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 existed in states with slavery and then in the perceived need for a means of social control of newly emancipated slaves. The reason we have more than 18,000 different federal, state, county and local agencies in the U.S. is that they rose not principally as a means of “fighting crime” but, rather, as an avenue to better promote white supremacy in the early 20th century in all regions (not only in the South).
As African Americans gained freedom and mobility, white officials realized that racial terror could more effectively be enforced at the local and county levels, especially in the wake of periodic civil rights enforcement by the federal government. While this happened at an institutional level over the course of the 20th century, it is telling that police forces today are populated by a nontrivial number of white supremacists.
Today, opinions about policing vary widely because we have two different practices of policing, depending on the race/class makeup of regions within a jurisdiction. Police violence rarely occurs in affluent neighborhoods, where de-escalation techniques are in ample supply; it occurs in working-class and poor neighborhoods, where police are taught (formally in the past and informally today) to fear “super predators” and to see Black and brown children as threats.
Although the law provides that those police who go “too far” may face prosecution for excessive force, the scaffolding of doctrinal and procedural rules that governs this area of law combines with the blatant removal of people of color from juries (despite the law’s formal mandate against it). As a result, police rarely face consequences for their bad behavior.
This is what we mean when we speak of institutional or systemic racism that remains endemic in the United States despite one and a half centuries of “civil rights reforms.” If this makes us anti-American, we stand as charged. But critical race scholars argue that true patriotism is the willingness to criticize your nation, precisely because we seek to bring it closer to its post-Civil War ideals of equality and anti-subordination.
Critical race scholars argue that true patriotism is the willingness to criticize your nation, precisely because we seek to bring it closer to its post-Civil War ideals.
In contrast, Trump preaches a faux patriotism, one that allows for labeling American military personnel — who are made up of demographically disproportionate numbers of African American and Latino volunteers — as “losers” and “suckers.” One that allows for the deaths of close to 200,000 people in the United States because the Trump administration wantonly disregarded and, indeed, according to Bob Woodward, purposefully downplayed the scientific evidence about COVID-19.
Although employee trainings are no panacea, we believe the American people would be well served by a federal government that was made aware of anti-racist ideas from critical race theory and other cutting-edge scholarly fields. When a group of us founded Critical Race Studies at UCLA Law two decades ago, we did so to train future generations of racial justice lawyers.
Today our nearly 1,000 alumni work in grassroots social change organizations, for national civil rights organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, for small and middle-size civil rights practices, for large law firms that engage in critical pro bono work and as legal counsel for state and federal agencies. Whether or not he knows it and despite OMB’s memo, Trump already has those who are learned in critical race theory working for federal agencies. And we are all better for it.