A must-read. Dr. James Lindsay’s journey mirrors my own. I began studying Critical Race Theory in 2013, and it truly does “awaken” one to race in profound ways. The solutions and prescriptions it proffers, however, are destructive and divisive.
Something to consider: In the 19th and early 20th century, the belief that there were different “races” of Europeans was popular. What if Critical Race Theory came into being in 1910? Would America be better or worse off? “Whiteness” is 100% a construct, and has harmed “non-white” populations to varying degrees since its invention several hundred years ago. But what if CRT deconstructed it at the dawn of the 20th century, and prompted instead the solidification of various European “races” that “existed” at the time?
In his excellent essay, “The Racism Treadmill,” Coleman Hughes notes: “A cursory glance at the mean incomes of census-tracked ethnic groups shows Americans of Russian descent out-earning those of Swiss descent, who out-earn those of British descent, who out-earn those of Polish descent, who out-earn those of French descent in turn.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a single soul on the street who is aware of these disparities – I certainly wasn’t aware of them until I read Hughes’ essay. Why? “Whiteness,” for all of its great many harms, (the discussion of race necessitates ample use of scare quotes) has been a boon for those designated as such because it grants their personhood primacy over their ethnic background. For all of the exclusion that Whiteness has engendered, we take for granted how inclusive it has been to the dozens of ethnicities afforded entry. It allows its “members” to hold on to their heritage as tightly as they wish, or let it go entirely.
It can be difficult to appreciate how hard the lines were drawn around European ethnic identities in America until very recently, and what an unprecedented, ahistorical accomplishment the dissolution of those lines has been. But what if they were never dissolved? What if the Swiss were denoted as “Anglo-Saxon adjacent” or Russians as “complicit in propping up English supremacy.” What if the Irish and Italians were, from the moment of their arrival, described as “marginalized” and “oppressed” groups, even as they climbed our cultural and socioeconomic ladders? What if not considering a Pole’s ethnic heritage during every interaction were considered racist in and of itself, or even “violence”?
Thankfully, Critical Race Theory did not come about in 1910, and today I have white friends I’ve known for decades and I literally have no idea what their ethnic makeup is. Why? I don’t care. It’s not that I wouldn’t care if they told me, it’s just… I never think about it. Ever. It would be akin to wondering how much keratin was in their fingernails. Strange. Obsessive.
And that feature of “Whiteness” is absolutely a privilege. So as America becomes increasingly diverse, what should we do? How should we approach race, if not through the lens of Critical Theory?
Well – you know “Medicare for All”?
Let’s do Whiteness for All.
A Civic Sort of Whiteness.
I’ll elaborate. “Whiteness” as a category has expanded greatly over time (See: Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People” or Noel Ignatiev’s “How the Irish Became White”)
As the category has expanded, so has its accompanying and all-important feature: the Scope of Indifference. It’s hard to understate how crucial in-group indifference is to the stability of “Whiteness” as a category. Flipping the switch from “I care” to “I don’t care” has been THE key step when admitting past ethnicities.
Let’s take Italians. “White” Americans used to care about Italians a whole lot. They cared so much they lynched 11 of them in 1891 – the largest single lynching in American history.
Later, they became white. And now, if your Grandmother was Italian – like, who cares? Don’t get me wrong, it’s neat! Italy has a rich, storied history, and its culture, traditions, and cuisines have made America more interesting.
But how many Americans would be either upset or ecstatic at the idea of an Italian-American neighbor? How many would *care.* Would the phrase “My great grandfather Giuseppe immigrated here in 1913” move the needle for anyone?
I’m sure someone out there cares, but you’ll struggle to find them.
Most people simply don’t. And there is so much freedom in that – in others’ benevolent indifference. Because most times “white” Americans have cared enough about what someone’s race or ethnicity is, it hasn’t gone great for the ones being “cared” about.
“Sharing a water fountain? Oh you sure as hell better believe I care!”
“I CARE about who my daughter marries!”
But when a French-American brings home her Swedish+Spanish+Hungarian-American girlfriend, the response upon hearing of their ethnic background is usually a polite variation of,
“Who the hell cares?”
And that’s the Big Problem with Critical Race Theory it wants you to care about race, a LOT. It wants you to care so much that it’s all you think about when you meet someone new, and it wants you to retroactively care about the race of everyone you’ve ever known. It wants you to think about it all the time, nonstop. Critical Race Theory wants “white” people to care about how much they’re talking when they’re in a group with “People of Color” because they may be “taking up space” and “silencing” PoC “voices” if they talk too much. It wants PoCs to care about what their white friends do or don’t do, say or don’t say, because every action and word is loaded with power dynamics that either support or dismantle White Supremacy.
I don’t blame you if this sounds exhausting. Because it is!
It is easier, simpler, and far more equitable to not care. Let’s be absolutely clear: American history is filled with racial and ethnic injustices. But these injustices were perpetrated by people who really gave a shit about something as fundamentally inconsequential as the amount of protein in your toenails.
Let’s not care. This does *not* mean turning a blind eye to injustice. Just the opposite. Some examples:
- Who cares if the school is majority black? It deserves the same resources as any other school.
- Who cares if the new employee is ethnically Chinese? He seems like a cool dude.
- Who cares if our patient is Guatemalan? Check her symptoms and run diagnostics like you would anyone else.
- Who cares if the neighborhood is Puerto Rican? They’re as entitled to safe streets and clean water as the Irish-American enclave a mile away.
The real historical – and lingering – racial inequities in our society will not be rectified by treating “non-white” ethnicities as separate and unique species deserving of special distinction, because that exact, broken thinking created red-lining, miscegenation laws – and other countless, brutal horrors.
A liberal society’s ideal is built upon treating its citizens as individuals, and rendering immutable factors – like race – immaterial, as frivolous and unimportant as keratin content. A liberal society falls short when it does not – apply this ideal to all citizens equally.
Critical Race Theory is not the way forward. Benevolent indifference is.
How should we treat our fellow citizens, of any color? Frederick Douglass said it best: “let him alone and mind your own business.” (28/x) In other words – the way “white” people have treated each other for some time now.
We have to stop caring *about* each other.
You’ll be surprised how much we’ll care for each other once we do.