Last month, Google reported more online searches of the phrase “critical race theory” than of “Joe Biden,” the President of the United States.
As the national debate about racism has proliferated in the year since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, “critical race theory” has emerged as a kind of totem of the political conflict over race — transforming from a once-obscure legal theory into an all-purpose symbol wielded primarily by conservatives to attack liberal policies and notions.
At a time when more than a dozen Republican-controlled states are moving to pass laws banning certain teachings about racism which they attribute to “critical race theory” — while parents in public school districts across the nation are pushing the matter front and center locally — Newsmakers invited UCSB educator Jean Beaman on the program for a conversation to help clarify some of the basic facts and concepts about the controversy.
With a PhD from Northwestern University, Dr. Beaman now is an Associate Professor of Sociology at UCSB, with affiliations with the Political Science and Global Studies departments, as well as the university’s Center for Black Studies Research.
“Part of why we’re seeing such a backlash is that what people are attacking is not actually critical race theory — it’s their own sort of perverted version of what it is,” she told us.
“So part of what you’re seeing now, with these laws that you’ve mentioned, is a sort of backlash to addressing the fact that racism is still a major problem in our society,” Beaman added.
Some key excerpts, edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is critical race theory; how would you define it?
A: Critical race theory is a legal framework that is taught in law schools and in some sociology programs. Essentially, it’s a way of understanding how race and racism are not abnormal or aberrational, but rather endemic to the structural foundation of our society.
Critical race theory, among other things, allows us to understand that race and racial categories are social constructions — not biological realities. So it’s a legal framework; what people interpret it to be now is totally different, but that’s the actual definition of what it is.
Q: How and why the definition has been expanded to include a large number of other issues and matters involving race?
A: Essentially I think what’s happened is, since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings, not just throughout our country, but really throughout much of Europe and the rest of the world, there’s been this backlash to talking about racism as “systemic.”
So part of what you’re seeing now, with these laws that you’ve mentioned, is a sort of backlash to addressing the fact that racism is still a major problem in our society. This is a natural, quote unquote, reaction to actually addressing issues of racism.
It’s also, frankly, a backlash to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, which has gotten more and more attention, especially since the death of George Floyd. So I think what we’re seeing now is a conservative response to that movement…
Part of why we’re seeing such a backlash to “critical race theory,” is that what people are attacking is not actually critical race theory, it’s their own sort of perverted version of what it actually is.
Q: What is “systemic” or “structural” racism? How would you define it?
A: This is often how I explain it to my students at UCSB, in my courses on race and ethnicity: Essentially what happened in U.S. history is that we had the civil rights movement, the various movements of the 1960s. And one of the things that came out of that movements was various kinds of civil rights legislation — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, etc.
And how this often is interpreted, years later, is that structural racism, or racism at the level of the government, is over, and the only racism that exists is at the level of individuals, or individual hearts and minds, if you will.
[But] a framework as a sociologist, thinking about structural or systemic racism, is like, “Okay, hold up. Yes, we had all these gains of the civil rights movement, but that didn’t end, for example, persistent housing discrimination, or segregation in our public schools, or these sorts of things.”
So, structural systemic racism is a way of thinking about how racism still permeates the institutions in our society, even if it’s technically illegal. The point of a systemic racism focus is to think about how, even with those laws, we still see the perpetuation of racial inequality.
On “colorblind racism.”
Another way of thinking about this, that I talk about also in courses, is a framework of colorblind racism. One of the things the civil rights movement did, and the movements of that era did, besides changing laws, also changed our everyday norms of talking about race.
Obviously there are exceptions, but it’s no longer socially acceptable to openly use a racial epithet in everyday conversation. We understand this, living in society, yet people still have these racial biases. The racial biases don’t go away just because we have the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example…
Colorblind racism is, again, the sociological way of thinking about how people explain racial inequality without using the language of race. I’ll give you an example: One thing that people do when they try to explain residential segregation is say, “well, it’s not a question of race. It’s a question of white people like to live near white people and Black people like to live near Black people.”
And that’s a way of completely ignoring the decades-long history of housing discrimination in our society. It’s one way of talking about racial difference without actually talking about race. And again, a focus on systemic racism allows us to unpack these patterns.
Q: Critical race theory and the idea of systemic racism rest on an analysis of the U.S. as a series of power relationships. That’s very different than the idea of a country based on the traditional, Enlightenment liberal order.
A: Absolutely. Some people are very invested in the United States being founded on particular ideals. So when you really get into the history of slavery — and this is thinking about Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project, and why it’s so resonant, and why the backlash is so strong — is precisely because people are so invested in that narrative.
If you say, “Well, actually, these ideals that form what we understand the United States to be happened simultaneously with the subjugation of African Americans, and the simultaneous genocide of indigenous Americans,” that offends that notion. Bringing those things together offends people, which is partly why you’re seeing this backlash, but not just conservatives, more widespread…
We all live in a society. Even though we’re individuals, we’re still living in a society established in particular social structures that we either accept or confront, or both.
Q: Advocates for anti-racism policies and education use the word “equity” to discuss results and outcomes, a change from the word “equality” that was at the center of the civil rights movement. What’s the difference?
A: This is sort of a broader way of understanding systemic racism. When we take certain ideas, whether they be laws, or ideologies of societies, and hold them up as race-neutral — are they really race-neutral?
Critical race theory, for example, gives us a framework to understand the fact that the law itself, or the construction of the law, has never been race-neutral. And so of course that obviously offends various people who are invested in the quote, unquote, rule of law.
I would say the same thing about the example of school test scores. So these have been seen as neutral … evidence of merit. Okay, well, what’s behind them? If you actually look at the history of standardized test scores, you look at the history of IQ tests, for example — they very much were designed as a way to promote white advancement, to the detriment of non-whites.
And so when we use them in a contemporary and present society, the idea is not so much that we should necessarily disregard them, but regard them, or identify them, in a particular context that addresses this broader history. So it’s not so much to say that the idea itself is racist, but rather these tests themselves, the way they’re constructed, has a racist history. We have to keep that in mind.
Q: Is race the only, or the primary, factor that goes into forming differences in equity outcomes?
A: I think this is a topic of debate, even among scholars who study race and racism. I would say in brief the idea here is that there wouldn’t be a measurable outcome that’s determined just by race. So that you couldn’t say that X group got whatever opportunity over Y group, and the only thing that distinguishes between them is race. That’s what you want to avoid, ostensibly.
And so one way that social scientists think about this, or have measured this, for example, is the idea of audit studies. So taking two CVs or resumes that are identical, [and] the only thing that’s different is some kind of racial marker of one person being white and the other person being non-white. And so you don’t want there to be a statistically significant difference in the number of callbacks, because if the resumes are the same, there shouldn’t be any difference.
But many studies have shown over the years, there always is a difference — there always are more callbacks, or more calls to interviews, or being hired for people who are categorized as white versus not.
So that’s an example of what I mean in terms of equality versus equity of outcomes. You want there to not be a statistically significant difference that you can then subscribe to a racial difference.
Q: What do you make of the arguments used in pushing these state laws that seek to ban certain teachings about systemic racism?
A: I think that’s an unfortunate criticism, speaking both as a sociologist and as a Black American, because I think we often are afraid to make white people uncomfortable, even at an early age.
For me personally, I was first called the “n-word” when I was 8 years old. And so there’s a way in which learning — we’re not afraid to make Black kids uncomfortable in public schools. We’ve been doing that for hundreds of years. So it’s like part of this backlash is really about whose lives, or who we’re trying to comfort in this curricula.
One of the states that has one of these [anti-critical race theory] laws was banning discussion of the history of Ruby Bridges, who integrated that public school. And so again, I mean, she’s a living person. She’s still alive. She’s only in her sixties.
Again, it’s not even critical race theory. It’s not even teaching the history of public-school segregation, which existed up until very recently, historically speaking, in our society.
I mean, that’s not critical race theory. That’s just history.
And I think that’s really scary, that kids are not able to, in the K-12 system, learn about these things that actually literally happened to actual people that are still alive because it’s seen to make certain people uncomfortable. I think that’s very disturbing.
Whereas for me, as a Black woman, as someone who learned about the history of Ruby Bridges at a younger age, it was inspiring for me to learn of a Black girl who integrated her school at such a young age. I mean, obviously when I was younger, I didn’t understand the whole history around it, but nonetheless, I think that does a different kind of work.
And it’s really unfortunate that not just Black kids, but just all kids, can’t even learn about that history with these kinds of laws. I mean, it’s really, I think it’s really dangerous.
Q: In the best-selling book White Fragility, the author, Robin DiAngelo, writes that, “The question in any situation is not, did racism take place, but, how did racism manifest?” When people look at that, sometimes you say, how do we ever get out of this then? Where does that end? What’s the end point? How do we measure success?
A: Well, that’s the million-dollar question. If I knew the best answer, I probably wouldn’t need a day job… But in all seriousness, I mean, I think it’s having discussions like this. I think it’s talking about it. And that’s why I think it’s not being afraid to have these sort of, quote, unquote, uncomfortable conversations.
So personally, I feel really fortunate that I’m able to teach courses on race and racism at UCSB and really unpack this with students, because we just don’t have a lot of opportunities in our society and our lives to actually talk about these things seriously, with actual data, with actual research. I think that’s something that’s missing. That’s why we sort of get away from it.
That’s one of the dangers of these laws. Not talking about it actually gets us further away from where people pretend to want to go. Actually ignoring a problem doesn’t solve a problem. And as a college educator, as a college professor, I spend a lot of time in my courses having students unlearn what they learned in the K-12 system, to be honest, because they don’t learn about racism as something that’s true in present society — it’s something that happened like five billion years ago.
And so I have to really unpack with them what exactly the civil rights movement was, what the different laws that were passed, what the legacy of that is. What does the current data say about, for example, public-school segregation or the Black-white wealth gap?
These are the things that I wish we were able to talk about in the K-12 system, so that in college, we don’t have to spend so much time really teaching students things that they could’ve learned a lot earlier.
Q: Opponents of critical race theory often use a quote by Martin Luther King — kids should be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin – in support of their position on this. How do you respond to that argument?
A: I think this is frankly a deliberate misreading of the words of Martin Luther King…. He actually has many writings about the sort of persistence of systemic racism and how it’s not just so much in the minds of individual white people, but it actually is a broader issue of white society or white-dominated society.
The other thing that I think that is really important to keep in mind, and why critical race theory is talked about so much now, is that we continue to have this sort of narrative in the United States of always forward racial progress.
On a “post-racial” U.S.:
I’m sure you remember when Barack Obama was first elected; it was sort of like, “Yay, U.S.A. is post-racial,” whatever that means. And it’s always this idea of, “we had hundreds of years of slavery and now we have our first Black president, so the slate is wiped clean.”
And then you had the election of Donald Trump. People had to think about a way to explain that. And then it’s, “Okay, well there’s some individual racists, but it doesn’t actually mean the U.S. is racist.”
So I think part of what you’re seeing right now is people trying to make sense of both those things. How can we have two terms of Barack Obama as president, and then have whatever Trump was in the same society that’s ostensibly always better than it was before?
Like, we’re always better than we were 50 years ago. Ostensibly, 50 years from now, we’ll be better than where we are right now. We’re always moving in a forward direction, versus what has actually historically been true, which is there’s always two steps forward, one step back.