A year ago, few had heard of Critical Race Theory. Now it is a part of the American vocabulary. In the local and state 2021 elections the term was often bandied about and in post-election analysis it is recognized as having influenced voters to varying degrees. Undeniably it has been the center of a number of very vocally and intense school board meetings. What does this have to do with the Black Church?
Elections matter. Politics determines who gets what size slice of the economic pie. It determines quality of life for both winners and losers. If we are concerned about more than photo-ops, hashtags, and singing praises then we need to examine the cultural force that has been unleashed in CRT. It will be a significant tool, not the only tool, but a significant one in the Republican strategy toolchest for upcoming local, state, and national elections.
CRT- The Response
As “Critical Race Theory” began to be bandied about as a term by the media a little over a year ago, the response of black leaders, woke pundits, and sensitive journalists was largely one of corrective explanation. Care was given to explain that CRT was a legal theory taught in law schools, graduate schools and nowhere part of a K-12 curriculum. Clarification has been given over and over that what is portrayed as CRT is nothing but a “racist dog whistle.” In light of upset win of Republican Glenn Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race this cannot simply be the response. At least we need to answer the question if this is a racist dog whistle who are the dogs?
The easy answer is Trump’s base, the rural working class that turned out for him turned out for Youngkin. A closer examination reveals a more varied audience responded to the “dog whistle.”
On a summer evening in late June, police in Loudon County, Virginia were called to the county school board meeting to clear the hall. One person was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct. Another was given a summons for trespassing.
The public had been invited to comment on the school’s district’s draft proposals on racial equity and transgender rights. Both proposals were controversial and board members repeatedly admonished the parents, students, and residents to be respectful and refrain from outbursts and insults. However, the standing room only crowd became so unruly and acrimonious that the board unanimously voted to end the session and call the police.
The proposed transgender policy received a lot of media attention. (Sex always sells and always will.) However, the policy was more a legal matter to bring the school district in line with the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the lower courts’ ruling banning discriminatory practice against transgender students.
The racial equity proposal was the school system’s response to a pair of high-profile reports that found widespread racism imperiled Black and Hispanic students’ progress in the county. After two years of equity work, Loudoun produced a 22-page “Plan to Combat Systemic Racism” that called for developing alternative forms of discipline, hosting teacher trainings to foster “racial consciousness” and forbidding students from wearing the Confederate flag. Parents accused the school board of attempting to indoctrinate children with “critical race theory” and rejected the plan.
In Southlake, Texas in similar incidents took place in the high school. White students recorded video auctioning black students as slaves. These and other clearly racist acts were posted on social media. A committee of parents and school officials began a strategic plan to address the situation. After two years in the making, not only was their equity plan rejected, but the subsequent school board elections also saw the defeat of five candidates supporting the equity plan by a 70 to 30 percent margin. One of the rallying cries was that equity was critical race theory.
Loudoun County, Va. is the wealthiest large county in the nation with a median Income of $142,000 which is more than twice the national average. Southlake, Texas is a suburban town thirty miles NW of Dallas. The average home sells for 1.2 million. The median family income is $240,000. Loudoun County was a blue county voting for Barack Obama in 2008, Hilary Clinton 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 with 61%. Southlake is a thoroughly red voting Republican and supporting Donald Trump in 2020 with 65% of the vote.
Both of the slices of suburbia have small populations of Black/ African Americans 7% and 1. 7 % respectively. They share a common cultural orientation. Both have become flashpoints in protesting, against “Critical Race Theory.” Not the legal analytic theory founded and taught in law schools which examines how policy and legislation has promoted and continues systemic racism. No, they embrace what NY Times opinion writer Charles M. Blow describes as the demonized version.
This version is chiefly creation of Christopher Rufo a film maker propagandist. He was instrumental in crafting Trump’s directive to the Office of Management and Budget issued in September of 2020
“All agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” In addition, all agencies should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these un-American propaganda training sessions.1
Rufo is now a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute. In a tweet in March Rufo explained “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans,”
This demonized version is the CRT that dominates the airways and social media. With it has come a vitriol that has not been seen since the end of Reconstruction and the President Woodrow Wilson’s White House premier of the silent film Birth of a Nation.
Charles Blow in an opinion piece in the New York Times described the conservatives concept of critical race theory as “the political right’s new boogeyman. Republicans are using their tried-and-true playbook of fear mongering about the rise of otherness and the displacement of whiteness, the white patriarchy and a dominant white narrative.”
This is not simply inflammatory commentary but an accurate description. Conservative activist Christopher Rufo has openly stated that this is his agenda. And proudly claims “We have successfully frozen their brand — 'critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,”
Fox News has made a habit of reporting on the events at almost every Loudoun School Board meeting, sometimes generating several headlines from one session. It’s part of a larger focus on critical race theory at the network: As of September 2021, Fox mentioned the theory at least 1,860 times in 2021, up from 132 times in 2020. In this environment McAuliffe’s gaff of restricting parents involvement in what is taught in schools, propelled education to one of the top concerns of white voters. One MSNBC political strategist said that in 30 years he had never seen exit polls with education as one of the top priorities in Virginia. Youngkin would win the white voter by almost 10 percentage points higher than Trump.
I am certain the demonized version of CRT was a significant factor. The dog whistle reached the ears of those far beyond Republican rural and working-class whites. Middle, upper class and wealthy whites regardless of previous voting pattern heard the dog whistle and brought the economic clout and organizational strength to give Trump lite Youngkin a win in Virginia.
According to Bloomberg News as of June 29th 12 states have either enacted or are considering new classroom restrictions on the teaching about race. Four state boards of education have adopted statewide measures. The Heritage Foundation the largest mainstream conservative think tank is already giving away an eBook titled: Knowing Critical Race Theory When You See It and Fighting It When You Can.
The battle is on. A newly energized well-funded vanguard is in place to run a dog whistle campaign. Complacency on the part of Black and democratic leadership is not an option. Complacency on the part of Black church leadership is not an option. 76% of White Evangelicals voted for Glenn Youngkin. Dr. Obery Hendricks Jr. in is book Christians against Christianity exposes the misuse of scripture, the falsehoods and the corruption of the tenets of the Christian faith among right wing evangelicals. It is an important missive, but the subsequent conversation cannot simply remain among scholars.
The widespread adoption of the demonized version of Critical Race Theory is far beyond white evangelical Republicans. It has found fertile ground among whites regardless of party affiliation and religious identification. It is a backlash that brings the Black church to a crossroads in American life. If we care about the quality of life of our people then Black Church leadership, traditionalists, and those who count themselves as spiritual (Millennial and Generation Z) must remain engaged in the arduous strategic planning and implementation that is necessary to bring about systemic change.
In conclusion I bring your attention to an article by the late Derrick Bell, the first Black law professor at Harvard and the acknowledged godfather of true Critical Race Theory. Derick Bell was focused on a problem. The problem was that despite the passage of civil rights laws the societal steps toward equity were insufficient. They were not working in the way he and others had hoped. Laws baked policy formal and informal into the institutions. Systemic racism is a reality and where there may be discussion as to what degree, there is general agreement it is a problem.
Bell’s conclusion was not as a dilatant. He had worked on over 300 cases for desegregation as a lawyer for the Legal Defense Fund. He quit the justice department rather than turn in his NAACP membership card. His was not a passing interest. In 2008 three years before his death in 2011 he authored an article for the University of North Carolina Law Review titled “Racism as the Ultimate Deception.” Volume 86/ Number 3
I am not familiar with his writings not being a legal scholar, but I highly recommend and even call it a must read as an entry level to the center of his concerns. I quote his opening paragraph:
Hurling “racism!”-at a group of an individual -as an epithet is both common and easy to do. Seriously getting to the roots of racism-that is, the favoring of one group, the white, over minority groups- and pulling up those roots to eradicate them is, however, extraordinarily difficult. This is so despite the progress supposedly been made in race relations in this nation since the Emancipation Proclamation became effective in 1863.
Bell goes on to label Racism a “phantasm” an illusion, a creation of the imagination a false reality, that which, not being a true counterpart of reality, is yet so like it as to be mistaken for reality.
The racism phantasm undermines common sense, making us-proponents and opponents of racism alike-all too likely to advocate policies that, in the short or long run, will disappoint rather than fulfill our fervently sought-after outcomes.
In the first decade of the 21st century Bell saw the word of W.E. B. DuBois as prophetic because of the continuing inequities of black folk. In the latter part of the article Bell quotes DuBois and then turns confessional.
"A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning black folk, is bad…[T]he Black person needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.” W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, Does the Negro Need Separate Schools? 4 J. NEGRO EDuc. 328, 335 (1935).
Today, a half-century after Brown, most black and Latino children attend schools that are primarily black and Latino and that, with some notable exceptions, provide a wholly inadequate education. We need to figure out what led so many civil rights leaders and lawyers to assume, again against all history, that equal educational opportunity for black children could be obtained-only attained according to some-in racially integrated schools? Looking back on my own years of deep involvement in the school desegregation campaign, I myself have wondered how I and others could allow our dream of an integrated society to cause us both to ignore Dr. Du Bois' admonition and, more importantly, to fail to recognize that better schooling, not integrated schools, was what the black parents we represented needed and wanted. I realize now that we were misled by a force beyond our vision: that, despite our idealism, we were rendered vulnerable because we failed to recognize the deviousness and pertinacity of the forces against us.
The Black Church has come to a crossroad. The icy water of reality must not simply be shaken off our backs and we continue in a state of naïve idealism. We must not underestimate the deviousness and pertinacity of the forces that are still against our progress, peace, and prosperity.
Dr. Earl D. Trent Jr.
Florida Ave Baptist Church
623 Florida Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20001