Critical Race Theory: What’s the Strategy?

In an earlier post I said that I took Critical Race Theory (CRT) to involve a set of propositions, a commitment and a strategy.  Here I want to take up the question of strategy.  How will we get to a place of greater equality and justice for all people regardless of race?  What’s the road there?  Can we envision it so that we can put our energies toward following that road?  That’s the question of strategy.  I don’t want to just feel good about myself or my place in the world; I want to be making progress toward a more just and equitable world. 

There’s an immediate problem to be faced: it is hard to say what IS the CRT strategy for working on racial equality and social justice.  I haven’t been able to find a straightforward articulation of such a strategy or strategies derived from the basic principles of CRT — and there’s a problem in that.  I believe any such strategy would have to involve at least these principles, which derive from CRT’s propositions about the nature and persistence of racism:

  • Interrogation of situations, practices and policies for ways they embody white supremacy;
  • Recognition of the inadequacy of neutral, race-blind approaches;
  • Commitment to examine the unintended consequences of policy, especially in view of the systemic character of racism;
  • Centering of marginalized voices; and  
  • Recognition of the inadequacy of empathy on the part of those more privileged. 

As I look around me, I see various kinds of initiatives embodying these principles being employed by followers of CRT.  I want to focus on these:

  • Via the law
  • Via anti-racism training
  • Via earnest remaking of organizations
  • Via politics

A.  Via the Law.  CRT began among those in the law who saw that some victories of the civil rights movement were less solid than they first appeared and that further victories were not being won.  One approach of CRT is to continue legal challenges but making different kinds of arguments and employing different strategies of persuasion. 

Not being a lawyer, these are beyond my capability to fully understand.  Nevertheless, I see that legal victories on race matters continue to be scarce.  And why is that?  Mostly, I think, because the vagaries of our political process have given rise to the appointment of judges of an ‘originalist’ character who are not persuaded by this newer approach.  In the wider politics of the country, Republicans have been more successful in placing their judges in important positions, especially on the Supreme Court. 

B. Via Anti-racism Training.  A second strategy involves anti-racism training sessions.  There are many providers of such ‘trainings’, most of them consultants or small groups of consultants.  The trainings generally follow a standard course or curriculum.  They often involve reading or viewing Robin DiAngelo’s take on White Fragility or reading Ibram Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist or Stamped from the Beginning), and they often end with everyone taking the Implicit Bias test to demonstrate that we all carry negative bias towards people of color or other groups of people. 

Such training (I’ve been through a few, sponsored by various organizations with which I am affiliated) is likely to be undertaken mostly by those already inclined to see racism as a serious and pervasive problem.  While it may deepen the understandings of many of those who go through it, it is unlikely to widen, very much, the circle of those disposed to see a problem.  The trainings I’ve experienced, moreover, have not addressed the systemic character of particular situations, organizations or localities.  Rather than trace out the unintended consequences of specific policies or practices, these trainings instead seek to demonstrate the nearly universal implicit bias of white people.  They leave people feeling concerned, but without a focused agenda for change. 

Also, these trainings are not a setting for encouraging discussion or give-and-take.  Rather, they involve a script to be followed.  Generally, they are longer on assertion than on providing evidence or sourcing of claims.  Some will take to this catechism learning better than others. 

C. Via Remaking of Organizations.  A third strategy involves having organizations acknowledge their complicity and pledge a commitment to change.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of organizations have declared their involvement in past racism and promised to do better.  Often this leads, as a first step, to sponsoring anti-racism training with a consultant. 

The declarations organizations make, as I’ve experienced them, tend to be more about broad acknowledgement of responsibility and less about specifics or analysis or follow-through.  There are good intentions at play here, but I have doubts that there will be much change or redress that comes from these efforts.  The residue may be deepening cynicism: yet more good but empty words.  There doesn’t seem to be any wider strategy emerging for such organizations to work together on behalf of a coordinated effort. 

There are playbooks.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, in 2014, published a Race Equity and Inclusion Guide that lays out “seven steps to advance and embed race equity and inclusion within your organization.” Here are the steps: 

  • Step 1: Establish an Understanding of Race Equity and Inclusion Principles
  • Step 2: Engage Affected Populations and Stakeholders
  • Step 3: Gather and Analyze Disaggregated Data
  • Step 4: Conduct Systems Analysis of Root Causes of Inequities
  • Step 5: Identify Strategies and Target Resources to Address Root Causes of Inequities
  • Step 6: Conduct Race Equity Impact Assessment for All Policies and Decision Making
  • Step 7: Continuously Evaluate Effectiveness and Adapt Strategies

How many organizations are likely to go through such a process?  Likely it would be beyond the capability of all but the most well-resourced and sophisticated not-for-profits. 

D. Via Politics:  In Praise of Bayard Rustin.  I have doubts about simply using the law or doing anti-racism training or a diffuse effort at remaking organizations as strategies that hold much promise of taking us toward a more just and equitable world – or country.  Use of legal challenges will be frustrating unless and until those making legal decisions (judges and justices) work from principles that do not embody racism.  That will require changes in the law or changes in the judges, or likely both.  That will require a political effort. 

For different reasons, I have doubts about the efficacy of training efforts or remaking organization efforts.  They may improve some local, specific situations, but they are unlikely to increase the numbers of people who are genuinely committed to progress toward racial justice.   They are unlikely to lead to the fundamental changes that will be needed in the civic fabric of American (or global) organizations.  To my mind, they don’t add up to a strategy that holds much promise. 

In 1965, Bayard Rustin called for a shift in the strategy of the civil rights movement:  in a nutshell a shift away from protests and towards politics.  “We need allies,” he wrote.  “The future of the Negro struggle depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority of the United States.  I speak of the coalition which staged the March on Washington, passed the Civil Rights Act, and laid the basis for the Johnson landslide – Negroes, trade unionists, and religious groups” (From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement, Commentary, February 1965). 

More than a half century later, I believe a sober reckoning tells us he was right then, and he is still right today.  In the intervening decades we have only slipped backwards.  Yes, progress has been made.  Yes, we elected and re-elected Barack Obama.  Yes, Thurgood Marshall served on the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991.  Etc.  But we are no closer to building the effective political movement that will formulate, pursue and carry through the kind of strategy we need.  We need only remember we have also had Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Fox News, the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, and much more. 

The coalition of allies we need surely looks different today than it appeared to Rustin in 1965, but it is still a coalition of allies we need. It is via politics, via strong, savvy politics, that such a coalition will have to be assembled.  That coalition will need leadership.  It will need a clear and focused agenda.  And it will need to work in and through the corridors of power for a sustained period of time.  Today, we have none of these. 

That’s the challenge before us today.  Critical Race Theory may give us some insights and some tools we need, but it has not and cannot give us the political strategy we need. Ask yourself: will ‘trainings’ mobilize allies? Will well-meant declarations from organizations? 

Let Rustin have the last word.  He speaks of a “no-win” posture in the civil rights movement of his day.  Seeing the many obstacles, these militants “conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed.  These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists.  They seek to change white hearts – by traumatizing them … [and they are] frequently abetted by white self-flagellants.” 

And this: 

“My quarrel with the ‘no-win’ tendency in the civil rights movement (and the reason I have so designated it) parallels my quarrel with the moderates outside the movement. As the latter lack the vision or will for fundamental change, the former lack a realistic strategy for achieving it. For such a strategy they substitute militancy. But militancy is a matter of posture and volume and not of effect.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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