We tend to think that racism will one day be overcome. But this belief in incremental progress isn’t shared by many black scholars. The much maligned and misunderstood founder of Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, pronounced racism a permanent feature of American society. His argument that the very foundations of liberal democracy in the United States make equality between white and black people impossible might be hard to accept, but it remains valid, writes Tommy Curry.
The recent debate over Critical Race Theory in the United States is more evidence of the irreconcilability of anti-Black racism within democracies controlled and managed by whites. Following the lead of former President Donald Trump, many states have passed legislation demanding that conversations about anti-Black racism and the violence of whites be banned from primary school and university curricula. These policies aim to not only silence the criticisms made by Black and other non-white scholars over the last three centuries but hope to repair the alleged damage Black radicalism has had on the ethos and virtues of white civilization.[i] [ii]
At the same time, talks of Critical Race Theory has been adopted and gentrified by academics without any relevant training or engagement with the canonical works of this intellectual tradition. As a result, Critical Race Theory has been watered down, even as it is being demonized by the right. It is therefore important to underline its unique approach to understanding the relationship between race, power and liberal democratic institutions: “Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law”. One of the key theses of Critical Race Theory is that racial equality under the current system of liberal American constitutional democracy is impossible. [iii
The recent debate over Critical Race Theory in the United States is more evidence of the irreconcilability of anti-Black racism within democracies controlled and managed by whites
The Foundations of Critical Race Theory
Since the passing of Brown v. Board of Education and the end of the Cold War, the conversation concerning the place of Black peoples within empires and colonies disappeared from the forefront of scholarly analysis. Many institutions of higher education followed Harvard’s Core Curriculum Report which urged the creation of a liberal arts curricula emphasizing the triumph and superiority of Western philosophy and civilization to stave off the racial and anti-colonial dissent of the 1960s and 1970s. It should come as no great surprise then that the debate over Critical Race Theory does not accurately represent the actual intellectual tradition started by Derrick Bell in the late 1970s as a response to the failure of the American civil rights movement and the integrationist project, but rather emphasizes the dangers associated with educating young people in white societies about the failure of democracy and the tyranny that white populations have lethally imposed on the darker races for the last several centuries.[iv] [v
Derrick Bell is widely credited as being the founder of Critical Race Theory. In 1976, Derrick Bell asserted that Brown v. Board of Education ultimately failed to provide equality and democratic governance to Black Americans. His argument, like that of his mentor Judge Robert L. Carter, insisted that it was not segregation that caused the negative sociological and psychological consequences of racism, but white supremacy—or the erroneous belief that whites were meant to possess and manage the lives and labor of Black people in the United States as they had previously done in colonies across the world. Bell was adamant that the policies of racial redress “are still based on the sense - no less deeply held when it is unconscious - that America is a white nation, and that white dominance over blacks is natural, right and necessary as well as profitable and satisfying. This pervasive belief, the very essence of racism, remains a viable and valuable national resource.” Influenced by the Black radical tradition of Black militancy and semi-colonial analysis, Derrick Bell came to believe that racism was a permanent and unchanging aspect of American society. Bell insisted that civil rights legislation and initiatives were merely symbolic and “even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary “peaks of progress,” short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.”[viii] [vi] [vii][ix]
It has come as a great surprise to whites that the Black scholars that have informed Critical Race Theory do not believe in the promises of Western democracy or the delusion that racial equality is possible in these white democratic societies.
It has come as a great surprise to whites that the Black scholars that have informed Critical Race Theory do not believe in the promises of Western democracy or the delusion that racial equality is possible in these white democratic societies. Since the 19th century, Black scholars have insisted upon the permanence of white racism in the U.S. and other white empires. Contrary to the academic depictions of Black American figures as hopeful and invested in the democratic experiment of America, Black thinkers insisted that anti-Blackness stains Black Americans into perpetuity. Throughout the 1800s, historic Black figures associated Black liberation with (the Haytian) revolution not incorporation in the U.S. In America and Europe, the liberal democratic ideal insists that the “race problem” between Blacks and whites will inevitably be resolved with the passing of more time. This idea of automatic progress insists that the death and dying of Black people—while constant—slowly moves white populations towards greater social consciousness and racial understanding. This optimism regarding anti-Black racism, or the set of racial antipathies wedding Blackness and Africanity to inferiority, savagery, and disposability, depends ultimately on the ability of white democracies to manage the outrage and political dissent Black American and European populations have to their disproportionate deaths, disadvantage, and poverty compared to the white citizenry.[x]
The Allure of Equality
Incorporation within white liberal democratic societies demands an acceptance of liberal ideology by its citizenry. The offensiveness of CRT is that it makes racism a permanent and dynamic force that manifests alongside the pretense of democratic values and expression. Whereas white liberal thought locates itself as a progressive ethical stance motivating social reform against the decadent (paleo) conservativism of its respective society, CRT suggests that the liberal-conservative distinction is illusory and merely a disagreement over the most efficacious strategies of racial rule. To maintain the pretense of racial equality, liberals demand racism to remain abstract and equal to other forms of sexual and economic marginalization. As Gary Peller has explained, "liberal integrationist ideology is structured so that some social practices are taken out of the economy of race relations and understood to be undistorted by racial power.” In this way, democratic liberalism removes the exceptionality of race and racism by making integration/inclusion the universal tenet of social progress. Consequently, any thinking that justifies exclusion or resembles racial segregation is deemed racist. For the liberal, the Black nationalist responding to the racist violence of the police, the KKK, or even white feminists is deemed just as racist if not more oppressive than the initial white perpetrators of violence. For example, the Black Panther Party is often depicted as the Black version of the KKK despite its focus on education, medical care, and even women’s rights. The very idea of Black militancy is equated with tyranny, violence, and Black male savagery, despite Black militancy responding to the initial violence of white vigilantism and terrorism. This is in stark contrast to liberal movements such as feminism that had state-sponsored involvement, historically endorsed the murder of Black men and boys, and the carceral state being hailed as successful progressive movements presently. Throughout multiple disciplines, the racist origins of liberalism, white women’s rights, or even the Brown v. Board of Education decision remain hidden by the dominant narrative of racial progress.[xii] [xiii
Equality then is a yearning for inclusion into this society that is said to offer protection and recognition for Blacks despite the death and dying of Black populations. Over the last several years, the public executions of Black men and boys in the United States have energized conversations around racism in the United States and the U.K. While America continues to insist that the deaths of Black people do not indicate a significant flaw in the structure of American society, Great Britain insists that race is simply not a fundamental aspect of social inequality in its country.[xiv] Despite the evidence showing that Black citizens and migrant populations experience higher rates of death, negative police encounters, incarceration, and discrimination, the official position of American and British governments is that racism is no longer a significant obstacle to the success and progress of Black people in these respective countries. According to Anthony Farley,
“Liberalism will not acknowledge, and yet is perpetually fascinated by its creations. Liberalism makes a fetish of its abstract equalities and pays no attention to the material inequalities that give them the power to make their fantasies about us [Blacks] a reality.”[xv
The idea of racial equality in the U.S. or U.K. is a fantasy, an imaginative allure that requires Black people to ignore the violence and death of their people in front of their eyes for the hope that one-day Black people will no longer be required to pay the cost of citizenship with their lives. This will unfortunately never be the case since racism is at its core "the manifestation of the social processes and concurrent logics that facilitate the death and dying of racially subjugated peoples.” Racism is a social process that demands the extinguishing of Black life. Racism craves death. It is constructed, then legitimized through cultural and individual complacency, and this process of creating and adapting hierarchies of social dominance and group-based hierarchies cannot be fiated away by the pretentiousness of academic discourse or aspirations for equality. Liberal theory relies on the ability of rational, moral, and free individuals to choose abstract principles that are thought to remedy social inequality. In practice however these abstractions rarely result in material change. The principle of equality has been used to challenge the legality of affirmative action for Blacks, while affording white women the greatest share of the educational and economic benefits of civil rights programs. In a white supremacist society, remedies, programs of violence, and even abstractions continue to preserve and advance the interests of the dominant white group.[xv[xvii
The Gentrification of Critical Race Theory
The assimilation of Critical Race Theory (CRT) within philosophy departments, liberal arts colleges, and popular parlance as “any study of race” has weakened the intellectual tradition authored by its original theorists almost beyond recognition. The readiness of white liberals to tout themselves and their scholarship as "off-label" uses of CRT methodology has institutionally solidified the marketability of "critical theories/philosophies of race." A spin-off of CRT that makes no mention of Derrick Bell’s work, his analysis, or the foundational economic critiques of the American neo-colonial apparatus. The result of this incorporation is not only the deradicalization of the political ideas and motivations of Black peoples but a stratagem designed to redirect the pessimism of Black critiques against American democracy and replace it with optimism in the possibility of democratic reform despite the death and dying of Black populations within their respective nations.[xviii]
The debate over CRT is at its heart the assertion, through censorship and punishment, that Black people do not—and should not have—the ability to indict the historical legacy of white civilization and the virtue of white individuals.
The controversy surrounding CRT is not about the verifiability of its claims or the accuracy of attributing social inequities to anti-Black racism. The debate over CRT is at its heart the assertion, through censorship and punishment, that Black people do not—and should not have—the ability to indict the historical legacy of white civilization and the virtue of white individuals. Insofar as the dissent of Black peoples and other non-white victims of white violence become popularly endorsed, the white managerial structures of American and British societies demand a limit on the discussion of racism and critiques of white societies. As such, the failures of Black people—their poverty, death, and under-representation—cannot be attributed to their history of exclusion and oppression, only their cultural inadequacies or personal failures. In short, the white managerial classes have decided that censorship is necessary to curb not only undesirable speech, but unwanted social empowerment among Black, Brown, and indigenous populations who seek a redistribution of power and economic resources. The effect of which is that Black peoples, despite the rhetoric of equality, remain subject and not a citizen within white democratic societies.
Building upon the militant and revolutionary strategies of Black radicals throughout the 19th and 20th century, Critical Race Theory invites the oppressed to creatively engage the praxis of struggle against systems of racist and neo-colonial oppression. When Bell invokes the words of Mrs. Biona MacDonald “I live to harass white folks,” he offers the reader a glimpse into the perpetual struggle that Black people are committed towards regardless of the time they find themselves in. To many white liberal thinkers, a life committed to the tragic fate of struggle and sempiternal nature of white supremacy is much too high a burden to bear. Consequently, white theory stops at the horizon of Black thought. Said differently, white theory and philosophy has adamantly refused to entertain how one can think or have political theory under the permanence of anti-Black racism in the United States. I have focused on the idea of disempowerment and cultural logic as the basis of thinking a positive social political program in my own work, but this challenge—the need to think through the reality of racist oppression and violence—is refused by white scholars and canons because there is an insistence upon white virtue and liberal principles being the panacea of racism within white democracies.[xix]
[i] See Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).
[iii] Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 2001 (p 2-3)
[iv] William V. Spanos, The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). Also see Tommy J. Curry, “Saved by the Bell: Derrick Bell’s Racial Realism as Pedagogy,” Philosophical Studies in Education 39 (2008): 35-46.
[v] See Tommy J. Curry, “Back to the Woodshop: Black Education, Imperial Pedagogy, and Post-Racial Mythology under the Reign of Obama,” Teacher’s College Record 117.14 (2015): 27-52.
[vi] See Tommy J. Curry, “Canonizing the Critical Race Artifice: An Analysis of Philosophy’s Gentrification of Critical Race Theory,” in The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race, eds. Paul Taylor, Linda Alcoff, & Luvell Anderson (New York: Routledge Press, 2017), 349-361. Also see Robert Carter, “The Warren Court and Desegregation,” Michigan Law Review 67 (1968): 237-248.
[vii] Derrick Bell, “Racial Remediation: An Historical Perspective on Current Conditions,” Notre Dame Lawyer 52.5(1976/77): 5-29.
[viii] Derrick Bell, “The Racism is Permanent Thesis: Courageous Revelation or Unconscious Denial of Genocide,” Capital University Law Review 22 (1993):571-588.
[ix] Derrick Bell, “Racial Realism,” Connecticut Law Review 24 (1992): 373-374.
[x] See Tommy J. Curry, “Hayti Was the Measure: Anti-Black Racism and the Echoes of Empire in Josiah Royce’s Philosophy of Loyalty,” The Pluralist 16.2 (2021): 73-97.
[xi] See Tommy J. Curry & Gwenetta Curry, “Critical Race Theory and the Demography of Death and Dying,” in Critical Race Theory in the Academy, ed. Vernon Farmer & Evelyn Shephard-Wynn, (Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, 2020), 89-106.
[xii] Gary Peller, Critical Race Consciousness: Reconsidering American Ideologies of Racial Justice (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), 14.
[xiii] See Tommy J. Curry, “He Wasn’t Man Enough: Black Male Studies and the Ethnological Targeting of Black Men in 19th Century Suffragist Thought,” in African-American Studies, 2nd edition, ed. Jeanette Davidson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021), 209-224, and “Decolonizing the Intersection: Black Male Studies as a Critique of Intersectionality’s Indebtedness to Subculture of Violence Theory,” in Critical Psychology Praxis: Psychosocial Non-Alignment to Modernity/Coloniality (Advances in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology Series), ed. Robert Beshara (New York: Routledge, 2021), 132-154. Also see Louise Newman, White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and Kristin Bumiller, In an Abusive State: How Neo-Liberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
[xiv] Tommy J. Curry, “Conditioned for Death: Analyzing Black Mortalities from Covid-19 and Police Killings in the United States as a Syndemic Interaction,” Comparative American Studies: An International Journal 17.3-4 (2021): 257-270 and “CRED Sewell report offers whites a remedy to the pestilence of race consciousness,” The Herald, April 1, 2021, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/19203232.cred-sewell-report-offers-whites-remedy-pestilence-race-consciousness/.
[xv] Anthony Paul Farley, “Thirteen Stories, "Touro Law Review 15.2 (1998-1999): 543-656..
[xvi] Tommy J. Curry, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 4.
[xvii] Jim Sidanius & Felicia Pratto, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
[xviii] Tommy J. Curry, “Will the Real CRT Please Stand Up: The Dangers of Philosophical Contributions to CRT,” The Crit: A Journal in Critical Legal Studies 2.1 (2009): 1-47
[xix] Tommy J. Curry "Shut Your Mouth when You're Talking to Me: Silencing the Idealist School of Critical Race Theory through a Culturalogic Turn in Jurisprudence,” Georgetown Law Journal of Modern Critical Race Studies 3.1 (2012): 1-38.