ESTRICH: About critical race theory

As a longtime professor, I find it quite strange that an academic approach that has been discussed for at least as long as I’ve been teaching is only now making its way into the political debate.

Just last week, former Vice President Mike Pence, in an effort to reclaim his stake to Donald Trump’s base, gave a speech in New Hampshire not only invoking Trump but denouncing the teaching of so-called critical race theory, claiming that young children are being taught “to be ashamed of their skin color.”

And across the country, Republicans desperate for some new wedge issue that will divide Americans (the way gay marriage used to) have settled on critical race theory, and transgender girls trying to play girls sports, as their best hope.

Nothing like targeting transgender girls and Black academics to tell you where the Republican Party is today, post-Trump. Forget about the economy and jobs.

Transgender girls are not threatening the integrity of girls sports. And systemic racism is, sadly, a part of our history that we all need to confront.

Critical race theory is the term applied to a whole body of scholarly writing from a diverse and varied group of academics over the past 40 years. What the work has in common is a recognition that you can’t teach history or law or politics or music or art or anything else I can think of in the humanities and social sciences without taking race into account.

I have never considered myself a member of the “critical legal studies” movement that tore Harvard Law School apart in my early years as an academic, and the “crits” never counted me as one of their own. But Derrick Bell, cited by many as the father of critical race theory, was a friend and colleague, with whom I agreed completely on the need to reexamine all of our disciplines for conscious and unconscious bias based on race. That is true of gender as well, which is what my work on rape has focused on.

Terms like “systemic racism” have been wrongly defined to mean that every American institution, and maybe every white person, is racist.

Most of us, in our personal lives and in the institutions we run, try very hard not to be racist — or sexist, for that matter. To be sure, there are still plenty of people who are explicitly and consciously racist, and sure of their rightness. Students certainly need to be taught that that is something to be ashamed of.

But the larger problem in our society, the one we all need to grapple with, is the extent to which unconscious bias affects each of us and many of the institutions we run.

How is it that the power elite in America remains overwhelmingly white and male, as it has been since the first such studies?

Would we have moved sooner and more vigorously for reform of the criminal justice system if the majority of those in prison were the children of the power elite?

Unconscious discrimination can take the form of qualifications that white applicants are more likely to have, or of subjective evaluations that tend to favor certain groups of applicants, or even the unconscious tendency of most of us to favor people just like ourselves. It can take the form of laws that have a disproportionately harsh impact on others: As an example, for decades, the law provided harsher sentences for crack cocaine, which is often used by Blacks, than for white cocaine, the drug of wealthy whites.

Students need to study racism if we are ever to move past it. And that means confronting bias — both the old-fashioned discrimination that is easy to condemn and the more modern unconscious bias that Pence and his party would like to pretend away.