White supremacy is not the opposite of critical race theory

White supremacy is an ideology that holds that Whites are superior to Blacks, that has undergone numerous shifts in expression and openness over the past 2+ Centuries in the United States. I have described it as operating on Duke’s campus as a “quiet default” that White is the ideal, and no longer defined by folks marching around in Klan robes.

Critical race theory is a method of analysis that holds that the role of race in society is both profound and that the very concept of race is malleable and has been altered by those with power to keep it. When people say that race is socially constructed, that is what they mean. If you are wondering what a critical race theory analysis might look like, here is a simple example, that also demonstrates the social construction of the very concept of race.

The juxtaposition between the Declaration of Independence’s (1776) high minded language of it being self-evident that “all men are created equal” and the straightforward racial calculus of “who counts” in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution (1787) is jarring:

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 (uchicago.edu)

The language is a bit weird to the modern ear so let me re-write Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 in my words.

“The population of the U.S. will be used to determine representation in Congress, and to levy taxes. All free persons count, including people who are indentured servants. Indians who are not taxed do not count, and Enslaved persons count as 3/5ths of a person.”

All people were obviously not equal in the most basic task of determining who counts, as written into the Constitution, just 11 years after Thomas Jefferson’s soaring ideals.

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 goes on to set up the U.S. Census with the details being hammered out by Congress who decided that the actual count would be completed by the Executive Branch. The first Census was collected in 1790, and in every 10th year since. This Pew Center infographic demonstrates the numerous changes in how race and ethnicity have been measured in the Census from 1790 to 2020. The United States has basically been obsessed with race since its legal founding, and while the categories have changed, everyone had to fit in somewhere.

Social construction of race simply means that the very definition of race and how it was used changed across time, with those in power (the government) determining what the categories were in the Census.

Critical race theory holds that race is so fundamental in the story of United States that it can operate in nearly imperceptible ways if you do not pay close attention. The gap between the high minded ideals, and the practical rules written down 11 years later in the Constitution, including the inability to use the word “Slave” shows a profound American ability to hold seemingly incompatible notions at the same time, to the point of shared delusion.

Critical race theory simply points this out, and proceeds with an analysis of a law or practice that uses race as the central lens for analysis. For example, if you look at housing wealth by race today, critical race theory would suggest that accounting for redlining of mortgages whereby Blacks were systematically denied loans for half a Century meant that they did not accrue housing equity at the same rate as did Whites. That has to be part of any full consideration of wealth in the United States, and you could miss this if your attention were not called to race as more than a simple comparator of reality today.

Some say that critical race theory is biased, because it is only Black people who have been proponents of its use; those who have been harmed by a process are more likely to focus on that process, and critical race theory arose to counter the tone-deafness that enabled “all men are created equal” and Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 only 11 years apart.

The great thing about critical race theory is that you could differ with someone’s analysis, and someone else could disagree with yours, and pretty soon you would be having a conversation that reckoned with the role of race in United States history. That is what we need to do as a society. It is really not that complicated, but it is hard.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/ . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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