Critical race theory and why you should care


When Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Equalities, denounced ‘Critical Race Theory’ in Parliament last week, it was the first time the phrase had ever been spoken in the House of Commons, and was likely a speech that passed many by.

Critical race theory is a framework more commonly applied to legal practice, created by black academics in the 1970s. It rests on the idea that racism is not simply a phenomenon of the past, but one deep-rooted in social structures and national institutions. In the USA, it has become synonymous with the idea that white people have structural advantages in society. In short, Critical Race Theory legitimises the existence of ‘white privilege.’

Rather than utilising this theorem in current discussions of inequality though, following the BLM movement’s resurgence, Badenoch denounced it as a stimulant of dissent. Her opposition to the ‘teaching of contested political ideas, as if they are accepted fact,’ may seem simple enough, but it hints at a far more sinister trend of Conservative action in recent months. Following calls by many for an end to structural racism, the use of this term, relatively unknown outside of the social sciences, to dismiss white privilege, appears calculated and snide. 

Combatting racism does not translate to empty statements and promises, but to decisive change

Vilification of this theory, and in turn white privilege as a concept, is not limited to the UK. In fact the Conservatives appear to have directly imported fear tactics from across the pond. This September, Trump ordered suspension and defunding of federal training programmes based on ‘Race based’ theories, tweeting his desire to stop indoctrination with ‘divisive and harmful sex and race based ideologies.’ In short, for organisations to cease suggesting that being white, or male, produces any advantage in American society. 

Worryingly, the Conservative government appear to be following suit. Whilst May and June were littered with emphatic declarations of solidarity, compassion, and commitment to combatting racism – when it comes to application of these principles, action has ground to a halt. In fact, there has been a sway away from commitments to tackling racial discrimination, and towards denouncement of movements’ apparent radicalism. Conservative MP Tom Hunt, went so far as to deem BLM in pursuit of ‘Cultural Marxism, the abolition of the nuclear family, defunding the police and overthrowing capitalism,’ words intended to instil fear in conservative, family-oriented, white voters. 

This follows recent guidance by the Department for Education that ‘extreme political stances’ should not be taught in schools, including those aiming to overthrow democracy and capitalism. This action threatens to stifle teaching around socialism and trade unions, and, by extension, groups advocating racial equality through structural change. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, recently proposed cuts to funding for museums that have removed exhibits in response to BLM protests.

This is unsurprising given the Prime Minister himself, in a recent Conservative conference speech, denounced Labour’s desire to ‘pull statues down, to rewrite the history of our country,’ his archaic patriotism hindering progress in combatting racism. These actions point to growing attempts by Conservative leadership to perpetuate an idea of a ‘radicalising’ left, pointing to sporadic incidents of violence in connection with BLM. It negates the reality that the movement gained supported not through intense organisation, but rather through thousands of British people, voicing their anguish at pernicious racism still present in our society.  

Teachers already feel ill-equipped and poorly trained to teach about racism

Badenoch proclaimed in her speech that Conservatives ‘do not want to see teachers teaching white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt’ and anyone doing so was in breach of legality. In doing so she, or rather the Tory party utilising her, one of their only 22 BME MPs, as a mouthpiece, conflated both contested and accepted concepts. Whilst racial guilt and defunding of the police are topics of debate, white privilege, or rather structural racism, is not. By deeming this a political concept, and implicitly threatening teachers with punishment are they to teach it as fact, conversations around systemic racism are effectively being erased within schools. This is increasingly concerning considering the Runnymede Trust’s recent findings that teachers already feel ill-equipped and poorly trained to teach about racism with confidence. What we need now is reform – not blockades to progress.

Structural racism in this country can hardly be disputed, with stop-and-search statistics, the prison youth population and racial makeup of our highest ranking institutions all pointing to institutional inequality for the black population. This denouncement points, at best, to the Conservative party’s fundamental misunderstanding of the principles of white privilege, or, at worst, their wilful deflection of its existence.

It seems pertinent that in discussions of white privilege, Conservative MPs have repeatedly pointed the finger towards white working class boys, who statistically suffer educationally. It suggests the government is only comfortable recognising class as a driver of inequality. The intersectionality of oppression is ignored, along with the fact that discrimination against people of colour persists regardless of wealth or status. Privilege in this context does not connote ease and luxury, as so many right wing commentators keenly suggest, but rather understanding that skin colour does not act as a barrier to white people’s progress. 

Structural racism in this country is indisputable

It seems ironic that white working class children are a deflection for Conservative MPs, as if their similar failure by government institutions provide defence against racism’s existence. What with recent votes by Conservatives to cease funding for school meals, this emphatic defence of deprived white people begins to ring untrue. Whilst poor children are useful pawns in the government’s dismissal of white privilege, when it comes to effecting real change in their lives, the party casually casts them aside. 

The fact that the Minister for equalities – who has consistently voted against laws promoting equality and human rights – is prepared to stand ‘unequivocally against Critical Race theory’, is an awful statement in the current climate.  With continued murders of black people at the hands of police in America, a country Johnson deemed in June ‘a bastion of peace and freedom’, the need for the UK to lead with institutional reform is pressing.

Combatting racism does not translate to empty statements and promises, but to decisive change, to tearing down and restructuring of institutions founded on ideas of white supremacy, facilitated by abuse of black peoples’ bodies. 

If the simple acknowledgement of white people’s privilege is deemed oppressive and limiting by the government, how far can we really go in achieving racial equality in this country?

Image: David Geitgey Sierralupe via Flickr

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