Graphic: LABS compilation. Images: Courtesy of Pixabay images

The suddenly explosive Critical Race Theory hot topic is often misunderstood and not as simple as Black or white

LABS recently spoke with the Latino leader and academic, U.C. Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson, to explain Critical Race Theory, address some common misconceptions, and convey why all types of people should care about understanding the much-discussed topic.

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The term Critical Race Theory (“CRT”) pops up across news channels and media coverage quite frequently these days in the U.S. It’s become a confusing issue for many, in part due to the polarizing politicization of the term and a good deal of misinformation spread by right-wing media outlets.  

Some want to ban it, some believe it contains a message of hate, and some assert the academic theory –  mostly taught in post-graduate studies in the U.S. and not in elementary schools, despite some politicians’ claims – remains essential for the evolution of a just, fair society. 

While the Critical Race Theory topic has been covered, ad nauseam, of late – adding even more fuel on a brushfire that is driving another wedge of divisiveness in the U.S. and beyond –  there are many misconceptions surrounding this academic theory that seem to attest to an agenda that only impacts either Black or white members of the community-at-large. 

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To clarify, we recently spoke with Kevin Johnson – a well-respected, Latino, who serves as the dean of the U.C. Davis School of Law, a board member of MALDEF, and is a renowned Critical Race Theory academic – to uncover the often-overlooked perspective of CRT as a subject matter that impacts us all, regardless of the ethnic background from which we hail.

Kevin Johnson, dean of the U.C. Davis School of Law and a board member of MALDEF. Photo: Courtesy.

Johnson explains that “Critical Race Theory is the study of how law replicates, reinforces and ensures white supremacy in the United States – a way of looking at the law and its impacts to subjugated portions of the society.” 

And while Black people and the historical concept of slavery serve as prime examples of systematic racial subordination in the U.S., Johnson and other academics – like Richard Delgado and Ian Haney-Lopez – have tirelessly worked to move Critical Race Theory beyond the Black/white paradigm in the civil rights’ political dialogue of the moment. They want to talk more about how ethnic subjugation affects many different groups living within our communities.

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Johnson maintains that laws and politicians don’t overtly say “we want to deport all people of a particular race.” But the truth of the matter remains: 90% of the people deported belong to specific ethnicities. And while today, this percentage represents many of the people of Mexican or Central American descent being deported from the U.S., the organized relegation of disenfranchised groups has run the proverbial gambit across many varied ethnic heritages.

Examining the past to “connect the dots”

The Chinese exclusion laws of the 1800s in the U.S. were, for example, expressly and unabashedly racist and consistent with the country’s Jim Crow laws in effect at the time. To further illustrate this point, Johnson recounts a story of a past trip to Truckee, California – in which he noticed an interesting divergence in the ethnic makeup of the town. In fact, he observed that many of the inhabitants and merchants in the area were of Mexican descent, and at first, he thought this signified a positive influence in the area. Nevertheless, over time he started to question the absence of Chinese workers. 

Knowing, from his prior studies, that Chinese inhabitants should represent a larger portion of the population in the area, due to their past work on the railroad, he began to scrutinize the racial history of this popular destination.

As he proceeded to investigate, Johnson discovered that the town of Truckee – a few hours outside of the San Francisco Bay Area in the Sierra foothills – essentially engaged in a local ethnic cleansing of Chinese residents. Through economic boycotts and violence, the town managed to reduce its population from 30% Chinese in 1872 to less than one percent of the local population in 2010. 

According to Johnson, things got so heated at the height of this fervor that one group of white residents from Truckee decided to scare some local Chinese people; in the middle of the night, they set fire to a Chinese residence, and horrifically, shot at the home’s inhabitants as they attempted to escape the burning building. During the event, they killed one Chinese man and injured several others, but the assembled jury to consider the lawsuit still managed to acquit all the defendants within just nine minutes. 

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This event, called the Trout Creek Outrage, culminated in ceremonial cannon shots in Truckee, celebrating the acquittal of each of the defendants – an overt, town-wide signal that these terrible actions were not only sanctioned by the citizens of Truckee but lionized and revered within the community.  

This historic wave of anti-Chinese sentiment proved so ingrained in the early histories of these small California towns, that the well known lawyer, journalist and assembly member who counseled the defendants later peddled what he called “The Truckee Method” of boycotts to other jurisdictions in the most populous state today in the U.S. And by 1886, San Jose, located in the heart of what is now Silicon Valley, hosted the first Anti-Chinese Nonpartisan Convention, endorsing the Truckee Method as a popular method of dealing with what they thought of as a “Chinese problem.”

To Johnson, understanding history and its impact on the present prevails as important in removing racism from modern life. And, while he believes we are moving in the right direction, he notes that progress remains anemic. 

When asked about the worst moments of his academic life, Johnson revealed that the consistent, uphill battle to raise people’s consciousness about the truths of racial subordination in our societal, legal, educational, and political systems has proven to be a formidable task. And while he is somewhat critical of President Obama and President Biden, the vitriol directed at people of color during the Trump administration persists today and is an unequaled challenge in modern-day America. 

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What CRT is… and is not

Contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, Johnson explained, Critical Race Theory doesn’t say that we should hate white people, or that we should evaluate people based on the color of their skin versus judging them by “the content of their character,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously called for, in the 1960s. Instead, CRT takes a serious, rigorous, and scholarly look at the intersectionality of how different inequalities, such as those commonly attributed to race, gender, class, or disability, are influenced by the often-subtle institutional dynamics of law.

In essence, CRT studies the bearings that the legal climate imposes on subjugated populations, based on the established legislation, on the way our society enforces its laws, and on the expression of these elements in our social structures and discourse. 

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Why people of Latin descent should care about it: 

Johnson passionately describes one example of Critical Race Theory’s intersection with people of Latin descent:

“Our immigration laws are disgustingly racist, and it makes me want to cry. We have Mexicans and Central Americans dying day in and day out, and nobody gives a hoot. We have places in Arizona where there aren’t enough morgues or refrigerators to keep the dead bodies … We have a system where hundreds of thousands of people are detained along the border, and 100 die every year.”

But while many connections can be drawn between CRT and the interests of the Latin American community, the primary reason people of Latin descent should maintain interest in the subject lies in the gains that subordinated social groups may achieve by working with each other. 

“Banding together is one way of addressing power,” Johnson explained. “Latinos (and Latinas) should oppose racial profiling in all law and immigration enforcement, and African Americans should do the same.” Since these groups have similar interests, Johnson believes cooperation is one of the key weapons in the fight to remove inequities from our laws and institutions.