Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw on the truth about Critical Race Theory

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Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany, or rather Miss Packnett, if you used to be one of my students. So y’all know I used to teach third grade and before I was protesting in the streets of Ferguson, I was teaching 60 of the most brilliant, most captivating, absolutely hilarious 8 and 9 year olds southeast D.C. had to offer. And these days, my heart is with teachers. Not only have teachers had to deal with this pandemic, now they’re under attack from right wing lawmakers and provocateurs just for trying to do their job. That’s right. Teachers have been receiving death threats for simply teaching kids about racism and for trying to make their schools more inclusive. The powers that be are absolutely afraid of self-aware, awakened students and the teachers who teach them. So here is my lesson for the day. Teaching young people actual history isn’t an extreme move. It’s just good teaching. When we teach the true history of enslavement or of the Tulsa race massacre, of the genocide of indigenous people, it’s not an anti-American agenda. It’s just good teaching. In fact, But That’s Just Good Teaching is the name of one of my very favorite academic articles about culturally responsive education, written by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings back in 1995, which is yes, exactly how long we’ve been arguing about this stuff. Actually, much longer. We have to question what is preserved by teaching students a lie in the first place. If you are afraid of teaching the history, it’s because you know what’s in it. Spoiler: it’s white supremacy and that’s exactly what they’re trying to protect. That’s why teaching is the front line of the revolution, because people who understand how oppression functions can set themselves and everybody else free. As for right now, we have to stand up for teachers who are trying to do things right and protect them and our academic freedom from this sham of an attack. They deserve their flowers, their shiny red apples and our country’s utmost respect. And they damn sure deserve some real pay. 


And on the show today, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. I’ll be talking to the leading scholar of Critical Race Theory about what the Republicans’ opposition to it is actually about. 

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw They don’t give an expletive about what really Critical Race Theory is. 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. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News.” 

Protesters What do we want? Free Britney! When do we want it? now!

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Planned Parenthood has reacted to Britney Spears’ allegation that she’s not being allowed to remove her IUD. As you probably heard during a court hearing last week, Britney spoke publicly about the court appointed conservatorship she’s been under for the past 13 years. The singer shared details about what she has called an abusive situation, how her father, Jamie, controls her career, her money and almost every aspect of her life. And despite her desire to have a third child, her conservators won’t let her take out her birth control device. Planned Parenthood president and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson responded on Twitter saying, quote, “We stand in solidarity with Britney and all women who face reproductive coercion. Your reproductive health is your own, and no one should make decisions about it for you.” Listen, reproductive coercion. Yeah, it has a name and it has a long, sordid history in the U.S., especially when it comes to women of color, disabled women and women with mental health conditions. In the 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer and many other Black women in the South were forced to undergo sterilizations. They were so common that they were known as Mississippi appendectomies. And more recently, there have been allegations of forced sterilization at ICE facilities along the US Mexico border. I hope Britney speaking out will bring more attention not only to her situation but to the wider and highly disturbing issue of reproductive coercion and conservatorship abuse against disabled people. So hashtag free, Britney, free everybody. 

Protesters Free Britney!

Brittany Packnett Cunningham In other news, Black dancers on TikTok are on strike, and I love it. Black TikTok creators are behind some of the internet’s most famous dances. Y’all know the Renegade from Jalaiah Harmon or The Savage Dance from Keara Wilson. But they’ve become increasingly frustrated by white TikTokers repeating their viral routines without crediting them and in some cases, making money off their moves, too. So now in protest, a movement of Black TikTok artists are refusing to choreograph routines to Megan Thee Stallion’s new summer hit “Thot Shit.”

Megan Thee Stallion Hands on my knees, shakin’ ass, on my thot shit/Hands on my knees, shakin’ ass, on my thot shit/Hands on my knees, shakin’ ass, on my thot shit.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Now the result, as of June 25th, the new Stallion track is being used in only 37,000 TikTok videos. That compares to more than twenty two million videos based on her prestrike hit “Savage.”

Megan Thee Stallion I’m a savage (yeah)/ Classy, bougie, ratchet (yeah).

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  TikTok would be nothing without Black dance creators, and it’s time that they get the respect, recognition and coins that they deserve. Our associate producer Taylor Hosking recently published an op-ed in Teen Vogue with some suggestions for demands. They include a new payment structure for TikTok creators, as well as TikTok partnering with Black creators to educate users about cultural appropriation. I am purely a TikTok voyeur. I’ll leave whatever the right fix is to all of y’all. But I know there’s got to be a fix and I cannot wait to see what you all design for yourselves. 

And finally, another chapter in the continuing saga of Black woman excellence in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics. Last week, we talked about Sha’Carri Richardson and Christina Clemens. This week, there were more headlines about U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry. On Saturday in Eugene, Oregon, Berry placed third, strong enough to get her to Tokyo and to earn her a spot on the podium for the medal ceremony. But when the “Star Spangled Banner” began to play, she turned away from the flag and pulled out her T-shirt, which read “activist athlete” over her head. She said —

Gwen Berry If you know your history, you know the full song of the national anthem. The third paragraph speaks to slaves in America. Our blood being slain and filtered all over the floor. It’s disrespectful, and it does not speak for Black Americans. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Our friendly neighborhood congressional Republicans had a field day with this. Representative Dan Crenshaw called for Berry’s spot to be revoked and said, quote, “We don’t need any more activist athletes.” I’m sorry, Dan, but yes, we do. You know why? Because you cannot get all of this Black girl magic for the Olympics without also getting all of our Black girl resistance spirit. I’m here for it. And besides, you should never get in the way of a hammer thrower, okay?

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Kimberlé Crenshaw about the truth of Critical Race Theory, right after this short break. 

And now a featured entrepreneur from the UNDISTRACTED spotlight, brought to you by our sponsor Purple.

Brenda Williams Hi, I’m Brenda Williams, the founder and CEO of My GPS, a transformative experience which leverages interactive workshops to help young people discover who they are, how others see them, and how to align their personal vision with better choices, goals and actions. We share a variety of inspirational and educational content that inspires clarity on all aspects of young leaders’ lives. when you know who you are as a business or as a young person, you can stand confident and comfortable in your space. identifying the change we want to make in the world has been the energy that pushes us through some of our darkest moments and knowing that we have something to contribute is our motivation to get up and keep going even through the rough patches. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Thanks Brenda. Our sponsor Purple wants you to get a well-rested body too so you can take on whatever comes your way. I know that’s right. Get the sleep you need now at Purple dot com forward slash undistracted. 

And we’re back. Call it an obsession, Republican politicians and pundits have been freaking out about Critical Race Theory. 

Sen. Josh Howlin Critical theory is an ideology that says the United States is rotten to its core. 

Sen. Ted Cruz And let me tell you right now, Critical Race Theory is bigoted. It is a lie and it is every bit as racist as the Klansmen in white sheets. 

Former VP Mike Pence Critical race theory is racism, pure and simple. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That was Senators Josh Howlin, Ted Cruz and former VP Mike Pence. In recent months, Republican lawmakers in close to a dozen states have been trying to stop schools from teaching Critical Race Theory or really any topics that confront America’s history of racial and gender oppression. But considering that Critical Race Theory is way too advanced to even be taught in K through 12, why are Republicans so hellbent on banning it? What is this brouhaha really about? Kimberlé Crenshaw is a law professor at UCLA and Columbia and a pioneering scholar in the field of Critical Race Theory. Let’s hear what she, an actual expert has to say. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. I know you insist on me calling you Kimberlé, but Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw Oh, Brittany, thank you for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham 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, seeing as you helped coined 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 up front. 

Prof. Kimberlé 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 of — from the civil rights movement was starting to recede. Conservative Supreme Court was starting to limit the scope of what racial justice could actually achieve through the law. 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 this, 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 Packnett Cunningham This point, about what the law has done to create race and racism, you’ve 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. 

Prof. Kimberlé 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 were 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 way 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 Packnett Cunningham 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. 

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw Right.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Florida is the latest state to ban Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. And Governor Ron DeSantis said that CRT would teach children that, quote, “The country is rotten and that our institutions are illegitimate.” And 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? 

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw Yeah. And — and this is the difficulty of the moment, right? Because A, the right, including the governor of Florida, don’t really care about whether they are telling the truth or not. We have to remember, these are the same people that are bringing us the 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 the 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 — that needs to be done. You know, there’s that saying, 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 Packnett Cunningham 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? 

Prof. Kimberlé 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 and their grievance in this category called Critical Race Theory, they could just take it and decide what it meant to mobilize people to oppose it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham 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? 

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw Well, you know, it’s hard not to take seriously what they say they’re doing. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw 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. And 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 doing 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 past. We cannot go back down that pathway anymore. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Woo, 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? 

Prof. Kimberlé 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 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, assaultist speech, hate speech is just more speech, you can’t ban it. Suddenly lost their tongues. 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 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 Packnett Cunningham 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 — 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? 

Prof. Kimberlé 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 is 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 we put asbestos into our buildings and now we realize 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 Packnett Cunningham Well, before I let you go, I have to tell you that I am grateful that you saw fit to — to mother this intellectual tradition and so many others, because 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 intersectional, it isn’t feminism. Are you hopeful for a truly intersectional future, one where solidarity is the norm? 

Prof. Kimberlé 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, of seeing and 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 and 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 — these institutions remain there for future generations to build further into our future, a future that’s worthy of being called a democracy. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, I have my marching orders and I’ve got all the information 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. 

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw No, Brittany and 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 things will be well with you and your entire generation. So it’s my privilege to join you in this conversation. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m completely floored and honored by that. But we’ll make sure you get time to put your feet up because you more than deserve it. 

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. To share your story on how this attack on Critical Race Theory has affected your workplace or your school, visit A-A-P-F dot org slash truth be told. 

The truth? Well, that’ll 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, but 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. 

That is it for today, but never ever for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

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We’re taking a break next week because as you all know self-care is a revolution.

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. 

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.