Politics

Critical Race Theory Is a Convenient Target for Conservatives

Anti–critical race theory protesters.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by USA Today Network via Reuters Connect.

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Across the country, Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are fighting against critical race theory, even if they don’t know what it is. Professor Ibram X. Kendi joined us on Friday’s episode of A Word to explain critical race theory, so even racists can understand. He’s the author of How to Be an Antiracist and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He’s also the host of a new podcast, Be Antiracist With Ibram X. Kendi. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: Dr. Kendi, in your mind, what actually is critical race theory and why do you think Republicans and so many people are so in a kerfuffle about it now?

Ibram X. Kendi: Critical race theory emerged among lawyers and legal scholars who recognized that despite being in this post–civil rights America, racial inequity and disparity still existed and persisted. For them and for critical race theorists, the aim was to examine those structures, those laws, those policies, so that we can uncover the structures of racism. And obviously, critical race theory has extended out to other disciplines. Personally, I think that Republicans specifically chose to attack critical race theory because they felt that they could define it more easily than other terms. Since they couldn’t come out and say, “Oh, those people who are challenging systemic racism are a problem.” They couldn’t say, “Those anti-racists are a problem.” So they’re defining critical race theory at the same time they are attacking it, and critical race theorists are like, “That’s not how we define it.”

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What is the most troubling thing politicians and the media have gotten wrong about critical race theory?

Wow. Man, there’s so many. I would probably say the misconception that critical race theory is a theory that seeks to attack white people, as opposed to it is a theory and an intellectual tradition that seeks to attack structural racism. If you’re white and you’re being told by elected officials, or even the media, that critical race theories are out to go after white people, then I could understand how people would be concerned about that, but it’s a very different thing when critical race theorists are focused on challenging structural racism. I think that’s been very troubling.

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Would you consider yourself to be a critical race theorist? Who are critical race theorists out there that people should be aware of?

I’ve certainly been inspired by critical race theory and critical race theorists. The ways in which I’ve formulated definitions of racism and racist and anti-racism and anti-racist have not only been based on historical evidence, but also Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory. She’s one of the founding and pioneering critical race theorists who in the late 1980s and early 1990s said, “You know what? Black women aren’t just facing racism, they’re not just facing sexism, they’re facing the intersection of racism and sexism.” It’s important for us to understand that and that’s foundational to my work.

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Let’s talk a little bit about academic pushback. There’ve been some academics who have been critical of some of your work, including How to Be an Antiracist. Some people have said, “Oh, it kind of lets white America off the hook.” Have you found yourself at the nexus of these conversations? Or is it more something where people are debating two sides of the same coin as opposed to questioning the legitimacy of what you’re working on?

One of the beauties of being an academic is being able to engage in intellectual exchanges and those intellectual exchanges should be based on our consumption of other people’s work. To be honest, Jason, I’ve been most frustrated when I see and hear people, including academics, criticize my work when their criticisms demonstrate they actually haven’t engaged my work or read my work; they just have heard what somebody else has said. I’m sure any writer, and I’m sure those critics themselves, would be frustrated if they’re being critiqued for something they actually didn’t say or didn’t believe.

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One thing I will say I have focused on more, and I’ve really highlighted, and I wish I would have described this better within How to Be an Antiracist, is that we tend to use the terms racism and racist interchangeably. I even did that in How to Be an Antiracist while at the same time I was trying to define them differently. We’re just so used to using those terms interchangeably, and so what I’ve done since then, is I’ve been very open that it’s important to understand racism as structural, as systemic, as institutional, but the term racist is a term of individuality. So we’re really talking about an individual person, an individual idea, an individual policy, an individual nation. I’m happy because the conversation around my book has allowed me to really ensure that we’re not using those terms interchangeably and we have different definitions for those two terms.

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I want to talk about Nikole Hannah-Jones. This is a situation where conservative forces use their money and resources to go after a Pulitzer Prize winner, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, the author of the 1619 Project, and deny her full tenure with her position at UNC–Chapel Hill. My question for you was, one, how would we define those particular attacks as either racist or racism? Because the critics say, “Oh, no, no, no, this is purely because of academic reasons.” And then second, as you’ve heard about this story, does it make you, as a scholar, worry about the future of academic freedom at colleges around the country?

So the attacks, whether it’s individual members of the board of trustees or the board of trustees collectively, or even those who are defending those trustees for not providing this incredibly talented and qualified journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure, those were individual attacks, and therefore, racist attacks. Then when we take a step back and we look at UNC, or we look at the nation and we see that Black women with tenure are rare, that’s a function of a system or structure that is leading to that sort of disparity.

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Are you optimistic that we can overcome these attacks on critical race theory, that we can overcome these attacks on voter suppression? Do you think that our current government and leadership is up to the task?

So I do think the Democratic Party is still captive to trying to attract white swing voters who they believe do not want to have serious discussions about the ways in which our nation is racist or about just how pervasive structural racism is. Then you have the Republican Party, obviously, that imagines that structural racism doesn’t exist. So you put that together, and unfortunately, we have these two forces or major political forces, neither of which want to have these serious conversations. On the other hand, if you compare 2021 to 1921 or 1821, there are many people who are committed to creating a different type of nation in extremely important and powerful positions, and they just were not there in 1921. We do have these journalists and scholars, and even elected officials and activists, who are in key positions and are in key powerful positions, and their commitment gives me hope.

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