Critical Race Theory and Tacos

We’re in Austin. On Monday, we were having my 3-year-old daughter’s favorite Texas meal, bean dip tacos (think lots of melty cheese and sour cream). Someone mentioned the police, and Alma says, through bites of refried beans, “most policemen kill people.” To which my dad quickly responds, “no, Alma. Most police officers are really good people.”

I pause in my process of dipping a tortilla chip in queso to look between the two of them. “Um…Dad, no. That’s not how we talk about police in our family.” Bite of chip. “Um Alma, no. Most police officers go their entire career without killing people.”

My dad – “This is really disturbing to hear! Most police officers are good!”
Alma – “If they don’t kill people, then are most police officers good?”

No! And! But!

So this newsletter contains a few of my disjointed thoughts about critical race theory, police brutality, and how to talk about these topics with your kids, and with the people who talk to your kids, so you don’t do what I did – which was mumble incoherently about structure and agency and change the subject to everyone’s favorite book – Dragons Love Tacos.

I have two premises that inform pretty much my entire view on the critical race theory nonsense that’s happening right now. The first is that the GOP isn’t acting in good faith. They intentionally created a paper tiger, a Potemkin village, of an issue, knowing full well that critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12 classrooms. They then used it as conceptual slippage to advance an attack on all race and social justice work being done in institutions across the country – see this handy dandy guide distributed by the Texas GOP for “Identifying Critical Race Theory in the Classroom.”

The laws that GOP legislatures are passing across the country, what Timothy Snyder calls “memory laws,”  and are a reaction to the 1619 project.

One of the central tenets of the GOP justification behind the CRT laws is that (white) children are taught to feel bad about themselves because of slavery, racial inequality, and injustice.

If you’d like me to give a talk at your institution about the paradoxes of individualism in the GOP ideological canon, I’d be happy to. But for now, what I can’t stop thinking about is the unwillingness of Americans – from my dad to my daughter to legislators across the country – to think on a systemic rather than an individual level.

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When I moved to Lincoln and found myself teaching Race and Politics, I was stunned at the number of (white) students who told me they were scared of taking the class because they didn’t want to be labeled as racists. I get it – I really do – and so much of the class, especially my early attempts at it, were spent talking about whether Uncle Max was really a racist because he was such a nice guy.

So, second time around, I inverted the books we read. Instead of starting with reading Between the World and Me, which demands introspection and an individual focus, we switched things up and started the class focusing on structures. We read things like The Color of Law, The New Jim Crow, and other books that were externally focused. I pushed students to understanding the idea of “racism without racists” – that institutions, laws, and structures were designed in such a way as to produce unequal outcomes. Racism in this country isn’t dependent on white complicity, just on white indifference.

The final assignment in the class was something I called a “critical autoethnography,” where students connected their own experiences with race to the structures and institutions we’d studied in the class. They were able to see how their lives were shaped by structure. So white students wrote about how their parents had decided to move to suburbia “for the school districts” but they now understood how zoning and tax laws had created white flight in that area. Black students wrote about how this framing had given them new tools to interrogate why hourly employees “just so happened” to be people of color, and the managers “just so happened” to be white guys. What forces were acting to create those circumstances?

At no point was I interested in making them “feel bad” about these things. In fact, white guilt or white shame or feeling bad keeps the focus inward facing not outward facing. When my kids wallop each other or hurt each other’s feelings, we’ve taught them to check in with each other – “Are you ok? How can I help?” I’ve tried to stop saying “I feel so badly for doing xyz” and instead saying “what can I do to fix xyz.”

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So how do you talk about structure with kids? I’m not super invested in whether the cops that pointed assault rifles at homeless folks at Venice Beach are “good people” or “bad apples.” I’m with Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil – I’m sure that many of those cops hug their kids and go to church and are pillars of their community. I am invested in two things: first, not teaching my kids that a position of authority translates into trust of the individual (the legacy of sexual abuse by priests and Boy Scout Troop leaders and gymnastics coaches should put rest to that logic).

And second– structures constrain and enable behaviors. We should focus on passing good laws. Changing cultural norms. Having tough conversations about how history isn’t events but created structures that determine our present.

One of the GOP talking points is that we shouldn’t elevate individuals over groups. My suggestion is to reject the individual/group framing, and instead spend a lot of time contemplating how our lives are shaped by forces, and work to make those forces visible.

The events of the 20th century were largely shaped by good people feeling powerless in the face of institutions that were often made invisible. Our job is to color in the lines of the institutions so they can be made more visible, critiqued, and reformed, to ultimately become more just.

Alma is 3, and so our conversation hasn’t turned back to police yet – we’ve been focused on unicorns and dinosaurs lately. But I followed up with Cyrus on a car ride, and we talked about prison abolition for a bit. I get a lot of traction telling him stories about other countries – how in many other countries, cops don’t carry guns at all. How in many other countries, prisons aren’t really a thing, sentences are short, and the focus is on providing people the services they need to rejoin their families and fit into societies. It sounds like a fairy tale, but you need to be able to see another world in order to create it.

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A quick plug!

Next week, I’m launching Epilogue Editing and Consulting! Please, if you know anyone who could benefit from editing, research consultation, or writing services, pass on my website and send them my way. If you want to know more, let’s talk!

What we’re reading/watching/doing -

Not much, really. We’ve been dabbling in the Olympics, swimming three hours a day, trying not to panic about the Delta variant and unvaccinated little kids, trying to sell a house, buy a car, launch a business.

If you’re reading anything good, send it my way!

I also don’t know what the next issue will be about (probably COVID) so hit me up with ideas! Every time I write one of these, the emails, texts, and messages I get from you really make my week - so thanks for reading, sharing, and writing!