Publication Date

August 12, 2021

Perspectives Section

From the President

Thematic

African American, Political

Jackie Jones

Since the spring, critical race theory (CRT) has become the focal point of strident public debates over the teaching of history and civics in K–12 schools and at colleges and universities. Much of the discussion around this theory has remained maddeningly abstract and distressingly ill informed.

CRT provides an intellectual framework for understanding the many ways that governmental entities and private interests have put racial ideologies into practice in the form of laws, taxation policies, public works projects, regulatory guidelines, profit-making schemes, hiring preferences, and more. The cumulative effects of these practices include persistent patterns of poverty and inequality among minority populations—patterns that have proved impervious to civil rights legislation. Despite its critics’ claims to the contrary, CRT does not focus on individuals or on individual acts of discrimination; rather, it illuminates and draws attention to the historic biases embedded in economic and political structures.

I have found that when I teach the American history survey, my students breathe a collective sigh of relief when we get to the mid-1960s, when Congress passed civil rights legislation. They see these federal initiatives as the culmination of a generations-long struggle against state-sanctioned discrimination; they assume that these laws finally secured a level playing field in housing, education, employment, and voting and that any residue from generations of bias gradually disappeared within the next few years. These assumptions are wrong.

Teaching informed by CRT can challenge students to rethink these assumptions. It can help them understand and recognize the many forces in society that perpetuate racial bias, even after the passage of major pieces of civil rights legislation. Here are some relevant, concrete historical facts—and an interpretation—that reveal the usefulness of critical race theory. This approach has informed my own scholarship and teaching.

Approximately four million enslaved men, women, and children won their freedom during and immediately after the Civil War. The end of the legal institution of bondage did not guarantee the formerly enslaved actual freedom, however. Most emerged from the war with little or nothing in the way of material possessions or financial resources. Propertied whites colluded to deny them access to credit, which meant they could not buy land. Many freedpeople in the Cotton South became sharecroppers, an exploitative labor system that at times took the form of peonage. Freed Black people received no compensation for their lifelong backbreaking work or for the work of their forebears over the preceding two and a half centuries.

CRT provides a framework for understanding the ways that governmental entities and private interests have put racial ideologies into practice.

By 1910, the former Confederate states had passed laws to disenfranchise their Black male populations. Local systems of legally mandated segregation developed that served to humiliate Black people in public but did not bar Black servants from entering white households every day to cook, clean, and care for children. White terrorists carried out a campaign of lynchings and assaults of Black men and women across the South. Private employers and southern states devised convict-lease and prison-labor systems that resembled slavery, with Black people arrested, incarcerated, and condemned to heavy labor on the slightest pretext. With the exception of members of a small, vibrant, urban middle class and a small but growing class of farm owners, most Black southerners began the 20th century impoverished, lacking cash, land, credit, and a political voice.

It was no wonder, then, that Blacks began to move north during World War I, when jobs in that area of the country became available to them. Over the next half century, about seven million would leave the South in search of decent housing, employment opportunities, political rights, and personal dignity. However, the federal government colluded with private interests such as banks and real estate agents to thwart the ambitions and aspirations of people of color. Segregated schools and housing, combined with discrimination in employment and home lending, had long-lasting, devastating consequences for many Black families.

Whether or not the individuals implementing these measures are personally biased is irrelevant.

For example, the federal government officially segregated the public housing it built for defense workers during World War I. Federal housing programs, tax policies, and infrastructure projects (including the national highway system built in the 1950s and 1960s) favored suburban white homeowners over urban Black renters and even homeowners. A 1934 New Deal program, the Federal Housing Administration, required that new housing be segregated if building contractors were to qualify for government loans. So-called neighborhood-improvement associations encouraged—indeed, often coerced—homeowners to use property deeds that included restrictive covenants prohibiting homeowners from selling their houses to Black people (in some cases, to other groups as well, especially Jews and Italians). The interstate highway system allowed suburbanites to commute to jobs in the city but often eviscerated minority communities.

Confined by various forms of discrimination to impoverished neighborhoods, most northern Black families suffered from the effects of underfunded public education and a discriminatory social division of waged labor. Except for a period of labor shortages during World War I, Black men and women generally did not gain entry into industrial or factory jobs until World War II.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, combined with judicial decisions eliminating discriminatory laws and policies such as restrictive covenants and the all-white southern primary, undermined the role of government as an official, active agent of discrimination. These measures were historic and far-reaching. Nevertheless, a spate of “race-neutral” laws and policies continued to have a disparate impact on Black families and neighborhoods. The so-called war on drugs launched in the 1970s and harsh “three-strike” laws helped to build the modern carceral state, which has decimated Black communities already reeling from long-standing and widespread patterns of police brutality. These issues are compounded by increasingly restrictive voter registration and balloting laws that suppress minority political influence. In enacting these measures, some lawmakers have sought to ensure what they call the “purity of the ballot box,” an echo of Jim Crow disenfranchisement policies.

Governmental entities enact laws and enforce supposedly race-neutral policies that can have a negative impact on minorities. Private businesses benefit from the vulnerability of minority populations. Whether or not the individuals implementing these measures are personally biased is irrelevant. For example, like many other small towns throughout the country, Ferguson, Missouri, relied for its annual budget on the fines, fees, and court costs extracted from its citizens charged with minor traffic infractions. Police officers enforced these laws whether they agreed with them or not. When bank officials targeted low-income people in minority neighborhoods for predatory loans (the perverse counterpoint to redlining), they did so because that was their employer’s policy, regardless of their individual feelings about the matter. Moreover, the goal was to maximize profits, rather than to achieve an outcome relating to race. Towns that depend on traffic arrests for municipal funding and banks that take advantage of would-be homeowners deny their policies are racist, but the effects of these policies can be devastating to minority communities because their impoverished condition makes them so vulnerable.

These examples remind us why CRT focuses on institutions and structures, and not individuals and personal attitudes, in accounting for the enduring effects of racist laws and policies. CRT does not explain all of American history; rather, it provides insights into why achieving the ideals enshrined in the Founders’ declaration that “all men are created equal” has been so elusive over the centuries.

Jacqueline Jones is president of AHA.

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