By: Stephanie Turcios
A picture is truly worth a thousand words. Many of us have seen Jonathan Harris’ painting entitled Critical Race Theory (see the artwork here on Mr. Harris’ website) while scrolling on social media this year. The image is sending shock waves through the art world and is impressing the importance of Black history upon the global consciousness. While it often takes legal scholars pages of rhetoric to explain, Harris has captured the significance of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in a single painting. The image depicts a blond person painting over prominent Black American leaders – Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X with white paint.
Salient to Black History Month, Harris’ work depicts the danger of whitewashing history. Harris, like many black people in the U.S., assumed that Harriet Tubman was a well-known historical figure. However, during one of his shows at the Irwin House Gallery, a white woman noted that the painting was “a powerful piece” but asked why Harris chose to include Aunt Jemima with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was a serious question and an eye-opener to Harris. He questioned that if this woman doesn’t know who Harriet Tubman is, does she really understand the history of slavery and oppression that Harriet Tubman fought against.
Further, when asked why he painted Critical Race Theory, Harris told Artnet News that “Black people [are] questioning if our history [is] in jeopardy …[w]e only know what we are taught. My mind went to, ‘how far can this actually go?” His inquiry is in response to the recent backlash against CRT as an academic discipline. Since January 2021, 37 states, including Washington, have proposed legislation to restrict or outright ban teaching CRT in public schools. Harris further opined that “[i]f we don’t push back as these bills are getting passed, this painting could be the future.” To many black people, erasing our history threatens the understanding of our experiences in this country. Our history explains the issues of today and is critical to undoing the harm that persists.
But what is critical race theory?
Earlier this year, the American Bar Association published an article by Janel George, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, explaining CRT. CRT emerged as a subdiscipline of Critical Legal Studies (CLS) in the 1970s. CLS theorists departed from the traditional understanding that the law was a neutral force devoid of political or social considerations and instead posited that law was neither objective nor apolitical. Likewise, CRT theorists agree that the law is neither objective nor politically or socially neutral and that our legal system is instrumental in furthering racial inequality.
Founding theorists such as Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and many others ultimately reject the theory of color-blindness, the idea that racism stems from “a few bad apples,” and instead raise structural questions as to why racism persists despite decades of reform efforts. Professor Crenshaw notes that CRT is not a noun but a verb because it is an evolving theory that recognizes that race is a socially constructed concept that is structurally and systematically embedded in many of our institutions, including our legal system. CRT argues that systemic racism perpetuates racial inequality, evidenced by the lived experiences of people of color and other marginalized identities.
Conversely, opponents of CRT characterize the discipline as divisive. Christopher F. Rufo, an activist against CRT, argues that the discipline is nothing more than a reframing of identity-based Marxism that spreads anti-American ideology. Rufo, and opponents like him, fear that CRT will destabilize our institutions, which they see as “neutral, technocratic, and oriented towards broadly-held perceptions of the public good.” But is this a fair characterization of the theory? Is CRT teaching children to hate their country, or is it challenging us to think about the institutions that have perpetuated harm to people for centuries?
Why CRT matters.
The discipline of CRT does not share in the notion that destabilizing the law will stop racial injustice. As Professor George notes, CRT recognizes that although the legal system has historically been used to deepen racial inequality, it also has significant potential to help secure racial equality. We must shift our focus from reform of our institutions to examining the root causes of racial disparity and dismantling those causes through structural change.
In the New York Times, Mari Matsuda, a CRT founder and law professor at the University of Hawaii, explains the significance of the theory as follows: “I see it like global warming…[w]e have a serious problem that requires big, structural changes; otherwise, we are dooming future generations to catastrophe. Our inability to think structurally, with a sense of mutual care, is dooming us — whether the problem is racism, or climate disaster, or world peace.”
The beauty of art.
We live in a time where people are quick to speak and slow to listen, where nuances in arguments are lost, and the “all or nothing” mentality prevails. But the beauty of art is that in order to appreciate it, you must sit and reflect on it. You must pause, take a moment, and ask yourself: is Harris’ depiction of our future what we really want?