Just before Labor Day, Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought began a memo to federal agency heads with these words: “It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.” I doubt that President Donald Trump or Vought know specifically, but the memo apparently is referring to talking about “diversity training” or anti-racism training common in the private sector and for public employees. The memo singled out training in “critical race theory” and “white privilege” as examples of ideas “that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country.”
The memo singled out training in “critical race theory” and “white privilege” as examples of ideas “that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country.”
As a co-founder and current head of the nation’s first established program in critical race theory, the UCLA Law School Critical Race Studies Program, while dismayed at the caricature the memo represents, I recognize a teachable moment when I see it. Critical race theory is not racial demonization. Far from being anti-American, as Trump’s administration alleges, critical race theory aspires to the ideal of equality represented in our post-Civil War Constitution, an ideal we are far from achieving even 150 years later.
Critical race theory is a field of scholarship that arose in the legal academy in the 1980s, when a critical mass of African American and other law professors of color first coalesced. This first generation of critical race scholars sought to distinguish their ideas from those of liberal constitutional law scholars who put great faith in anti-discrimination laws and of far-left critical legal theory scholars who believed all law reform was designed simply to maintain the status quo.
Critical race theory both borrows from and departs from the liberals and the leftists in the legal academy. While the field is diverse, with many conversations and disagreements within it, critical race scholars rejected the nihilism that characterized the leftist critics who argued that equal rights served to legitimate ongoing subordination. Instead, critical race theory embraced the transformative vision of the long civil rights movement, replete with partial victories won through painful, protracted struggle, including the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s.
Like the liberals, we recognize that those laws made a difference in the lives of those subordinated on the basis of race and national origin and represented the fruits of resistance to white domination. At the same time, we are more critical than the liberals about the limits of law to create institutional change. American history teaches us that white supremacy has a way of shape-shifting in response to law reforms, even when they are well-meaning.
This nation’s policing and police violence against Black and brown people illustrate what we mean. First, the roots of American policing are in militia-style slave patrols that