Black Women Supporting Critical Race Theory and Black History Education

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Felicia Davis

Managing Director, HBCU Green Fund

Truth is powerful and it prevails.” – Sojourner Truth

In the summer of 2011, Brittany Dant reviewed the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, “Race: Are We So Different,” for the Smithsonian Magazine.  The show explored race from biological, cultural and historical points of view.  This national exhibition explained that race is an invention, and it has no basis in biology.  More recently, the title for Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2018 National Geographic article reads, “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-Up Label.” The subtitle explains that the concept of race is not grounded in genetics.  To understand critical race theory, one must consider when and why racial classification was created. 

In 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to what would become the United States, justifications for their enslavement were brought here too. In the 400 years since then… the justifications for their abuse and mistreatment have stayed with us as well.

Scientific racism is the pseudoscientific belief that there is a biological difference among the races that conveniently declares whites to be superior.  The theory is irreconcilable with modern genetic research. Scientific racism was used to justify the horrific system of slavery. This unscientific theory rationalized and defended slavery and permeated American thought, culture, laws and systems.  It is the basis for intellectually flawed beliefs in white supremacy. 

Following the Civil War, Reconstruction was an era of great social and economic transformation.  Constitutional amendments granted freedom and basic human rights to Black people.  It was an exciting time full of expectation. Blacks organized politically, and by 1870 they were represented at all levels of government throughout the South. The future appeared bright, a spirit of racial reckoning was in the air, and the prospects for advancement were favorable.

In the years that followed there was a rapid retreat from “racial egalitarianism.”   The first Reconstruction ended with the contested election of President Rutherford B. Hayes.   By 1877 federal protection for formerly enslaved persons was over.  Violent economic suppression, disenfranchisement and segregation were codified in racist White supremacy Jim Crow laws that Blacks would struggle to dismantle over the next century.  

According to Britannica, “critical race theory is an intellectual movement and framework of legal analysis according to which (1) race is a culturally invented category used to oppress people of color and (2) the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities between white and nonwhite people.”  Unlike white supremacy, critical race theory is an analytical framework grounded in the fact that race is a social construct, a cultural invention created to justify the exploitation of people.  The analysis enables one to examine laws and institutional frameworks and potentially expose and root out injustice, remove barriers, and at a minimum, highlight deeply entrenched white privilege.   

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement there appeared to be widespread acknowledgement of systemic racism throughout American and indeed global systems.  As the George Floyd racial reckoning fades into the rearview mirror, an effort is underway to outlaw any attempt to question racist underpinnings that conspire to disadvantage whole communities.  

In the wake of another contested presidential election that ended with a failed insurrection, there is a vigorous assault on voting rights.  Under the banner of opposition to “Critical Race Theory,” white parents are being organized to oppose African American history and culture.  Gerrymandered super-majority state legislative bodies are actively working to outlaw policies designed to advance justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.  

In a nod to the key constituency that delivered his victory, and Black women in particular, President Biden selected a Black woman as his Vice President, nominated the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, and selected a Black woman to represent the United States to the world as UN Ambassador, among many other executive level appointments.  He publicly committed to a government-wide effort advancing diversity, equity and racial justice that is captured in a set of Executive Orders.  One of the very first Biden Executive Orders (14008) established the Justice40 initiative with a goal of 40% of infrastructure investments to benefit disadvantage communities. His recent Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through the Federal Government was issued this year during Black History Month.  With trillions in infrastructure improvement on the horizon, equity is now a focus for all federal agencies.   

A National Women’s Law Center analysis found that black women with a bachelor’s degree were typically paid just under what white, non-Hispanic men with only a high school diploma were paid.  This is not equal, it is systemic.  The thought that that Black women should have an equal opportunity to increase their share of government contracts, education, jobs and income elicits name calling, finger pointing and an all-out assault on Black culture.  The truth is that Black history is American history from 1619 until today, and it prevails.