Adam Serwer on Critical Race Theory and the Very American Fear of Owning Up to Our Racist Past and Present
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
Atlantic staff writer and author Adam Serwer joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to discuss how opposition to critical race theory aligns with our country’s historical resistance to acknowledging the truth and changing. Serwer reads from and discusses his new book, The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America, out this week.
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The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America • “The Cruel Logic of the Republican Party, Before and After Trump,” New York Times • “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” The Atlantic
Excerpt from a conversation
with Adam Serwer:
Whitney Terrell: One of the things I really love about your book is the way that you bring history to play against these contemporary things and show repeated patterns that have happened over and over again in the country, in the way that we intellectually and in our civic discussion, repeat these issues and strategies. You have an excellent essay in the book about the Redemption period in American history. And so, first, for our listeners in Florida, who will no longer be able to be taught about the Redemption if Governor Ron DeSantis has his way, maybe you could frame that period out for us so we know exactly what it is, before we go on to talk about how it relates to what’s happening today.
Adam Serwer: Redemption is how historians refer to the end of Reconstruction, and Reconstruction in American history is a long, maligned period during which Republicans in particular tried and failed to create a true multiracial democracy by extending the vote to Black men. This was in the 19th century, so women could not vote yet, including Black women, and that was actually a source of substantial controversy among abolitionists, when the 15th amendment was adopted and it did not extend the vote to women. But the idea is basically that the Democratic Party, which was the party of white supremacy and their paramilitary allies, violently overthrew the Reconstruction governments by preventing Black people from voting, both violently and through mere intimidation. And the result was the ultimate disenfranchisement of Black men in the aftermath of Reconstruction and the imposition of white supremacist rule in the south until the mid 20th century.
And this period is very important because subsequent historians and a particular group of elite white historians at Columbia University, who are referred to as the Dunning School, basically reinforced the white supremacist version of history, and in doing so they justified Jim Crow segregation. The historian Eric Foner refers to this as a cornerstone of the edifice of segregation because they were saying Black men were not ready for the vote, and it was a mistake for Republicans to extend it to them. And this reimposition of white supremacy was actually the South’s natural leaders returning to their proper place of things. The idea that the United States truly belongs to white people, and that they should be allowed to be in charge in perpetuity because it’s ultimately their country is a very dangerous idea. It’s the idea that has killed more Americans than anything else in our history. And it continues to be a part of the fabric of our political life, unfortunately.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of the most interesting phrases that you used in this book, that I felt named this kind of American historical obliviousness so well, was “goldfish memory.” One of the scariest things in reading this book was also the way you foretell how Trump is defeated. But does this mean a victory for those who oppose white supremacy? And in the Redemption essay, it seems very clearly not. A lot of people are mocking or laughing at the oafishness and inaccuracy of the statements that Republican leaders are making about critical race theory, but the Redemption was very successful, as you point out. And in the essay, which you wrote in 2016, you wondered whether or not we were headed for a second Redemption. I wonder now whether you think we were, and if this 2021 CRT debate is an example of that, or if there are other examples?
AS: There’s absolutely a backlash to both what Matt Yglesias called “the great awokening”—the increasing racial liberalism of white college graduates in parts of the country—and the George Floyd protests. And the CRT debate is part of [that backlash]. But, talk about goldfish memory, this is also an argument we’ve been having for a long time. Are racial inequalities the result of natural differences in ability are they a result of government policy? And history says very clearly that they’re the result of government policy. But there is a strong impulse, especially if you make it personal, nobody likes to be told that they have unearned advantages that have helped them get where they are. Some people are better with that than others. But when you’re told that it seems very personal, it sounds like people are telling you that you didn’t work hard, or you don’t deserve what you have.
And so the CRT debate has taken those contours as a way of personalizing what is ultimately a criticism of the American government and the way that it built the white middle class at the expense of Black Americans, which is a matter of historical record, and which is one of the Democratic Party’s more unfortunate legacies, in terms of segregating their early public programs associated with the New Deal in a way that perpetuates inequality to this day. But this argument is ultimately, do we do something to fix that? And the people on who are demonizing critical race theory are not attacking this legal theory so much as they are arguing that these disparities are not something that the state should address, because they’re things that have happened naturally, as a result of the market or natural differences in ability, and it would be unfair and tyrannical for this state to try and remedy them.
One of the one of the key examples of this is 2013, the Shelby County decision in the Supreme Court. John Roberts says, the South is changed, racism is over and we don’t need section five of the Voting Rights Act anymore. And the immediate result of that was that voting restrictions swept all these Republican states, where, in some cases, state legislatures were saying, when we pass these laws, the Democrats are not going to be able to win anymore because they only win by fraud. We have been having this argument for a long time, and we know that people make this argument that these state policies that are meant to remedy discrimination are no longer needed. And when we take them away, the result is, in fact that discrimination gets reimposed, and particularly in the realm of voting in order to prevent particular groups from participating fully in American democracy. So the terms are sort of new, but in fact, we’ve been arguing about this forever.
WT: At the top of the show, we read from a rule that a state board in Florida has put out at the behest of Governor Ron DeSantis, saying that you’re not allowed to teach the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white person. I wrote a book in 2005 about the use of racial covenants in Kansas City where I live, where, written into housing deeds, it said you cannot sell this house to Negroes. And the most important real estate company in the city had used those covenants to segregate the city. It’s very hard to argue if you look at those covenants that there wasn’t something happening that was systematic that was creating racism. So there’s a weird thing about this argument where it has to avoid the actual substance of the thing that it’s trying to discuss, right?
AS: Yeah. They have these clauses in Texas, too, where they say, you know, you’re not allowed to let a Black person live in this dwelling unless they’re a servant. We were not a full multiracial democracy until 1965, until the Voting Rights Act guaranteed the right to vote for all Black Americans in the South, where previously it had been denied. But again, what this is really about is, if the state created these inequalities then the state should fix them, and people do not want the state to fix them. I have not read the Florida law, so I can’t judge it myself, but a rule that would say you are not allowed to portray racism as a systemic force is a rule that says you are actually not allowed to teach American history accurately. It’s just a fact. We had local, state and federal laws that discriminated on the basis of race, and we had them for a very long time, and they built the society that we currently live in. It doesn’t mean we have to be like that forever. And there’s an irony here.
One of the frequent talking points against racial egalitarianism, it taking form in the anti-CRT thing is that the people who are putting these arguments forth believe America is intrinsically racist, but the whole point is that they’re saying America does not have to be racist, it can choose a different path. It’s actually the people who are trying to keep people from learning about this, who are insisting on maintaining the country’s present course, and these racial disparities. So there’s a bit of an irony here in that the people who are accused of being critical race theorists—which has just become an umbrella term for believing that racism still shapes American life—are actually the people who are trying to make things better, and if they did not believe that things could be better, they wouldn’t be making these arguments to begin with.
WT: About that repeating discussion, you also mentioned in the book that term political correctness. I feel like political correctness is, like critical race theory, a placeholder for the same kind of argument that we’re talking about here. And you write, “From a different vantage point, what Trump’s supporters refer to as political correctness is largely the result of marginalized communities gaining sufficient political power to project their prerogatives onto society at large.” That is what’s happening. The company that I was talking about in Kansas City had their name removed from a fountain, because Black leaders in the city who were on the parks board, hey, we have enough political power to not do this right now. And that is what’s upsetting here, that people are understanding and believing and understanding the concept that race has shaped American life over time.
AS: A couple things have happened. One is that there are obviously more elected officials of color. That doesn’t mean it’s not still disproportionately white, but it is getting more diverse than it previously hadn’t been. And in 2008, that election and the election of Barack Obama in particular, led to a lot of newsrooms diversifying their staff. And as a result, there was a rapid change in perspective. Suddenly you had all these Black writers who were writing about Black things and writing about them as Black people. It didn’t mean that they all agreed, but it did mean that they were giving a different perspective from what you would typically get from a newsroom that was almost entirely white, or made up of people who went to Ivy League schools. I think both of those things, from the right, it looks like the culture changed extremely rapidly and you don’t know why, and that’s very alarming.
One example I typically give is how Barack Obama’s position on same sex marriage in 2008 and 2009 would be considered horrible bigotry today. And it hasn’t been that long—12 years. For people whose religious faith tells them that same sex marriage is wrong, that’s pretty scary for them. Because in 2004, the overwhelming majority of the country was on their side, and then six years later, it was completely in the other direction.
I think something similar is happening with the integration of a lot of these elite spaces, in part as a result of Barack Obama’s election, things changed very fast. And I think a lot of people really didn’t like that. They didn’t like how quickly people suddenly were able to shift the terms of the debate to where someone like Robert E. Lee, a figure who was revered in a bipartisan fashion for many, many decades, is being re-evaluated as the leader of the army for a slave empire, who literally, when he invaded Pennsylvania, kidnapped free Black people and sold them into slavery, refused to exchange Black troops for his own white Confederate troops because he considered those captured union Black troops to be “contraband.” This is not a person who should be celebrated. It’s a man who took up arms against his country to defend the institution of human bondage.
But at one point, he was someone who everybody thought of as a great guy. And when we talk about political correctness, people are expressing anxiety about those things changing very rapidly and not wanting to be on the wrong side of those arguments. And also not wanting to feel the social anxiety of dealing with rapidly changing standards that you don’t fully understand. But ultimately, as I say in that essay, political correctness is a function of power, it’s not a function of truth. Robert E. Lee was the same person he was 80 years ago, as he is when we’re talking about him now. What’s changed is who is talking about him and the way that we’re talking about him.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope. Photograph of Adam Serwer by the Shorenstein Center, Harvard University.