RICKEY BOOKER JR.: "Theory" not the bogeyman

CRT explains reality, doesn’t offer new American ideology

Schools are a frequent battleground for America's culture wars and the current showdown over critical race theory is the most recent manifestation. Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah recently proposed legislation to either withhold public funding from schools that teach racism's impact on American society and its institution or outright ban it from public K-12 curriculum. More than a dozen other states are gearing up to take similar action.

Critical race theory-- a framework to understand the impact of racism in the U.S.-- is the culture war du jour, mobilizing conservatives to support everything from executive orders banning diversity, equity and inclusion training to local school board candidates promising to save our children from its harmful effects. Until this year, most of us had never heard of this new concept gaining so much credit and notoriety. Why? Because people who live with the reality of racism don't need a theory to believe it. And until recently, most white audiences lacked the resolve to acknowledge, understand and repair racism in its current manifestations.

The context was a lot different in the 1970s when Derrick Bell, the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School, offered critical race theory to make sense of the political and legal realities of people of color. It rests on two surprisingly uncontroversial pillars: (1) the intractability of racism in America and (2) the need to listen to the voices at the "bottom of the well" to paint an accurate picture of how our laws work -- or don't work -- for those who don't benefit from certain levels of privilege and access.

When Bell introduced critical race theory 40 years ago, race was the leading indicator of health, housing, criminal justice, educational and child welfare outcomes. Sadly, race remains one of the top predictors in all those categories today. Far from a radical ideology or "sinister worldview," critical race theory is an accurate explanation for the generational legacy of racism and its impact on communities of color. It is an explanation for American reality, not a proposal for a new American ideology.

To grapple with critical race theory is not to exorcise a demonic worldview but to acknowledge the data and the lived experiences of those often overlooked. During a recent Arkansas Judiciary Committee meeting, state Sen. Joyce Elliott stated that "if I am in a group who is marginalized and I keep telling you that our laws are not equal and you just keep dismissing my experience and telling me, yes it is ... it is just like you are being erased."

Even in the Christian Church, where human dignity and love are core biblical principles, the war against critical race theory is ultimately a dismissal of the realities of fellow Christian brothers and sisters. In 2019, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear appointed 10 members to the SBC Resolutions Committee, six of whom were people of color, to clarify emerging theological, social and practical topics to "advance our cooperative witness and mission." Critical race theory was approved at the committee level but ultimately overturned by six white SBC seminary pastors and Greear. Curtis Woods, a Black pastor who was chair of the committee that brought the resolution to a vote, has come under fierce attacks for supporting it as a valuable concept for the church. "SBC's denial of CRT opens Pandora's box questioning all kinds of theories, including in fields such as philosophy, sociology and the hard sciences," Woods said. He also stated that CRT is a helpful tool in giving language and clarity to the experiences of Black Americans, which he details in a chapter of a book on racism he wrote for the SBC. Some of the committee members of color and Black pastors have since left the SBC.

As a Black Christian, I am particularly disturbed by the actions of those using critical race theory and their faith to ignore and denounce the voices of those who are the "least of these." Rather than stand with their brothers and sisters to address the real problem of racism today, too many Christians are distracted by a bogeyman ideology that isn't a problem in the first place.

The ideology that should galvanize all of our attention and effort is the imagined hierarchy of race that yields negative dividends for so many individuals and communities in this country.

The Rev. Esau McCaulley, author of "Reading While Black," states the "path forward is not a return to a naivete of a previous generation, but a journey through the hard questions while being informed by the roots of the tradition bequeathed to us."

Until we listen with empathy and curiosity to the voices, data and theories that expose the racialized barriers keeping America from becoming what it promises to be for all people, how will we ever truly achieve it?