talks about how our aspiration is to be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin. That was his sort of aspirational moment. The rest of the speech was a trenchant critique of the idea that America had given African Americans a rubber check. Basically, the promises of the 13th and the 14th Amendment came back marked insufficient funds. So his entire point of that speech was to make good on the Democratic promises.

MARTÍNEZ: But has the anti-CRT wing of society, as you put it, Professor - are they in full control of the narrative surrounding CRT?

CRENSHAW: What's that saying? - that a lie gets around the world three times before truth puts its boots on. I would say that the MAGA faction has used CRT, and it's gone around the country multiple times before the Democrats and our president finally stepped up to say, our country is hanging in the balance. And the attack on our democracy and the attack on anti-racism are one in the same. It's not an accident that the Confederate flag made an appearance in the Capitol during January 6. It's not an accident that the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and many other neo-nationalists and white supremacist groups are all behind the idea that the election is stolen. You can't fight against that without naming and being clear about the role of neo-nationalism and white supremacy in stoking these fears.

MARTÍNEZ: So then on the point of history and learning those lessons from the past, Professor, in what ways has historical erasure impacted our society and culture as it relates to CRT?

CRENSHAW: If you don't know about the federal housing role in creating the middle class and doing it racially, if you don't know what happened after World War II when white GIs were able to use the GI Bill to actually create the white middle class and use federal housing dollars to create white suburbs, but those dollars were denied to African Americans - if you don't know that story, if that has been erased, then you're able to infer that the lack of wealth, that the disproportionate enjoyment of middle-class and upper-class status is simply the product of the failure to work hard or the decision to work hard.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to our democracy then, or actually the threats to our democracy, you said that we can't talk about that without including critical race theory. How are they connected?

CRENSHAW: They're connected because, No. 1, our democracy - one has to remember for the majority of our existence, Black people were not able to contribute to this democracy, as were women and other people of color. So our actual democracy is one that has been shaped by a notion of democracy for a few.

MARTÍNEZ: So what actions would you like to see President Biden take?

CRENSHAW: I would love to see him actually speak directly to the role of race and racism in the lies about the election. I would like to see him call for greater literacy. I would like to see him talk about how un-American it is to ban books, including books by some of the heroes of American society - Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, who integrated New Orleans schools and told her story from the perspective of a child. I would love to see him say that it is un-American to try to win by depriving us of knowledge. Knowledge and political participation and freedom go hand in hand in a democracy. Denying that goes hand in hand in a democracy that's sliding towards fascism.

MARTÍNEZ: How can people better explain what CRT is?

CRENSHAW: Critical race theory is something that people practice every day. If you yourself put your hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o'clock position when you see those lights in the rearview mirror, you are practicing critical race theory. Critical race theory is practiced by any number of people and groups who recognize that colorblindness is an aspiration, but it's not the reality in American society. And to survive and to thrive, you have to be aware of how race plays a role. You have to pass it on to your children. You have to practice it in your workplace. You practice it in the stores. You practice it wherever you go.

MARTÍNEZ: Kimberle Crenshaw is a professor at the Columbia and UCLA Law Schools and executive director of the African American Policy Forum. Professor, thank you very much.

CRENSHAW: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALIB KWELI SONG, "PUSH THRU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.