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Critical Race Theory: A Ruling-Class Ideology

2020 has been shaped by two things. Coronavirus – and our response to it – has dominated every aspect of our lives. But something else has gripped us this year, too: anti-racism. In May, shocked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, people all around the world emerged from lockdown to participate in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. In the UK, statues fell, public figures knelt in solidarity and many people blacked out their social-media posts for a day. Schools, universities and workplaces stepped up diversity training and anti-racist initiatives.

There have been protests against racism in the past, of course. But this year has been different. Never before have people on every continent, in countries and towns facing their own unique problems, turned out in such huge numbers to support the same cause. Never before have books like White FragilityWhy I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race and How To Be An Antiracist become international bestsellers. And never before has a protest movement had such establishment backing. In the UK, BLM has been publicly endorsed by the royal family, the football Premier League, and senior politicians. Multinational corporations have got in on the act, too. Ice-cream maker Ben and Jerry’s has pledged to do all it can to dismantle white supremacy, while elite universities have issued statements denouncing their own institutional racism.

The mainstreaming and elite-backing of anti-racism initiatives speaks to a new understanding of racism. Critical race theory (CRT) used to be a minority pursuit, an obscure academic interest. In 2020 it provided the rationale for protests, books, diversity workshops and school lessons. In June, Channel 4 screened The School That Tried to End Racism, a documentary series that followed the progress of children made to undergo an anti-racist re-education programme based upon principles of CRT. New phrases entered our vocabulary. Terms like systemic racism, unconscious bias, white privilege, cultural appropriation, reparations, microaggression and intersectionality migrated from academics and activists to newspapers, radio discussions, charity campaigns and school lessons. President Trump and Kemi Badenoch, the UK’s minister for equalities, made speeches explicitly naming CRT and calling out its perniciousness.

What is Critical Race Theory?

CRT begins with a challenge to the ‘scientific’ racism of the 19th and early 20th century. In the days of empire, colonial exploitation and slavery were justified by a belief that white people were physically, mentally and morally superior to the people they ruled over. This view extended to the working class at home, who were portrayed as genetically distinct from and inferior to the upper class. This biological understanding of race began to be called into question after the Second World War, although its legacy continued to play out in Apartheid-era South Africa, Jim Crow laws in the American South and discrimination in the UK.

Critical race theorists are not the first to point out that race is socially constructed; that is, it is not a naturally occurring phenomenon but created and made meaningful by people collectively, over time and place. Few today disagree with this point. But whereas a previous generation of anti-racists challenged the social significance attributed to biological differences to argue that there was one race, the human race, and emphasised universal traits that create a common humanity irrespective of skin colour, critical race theorists argue that, once constructed, race becomes an incontestable fact. As Robin Di Angelo explains in White Fragility: ‘While there is no biological race as we understand it, race as a social construct has profound significance and shapes every aspect of our lives.’ (1)

When race is seen in this way, racism is understood as systemic; that is, built into the very fabric of societies designed by white people, for the benefit of white people. Proponents of CRT argue that ideas of white superiority and black inferiority are intrinsic to our language, culture and interpretations of history. Every aspect of our daily lives, from education, policing, the health service and employment assumes a white norm, they argue, and this makes a mockery of equality before the law and the liberal notion of equality of opportunity. As Reni Eddo-Lodge explains in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: ‘If you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.’ In an inescapably circular argument, race is constructed and made meaningful through racism; it is people’s everyday experiences within a racist society that create the reality of race.

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