MLK was CRT Before there was a Name For It (Ask One of the Scholars Who Founded the Field)Roundup
tags: racism, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., critical race theory
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a professor at the Columbia and UCLA law schools and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.
For the first time, we’re observing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday under new laws in multiple states that ban the instruction of “divisive” interpretations of our racial past. The assaults have given new weapons to an enduring faction in American society that has long resisted the reckoning that his life’s work demanded.
In King’s day, this faction was known as the “Massive Resistance,” an effort to organize and frustrate the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and efforts to build multiracial classrooms. Today, this faction is known as the “anti-CRT” effort, which seeks to proscribe race-related curricula, books or trainings that offer a discomforting view of our past and its current implications.
Teachers, public officials and students are in a particularly unsustainable bind. They’re charged with honoring King as a figure while disavowing the ideas that he lived and died to advance. They’re being asked not merely to defer King’s dream of racial equality but to decommission it altogether.
King would likely take bitter note of the all-too-familiar dynamics behind today’s backlash. After the 2020 global movement for racial justice in the United States and beyond in the wake of the savage police killing of George Floyd, legislatures in 32 states have relied on what is patently a lie — that antiracism is antiwhite — to fuel the antidemocratic crusade against what they call “critical race theory.”
For more than 30 years, scholars have employed critical race theory as an analytical tool. The right has rebranded it as the new racism, as wokeness run amok, as a threat to innocent schoolchildren and as a stalking-horse for the demise of “Western civilization” itself. The theory has become the target of coordinated efforts to stigmatize and erase generations of antiracist knowledge, advocacy and history. The objective is both to disappear antiracism’s history and to deny its contemporary salience.
King himself is a prime casualty in this effort. Apostles of the McCarthyite crackdown on critical race theory have exploited him as a mouthpiece for their cause, reducing him to a solitary, decontextualized line from the “I Have a Dream” speech about a future in which his four children were to be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
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