Attacks on Black intellectual thought began during slavery, when many slave states passed anti-literacy laws that banned enslaved Black people from reading and writing and made it a crime for others to teach them. In 1831, after the infamous slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, slave states intensified their racist agenda against the acquisition of knowledge, and anti-literacy laws targeting enslaved people became widespread throughout the South.
The fear was that if Black people were literate they would become a threat to the chattel slavery system by fighting for their freedom and encouraging others to do the same. Enslavers were also afraid that Black people would recognize their own humanity, realizing they were not inferior to whites and Blackness is not a pathology deserving of degradation and subjugation.
Almost two centuries later, many states are waging yet another anti-intellectual war, but this time, the battles are taking place in public school classrooms. This phase of the backlash first began with former President Donald Trump’s attacks on The 1619 Project by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The campaign has since developed into generalized assaults against critical race theory (CRT) and “wokeness” in general.
CRT became the new target for a more nefarious plan after the gruesome murder of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020 and the racial reckoning that spread nationwide against systemic racism and violence. It became mainstream to view police brutality and racism as embedded in not only the criminal justice system, but in most legal, political, and educational institutions in this country.
The attacks perpetuate the myth that this country is a post-racial meritocracy, where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.
During a panel discussion in 2021, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor who co-founded CRT in the late 1980s, and Devon Carbado, a law professor and scholar, explained what critical race theory was and why it is under attack. Crenshaw stated that, even though CRT is not taught as a class in K-12 schools, anti-CRT rhetoric is meant to target any type of racial justice-oriented education. She said the attacks against CRT aren’t about education at all. Instead, they are attempts to prevent people from “being able to say that there is structural inequality, to say that the past still shapes this immediate future.”
Crenshaw noted that similar attacks have occurred against other important social justice concepts such as affirmative action, which has been constantly criticized as being “preferential treatment.” She stated that mainstream media exacerbated the issue by using the same biased language as the attackers instead of gaining a clear understanding of what affirmative action truly is and the context in which it is useful. Crenshaw discussed how all of these attacks are really about the work that these social justice concepts do.
Likewise, Carbado explained that the fight against affirmative action was never just about the policy but rather about all forms of racial mediation, and what the Supreme Court did to affirmative action is the same as what is now being done to Critical Race Theory. He described how the erroneous idea that affirmative action is “damaging” and “discriminating” against white people by unjustly awarding benefits to Black people was then carried over so that it would limit voting rights, racial mediation in employment contexts, and voluntary integration. This, he said, is similar to how the fight against CRT also targets diversity training, civic education, and corporate diversity. He maintained that “it’s about the very possibility of invoking an anti-racist sensibility.”
The intent behind these actions is reprehensible. It is about silencing people to prevent them from speaking out against the racial injustices of the past, present, and foreseeable future. It is about a never-ending cycle of backlash perpetrated against Black people whenever any measure of political, economic, social, or intellectual advancements are made. It is about keeping Black people mired in structures of racial inequality and inequity—and keeping this country ignorant of the vile inhumanities continuously committed against people simply for the color of their skin. It is about denying racism altogether.
Most importantly, the attacks perpetuate the myth that this country is a post-racial meritocracy, where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, and that failure is only due to personal inadequacies. Pervasive claims that white privilege, white supremacy, and anti-Black racism no longer exist have become even further baked into law.
Is this what America will continue to stand for? Although legislation was passed to end chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching, it does not mean racial oppression, segregation, and racial terrorism have ceased to exist. This is particularly true when countless laws are consistently enacted to silence, suppress, and collectively disempower Black people, in a country that alleges to uphold the values of liberty, equality, and justice. This is the paradox that Black people in America must continually contend with.
We must reject this false narrative, develop an anti-racist mindset, and fight against social, political, and economic injustice. This is the only way this country will be able to dismantle the systems of racial oppression that it so aggressively denies and build an equitable society for everyone.