Without history, there is no basis for comprehensive advocacy efforts for racial and economic justice.
June 28, 2022
Progress in the fight for racial and economic justice—or lack thereof—has swung like a pendulum between those who want change and those who want to maintain the status quo. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 was the catalyst for yet another national outcry. Predictably, two years later, the pendulum has again swung away from accountability.
This is true even though the pandemic has disrupted everything, exacerbating racism, discrimination, structural inequities, and fundamental problems in social, economic, civil, and political life. The needs of low-income communities are greater than ever, especially as the racialized, political rhetoric around us has become more of a threat.
Critical race theory is the latest weapon wielded by those who support white supremacy. Bills to control discussion of race, racism, and gender in school have been introduced or passed with frightening speed in over 20 states, with more coming in 2022, according to new data from PEN America. Yet most of the bills don’t even explicitly name critical race theory.
What is happening is intentional and insidious. Through their efforts to rewrite our racist history and how it impacts the present, opponents to progress are trying to hinder the education of our future leaders and further marginalize the lived experience of people of color.
Critical race theory is an academic philosophy that originated in law school curricula in the late 1960s. The core idea is that racism is a social construct deeply embedded in the laws, regulations, and procedures of American institutions, leading to different outcomes based on race.
Attacks on critical race theory are especially important to legal advocates because they undermines our work to make systemic change happen. If racism is not institutional, but only episodic and interpersonal, then systems change becomes irrelevant.
At the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, we know policies and laws create and perpetuate poverty and racial inequity. They are rooted in institutions, structures, and systems in every state. The rhetoric of Former President Trump and the right wing has stoked latent fears among many white Americans, who once again seek to disempower people of color.
Language is a powerful tool. Mindful not to display any bigotry, critics cloak their words and opinions carefully. Whether it played a role or not, they attribute critical race theory to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, federal diversity trainings, and every other public discourse about racism, racial injustice, or inequity. They claim it sows mistrust among people of color by branding all white people as inherently racist. And they blame it for reducing people into two main categories, oppressor and oppressed, thereby worsening racial tensions.
Systemic racism in America is codified in treatises, statutes, and case law. Its consequences are clear: an enormous racial wealth gap, political disenfranchisement, and glaring disparities in health, education, employment, and housing. And its origin goes back to our nation’s founding, when Europeans stole and settled on land occupied by Indigenous people and imported enslaved Africans for labor.
Yet even after slavery was abolished, policies and laws have continued to discriminate against entire groups of people based on their race or ethnicity. To minimize or outright ban discussions about racism and oppression serves no other purpose but to deny our true history.
History like Juneteenth, which marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. A federal holiday since 2021, Juneteenth is more widely recognized by mainstream society as a day commemorating when more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state became free. What is less known is that the troops’ arrival came a full 2 1/2 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Without history, we do not recognize the harm done to Indigenous people and the rights they have to the lands on which we sit. We fail to see the connection from slavery to current racist policies and practices. And we fail to understand why poverty is so pervasive, viewing it as an individual problem instead of a structural issue. In a nutshell, without history, there is no basis for comprehensive advocacy efforts for racial and economic justice.
Over nearly 60 years, the Shriver Center has always sought to dispel the racist tropes that are periodically repackaged and recycled. The concerted attacks on critical race theory are merely a diversion to uphold white supremacy. That is why advocates for racial and economic justice must strongly call out this attempt to erase our racist history.