Tell the Truth to Set Us Free”: Kimberlé Crenshaw on White Supremacy, CRT and Lies

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

TREASURE: Hey everybody, it’s Treasure Brooks. Our friend Brittany is on family leave with her beautiful baby and we’d plan to take this week off from the show. But that was before Saturday. I know you know about Saturday and I know it’s really, really hard to talk about, but we have to talk about it and we’re going to do it together.

So throughout this episode, breathe deep, take pauses when you need, and then come back. Okay. So here are the headlines: on Saturday an 18-year-old, white gunman walked into a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and opened fire, killing 10 people and injuring three, almost all of those people, Black. We don’t have to make guesses about why he did it because he told us. He wanted to kill as many Blacks as possible.

That’s an actual quote. He chose the 14208 zip code because it was the one closest to his home that had the highest percent of Black residents. Y’all there are so many things to think about here, to grieve about. There’s the fact that, like most mass shooters, he bought his gun legally. And this country has still done nothing to stop the sale of weapons used for mass executions.

There’s the white supremacist ideology that he drew on. the so-called replacement theory, which tells white people, they’re being outnumbered and replaced by people of color. And which is supported, not just on fringe corners of the internet, but by members of Congress and mainstream TV hosts. And then there are the lives, the lives of those beautiful people in Buffalo.

Before we go any further, before we go into the episodes. Let’s hold a moment of silence for them.

When the news of the shooting first broke, I read the headline and I put my phone down and I don’t think I picked it up for another couple of days. And it wasn’t because I was desensitized, but because I knew that it was going to take some real time, real reflection, real feeling, to process the horror of what had happened.

And eventually when I finally did make my way back to my phone and spoke to my father, he shared with me that a couple of months ago, he traveled to Buffalo, New York. My father’s a salesman and he was brought to Buffalo, New York more specifically, he went into Tops market.

Knowing that my father had entered the same establishment that this mass shooting would occur months later was gut-wrenching enough. But the full weight of understanding that it could have been any supermarket, that it could have been anyone, gun violence continues to rampage our communities.

Racism continues to plague our lives.

As we go into this episode, I’m thinking of all of you. I’m thinking of every one of you who is feeling this anger, this sadness, this grief.


On the show today, we’re bringing you an interview that Brittany recorded last summer that feels even more relevant now. As you probably know, over the last two years, at least 42 states have considered legislation targeting critical race theory. Legislation that often in practice would restrict the teaching the history of race or racism.

Sixteen of those states have actually passed laws, restricting what teachers can say or teach about race in the classroom. You might think that these debates over education are separate from the murders we saw this week in Buffalo, but, and this is really important. They aren’t separate at all. They draw on a lot of the same theories and fears about white people being replaced or threatened.

Last summer, Brittany sat down with one of the pioneers of critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA. At the time, the wave of laws targeting race in the classroom had just begun. Let’s listen in.

BRITTANY: Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, I know you insist on me calling you Kimberlé, but Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, thank you so much for joining us today. 

KIM CRENSHAW: Oh, Brittany, thank you for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. 

BRITTANY: Likewise. First up, we know that Republicans have been coming up with all sorts of wild arguments about what critical race theory is and what it aims to do.

I do want to ask you since you helped coin the term and the framework. What exactly is critical race theory? I want to hear it from you and I want to establish the truth right upfront. 

KIM CRENSHAW: So critical race theory really is a way of analyzing, looking at law’s role in creating both race and racism. It was a product of a second generation of civil rights activists and students and professors who came into the academy, came into law schools right at the moment when the forward momentum  from the civil rights movement was starting to recede. 

A conservative Supreme court was starting to limit the scope of what racial justice could actually achieve through the loss.

So our goal was to understand the ways that law makes racial discrimination appear to be inevitable, that makes racial disparities appear to just be there rather than the product of policies, of practices, of structures that are all legally permissible. And in some ways actually insulated by law. 

I guess the easiest way to put it is. We believe that race is not essential. We believe that race is a fiction, but law has helped turn that fiction into reality. It has helped turn what it means to be Black and what it means to be white into concrete realities that stretch all the way back to 1619, and all the way to this present moment.

That’s what critical race theory is about. 

BRITTANY: This point about what the law has done to create race and racism you said before really helps us understand critical race theory as a way of looking at patterns of inequality and looking at how the law contributed to the subordinate status of Black, brown, and indigenous folks.

KIM CRENSHAW: Exactly. I remember when I was a kid, we thought about law as a justice seeking institution. We thought about law, particularly those of us who were born during the civil rights movement and watched as legal remedies were being offered to dismantle white supremacy. So being a lawyer in my household was associated with appealing to justice, appealing to this institution to help us in our quest for equality, for justice.

So I went to law school, with an intention to learn the magic, learn, you know, what Thurgood Marshall and the legal defense fund and all of these, you know, giants in the field we’re doing to unlock access to institutions, to unlock power, to unlock segregation. And we discovered that actually it was rare that law was actually on our side.

For the most part, law was the institution that determined who was an enslaved person or who was not. Law was the institution that determined that Black women as property, their bodies could be colonized to produce more property because law determined that the offspring of an enslaved woman would be property.

That was a legal rule. People weren’t born, slaves law created slaves out of them. It was law that said that Black people could never be citizens. And that as a group we were enslavable. And our enslavability was a natural feature of who we were as a people. So when I got to learn this stuff, it became obvious to me that the ways that we thought about law was at best partial and incomplete, we needed the whole story.

And so the whole story is, law has enslaved us. Law has sometimes been a tool to help us fight against the contemporary consequences of that past. But law can also turn on, on a dime and justify all sorts of practices that we clearly see as subordinating and contemporary echoes of a white supremacist past.

That’s the fuller picture of law’s relationship to white supremacy. 

BRITTANY: Well, speaking of using the law to protect and preserve white supremacy, of course, the great irony of all of this is that that is precisely what the Republicans are doing. Governor Ron DeSantis said the CRT would teach children that quote, the country is rotten and that our institutions are illegitimate.

Just to be clear. And I say this as a former third grade teacher, critical race theory isn’t even being taught in grade schools, correct?

KIM CRENSHAW: Yeah. And, and, and this is the difficulty of the moment, right? Because, A, the right, including the governor of Florida, doesn’t really care about whether they’re telling the truth or not.

We have to remember, these are the same people that are bringing us that lie about the election. These are the same people that are bringing us lies about the January 6th insurrection. So you can’t be surprised that these are the same people that are covering up the truth about our history, the same people that see that promotion of mythology about our past as the key to winning in 2022 and beyond.

I think what we have to do is tell a very complicated truth. And the truth is that classic critical race theory, that’s largely a law school kind of study. It is a field that is in higher education, not so much in K through 12. What is part of K through 12 is critical thinking about race and racism.

By that meaning, racism is not inherent, but racism is real and it has created real consequences, both historically and now. That’s important work that needs to be done. You know, there’s that saying, you know, Brittany, that the truth will set you free. I think we all agree to that; left, center, and right. The difference is that our side wants to tell the truth to set us free.

The other side wants to bury the truth to sustain their access to power and dominance over the rest of us. And that is the terms upon which we have to fight back. 

BRITTANY: So this fight is real. It is vast. And just like Republican lawmakers, fear of trans kids playing sports, this fight and their arguments are not based in fact.

So what is this attack on critical race theory really about? And what do you make of its timing?

KIM CRENSHAW: This has spread like wildfire ever since President Biden rescinded President Trump’s order to ban training around structural racism, implicit bias, diversity, gender equity. I think the timing tells us everything we need to know.

You know, whenever there’s been reform, Brittany, throughout our history there has been retrenchment. One of my first articles was called “Race, Reform and Retrenchment.” And it said we can count on the supporters of the status quo and the right wing to respond to reform as though something has been taken away and they have to correct for the overcorrection.

This is coming on the heels of the mobilization last summer around George Floyd and all of the efforts of people across the country to think more broadly about what the killing of George Floyd told us about the state of structural racism in the country. Students are asking questions. Corporations are even saying We support Black Lives Matter. So how could they respond to it? The other side, they couldn’t say we are anti anti-racist. They couldn’t say we are pro you know, killability of Black people. So they discovered that they could pour all of their resistance in their grievance in this category called critical race theory.

They could just take it and decide what it meant to mobilize people to oppose. 

BRITTANY: So at the end of the day, is all of this distraction and all of this fuss and all of this hubbub really about preserving a white supremacist status quo?

KIM CRENSHAW: Well, you know, it’s hard not to take seriously what they say they’re doing.

So, you know, the promoters of this made up hysteria have said they don’t give an expletive about what really critical race theory is. They’re not trying to think about how a multiracial democracy has to be predicated on all the times in the past that this Republic has been built on the opposite impulse.

They’re not trying to have that conversation. What they’re trying to do is create a mythical story about our past that whitewashes so many of the truths about how we’ve come about. About the fact that the wealth of this country has been built on stealing labor and stealing land and rationalizing that theft by characterizing the people whose land and labor has been stolen as less than white people.

This has been part of our history. So we are at a time where the challenge is taking into account that history in order to understand that the ground that we stand on is ground that has been created out of racist laws in calling that the neutral status quo, the status quo is not neutral. It has been produced by, you know, this past.

So yeah, we are at a period of time where there’s a sense that if we are going to hold on to our myth, we’ve got to shut them down. We’ve got to preclude them from telling our young people the truth. We’ve got to line up behind this so-called patriotic education. And I think the subtext to all of it is what we saw playing out at the Capitol.

When people, you know, invaded the Capitol, they thought that that aggression was self-defense, they thought that something was being taken away from them and that something is this democracy that’s now a multiracial democracy. So at the end of the day, it is about insecurity. It is about grievance and what the right is stoking that insecurity and that grievance. It’s bringing these far right-wing messages into the center of the Republican party. And we have to build a coalition that calls that out and says that the time for the appeal around protecting a notion of white grievance is passed. We can not go back down that pathway anymore.


BRITTANY: Amen. We cannot go on that pathway anymore. I’m wondering what you think about, or if you have any concern that even if these bills to ban CRT and the true teaching of history ultimately don’t succeed that there’s already been a chilling effect on some educational institutions and really how do we combat that?

KIM CRENSHAW: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the main point of this really is the chilling effect. We’re already hearing from teachers that they’re taking Alice Walker out of their reading list, that they, they think that they can’t teach the story of Ruby Bridges. We already heard of a teacher in Tennessee who was fired for teaching among other things Ta-Nehisi Coates essays. 

I mean, the backlash is real. There are casualties already and will likely be more so this isn’t theoretical, this isn’t, you know, an exaggeration, the battle is happening as we speak. So yes, I’m deeply concerned about it. And let’s also be clear. This is not just a red state question.

So when President Trump in September signed that executive order, banning, uh, diversity training, banning any institution that is a grantee of the federal government, from teaching these ideas, two things happened. Number one, a lot of the free speech advocates, all the ones who have been telling us throughout the last couple of decades, the response to racist speech, assault to speech, hate speech is just more speech.

You can’t ban it. Suddenly lost their tongues, right? They were not showing up in the way that they should have to denounce this effort to silence conversations about structural racism, but more problematically, higher education, sometimes jumped in an overly aggressive way. So case in point Stanford university issued an edict to say that one could not say on campus that structural racism exists at Stanford, Stanford university.

So there are those who are willing to accept this ban, this gag order. Partly one has to assume because there is ambivalence about whether these concepts actually should be part of higher education, should be debated in classrooms, should find a place in publications in the development of knowledge.

So there are many who we might think of, as you know, our allies. Many folks and institutions who we think would be appalled by this who haven’t been, that’s sobering, but it’s clarifying at the same time. 

BRITTANY: Yeah, it has to be clarifying. It certainly shows us who our friends are and are not.  

On the flip side though, I wonder if we should see this moment as a sign that even against all odds we’re evolving and really that there will be a generation of students who are better educated on these issues than their parents or even their grandparents were. Is there some light of hope there?

KIM CRENSHAW: Yeah. Well, you know, I think, Brittany, that the silver lining is that sometimes the best way to ensure that people will be demanding something is for their elders to try to take it away from them.

So I’m hearing more requests, more “please tell us what critical race theory is.” More Googling around critical race theory in the last six weeks than I’ve seen in the last 30 years. So I do think that the hysteria that the right wing has tried to stoke around critical race theory does have the impact of telling younger generations that there is a there, there. The reality of course, is that we cannot fix problems that we can’t see.

We can’t come up with approaches to dismantling the toxic dimensions that have been placed in our institutions if we’re told that the solution to that toxicity is to not see it, you know, not name it, not develop the tools to remove it. That is how crazy this moment is. And I think there’s an entire generation that’s starting to see this is insane. 

We wouldn’t do this for any other issue we cared about. Like, we put asbestos into our buildings and now we realized that that was toxic. Can you imagine the response being, Okay, well, the solution to asbestos in our institutions is we’re not going to use the word asbestos, we’re not going to talk about it.

We’re not going to look at the architecture to see where it might be hidden. We’re not going to create, you know, experts that can tell us how to get it out and create institutions in which everybody can breathe in a healthy way. We would never do that with a social problem that we really cared about.

So we shouldn’t do it when it comes to dismantling the contemporary dimensions of our racist history. I think young people are seeing that and my hope is that this baton that’s being passed to them is one that they’ll be able to carry to the next generation. 

BRITTANY: Well, before I let you go, I have to tell you that I am grateful that you saw fit to mother this intellectual tradition and so many others.

‘Cause I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to also say that in some ways you’re the godmother of this show. You coined the term “intersectionality.” You built on the scholarship of people like Patricia Hill Collins and so many more to really provide us this framework. And we describe ourselves as an intersectional feminist and womanist podcast.

I really am curious how it feels to see this framework really take off. I mean, there are t-shirts out here, right, that say “If it isn’t intersexual, it isn’t feminism.” Are you hopeful for a truly intersectional future, one we’re solidarity is the norm?

KIM CRENSHAW: Well, I am, I am hopeful, Brittany, and I’m also a realist.

I’m delighted when I see people pick it up, some of the frameworks and the tools. But I also think it is so important that folks recognize that it’s not enough just to use the words “intersectionality” and “critical race theory.” It’s not enough to declare who we are. It’s really not even an identity category.

It’s a practice. It’s a history. It’s a set of tools. It’s a way of reading, a seeing, and an acting. And we have to be about making it clear that our ideas are only as strong as our ability to make sure that the stakeholders are aware of how volatile the situation is, how everyone who has benefited from the opening up of these institutions in these ideas has a stake in defending this work and advancing it forward. 

And importantly, Brittany, I think that we have to understand that nothing is just there to be taken for granted. There are so many dollars being spent, so many resources being spent to take apart these coalitions, take apart these ideas, attack it. 

And our side has to be about investing time, energy, and resources into ensuring that this framework and these ideas and these institutions remain there for future generations to build further into our future. A future that’s worthy of being called a democracy when. 

BRITTANY: Well, I have my marching orders and I’ve got all the inspiration that I need to keep marching.

I am just so indebted to you every day for all that you do for Say Her Name, for your scholarship, for your continued activism and organizing. And I am really, really grateful to know you. And so grateful that you gave us just a bit of your brilliance today. 

KIM CRENSHAW: No, Brittany, I am so delighted to know you, thrilled to be on your show, happy to be passing the baton to this generation.

So I can eventually, you know, sort of go on and retire somewhere. Not, not immediately, but I know that the things will be well with you and your entire generation. So it’s my privilege to join you in this conversation. 

BRITTANY: I am completely floored and honored by that, but we’ll make sure you get time to put your feet up because you more than deserve.

Kimberlé Crenshaw is a professor at UCLA and Columbia Law Schools, a leading scholar of critical race theory and intersectionality and the founder of the African-American Policy Forum.

The truth well, that will set us free. We know it, they know it, and that’s why we have to continue to speak the truth of our racist history and our racist present if we are ever to root out white supremacy. As professor Crenshaw reminds us, race and racism are not natural. There’s nothing inevitable about racial discrimination, but the law and other systems and policies have helped turn the fiction of racial disparity into reality.

Now Republicans with their bizarre attack on critical race theory are trying to preserve the status quo. They are benefited by burying the truth. We can’t let them whitewash our past and we certainly can’t let them reframe themselves as the victims. We have to call this out, as Professor Crenshaw says we cannot fix problems that we can’t see.

We have to name it and never forget we all have a stake in defending the work, the practice of critical race theory. So let’s study up and take action.

Hey, that’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our co-host is Treasure Brooks. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producers are Alexis Moore and Marialexa Kavenaugh. 

Thanks also to Hannis Brown, Davy Sumner, and Raj Makhija.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our incredible team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Apple podcasts or most places you find your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing.  I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham.

Let’s go get free.