All over America, uninformed citizens—people with adamant opinions on a subject they know absolutely nothing about—are up in arms about Critical Race Theory. Much of the current confusion is traced to far-right fanatic Christopher F. Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, who fabricated a connection with Marxism that has no bearing on the subject whatsoever. [i] That millions have jumped on the band wagon of such nonsense without serious inquiry is, unfortunately predictable in the current political climate.
Let’s take a critical look at what CRT really is. CRT is a conceptual framework used by scholars and activists to understand the connections between race, law, and society in the United States.[ii] For example, it is used to analyze racial bias in the justice system (such as differences in sentencing rates among races). The “critical” in CRT refers to “critical thinking,” rather than to criticizing anyone or anything. Scholars might examine race and society in the United States using Ta-Nehisi Coates’ observation that African Americans in this country endured nearly two and a half centuries of slavery, ninety plus years of Jim Crow, three generations of separate but equal, and two generations of legal redlining, followed by illegal redlining that continues today in some parts of the country. [iii]
As I point out in Evolving in a Dangerous World, after Emancipation, thousands of Black men in the South were subjected to trumped-up criminal charges by local sheriffs solely for the purpose of being sentenced to prison so their labor could be leased to farmers, mine owners, or railroads. These prisoners numbered over a hundred thousand, and possibly twice that many, as there were hundreds of labor camps all over the South.[iv]
Between 1880-1930, a reign of terror took place in the South, horrific beyond any standards of human decency—events that to this day have escaped America’s public-school textbooks coast to coast. Lynching was a Southern obsession, so common that Mark Twain sarcastically renamed the country the “United States of Lyncherdom.”[v] Post-Reconstruction planters shot and killed thousands of Black people over labor disputes.[vi] In 1893, a Methodist minister said the killing of Blacks was not “such an extraordinary occurrence that it needs explanation.”[vii] Black men were killed for “wild talk” like demanding higher wages.[viii] What were referred to as “grave insults” led to lynchings.[ix] I have barely touched the surface here of the unspeakable crimes against Black men and women that were readily accepted as southern justice. [x]
Black people in America were denied equal education opportunities for generations, and denied loans for homes, farms, and businesses, while subject to both legal and illegal red-lining for a century. Consequently, impoverished communities with people subjected to a double standard in policing which continues today. Opponents use the diminished educational abilities of people living under such circumstances as evidence that they were inferior to begin with.
If you are young, you won’t remember the Black children being accompanied by State Troopers simply to get to unsegregated schools after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, but there are plenty of videos depicting these events on YouTube. But what you likely won’t find unless you look carefully at American history, is the peril Black Americans faced post-Brown vs. Board in just trying to fill jobs traditionally restricted to white people. Nancy MacLean begins her book Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace with the story of a 37-year-old Black man who, upon being given a job normally reserved for whites in a Mississippi rubber plant, was murdered with a car bomb by fellow employees who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. His death was ruled an accident.[xi] Not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were there any teeth in laws forbidding discrimination in the workplace based on race. In a chapter titled, “The Rightness of Whiteness,” MacLean says, “The culture of exclusion organized life in the United States in the early 1950s so thoroughly that it appeared natural and unremarkable to nearly all white Americans.”[xii] This socio-cultural reality occurred in my lifetime, and I remember the collective assumption accepted as common sense precisely as she described it.
Anyone who has not intently studied American history from 1860 through 1880 is simply unprepared to realize the full measure of the genealogy of racial hatred in this country, a schism so deep the gap still divides ideological factions today. In 1865, the prospect that poor southern whites would be required to compete in a labor market with freed slaves evoked a bottomless soul-sick animus of resentment and incendiary rage with so much vitriolic malevolence that residue of this sentiment is still alive today in many parts of the South. For the freed slaves on the receiving end of this diabolical hatred, this viciousness was of a sufficient caliber that the feelings of cultural contempt it routinely implied were passed from one generation to the next, without need of a discussion to deliver the message. It’s as if the fire has burned out, but there are still plenty of hot coals.[xiii]
For nearly a century, Jim Crow laws openly oppressed and discriminated against Black citizens with the full measure of law. When the Jim Crow laws were cleaned up, demographics often made it possible to continue the discrimination without seeming to do so. In other words, employment and economic numbers could enable the discrimination to continue under the guise of legality. This is precisely why Black intellectuals came up with Critical Race Theory and why folks who understand this for what it is are considered woke.
Make no mistake—people alive today are not responsible for slavery, but as Henry David Thoreau pointed out, if we are born into an unjust system, as citizens, we are responsible for making it just. All over the world, misconceptions about bias itself keep us from progressing in race relations.
Until most people understand how our brains work, we will never make sufficient progress in race relations. We are never going to solve the problem of implicit bias until we accept that our brains strive to protect us from harm and embarrassment. In centuries past, physical danger was common and frequent, but embarrassment could also lead to death because of despotic cultural authorities. People were drawn and quartered simply from failing to genuflect in respect to tyrants. If we have grown up in a country where racism is systemic, then, simply because of the way brains process experience, it is impractical that we will realize we unconsciously think in categorical assumptions. Trading mental places with others to appreciate life from their point of view is a vastly underutilized method of finding common ground.
Every generation internalizes its own culture and, therefore, it can take centuries to alter biases and beliefs because significant changes happen slowly as each generation continues to internalize things as then appear. It has, for example, taken decades for the results of affirmative action to make it crystal clear that equal opportunity was always warranted because Black people are just as talented as White people. If you are old enough, this won’t require further explanation because you lived in a culture that expressed serious doubts Black people could qualify for professional employment. This wasn’t that long ago; it was the time of segregated drinking fountains and separate bathrooms. The haunting question is why our behavioral professionals have not yet publicly explained how racial bias is passed from one generation to the next, but the answer is decidedly simple: most have not yet figured it out. They have not clarified the dynamics of implicit bias because so many still believe this is a subject handled through the consciousness of our frontal cortex without acknowledging the profound influence our subconscious has on our states of mind. It is imperative to understand that, in making instantaneous caution-based decisions, our brains are functioning as designed. We are wired with a sentinel limbic system still attuned to the dangers of the Stone Age, which makes us intuitively wary of strangers, change, and uncertainty. This pronounced result of evolution must be considered common knowledge before we can mitigate hidden prejudice.
It is difficult to overstate the fact that racial animosity and hatred are not necessary to produce incidents with a racist result. All it takes is subconsciously seeing someone as “not one of us.” This is more than enough to put a finger on the scales and treat a stranger just a little bit differently than those with whom we are more comfortable. If the person is of a different race, the likelihood that we have previously categorized them as being different from our group increases. For police officers, this minute difference in categorization can make the difference between shoot/don’t shoot. All that is necessary in a shoot/don’t shoot scenario is to perceive, in milliseconds, that the person in front of you represents the other in any sense, to any degree. Moreover, many other factors are at play in these situations: the neighborhood, race, gender, if it’s nighttime, if one is already stressed, mood, and even temperature.
We will never deal effectively with racial bias until we face the fact that our brains work the way they evolved to work, not as we wish them to work. Once we realize that we are predisposed to be hypercautious and overly suspicious where “otherness” is involved, we can start to think our way through the matters at hand and mitigate the effects of implicit bias. Until then, nothing is likely to mitigate unconscious bias.
As neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields explains in his book, Why We Snap, “Racial Prejudice is wired into the human brain. Stereotyping of people as members of outcast groups is also wired into the human brain, but by somewhat separate circuits. (Prejudice is our emotional response toward another group of people based on erroneous preconceptions. Stereotypes are conceptional categorizations of people that we group in our mind according to superficial characteristics). The human brain instantly sorts people into different groups along racial lines. This may be difficult to accept, but the latest neuroimaging evidence supports this surprising conclusion.” [xiv]
Thus we continuously experience a perpetual conflict between our conscious and subconscious minds. The great tragedy here is that this remains an open secret, because, unfortunately, most people in America still believe their conscious mind is completely in charge, and if they feel no racial animosity, the case is closed. Simply put, brains cause bias. The conflict between our subconscious and conscious minds confuses us—like having a friend tell us something important only to then deny having said it. Awareness is necessary to pierce the cognitive confusion.
Racial animosity has a chameleon, viral-like quality that frequently changes size, shape, tenor, and tone, but its shadowy presence always awaits the heat of emotion to make itself known.
If I sound angry in this piece, it is because I am. I am livid. There is no excuse for making racism a political issue in America. None. Zero. Yet the phony outrage over CRT has become a daily subject in all manner of media. [xv] I can’t help addressing explicit racism because I don’t have the power to change the minds of people who choose to hate other people because of superficial differences. But in Evolving in a Dangerous World Made Racism Inevitable, I show how we can mitigate implicit biases by acknowledging situations that call for our executive (frontal cortex brain) function to overrule the subconscious assumptions that we have made throughout our lives without realizing we have done so. This is not rocket science, but given the current political polarization in America, it is much more important than rocket science.
Charles D. Hayes is the author of Evolving in a Dangerous World Made Racism Inevitable: Concerned Citizens, Police Officers, and Teachers Can Help Change This, and Blue Bias: An Ex-Cop Turned Philosopher Examines the Learning and Resolve Necessary to End Hidden Prejudice in Policing and numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction.
[i] Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2022.
[ii] The Derrick Bell Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2005, 83. Critical Race Theory’s founding members are usually identified as Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda and Patricia Williams.
[iii] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014. If this much history were taught in schools, young people would grow up with much more appreciation for the lasting influence of overt racism.
[iv] Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 6–8.
[v] W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 1.
[vi] Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 6.
[vii] Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 8.
[viii] Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 25.
[ix] Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 57.
[x] Charles D. Hayes, Blue Bias (Wasilla, AK: Autodidactic Press, 2020), 59–63.
[xii] MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough, 1–3.
[xiii] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2001), 101–105, 109–111, 112–114.
[xiv] Douglas R. Fields, Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain (New York: Dutton), 307.
[xv] Charles D. Hayes, Evolving in a Dangerous World Made Racism Inevitable: Concerned Citizens, Police Officers and Teachers Can Help Change This (Wasilla, AK: Autodidactic Press, 2022).