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Legal Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw: We Must Reclaim Critical Race Theory from Right-Wing Fearmongering

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We speak with pioneering scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw about the growing Republican effort to ban critical race theory — an academic field that conservatives have invoked as a catchall phrase to censor a variety of curriculums focusing on antiracism, sex and gender. Crenshaw has launched what she calls a “counterterrorism offensive” against the Republican efforts with a “summer school” inspired by the Freedom Summer movement of the 1960s. The school debunks the “bothsidesism” debate Crenshaw says is upheld by mainstream media, and highlights the importance of critical race theory in building a multiracial democracy. “There’s no daylight between the protection of our democracy and the protection of antiracism,” says Crenshaw.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look now at a new effort to push back on conservative activists and politicians who claim Democrats are, quote, “indoctrinating” students with critical race theory. It comes as a new PBS Frontline-ProPublica report identified at least 14 public school workers who left their jobs last year after they were accused of teaching so-called CRT.

For more, we spend the rest of the hour with the pioneering scholar, activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has launched what she calls a counteroffensive against the organized campaign against critical race theory. It’s a CRT Summer School, inspired by the Freedom Summer of the civil rights movement. She’s professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia University and founder of the African American Policy Forum.

Professor Crenshaw, welcome back to Democracy Now! Before we talk about the summer school, well, give us a little bit of teaching here. Explain what critical race theory is and why you think it’s so critical for people to understand.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, Amy, thank you for having me here.

There is critical race theory which is the academic law school course, which is the study of how race and racism have become embedded in our American institutions, law in particular. If you want to understand, for example, the current pattern of housing segregation or wealth disparity, you need to understand how the Federal Housing Act allowed for suburbs to be built without requiring them to be built in an integrated way, or you’d have to understand how banking practices discriminated against African American people and how much of that discrimination was legal. That’s what we talk about in law school.

But, Amy, what became clear to us in the middle of this firestorm controversy against critical race theory is that it really wasn’t about the law school course. It didn’t make any sense to say, “We don’t even teach critical race theory,” because what the assault was against was antiracism. We have to remember that this campaign began after the great reckoning that happened in the aftermath of George Floyd, when millions of people across the country took to the streets to demand racial justice. And they were talking about it outside of the typical way of imagining a prejudiced police officer. They were talking about it in terms of structures and in terms of institutions.

And there was a need, obviously, on the part of the right to have a way to clap back, and so they rooted around and found critical race theory as the container into which they poured the entire apparatus of antiracism. So, what we’re fighting now, and what some of those teachers are fighting, is the effort to silence all recognition, all conversation, all tools, all histories, all of the current consequences of our past. So that’s why we decided it’s time to turn CRT Summer School into a Freedom Summer for all stakeholders, not only stakeholders for antiracism, but stakeholders for our multiracial democracy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kimberlé Crenshaw, it seems to me that this is only the latest manifestation of an ongoing debate and battle that has been raging in America for decades. I think back to the 1990s, when — I think it was in 1991 that Arthur Schlesinger, the celebrated liberal historian, wrote the polemic, The Disuniting of America, and he at that time claimed that there were right-wing monoculturalists and there were left-wing multiculturalists, and both of them were interpreting American history in a one-dimensional or one-sided manner. But Schlesinger kept insisting America was created by Anglo-Saxons and Europeans, and that’s the culture, and that’s the history, and those are the institutions of American society. Is this phase that we’re — do you see any difference between the battles that are occurring now and those that occurred in the 1990s over this issue?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Not really. I mean, one of my first articles was “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment.” And in that article, I argued that periods of reform, of mass mobilization, of significant change towards the democracy that we claim to want to be, inevitably spark backlash. They spark grievances. They spark the sense of loss. And often that sense of loss is what the energy is that drives some of the most aggressive assaults on our democracy. I mean, that’s what we saw in January 6th. If nothing else, last week’s hearing on the Capitol riots should reinforce the sense that this belief that something is being taken away from those who have the exclusive right to own it — namely, this democracy — is in fact part of the legacy of white supremacy that critical race theory tries to unpack.

Here’s the challenging thing, though. The challenging thing is, this bothsidesism that you mentioned and that has been part of the pushback consistently against knowledge and school practices that really takes seriously our claims to be a multiracial democracy, that has been, frankly, a liberal response to something that is not symmetrical. The attack on the Capitol, which everyone should have been talking about last year, was marginalized by the attack on critical race theory. And when media talked about it, media didn’t talk about: What does critical race theory help us understand about why our democracy is in crisis? What they asked about is: What is happening in the classroom? What is it that critical race theory is doing to assault our children? If we had a critical race theory lens, we would know that’s always been the response to antiracism. We would know that children have always been framed as being harmed by integration. And that was a projection of their parents, who don’t want to have these conversations and don’t want to open up their sense of entitlement about who this country is for.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the CRT Summer School. How can someone participate? How does it tie into the midterm elections happening this fall?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, Juan, you know, one of the things that happened when the assault on critical race theory really went into overdrive — and I have to say, it happened immediately after the Capitol riots — we found that while the Moms of Liberty and some of these other organizations were able to really galvanize parents, even people who didn’t have kids in the schools, to go running to their school boards, the stakeholders for antiracism and democracy were confused. They didn’t know what critical race theory was. They were told a lot of misinformation.

So we realized we need to go and reintroduce critical race theory to people as the thing they practice every day. When they give their kids the talk, when they put their hands on the steering wheel at 10:00 and 2:00 when they see police lights in their rearview mirror, they are practicing critical race theory. They are practicing the wisdom that our parents passed to us to navigate this world as people of color. So we decided we need to take it back to the community and create a summer school that brings together 160 instructors, 22 channels, five plenaries and over 110 courses. And their parents can learn what is actually happening in schools. Teachers like Matthew Hawn, who was fired for teaching an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, will teach the class that got him fired, so people can see what is really at stake. We have Nina Turner. We have Marc Lamont Hill talking about how the media, mainstream media, have sometimes enabled these moral panics. We have Barbara Arnwine talking about vote suppression.

So, if you want to find out more about critical race theory and why it is important to realize there’s no daylight between the protection of our democracy and the protection of antiracism, then you can find out about it at www.aapf.org/crtsummerschool. There are scholarships. So, anyone who wants to be there will not be turned away for lack of resources.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is AAPF stands for African American Policy Forum. But I’m really struck, Professor Crenshaw, about what you’re saying, the — talking about all of this as the investigation goes on on what happened on January 6th. The number of groups involved who were white supremacist is often lost, in trying to overturn the election. And you couple that with the kind of gerrymandering that’s going on around the country and the kind of voter suppression. If you can talk more about how it is that we haven’t come to look at this insurrection that took place — the final public hearing, before the next one, will be Thursday night — through a critical race theory lens? And you don’t even have to look at it through a critical race theory lens. It’s just the absolute — one of the predominant aspects of this is that so many of the people in Washington that violently entered the Capitol and attacked it were white supremacists.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Absolutely. And, Amy, that is critical race theory, understanding the history that led to this moment. So, it includes the fact that we’ve had political coups before. That’s what the end of Reconstruction was. It was a violent takeover of Southern governments, fueled by this idea of grievance, fueled by this idea that people of color, Black people, have no right to determine our political future, no contribution to where we’re going.

But here’s the rub. It’s not just the mobilization of the right wing, but the silence about it, the inability to talk about it. I mean, we have seen for months that Confederate flag and the gallows and the noose, but mainstream media had a hard time actually saying we have a white supremacist problem, partly because we’ve not talked critically about race for the last several decades. So, here you have a moment where the weakness, the lack of framing, the inability to call out racism and to analyze it has actually brought our democracy to the brink. We cannot afford colorblindness in talking about the most significant threat to our democracy that we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the money behind the attacks on critical race theory, these parents showing up at school board meetings? Are these spontaneous developments in various neighborhoods, or is this part of a well-orchestrated and well-oiled campaign?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: So, another moment where the mainstream media is not reporting the story. They’re just doing the both-sides thing. In fact, Moms for Liberty, these parent groups, they are basically warmed-over fronts of preexisting right-wing organizations. But people are not covering it. They don’t know it. So it allows them to be seen as grassroots, when in fact they are not. What is not being covered is —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: — the responses of parents, who realize that this attack on history is an attack on their children’s future. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about in CRT Summer School.

AMY GOODMAN: And people can still sign up even though it’s this week?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: They can sign up, and it will be on demand until Labor Day.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Thank you so much, Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Wear a mask.

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