The rage against critical race theory

BY:Joel Wendland-Liu| May 11, 2021
The rage against critical race theory


On a recent episode of Marc Lamont Hill’s show Black News Tonight, a Georgia politician revealed a singular problem with his party’s mania against critical race theory (CRT) — he doesn’t know what it is.

All he could say about it was what former Republican Party boss Donald Trump had said: it is “un-American” and is the cause of racism.

In the wake of the 2020 anti-racist uprising against a fresh wave of police murders of Black people, Trump infamously responded with vile threats against protesters, fascistic deployment of secret federal police retaliations, and open encouragement for police and militia violence. He also tried to control what people think. He banned the teaching of CRT in schools.

A number of Republican Party leaders, including supporters of the January 6th white supremacist coup attempt to install Trump as president, have supported the ban.

In an attack on CRT and on the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which critically views the history of racial slavery, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell thought he scored a big rhetorical victory when he tweeted that racism has ended because “we elected a black President.” Of course, he never voted for Obama, nor did 55% of white Americans. So, his “we” serves as an admission that he (and his base of supporters) played no role in this imaginary end to racism.


What is CRT?

CRT is a field of research that began in legal studies in the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars such as Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Lani Guinier, Mari Matsuda, Ian Hany-Lopez, Richard Delgado, Cheryl Harris, Patricia Williams, and multiple others began to criticize legal scholarship, laws, and court rulings that ignored systemic racism. More on its origins later.

Consider how this week in Texas Republican lawmakers sought to enforce “the purity” of the ballot by passing many new restrictions on the right to vote that target people they believe are inclined to be Democratic voters, primarily people of color and poor voters. As one lawmaker noted, the “purity” claim derived specifically from the Jim Crow era in which white lawmakers subverted the 15th Amendment to deny Black citizens from voting. A CRT scholar might conclude that these events show how the Texas laws reincarnate Jim Crow.

CRT in legal studies deploys historical knowledge and an understanding of the centrality of racism in U.S. social development to unveil how such language hides racist intentions and/or enables racist outcomes.

In addition, it uses the legal principle of witness testimony to counter what it calls “majoritarian” stories. A majoritarian story can be a form of gaslighting deployed by the powerful.

Think about all the times Trump said something like, “people say” something that he wants his audience to believe. This is an attempt to craft a “majoritarian” narrative. It is an explanation of events produced from a particular perspective that is falsely deemed to be universally true:

“I didn’t get into University X because of affirmative action, not my mediocre grades.” (Affirmative action allows institutions to include unqualified candidates.)

“Police always treat me respectfully,” says the white, economically privileged male who donates regularly to the Fraternal Order of Police. “Anyone who has problems with them is probably guilty of something and deserves harsh treatment.” (White people are innocent and need protection from Black criminality.)

“We want to hire the most qualified candidates for this job.” (All white people are hired, and employers falsely claim qualified Black people don’t exist.)

Majoritarian stories hide the truth. They distort reality, painting whites as victims who need the protection of the state and its coercive apparatus to control, imprison, and even kill Black and Brown people. A world in which the primary function of media and other social institutions should be to protect white people.

By examining and collecting the stories about the experiences of people of color, we can learn more about patterns of racism and systemic denials of access. Suppressing CRT is a means of silencing people of color.

Right-wing bloggers, commentators, and personalities, especially, don’t like being told their perceptions of reality and the actions they take in the world create systemic racism. They take offense at the recurring CRT finding: white people create white supremacy.

Consider the backlash against historian Gerald Horne, whose book The Counterrevolution of 1776 showed that the desires to preserve slavery and to dispossess Native peoples were key motives for the American Revolution. He dismantled multiple favored majoritarian narratives with that well-researched book.

Trump specifically targeted criticism of white supremacy in his ban on CRT. His aim was to create an impression that CRT victimizes white people for simply speaking their minds (re: saying racist things). His goal was to mobilize broad white support for his overall agenda. He created a majoritarian narrative that sees CRT as a tool of anti-white oppression, even as he fascistically wielded the power of the state to attempt to silence and punish anti-racist scholars.


CRT and Marxism

What CRT could do better is to explore racism’s ties not just to the state and to institutional white supremacy but also to the historical development of capitalism and its present configuration.

CRT scholars generally assert the “centrality” of racism in U.S. society and adopt an “intersectional” approach to understanding it. This means that they place racism at the heart of U.S. historical development and present-day events. They also connect racism to heteronormative-normative patriarchy and social class inequality, disability, national identity, and religious privilege. But racism remains the primary lens through which all of this is viewed.

While many CRT scholars hold radical views about capitalism, in the 1980s and 1990s, they erroneously tended to criticize Marxism for positioning “class” as the fundamental social category. CRT originally saw “class” as a category of identity related to economic factors, for example, how income and its connection to how one accessed (or could not access) social institutions shapes experience. Nothing about the relationship to owners of capital, the forms of labor one is required to do to live, or the process of capital accumulation itself. (This identarian approach to class is rapidly changing in this “socialist moment.”)

CRT theorists have increasingly claimed intellectual origins in the statements of women of color organizers who formed the Combahee River Collective in the late 1970s to identify and politically organize against “simultaneity of oppressions,” including racism, patriarchy, and class exploitation.

More and more, CRT scholars have acknowledged these ideas originated even further back in time. Some point to Communist Party leader Angela Davis, and others even to Claudia Jones, who in formulating the Party’s anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperialist policy, described the “triple oppression” of Black women under racism, sexism, and exploitative class processes. Today, while many concede Jones’ role in developing this theory, they ignore its original function as Communist Party policy.

Indeed, these ideas influenced Gus Hall to write in 1964 that racism was woven into the fabric of U.S. capitalism. “White supremacy,” he stated, “the ideological foundation of the system of discrimination and segregation, is a central pillar in the ideology of U.S. capitalism.” It is a material force for capital accumulation itself, deriving maximum surplus value from all workers, weakening the working-class struggle, and ensures the election of anti-labor, anti-Black, and anti-democratic politicians. In terms of surplus value, big U.S.-based corporations take in billions by creating and exploiting a labor system based on devaluing Black and Brown workers.

By the 1990s, as Victor Perlo showed in his book The Economics of Racism, capitalists extracted hundreds of billions each year alone in extra value through racial discrimination (wages, hiring, racist credit schemes, rents, overpriced consumer goods, and more). Perlo pointed out that wages across the whole of the working class have been held down through collaboration between corporate managers and anti-working-class politicians, producing extra profits for capitalists.

Capitalism simply wouldn’t continue if it didn’t integrate white supremacy (and imperialism and a gendered division of labor) into its process of accumulation.

Think about the relationship between white supremacy, the election of conservative politicians who are anti-union, and the continued suppression of the federal minimum wage at $7.25. Even the supporters of the $15 minimum wage fight, ongoing since 2012, are beginning to acknowledge this is no longer sufficient for a worker’s needs. Inflation continues even if wages are suppressed. In the state of Michigan, for example, a person must earn about $17.42 an hour to afford a two-bedroom housing accommodation. On the current state minimum wage, they have to work 72 hours a week to pay for it. To survive, people live on credit, ignore health problems, work more than one job, drop out of school, and generally go without.

White supremacy and exploitative class processes operate together and simultaneously to make this outcome. Racist discrimination allows employers to create a general condition in which Black, Latinx, many Asian/Pacific Islander nationalities, and Native American workers are paid only fractions of white workers. Black workers are paid so little, for example, that nearly one-third would see a raise if the minimum wage is increased to $15.


A key difference

It also means that tens of millions of white workers are paid little and struggle to acquire basic necessities. In other words, white supremacy plays a big role in allowing the people who control the state to protect the big profits of monopoly capital. Poor and struggling white workers are the victims of capitalism and white supremacy; they are not the victims of Black or Brown people, and certainly not CRT.

But this isn’t the whole story. According to Census data, the median income of white households is over $65,000 and median white household wealth is $139,000 (compared to $41,000 and $12,000, respectively, for Black people). Tens of millions of white people already believe they have a material interest in the status quo, if not openly in maintaining white supremacy. So, the majority votes for Trump, and every other anti-labor, pro-racist Republican presidential candidate.

CRT argues against the idea that positive social advances occur only when the interests of white people converge with the interests of racially and nationally oppressed people. Some progressives, even Marxists, say something like, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” History shows this claim rings hollow.

For example, look again at the political, cultural, and social power the racial difference in income and wealth produces for whites. This difference is not an accident of history. Rather, it is the product of deliberate racist policies in jobs, housing, education, infrastructure development, and political power that since the 1930s directly benefited whites, including workers. Those policies were typically built into what we think of as non-racial policies: seniority systems, Social Security, government-backed housing loans, etc.

There are, of course, many bright spots where white people, especially white workers, fought racism during this period. But the evidence shows it wasn’t the dominant trend for most of that time, and the battle to win them to the anti-racist cause and to allyship with racially and nationally oppressed peoples continues.

As long as dominant racist ideologies succeed in convincing the mass of struggling white workers and the tens of millions of highly privileged white workers to act in racist ways, or even remain silent on these issues, the masses of white people will mistakenly be convinced their welfare is identical with the success and power of the billionaires and millionaires who exploit them.

They will put themselves at odds with the mass of working-class Black and Brown people whose struggles for freedom are intimately tied to the struggle to live.

Fortunately, more and more people are saying this system can no longer work.



    Joel Wendland-Liu teaches in higher education. He uses critical race theory and Marxism in his research and award-winning teaching. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life and numerous scholarly articles. He is a member of the AAUP and is deemed “dangerous” by Campus Watch, a right-wing, pro-white supremacy blog that is funded almost completely by right-wing billionaires and millionaires who control the Republican Party.

Related Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer