As we all spend our lives trapped inside our own perceptions, seeing what things look like for someone else is a real gift, both as a way to broaden our understanding of the world, but also to allow us to reflect on our own experiences having had the benefit of this more expansive view.
One of the ways to achieve this is by assuming a “critical lens” as a way of looking at the world through a particular point of view. I always envisioned it as literally putting on a different set of glasses. If I examine a set of events through the lens of this other idea, what do those things look like?
My most profound early experience with a critical lens came with reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which takes Winston Churchill’s (perhaps apocryphal) quote “History is written by the victors,” and turns it upside down. The triumphant story of technological advancement of the Industrial Revolution in America looks a bit different when it focuses on the people who were literally killed in the process, as the robber barons amassed previously inconceivable wealth.
I didn’t become an anti-capitalist, but I did have a fresh appreciation for how difficult questions require different lenses to see the answers more clearly.
One of those questions is: Given that the 13th Amendment and later initiatives like the Civil Rights Act have provided equality under the law to Black people in the United States, why do they, on average, still lag behind in terms of things like educational outcomes and building wealth?
One of the lenses available to try to answer this question is critical race theory, which focuses on the idea that racism is systemic in the country’s institutions and that those institutions maintain the dominance of white people. Critical race theory has been positioned as some kind of boogeyman coming for white children, but the truth is that it is a set of ideas that can be understood, discussed and applied, nothing for any thinking person to be afraid of.
In the service of advancing this discussion we have a new book, “On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters & Why You Should Care” by Victor Ray, an accomplished sociologist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
I would call this highly readable book a primer on critical race theory, but that would sell it short because reading it is like having a conversation with a wise and perceptive professor who both understands his subject and anticipates the questions his audience might have.
When I finished Chapter 3 on “colorblind racism” and immediately thought, “but what about all the progress we’ve clearly made?” I turned the page and saw the title of chapter four, “racial progress,” and the opening epigraph from Malcolm X, which starts, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches, and pull it out six, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound the knife made.”
Ray then goes on to show all the real and disturbing ways progress has been reversed, including schools steadily resegregating since the 1980s, and an expanding wealth gap between Black and white Americans.
The attacks on critical race theory in the aftermath of the protest marches following the murder of George Floyd can be seen as its own form of reversing progress.
Ray makes his case for why critical race theory can and should be used as a tool to better understand racial inequities in our society. He’s offering one lens that may help some see more clearly. The reader can come to their own conclusion.
Those who attack critical race theory without bothering to understand it are choosing willful blindness.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin
2. “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
3. “Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead
4. “The Netanyahus” by Joshua Cohen
5. “Sleepwalk” by Dan Chaon
— Lisa T., Chicago
A lot of very recently released books here, which almost always makes me go back at least a few years to find a book that deserves more attention, like “Mister Monkey” by Francine Prose.
1. “The Dark Hours” by Michael Connelly
2. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari
3. “The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War” by Malcolm Gladwell
4. “Bad Actors” by Mick Herron
5. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles
— Michael P., Glenview
For Michael, I’m going with a somewhat unusual crime novel that also invokes history and nature, “One Foot in Eden” by Ron Rash.
1. “Remarkably Bright Creatures” by Shelby Van Pelt
2. “This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub
3. “March” by Geraldine Brooks
4. “Oh, William!” by Elizabeth Strout
5. “The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk
— Nancy P., Chicago
I feel like Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night,” a novel of two people finding comfort in each other when they both are past the point they thought such a thing was a possibility, will be a balm to Nancy.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to email@example.com.