What Is Critical Race Theory, Really? A Q&A With Ricky Jones

Last week, a group of people, mostly white, disrupted JCPS school board meeting to decry critical race theory — a lens through which to study race, which is not currently being taught at Jefferson County Public Schools, according to officials. This followed a pattern of protests at public school meetings across the country and a more general moral panic that has decried critical race theory being used in corporate trainings, federal agencies and more. 

At a press conference before the JCPS meeting, protesters confused their vendetta against critical race theory, saying they were against equity initiatives and “judging people strictly on the color of their skin,” according to reporting by the Courier Journal — different concepts than critical race theory. A recent article in The New Yorker reported that a conservative activist named Christopher Rufo started the recent movement against critical race theory, using the term as a scapegoat for — in his opinion — troubling progressive racial ideology. This strategy has led to the introduction of bills in state legislatures across the country, seeking to limit discussions about race in the classroom, including two bills that were pre-filed in Kentucky.

To understand what critical race theory actually is, we turned to Professor Ricky Jones, the chair of UofL’s Pan-African Studies Department. He answered our questions about critical race theory and gave his hypothesis for what the attacks against it in Kentucky are really about — in his words, “I think they have a problem with any educational practice that attacks white supremacy and calls it out for what it is.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LEO: What is critical race theory?
Ricky Jones: It’s important for people to understand that critical race theory is a relatively new name for a very old intellectual practice when studying race. All it says is race should not simply be studied in individual terms, right? It’s not as simplistic as a Ku Klux Klanner burned a cross in your yard or, you know, some white nationalist screaming, ‘Jew will not replace us,’ in Charlottesville. Race and racism are more effectively studied in institutional terms, you know? If you want to look at the institution of slavery, an institution of white supremacy, you know, how does ‘White Man’s Burden’ fit into that? How does Manifest Destiny fit into that? Why do you have such sweeping, structural disparities in educational attainment or economic wealth or even life expectancy? That’s really what you do when you study the effects of race, of racism, in institutional terms. That’s how critical race theory is, right? And so people get so hung up on that terminology that they miss the very solid intellectual approach to it that scholars, especially Black Studies scholars, have taken for some time.

And what’s an example of a way that racism has been embedded in institutions and policies?
Let’s look at voting, OK. I mean, first of all you have disenfranchisement of Black people. They’re being counted to give representation to certain areas, and our country has said no taxation without representation, which is ironic in and of itself. But even after Black people were freed, and the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, institutional racism created poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, all of these things. That morphs in the 20th century where you have redistricting and reapportionment show up in different ways. You see it now in voter ID laws. All of these really are different manifestations of institutional racism where the vote is concerned. 

Also look at wealth. For instance, when you talk about the GI Bill, which gave so many veterans a head start after World War Two. That was not afforded to Black veterans by and large: institutional racism. Redlining, obviously. The worst thing that you can purchase is a car, right? Drops in value 20% as soon as you drive it off the lot. The best thing you can purchase is land. But with redlining and a lot of other institutionally racist practices, Black people were denied access to the land. Even run back to the end of the Civil War, when ex-slaves were offered 40 acres and a mule; they didn’t get that. So Black people don’t have land ownership. That’s institutional racism.

 But there are so many examples of that that we can look at where you see Black people really, really behind. Even in education, right? Let’s — and I think it’s important to speak to that since we’re speaking about an educational matter — look at educational curriculum. When our educational curricula in America generally center on the European-descendent experience and tell the story from their point of view, that’s institutional racism. It even diminishes what other races contributed to the country and the world, or it completely writes them out of history. So, all of those things are examples of institutional racism.

The people who participate in institutional racism — are perpetuating it — are they always racist themselves?
No, no. Many of them… you don’t have to necessarily be a racist yourself to perpetuate racism, right? People have been socialized to believe certain things; they see it as the norm. So they perpetuate racism quite often without understanding that they’re doing it. I think this idea that you can be active or passive in the perpetuation of racism is a powerful one, you know? So if you’re, again, a Ku Klux Klanner, you’re active in it. But if you’re somebody who sits around and watches educational curricula go on as is, and you don’t do anything about it — you’re a school board member, you might not necessarily be a racist, but you’re allowing racism to flourish.

In the study of critical race theory, are there things addressed in that to instruct people on how to not perpetuate racism in institutions?
Well, I don’t know in particular. I mean that’s falling into a different area. The biggest thing is how institutions, how critical race theory frames institutional racism. And again, it is really, really, really important, Danielle, because this is, this does not get emphasized enough, the argument against critical race theory, that is a canard. That’s a diversion. And I’ve been teaching Black Studies for 25 years; I’ve never asked the question on a test to which critical race theory was the answer, all right? So that’s a canard. You can take away that term, and the intellectual practice is still there. Because the intellectual practice was there before the term itself was coined, you know? And most stories that I read, almost all of them, miss that point. I think the people who are behaving in institutionally racist ways right now, talking about legislators and others, they’re attacking critical race theory; they’re using that term in the same way that they use Black Lives Matter to attack racial equality. You know, it is, I think it’s the same thing. I don’t think these people have a problem with critical race theory, quite frankly. I think they have a problem with any educational practice that attacks white supremacy and calls it out for what it is. And that’s really, I mean, that is the crux of the argument that I’m always making with people when this comes up.

And what is the history of critical race theory, like what you were talking about before where it was already an area of academic study. And then how did it become the word, critical race theory?
A group of scholars basically put a title to an existing practice, but I don’t remember hearing about critical race theory until late ’80s, early ‘90s. And, you know, remember, I’m a Black Studies professor. It’s not a dominant term in Black Studies. It’s not like critical race theory is something we talk about every day, you know? Our discipline doesn’t revolve around critical race theory. That’s why I find this obsession with it right now very, very interesting.

In Black Studies, what do you talk about more of? Or do you just basically talk about institutional racism, it’s just not using the term?
Well, Black Studies doesn’t just talk about institutional racism either. I mean, we examine the whole of the Black experience. At UofL for instance, you might want to note this, the University of Louisville has one of the oldest Black Studies departments in the country. You know, the Department of Pan African Studies was founded in 1973, and it was very intentionally named Pan African Studies. So what we do is we study the totality of the African diasporic experience. Everything from the ancient, continental African experience, from Nubia and Egypt and areas like that, all the way to how Blacks contributed to architecture in Spain, right? And philosophy, sociology, economics, history — all of those things. So we don’t just sit around and talk about racism, you know. That’s not what Black Studies is about. Black Studies is a corrective measure that looks at Black contributions to the forward flow of the world; that’s it. So people who think we just sit around and, you know, beat up on white people all day in every class, you know, that’s simply not true.

What do you think might be the effect of — so in Kentucky, for example, there are two lawmakers who have introduced bill [requests] trying to ban some types of discussion about race in the classroom, which seem to be in response to concerns about critical race theory. So, one of the bill [requests] outlines what will be off limits, and it mentions teachings that include that the Commonwealth of the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist: What is the possible impact of those bills if they were to pass?
Remember, there are three lawmakers; they’re submitting two bills [Ed Note: Jones is correct]: one will affect pre-K-12 education, the other will affect higher ed, public colleges and universities in Kentucky. But look, this isn’t about critical race theory. This is about white supremacy. That’s what this is about. These lawmakers are, in effect, wanting the same skewed curricula that have always been taught to white children and others — which place white people at the center of the world, wrongfully — to continue to be taught as is. That’s what it’s about. So again, critical race theory is a diversion. This really is about white supremacy, that’s what it’s about: white intellectual supremacy in education, and they’re just flexing their muscles. That’s all. This isn’t that complicated; it’s really not that complicated. These people are behaving in an institutionally racist way. 

And, I don’t know if it’s been proven yet, but these bills are very similar to ones that have been passed in other places. These people didn’t write those bills. I think an organization like ALEC [the Americans Legislative Exchange Council] probably wrote these bills. And they’re getting passed in different places. And so it’s showing how pervasive institutional racism and white supremacy are, and it’s showing how powerfully the people who are still the perpetuators will fight to keep them going. So I avoid the canard. This is not about critical race theory. I guarantee you — you can print it — I guarantee you none of those three people in Kentucky — who is it? [state Rep. Joe] Fischer? I can’t remember their names right now.  I guarantee you: none of them could have an intelligent conversation about critical race theory, Black Studies or educational curricula where race is concerned. I invite them up to a debate any time.

 [Ed Note: Fischer introduced the K-12 bill and state reps Matt Lockett and Jennifer Henson Decker introduced the public colleges and universities bill, which also covers K-12 education. Reporting by NBC has revealed that the conservative ALEC and The Heritage Foundation organizations have been hosting calls and webinars with Republican lawmakers to talk about legislation limiting critical race theory in schools. But, the Republican lawmakers who have pre-filed Kentucky’s bills say that they have not had any contact with either organization about their legislation. Fischer said, “I filed BR 60 at the request of parents and citizens from the Ft. Thomas Independent School District. I have never read model legislation from ALEC or Heritage Foundation, nor have I participated in any webinars or phone conversations with those organizations. I did review the Idaho, Oklahoma and Tennessee laws on this subject before I submitted the final draft for pre-filing. Like every other bill draft, I worked closely with our talented LRC bill drafters. As an experienced lawyer and legislator, I take full responsibility for the language of every bill that I draft and file. 

In a joint statement, Henson Decker and Lockett said, in part, “It is true that similar bills have been filed in various states, and our bill draws from a few of those. It should come as no surprise that, once alerted to the radical ideology that BR 69 addresses, Americans across this nation are clamoring for help from their local school officials and from their state legislators. In Kentucky, legislators, parents, students, teachers, and taxpayers are anxious to oppose this hateful ideology on its merits through legislation.

“BR 69 was drafted, not because of any outside influence, but because Kentuckians are tired of anti-American racism — calling itself progressivism, critical-race theory, and a dozen other misleading labels — being taught to our children in our own schools. Of course, the other side — the people who believe in fomenting racial divisions in this country — wants to shift the debate by raising questions as to third-party involvement. They know they don’t have winning arguments and, failing on the merits, they seek to redirect the debate to meaningless side issues.”]

Let’s focus on the K-12 bill, are those things typically taught in K-12 schools?
No. No, they’re not. Because look, the majority of K-12 teachers in Kentucky and around the country were educated in K-12 systems in Kentucky and around the country. They’ve been taught the same flawed histories —  that place European people, you know, European triumphalism, at the center of the universe — as everybody else. And so what they do is unwittingly contribute to that skewed history and contemporary approach to the world, right? Because unless you at some point in your educational experience very deliberately tack toward intentional studies about race, you know, in your undergraduate experience or your graduate experience, you ain’t gonna get that. You’re not gonna get it. So these people can’t teach what they don’t know, you know? So in many ways they’re incredibly deficient. Now, that is not calling them racist; they’re another example of people who are perpetuating an institutionally racist system and institutionally racist educational system without even being aware that they’re doing so.

Do you think that any of these bills, like specifically the ones that address public universities and colleges, what kind of effect do you think that might have on your department, the Pan-African Studies Department?
Taken to their logical end, they will make what we teach illegal. They will make it illegal for us to teach what we teach. If this happens, I don’t know how you could legally justify the existence of a Black Studies department in Kentucky. Because we talk about race, we talk about institutional racism, you know, we talk about those things. And this, these types of bills would make that illegal. So that’s why I say again, I don’t think that’s a complicated thing. You know, that’s the reality of what they would do. They would, in effect, make it illegal to have serious conversations about race, institutional racism, and you know, the dark as well as the light part of American history.

In terms of on the K-12 level. Do you think it would just cut out the possibility of maybe some schools starting to talk more about institutional racism and looking at history from a less white supremacist point of view?
Yes. Yes, it would. It would not set up a situation but reaffirm a situation where we got white children by and large leaving our educational systems with false superiority complexes and non-white children leave with false inferiority complexes, because they never see themselves in the curricula, you know? And Kentucky better be careful, right, in areas that are passing these types of laws. Because this is just another peg, right, in this wall that Kentucky’s trying to build that reaffirms that it is just determined to remain a white ethnostate. And they might be successful. But, as the rest of the world moves forward, it’s gonna be left behind. Because if you are a place that is pushing that type of stuff, please understand, Black folk and others, they’re not coming to Kentucky. And the ones who were born here, the natives, are gonna try to get out as quickly as possible. So you think you got brain drain now, this is just another thing that’s going to add to it. So it’s gonna become a shrinking, white, dying state. Which maybe that’s what it already is.