I Debated the Founder of Critical Race Theory: A Guest Posting


Several months ago, I told the story of reconnecting with Professor Thomas Pettigrew whose passion for racial equality influenced me deeply during my years at Harvard, eventually leading me to the decision to work in Mississippi when I finished my degree.

Last week he wrote to ask if I could give the piece below some space. When I read it, I realized that it was far more important than what I was preparing for this week’s entry, so I’m presenting it in full as a guest posting. Tom’s take on Critical Race Theory is particularly timely on the weekend of the inauguration of Glenn Youngkin as the new governor of Virginia who campaigned on the cynical platform of banning the teaching of CRT from the state’s classrooms. Virginia is Tom’s home state, so it’s especially appropriate to hear his voice on the subject.


Thomas F. Pettigrew

Decades ago, at an academic conference, I debated Derek Bell, the originator of critical race theory (CRT). Current gross mischaracterizations of CRT by the nation’s extreme right-wing bring back memories of the event.

The debate concerned the racial desegregation of public schools. As throughout my career as a social psychologist, I argued that such action was necessary for the nation finally to overcome its racist legacy. Bell argued sternly against desegregation. Give Black Americans equal resources, he maintained, and let Blacks run their own schools and communities separately. I was dismayed to hear him, because Bell had been an effective and outspoken advocate of desegregation both as a federal official in the Johnson Administration and as a lawyer for Thurgood Marshall’s N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund.

Although we differed in our views, it was still a friendly debate. We were long-standing friends from our time in Washington in the 1960s. At the close, we hugged each other, and he said quietly to me: “You keep up the fight, Tom; but I have given up hope. It just hurts too much to continue to believe America will ever change on race.”

What made this occasion especially painful for me was that I knew Bell as an extremely astute lawyer who as a veteran had served his country in Korea. With an open, friendly personality, he was respectful of conservative

students in his law classes. In short, he was the very opposite of the White-hating Black intellectual that critics who never knew him now depict him.

Bell’s initial concern was how to understand how racism persisted over the centuries despite repeated protests and incremental improvements. CRT, as it later became labeled by others, was his answer. Racist outcomes had been baked into the nation’s primary institutions from the beginning and had proven highly resistant to modification. Bell and those who further advanced CRT stressed this process for the nation’s legal system. But now social science provides widespread support for this view for many institutions beyond the law.

Institutional racism has proven resistant to change in part because the racist structure of the nation’s various social systems tightly interlock and strongly support each other. Consider housing segregation. As a lynchpin of discrimination against African Americans, it directly supports the racial problems of other institutions. Given the nation’s “neighborhood schools,” racial segregation in housing translates into racially segregated schools. And with African-Americans forced into ghettos, discriminatory gerrymandering is easier to execute and restrict minority political power. It also makes it difficult for Blacks to obtain jobs in outlying areas. Moreover, social psychology has demonstrated that intergroup contact is an especially effective means of alleviating prejudice. But neighborhood segregation prevents this major means for eroding racial prejudice and hatred.

Segregated schools reduced political power, restricted employment, continued racial prejudice – all these problems can be traced in large part to segregated housing.

Spurred on by Fox “News” and racist blogs, the Republican Party

has maligned CRT into yet another means of stirring up the fears of a susceptible portion of White Americans. Apparently, without ever having read a page of Bell’s many books, these biased commentators on social media claim that CRT theory holds that virtually all Whites are racists, that White children are being taught to be ashamed of their race, and even that Whites should be exterminated. While many of these extreme charges emanate from poorly-educated critics, some come from surprising sources. According to a Washington Post columnist, a Princeton University Civil War historian claims CRT rejects the principles of the Enlightenment and views Whites as oppressors like the Nazis were with the Jews!

This is calculated nonsense. CRT does not address individuals; it consists of structural contentions. Most White Americans do not personally favor racial discrimination, but we all live within these structures that shape our behavior and beliefs. Virginia’s new governor-elect, Glenn Youngkin, is an intelligent man who should know better. But he cynically ran on the promise that he would as governor end the teaching of CRT in Virginia’s schools “on day one” – an easy task since there are no schools in the state teaching it. What is really being said by these right-wing commentators is

that racial issues should not be taught at all in the state’s schools. Imagine teaching about the Civil War without mentioning slavery.

Starting with Richard Nixon in the 1960’s, Republicans have been employing “dog-whistle” racism. Nixon opposed school integration by attacking “bussing.” Reagan vilified a Black “welfare queen.” G. H. W. Bush’s published a fearsome “Willie Horton” ad. G. W. Bush dwelled on Obama’s birth certificate and his middle name – “Hussein.” The most grievous example is Reagan’s first presidential campaign speech in 1980 supporting “states’ rights” and delivered in Philadelphia, Mississippi near where three civil rights had been lynched.

Bell died in 2011 at the age of 80. Were he still alive, he would surely view the current misuse of his theory as further reason for his despair of ever achieving a racism-free America. We can understand his despair without embracing it ourselves. These are dark times for the United States when one of its two major political parties has turned its back on democracy. But the nation has witnessed solid progress in accepting its diversity in recent years despite this strenuous political opposition. Indeed, it is this racial progress that has stoked the present right-wing violence and resistance to change

About the author

Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

Follow Me

Recent Posts