Critical Race Theory (CRT) – a racist theoretical approach that focuses on systemic forms of racism and their effects on minority communities – is viewed as a threat by many white Americans. The typical rationale of the hordes of newly converted CRT haters – it’s Marxist, it’s the liberal indoctrination of children, the revisionist story of Americans who secretly hate America – is not their real objection. In fact, all CRT haters have one thing in common: they need the issue of racism to remain a matter of individual attitudes and actions in society.
Why is it so important (for much of white America) that racism remains a matter of individual attitudes and actions? Because admitting that racism has a systemic form removes an essential piece of the mental hardware of white America – the excuse “I am not personally racist”.
The thought that CRT haters cannot afford to think is this they need society’s systems to do their racism for them. That way, they can feel like they personally stand above racism and still enjoy its benefits.
Critical racial theory is dangerous indeed, but not because it is some radical liberal agenda. CRT is dangerous because it challenges the “I am not personally racist” excuse by exposing the way in which all white people – Liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans alike – benefit from our current systems simply because they know are.
What is Critical Race Theory?
CRT began in the early 1900s as a way to explain injustice and discrimination perpetuated by the legal system (that the law in America struggled and failed to treat people of color as equals with whites is not exactly a difficult argument to make ). The results of this theoretical approach have been instructive. Since those early days, CRT has expanded to other aspects of society and culture, particularly economic and political injustice.
CRT isn’t the only theory that can be used to study race, but it’s a perfectly legitimate, almost instinctive, way to do it. If you’ve ever thought that giving birth in America has some natural advantages over giving birth in North Korea or Somalia, then you’ve tried the same type of theoretical work with CRT. Thinking about how a system will affect different ethnic groups within that system is a completely natural mental process and not a radical agenda.
A popular cartoon from the Critical Race Theory describes it as a way to shame white people or indoctrinate children into liberalism through the educational system. This is not what CRT does. CRT is designed to help us avoid one-sided telling of American history, and that is where we really need help. If you don’t believe me, ask your friends how many of them first found out about this Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa massacre by the The guards. These and many other parts of American history were not included in the story that white America tells about itself because they indict the systems designed (consciously or unconsciously) to help white people.
CRT rightly questions the legitimacy of a whitewashed national history. It challenges us to expand our self-image through fortune-telling and to consider the effects of systemic racism on our lives, especially those of colored people.
What is an example of CRT?
American history taught to my generation contained a chapter on the incredible advances made in the post-war era. Soldiers who fought in the war came home and took advantage of the GI law. This legislation basically allowed veterans returning from WWII to attend college for free and get low mortgage rates on VA home loans. The GI Act was a system designed to help our grandparents ‘or great-grandparents’ generation thrive after World War II. And they succeeded. These advantages led to a period of rapid economic growth and prosperity in the United States. We still benefit from their success in many ways.
What we have not been taught is the fact that these benefits were almost exclusively given to white men. Jemar Tisby offers a more precise picture in his great book The color of compromise, which I highly recommend (everything I say below is based on Tisby’s research).
During the Great Depression, many Americans were behind on their mortgage loans. So in 1933 the US government formed the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) and began buying loans that were in default. The government would write off the mortgage and sell it back to the homeowner at a lower cost. It worked well. The government took up the loss and the people kept their homes. The entire program was carried out through local banks.
Part of the HOLC’s government administration was to issue guidelines to the banks in the form of color-coded maps of each city showing the risk to the loans. The safest areas to borrow money were green, the next safest areas were blue, and then yellow. The “high risk” neighborhoods have been marked in red. As it turned out, the neighborhoods where People of Color lived – even stable middle-class families with good incomes – were automatically colored red. This practice became known as the Redlining.
If you were a black homeowner in a red boxed neighborhood during the Great Depression, the government wouldn’t buy your loan and sell it back to you. If you went bankrupt, the bank would take your house and sell it to white landlords who would charge you rent. At the same time, cities, real estate companies, and banks began to prevent colored people from buying houses in green, blue, and yellow neighborhoods. They created a local housing system that was intentionally racist, including the racial requirements in the HOA bylaws.
Fast forward to the end of World War II. White GIs returning from the war could get VA mortgages anywhere in their hometown, except in the areas outlined in red. Black GIs were forced to live only in demarcated high-risk areas where banks were not allowed to offer credit (not even the VA-backed loans). This means that minority veterans, in general, could not buy a home using the GI bill. Instead, they had to rent. Loan officers and real estate agents sitting across from black soldiers could just say, “I know it sucks, but I don’t make the rules.” They could deny that they were personally racist while enforcing the racism anchored in the system.
Did that really happen? Yes sir. In the state of Mississippi, 3,200 VA mortgages were issued in 1947, but only 2 of those went to black borrowers. The problem wasn’t limited to the south. In New York City and the suburbs of Jersey, 67,000 VA mortgages were issued under the GI bill that same year, but fewer than 100 went to colored people. This phenomenon occurred in almost every American community. The post-war real estate boom did more to the prosperity of America than any other factor during the period, and people of color were largely denied access, partly by racist people (bankers, property developers, etc.), but mostly by the rules that governed the system, and gave whites an advantage because of their race.
Veterans were also entitled to college tuition under the GI Act, regardless of race. The problem was that most colleges and universities weren’t integrated yet and the HBCUs quickly became overcrowded. When black veterans applied for their college grants, clerks seated across from them (usually white) directed them to low-wage training and education programs rather than four-year colleges (again blaming the rules of the system). . Lower wages meant fewer opportunities for people of color to build wealth.
Just before the war, when Social Security was established under FDR, the Senators of the South held the law hostage until they agreed to exclude two specific classes of workers from the program: domestic workers and farm jobs. Why did you do that? Because in the south these were mostly black professions.
Now take a step back and look at the big picture. The story we were taught was that the period of rapid economic growth and prosperity in the United States after World War II was mainly based on three things: home ownership, education that led to better-paying jobs, and the Social Security Pension Guarantee, and there was a ton of government support to make this happen. What the Critical Race Theory reveals is that people of color were denied access to VA loans, free education, and often social security … that is, home ownership, higher paying jobs, and retirement – the three pillars of wealth creation in the postwar era. The system itself ensured that colored people could not build wealth on the same level as their white contemporaries. Now think about the impact these systems have had on generational wealth in minority communities.
Admitting that racism was systemic means that even if our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents weren’t the least bit racist in person (which, if you’re like me, is far from reality), it didn’t matter. You didn’t have to be racist. The system would do the racism for them. Which means they could enjoy the benefits of racism while still claiming (and perhaps believing) that they were not personally racist.
Critical race theory is dangerous, to be sure. It is dangerous because it makes the excuse “I am not personally racist” completely irrelevant. The problem with CRT is not that it is Marxist, liberal, or revisionist. The problem is that it makes racism everyone’s problem, not just the personal racist problem, and that’s something the CRT haters don’t like to hear.
Follow me on Twitter: @Tim_Suttle
For more information on Christianity and systemic racism, please see my book: An evangelical social gospel?