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Trump Is Attacking Critical Race Theory Because It Is a Force for Liberation

Critical race theory seeks to dismantle racism and all forms of oppression, says scholar Mari Matsuda.

University of Southern California (USC) students and area residents join protesters, clergy and labor allies on the USC campus in Los Angeles, California, on June 30, 2020, to demand the university take immediate steps to abolish its campus police force and reinvest those funds in affordable housing.

Trump and his administration are on the offensive against critical race theory and diversity training. Federal workers are currently banned from participating in anti-racism trainings, and Trump used the presidential debates to further denounce such trainings as “racist.”

The Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping that Trump issued on September 22, 2020, rejects the claim that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America,” and labels as “divisive concepts” such claims as “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” Indeed, the executive order rejects workplace diversity training, which it identifies as a form of “malign ideology.”

Critical race theory (CRT) was developed in the 1980s within the context of a critical cadre of Black legal scholars and scholars of color who deployed, and continue to deploy, powerful narrative writing and who pulled from their personal experiences to explicate and resist the problematic entanglement of the law and legal discourse as embedded within structures of white power.

Trump’s attacks on CRT are consistent with his attacks on the press, his intolerance for facts and truth, his rejection of critical consciousness itself, his rebuff of dissent, and his need to create scapegoats as a process for maintaining his predominantly white base. Yet, within a thriving democracy, critical thought, thoughtful dissent, and counter-hegemonic efforts and activism are crucial — the very lifeblood of an informed citizenry.

Prominent scholar Mari Matsuda is one of the founding voices of critical race theory and holds the distinction of being the first Asian American tenured law professor in the United States. She is a law professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii, and has published a number of books, including Where Is Your Body?: And Other Essays on Race, Gender, and the Law; Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment; and We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action. In this interview, Matsuda discusses the real goal of critical race theory, the struggle against anti-Asian attacks and how to envision, and work toward, a future of healing.

George Yancy: It is such a pleasure to speak with you in this format. Yet, the occasion is dire. Trump has attacked critical race theory, white privilege training and diversity training. He supports their characterization as “divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.” I am fairly certain that Trump has no idea what critical race theory means. As one of its original creators, briefly share with us just how essential critical race theory continues to be, especially at this moment in the U.S.’s history.

Mari Matsuda: Neither Trump nor his minions who drafted the executive order banning critical race theory have read a word of our work. Law journal articles have hundreds of footnotes. It takes work to read critical race theory, the kind of work they are not accustomed to. They have some vague sense that critical race theorists are anti-racist intellectuals. That is the basis of their attack. Their goal is to telegraph white tribalism: We share your anxiety about replacement and only we can defend you against all enemies. This is an old tactic that elites have used to keep power. First, invent an enemy. Then, proclaim yourself the faithful source of protection against that enemy while you pick people’s pockets.

Anyone who has actually read the work knows critical race theory is not about replacing white supremacy with Black supremacy, or any kind of supremacy. The goal of critical race theory is not to make white people feel guilty, oppressed, disregarded or disrespected. Nothing in my work does that. The stated goal of critical race theory is, first, to understand the concept of race: How was race as an idea developed and deployed? Second, CRT seeks to dismantle racism as part of a project of dismantling all forms of oppression. For me, this includes a lot of utopian work: imagining a world of mutual care and mutual respect. The idea that people seeking racial justice want to put down white people is a massive projection. We want a fair and just world for everyone — white folks included, obviously, since they have been integral to progressive struggle since the founding of the republic.

Speak to what motivated your conceptual and activist engagement with critical race theory. I am often motivated by a blues sensibility as I write about racism in this country. I find myself having to touch the pain and the anger caused by racism, but never allowing it to have the last word. My sense is that this blues motif and the jazz motif of improvisation motivates your work and passion.

The jazz musician and theorist Vijay Iyer talks about embodied cognition, and you and I, George, talked recently about the collective experience of pain, and the transcendence of that pain, in the blues. I often ask my students, “How did reading this make you feel?” when we encounter a critical race theory text. They tell me that this is not a question they are used to. Much of standard education is about getting us to shut down that feeling of unsafety that lodges in the gut. Just forge ahead as if nothing we are discussing here is connected to the disregard of your humanity. For many people of color in the academy, listening to our bodies and writing our way out of places where we felt trapped and assaulted was the source of our intellectual work.

When I was a law student back in the ’70s, I helped organize the local chapter of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which came out of the “Free Angela Davis” movement. The National Alliance proclaimed, as one of its goals, “Outlaw the Klan.” At that time, I was also volunteering for my local American Civil Liberties Union affiliate. This created a contradiction between what I knew had to happen to protect people I cared about, and what prevailing ideology said could not happen. The [Ku Klux] Klan was gunning down labor organizers in the street. The material conditions were fueling a sense of personal frustration, that I worked out, eventually, in the book, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, written with founding critical race theorists Charles Lawrence, Richard Delgado and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw.

While Asian Americans are by no means homogenous, do you see stereotypes of Asian Americans continuing to abound in this country, as you argued in your 1996 book, Where Is Your Body? Do you think that it has increased given Trump’s unabashed xenophobia? Just think here of Trump’s appellation, “China virus” to refer to COVID-19.

Trump has an intuitive grasp of the fear of the foreign as a driver of right-wing populism in the U.S. He has deployed it with a snarl, and this has increased violence against Asian Americans. My family now extends to the fifth generation in the U.S. I have Chinese friends that are in their seventh generation here. These are deeper roots than many of the MAGA folks, but our kids still get “Go back where you came from” hollered at them from passing cars, or compliments for fluent use of the English language. The deployment of “foreign” in maintaining a system under which the many toil for the benefit of the few is clear if you look at Asian American history. Using the “Chinese threat” to generate violent pogroms, to keep white workers focused on the wrong target, goes back to the 19th century. I would add that this history is not taught at most elite institutions. In 2020, students are still in struggle to institute ethnic studies at Harvard.

Given your status as the first tenured Asian American law professor in the U.S., how did you resist and reject images that are designed to render you static and that attempt to denude you of your complexity?

Just by standing in the front of the room and talking, while everyone takes notes, an Asian woman disrupts expectations about who should speak with authority. When you are objectified, taking the subject position is a radical act. The backlash is really quite astonishing. Ask any Asian woman who has tried speaking against power. It generates a disproportionate rage, a terrorized response, when the “object” speaks. What allowed me to survive that rage is knowing that my validation has never come from the institutions where I get my paycheck. My worth is determined by my communities in struggle. If I am useful to my home communities, and if I am a useful ally to my extended family in the beautiful “another world is possible” coalition, then my work has value. Keeping clear about whom I will allow to judge me, whose criticism I need, keeps me sane. This is especially true when you tread on difficult ground: What is my responsibility, as the descendant of immigrants, to support Indigenous sovereignty struggles? What does the political goal of “no borders” mean for native Hawaiians holding allegiance to the Nation of Hawai’i, who are struggling to reinstate their stolen country? I have found that working to build solidarity leads to more complicated, nuanced and incisive analysis.

You ask about retaining our complexities: We are our most complicated selves when we are engaged political actors. The level of self-knowledge, the self-criticism, the openness to revision, the layers of understanding that work in coalition-building requires, takes us out of little, defended spaces. It brings us onto the open plain where the wind blows free and we’re able to consider what we can become.

This country has failed miserably in terms of effectively addressing so many existentially important issues — racism, COVID-19 and the despicable handling of immigration. I’m also thinking here of children being put in cages or breastfeeding babies being torn from their mothers by border patrol agents. Out of these catastrophes, how do you envision a future of healing?

I believe, both from the empirical evidence and as a matter of political strategy, that most humans are other-regarding beings who seek joy and safety in community. Most of us feel pain watching a screaming child pulled from a parent’s arms. We will make the road to a kinder world by finding every way we can to nurture our collective best impulses. We have to create experiences, now, that give people the feeling of joy that comes from working with others on something of value — whether that is a collective art practice, or a Black Lives Matter march, or a neighborhood bike repair shop, or one of those academic panels where the good ideas are flying so fast you can’t write it all down.

We have to live like we want all humans to live: supporting one another and seeing what each person adds to our own experience of being sentient on a wondrous planet. I am not a dreamer about this — there is hard work to do, the work that organizers do, going door to door and talking to people very unlike themselves, people taught to fear. We will take musicians with us, and if the music is irresistible, the fear will give way to open doors.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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