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Kimberlé Crenshaw on Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality & the Right-Wing War on Public Education

StoryFebruary 06, 2023
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We speak with renowned legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw about right-wing efforts to curtail the teaching of African American history, queer studies and other subjects that focus on marginalized communities. The College Board, the nonprofit group that designs AP courses for high school seniors, recently revised a curriculum for a course in African American studies after criticism from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others who maligned it as “woke indoctrination.” The new curriculum removes Black Lives Matter, slavery reparations and queer theory as required topics, and drops many major writers, including Crenshaw, from the reading list. “Anybody who’s concerned about our democracy, anyone who’s concerned about authoritarianism has to wake up and pay attention to this, because this is how it happens,” she says. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to study the overlapping or intersecting social identities and systems of oppression, domination or discrimination people experience.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show with pioneering legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to talk about her work on intersectionality and critical race theory, after the College Board removed her writings from the required curriculum for its AP African American studies class. The College Board recently revised its curriculum for an Advanced Placement African American studies course and removed Black Lives Matter, slavery reparations and queer theory as required topics, while adding a section on Black conservatism. The new curriculum was released on the first day of Black History Month and came after Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis vowed to ban the AP Black studies class in Florida schools and Florida’s Education Department, because, he said, the course, quote, “lacks educational value.” DeSantis is expected to announce his plans to run for president in the coming months. And this all comes as teachers across the country face increasing concern about what they’re allowed to include in their curriculum as Republicans use the culture wars to build their brand. They’re not only concerned — teachers — about being criticized, but being imprisoned.

On Friday, we spoke to two professors whose work has been removed from the new curriculum, E. Patrick Johnson and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who both teach at Northwestern, as well as to Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad. Today we’re joined by another one of the banned, professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, leading scholar in the field of critical race theory; coined the term “intersectionality” to study the overlapping or intersecting social identities and systems of oppression, domination or discrimination people experience; executive director of the African American Policy Forum; professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia University; joining us from New York, after receiving the Winslow Medal from the Yale School of Public Health, the school’s highest honor, which recognizes outstanding achievements in public health leadership, scholarship or contribution to society.

Congratulations, Professor Crenshaw, on that honor.


AMY GOODMAN: And some consider it honor now to be banned, though they’re infuriated by it. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are now? To be clear, the College Board said they made this decision, to, for example, exclude your work from the required course, before DeSantis made this last statement a few weeks ago.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Yes, yes. Well, thank you, Amy. It’s good to be back.

You know, I think that the focus of the debate so far has perhaps misdirected the conversation by discussing whether the ban — or, I would say, benching of some our work, from required text to optional text — came at the behest of Governor DeSantis. The reality is that there has been anti-woke legislation since, basically, President Trump said, “Stand by, Proud Boys. I got something for you.” And what he came up with was a ban on a whole range of racial justice and equity ideas and practices and policies. That got rescinded as soon as President Biden took office, but then it became a state-based strategy. At this point, upwards of 42 states have considered banning a certain set of ideas, certain set of practices and concepts, under the frame of anti-wokeness or anti-CRT. So, you know, it really doesn’t matter much whether the College Board came to these decisions two weeks ago or two months ago. This conversation has been going on for nearly two years, if not more.

You don’t become a billion-dollar corporation by not paying attention to the market. And the market indicators told the College Board that this new course that they were hoping to promote — and, interestingly enough, the opportunity for the course came after the George Floyd activation drove so many people in the streets, and they were demanding more information about structural racism, more information about intersectionality, more information about implicit bias. The same motivation that made people demand it also sparked a backlash and this legislation. So, of course the College Board knew about it. Of course the College Board had to take some kind of awareness. And we don’t have to speculate about it. They’ve effectively told us that. When the course was announced this summer, some of the advocates for the course went to great pains to say that this course was not CRT. The effort was to distinguish it as much as possible. In reality, what that was signaling was a softness in the resolve to step forward with the ideas that had been associated with CRT. That is structural racism, the Movement for Black Lives, intersectionality. So, there was the opportunity, there was the motivation, and there was, ultimately, the content elimination — or, I will just say, benching — of some of these ideas. That’s what we should be talking about, not when the memo went out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Crenshaw, I wanted to quote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who wrote, “Educators must not allow the phrase 'critical race theory' to be used to blacklist scholars … the same way the word 'communist' was used in the McCarthy era. Black history is our collective history as Americans. It must be told — in full.” And I think it’s very interesting also, in light of today, to talk about the new McCarthy era, given the House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. But your thoughts?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, I was delighted to see that someone noticed this. As you know, Amy, I’ve been talking about this since 2020. I’ve been saying that the whole anti-CRT, anti-woke approach to legislation is a very old idea. It’s basically an idea that says greater attention to equity, greater attention to equality effectively amounts to reverse discrimination. It’s anti-white. Now, this is a far-right talking point that wasn’t often expressed in polite company for — until, effectively, Barack Obama was elected, and then President Trump, and now it’s become mainstream. And the way that it has been made mainstream is by stoking fears about a set of ideas that most people couldn’t tell you one thing about, except for the fact that they’ve been told to be afraid of these ideas, that it’s taking something away from them, and they should repudiate it. That is a classic form of McCarthyism.

And what makes it is so disturbing is the fact that people who know better, people who know this history, were willing to sit it out, to think that it was going to go away when the conversation changed, or to think that they could outrun the shadow by simply saying, “We don’t do critical race theory,” without paying attention to what the critics said critical race theory was, what they were going after — all of these ideas, but, more importantly, Amy, they’ve said they’re going after public education. They said they’re going after universities. So, nobody can be surprised when suddenly this effort to stomp out critical race theory turns out to be an effort to make antiracism unspeakable, to make queer studies undoable, to make intersectionality — one of the most widespread concepts across the disciplines — something that college-directed students cannot take or can only take if the states allows them to. Anybody who’s concerned about our democracy, anyone who’s concerned about authoritarianism has to wake up and pay attention to this, because this is how it happens.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the Congressional Black Caucus chair, Nevada Congressman Steven Horsford, speaking after their caucus meeting at the White House Thursday with President Biden and Vice President Harris.

REP. STEVEN HORSFORD: We were here, as you know, to discuss the importance of public safety, policing and justice. We are doing this in part in response to Tyre Nichols, a young man who should be alive today, a person who was a son and a father, who loved photography and skateboarding. … We have agreement on how we will continue to work forward, both from a legislative standpoint as well as executive and community-based solutions. But the focus will always be on public safety, public safety for all communities, because we understand that it is about the culture of policing and keeping all communities safe, and all of us should be able to agree that bad policing has no place in any American city or community.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the Congressional Black Caucus chair, Steven Horsford, with a group of CBC congressmembers who just met with Harris and Biden. And, of course, you had Vice President Harris speaking at Tyre Nichols’ funeral, where she called for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. And I think Cory Booker yesterday, one of the key people pushing that, all but conceded that’s not going to happen. Maybe smaller points will happen — for example, banning chokeholds except in life-threatening situations, when, well, police claim that their lives are threatened; set federal standards for no-knock warrants; limit transfer of some military equipment to local departments. But I’m bringing all this up in relation to this because Black Lives Matter, which grew up in response to the killing of young Black men and women, is now not required in the curriculum.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, this is why we need to listen very carefully tomorrow to see if the president backs up his conversation with a clear directive to the American people that the question of police brutality is a vital concern and that efforts to promote the value of Black lives cannot be silenced and cannot be sidelined.

Look, the Movement for Black Lives, the mobilization that took place in 2020 was the largest mobilization in American history. We all know that there is no chance of pushing forward any fundamental change, any kind of serious legislation to address our social problems, without an active social movement that creates frame alignment, that creates the notion that this is an important issue. What can signal that the Movement for Black Lives, that the problem of police brutality is less significant than it needs to be than taking it out as required reading in a course on African American studies?

So, it’s up to the president, it’s up to leadership to step into this, to reverse this faction that has basically tried to make racism unspeakable, to reverse the accommodationism that is at play when profit motives come into tension with the basic imperative of African American studies, which is to understand the condition not simply as an assortment of fun facts but as the material interests that need to be understood in order to transform this country into the multiracial democracy that it truly claims to be.

AMY GOODMAN: You were just referring to President Biden tomorrow night. Tuesday night, of course, he’s giving a State of the Union address. Then he’ll be launching a 20-state post-State of the Union blitz with his Cabinet to discuss the economic agenda. What do you think needs to be the message conveyed throughout this country right now?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, I think the message needs to be conveyed that we are about to go into a political period that is not unlike the political period in 1876, it’s not unlike 1968, in which race is on the agenda, whether explicitly or implicitly. The Democrats have never really been effective, since —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: — Lee Atwater made it clear that race was going to be used as a political cudgel. So, this is the opportunity to prepare Americans to support the idea behind multiracial democracy, not allow race to get into the way, and say what they stand for, once and for all.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, we thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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