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Critical Race Theory as Ethical Practice

Sharon P. Holland, Chair, Department of American Studies

We can debate about the affective life of Critical Race Theory until the cows come home, as they say, but we cannot ignore the impact of its questions upon thought in the US in the 21st century. This thought comes to us in two simple registers – one is quotidian: that racism is ordinary. And this first question tracks our understanding of race away from spectacular public events like lynchings and the hosing of civil rights protesters to the thornier question of why after all this time and with so many juridical means in place to end oppression, does the hatred of black, indigenous and people of color still endure? Why is our reaction to their dissent often at best, dismissive and, at worst, attempts at annihilation? These questions implicate us all in the machinations of race in this country and it’s the implication that makes our blood boil. How, after all, can ordinary well-meaning people be partner to the brutal regimes of terror like lynching? How can you make us party to the dirty work of nation-building that had nothing to do with us? Those are the sins of the fathers; I want, I need, a clean slate.

Critical Race Theory is the connective tissue that stitches our everyday to the spectacularity of racist events, and yes, the ugliness of how one nation is forged in the belly of others. It understands that we all play a role in shaping what race is, means and does in this country – it asks us to do better, be better in our everyday and yes, it asks us to take responsibility for that work. No accountability work feels good, it is uncomfortable, and it is exhausting. But if we are to be a better sort of human being, if we are to leave a world for the next generation that they can inhabit with some modicum of safety and security, then we must do this work.

The situation of slavery among us produced a century’s long culture of looking away. Think about it. It is 1832 and you are in what will become a bustling downtown in some future metropolis and you, accompanied by an enslaved being and your own child, are on your way to the general store. The street is teeming with ordinary life; people about their day, going from store to store, engaging in conversation with one another. Suddenly, at a crossroads, a tall man in a finely tailored suit, enraged by some little thing, places a whip upon the back of the enslaved and flesh pops open. You have your child at your side and since questions of property inherently supersede ethical action, you move past such a scene of violence. This action is necessary and practiced – it is all a part of the muscle memory for how to endure slavery for everyone. To intervene in such a scene, Christian duty or not, is to surely endanger one’s own life. To hold that life dear, we must forge ahead, our eyes cast to the ground, away from the injustice.

To bring this scene into our campus life, let’s consider the following scenario. While at a donor luncheon, the conversation edges toward the Silent Sam controversy on the campus and the public whipping of a black woman by Julian Carr on the eve of the placement of the statue on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus in 1913. An alum, who didn’t know about this incident, but who is inclined to think fondly of the tradition that Silent Sam represents, doesn’t hesitate to make the following remark: “the beating of that black woman is inconsequential to the presence of Silent Sam on this campus.” “What are we to make of a world that responds to the most lucid enunciation of ethics with violence?” Muscle memory indeed. CRT is indeed a way to teach our community not what to think – that mode produces violent responses like the above – but how to think – to hold open the question of that anonymous black woman’s life as a consequential effect in the statue’s placement. To think “how” is to stay in the uncomfortable moment, to not see the question posed in opposition, but as a reframing of what’s at stake for everyone. Those who survived enslavement and the system of slavery which occasioned it have moved forward into this now with a practiced, often dismissive response to simple ethical questions.

The question that CRT brings forward from this scene is simple: what is the cost of such everyday practices and the terror they invoke for all? And yes, how can we begin to address them? CRT brings forward the same question embedded in the work of that one founding father, slaveholder and friend of the nation. In his uneven and often reviled Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Jefferson paints a similar portrait:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him.

We often have placed CRT in its proper temporal location, born out of a British inheritance forged in the belly of a post-WWII Britain as cultural studies and its attention to class and racial difference. But perhaps, at least in the “American” frame, it is time to acknowledge that the questions asked by CRT are indeed much older than that and that these questions are part of the fabric of our nation’s founding and the particular ethico-political crisis that the practice of slavery posed for us. What indeed to do with slavery’s effect and affect, as one endures as a persistent and staggering inequality and the other performs its constant obligation through a culture of unaccountability, just as Mr. Jefferson outlines.

As scholars of this place called “America,” we must carry these questions forward. CRT is not a British invasion, or a plot by liberal-minded intellectuals to undermine the work of this nation. Instead, it is a founding discourse that attempts to bring forward the historical questions that not only haunt us, but were posed by us. CRT examines the everyday realities of living in which those questions rest and persist. It is a means of liberating ourselves from the muscle memory that produces unethical action. It is a way of looking at our collective history and how it carries forward into our now. It helps us to adopt a strategy for bravely confronting our weaknesses and contradictions so that we can cohere around our strengths. If it feels painful, then it is working; we must move through that pain. Think of this intellectual work as your mind at the gym or on a run. All athletes know that to be good at anything, we step up to the pain and move through it; when muscles begin to slowly burn, the body builds and gets stronger. Most runners live for that moment when the endorphins move us into a space that transforms our sense of who we are and what we can do. That work is transformative, and it is, we would argue, an ethic of not just care, but love. Our Chancellor so aptly stated that we need to “ask questions and don’t assume you know the answers.” This is the bedrock of CRT work – it asks questions and because it doesn’t provide immediate answers, it challenges us to do the intellectual work necessary to build our community together.

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