Bolling: Thoughts on Critical Race Theory

Several people have recently written to me and asked about my thoughts on Critical Race Theory. Frankly, it’s a debate I’ve tried to stay away from, because I’ve found that there is no consensus on what Critical Race Theory actually is these days. It means one thing to conservatives, but something very different to liberals. Also, there is an academic definition of critical Race Theory, which means almost nothing to most people; and then there is the more practical impact of Critical Race Theory, which is what most people focus on.

Critical Race Theory is nothing new. Critical Race Theory is a school of thought that generally focuses on how power structures and institutions impact racial minorities. The origins of Critical Race Theory go back to the mid-20th century. I remember talking about Critical Race Theory in my political science and sociology classes when I was in college in the 1970s. However, while academics have been discussing this issue for years, the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing BLM protests/riots seem to have amplified its influence across the country and changed its focus. That’s what has produced the confusion about what Critical Race Theory is and what it is not. It means different things to different people.

If by Critical Race Theory you mean an objective review of the institutions of society and government to make certain that they treat all of our citizens fairly, then I have no objection to that…..assuming that the review is done objectively and without any preconceived conclusions, which seems almost impossible to accomplish these days.

If by Critical Race Theory you mean a full and complete teaching of our nation’s history, then I’m all for that. We need to teach our history fully, warts and all, and we need to honestly acknowledge that the search for equality in our nation has always been an aspirational goal and a struggle for many groups. Clearly, there have been times in our nation’s history when different groups were not treated equally, including Native Americans, Blacks, woman, etc. In fact, there was a time when many White males, who were not wealthy and did not own property, were not treated equally.

Of all these groups, Blacks have clearly been treated less equal over a longer period of time than any other group, beginning with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619, and persisting through 146 years of slavery. But even when slavery was abolished, Blacks in the South continued to be treated unfairly and endured continuing discrimination and segregation because of Jim Crow, Massive Resistance, etc. Even in the North, where most people opposed slavery, they did not necessarily support equality for Blacks until well into the 20th century. To deny that is to deny reality. It is important that we teach our full history honestly and objectively, reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of our unique American journey.

However, if by Critical Race Theory you mean shaming one race of people for the historic oppression of another race of people, then I’m not for that. Or, if by Critical Race Theory you mean discriminating against one group of people to try and offset the impacts of past discrimination against another group of people, then I’m not for that; although I do think there are responsible public policies that we can pursue to try and combat some of the unique challenges that are faced by certain demographic and racial groups.

As a society, we need to recognize a few facts.

First, there is no one alive today who had anything to do with the institution of slavery. Hopefully, that was a period in our nation’s past that we would all find unacceptable. However, there are still those among us who supported segregation and discrimination during the era of Jim Crow and Massive Resistance. Hopefully, they have seen the folly and cruelty of those times.

We also need to acknowledge that there are those among us that continue to harbor attitudes and actions of racism, and that should be condemned. And we need to recognize that racially prejudicial attitudes can be held by any race of people, not just Whites.

So, rather than get bogged down in non-productive debates over divisive and often misunderstood topics like Critical Race Theory, I think we would all be better served by focusing on what more we can do to collectively advance the aspirational goal of equality for all people. If we can do that, perhaps we can still live out the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King gave us… be a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

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