Black students sit down strike
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Black students line the counter of a dime store in protest for the stores refusal to serve them. Some 150 students staged the "sit down strike" after the store refused to serve them. The lunch counter was quickly closed by the store manager.
The nation is currently engulfed in a debate about critical race theory, a social science that emerged in the mid-1970s that analyzes how racism has been used as a system to disempower people of color. The view has been popularized by people like Ibrahim X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, whose books How to Be an Antiracist and White Fragility mainstreamed the idea that racism is systemic and must be combatted constantly and vigorously, at every level of society. More recently, there's been some pushback, too: Republicans across the nation have been making attempts to ban this theory from public schools, pointing out that its practical application has led to the demonization of white students.

The problem with critical race theory is much deeper than that, though. It stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the complexities of our social and political realities, reducing them to a single factor: racism. But when it comes to how race and power intersect, black history is far, far richer than critical race theorists allow.

Many in the critical race theory camp view black people as uniquely disempowered by America's history of racism. Racism "has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service," write several critical race theory scholars, including Kimberle Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda in Words that Wound. "Our history calls for this presumption."

But our history actually tells a different story, too, one of empowerment through struggle. In the racist Jim Crow South, segregation forced African Americans to form their own businesses, universities, legal funds and other civil society institutions. "The more cut off black communities became from white communities and the more that white businessmen refused to cater to black customers, the more possible it became for enterprising black entrepreneurs to create viable businesses of their own," The Henry Ford Foundation's Donna Braden writes.

Black-owned barbershops, cafes, motels, taverns and other small-scale, local businesses began to proliferate in the Jim Crow South. Black-owned newspapers, churches, banks, construction firms, radio stations and other enterprises flourished, too, in the vacuum for black business created by white racism. These business owners were following the lead of Booker T. Washington, who preached economic independence and progress through education and entrepreneurship as a pathway to freedom. And they were catering to a growing black middle class the prized the dignity their independence gave them, even while white America denied it to them.

This economic empowerment was revolutionary, and not just at the personal or communal level. It was critical to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Access to monetary funds and an active network across black-owned newspapers, churches, and legal defense funds housed in organizations like the NAACP gave black communities the economic leverage and political power required to successfully boycott bus companies and drive down their revenues in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Some 40,000 bus riders participated in the boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. This would have been impossible if black churches hadn't acted as institutional centers for collecting money to compensate for the losses, and if black-owned cab companies didn't agree to charge black riders ten cents to ride, the same cost of bus fare.

In other words, it was in the systemically racist South that money and political power accrued in black communities — with astonishing results.

This means that racism simply cannot be blamed as the sole or primary reason for disparities in access to money and power; the historical record shows that the social reality is more complicated than that reductive claim, and that when faced with much worse racism than today, the black community in the South was able to overcome, and in many cases thrive.

To understand the point, contrast this not only with today but with the plight of black Americans in the North at the same time. In both the North and the South, the U.S. government attempted to cripple black Americans through state-mandated racism. In the South, this manifested in Jim Crow laws which enforced racial segregation across all public facilities and social services. In the North, it took the form of redlining, and public housing laws that prohibited whites from selling homes to blacks and barred black Americans from living in public housing with white Americans. Coming off the heels of the Great Depression, this meant that many black communities were housed in underfunded, overcrowded ghettos which deteriorated over time.

Yet despite attempts to politically and economically disenfranchise blacks in both regions of the country, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights establishment found it more difficult to organize black Americans in the North than in the South. In fact, after the Civil Rights act and the Voting Rights were passed in 1964 and 1965, the movement completely disintegrated in the North.

Why did the South provide more fertile grounds for black organizing? In cities like Chicago, impoverished and demoralized black Americans simply could not support a movement that "relied so heavily on a self-sustaining network of black institutions, a solidly rooted petty-bourgeois culture, and the pervasive influence of the church," writes historian Christopher Lasch in his book The True and Only Heaven. "The movement sought to give black people a new dignity by making them active participants in the struggle against injustice, but it could not succeed unless the materials of self respect had already been to some extent achieved."

A spirit of enterprise, combined with the moral vision of the church, imbued Southern black Americans with a sense of inherent dignity and self-worth that was missing in many communities in the North. As a result, the spiritual doctrine against resentment and vengeance as embodied by nonviolent agitation against segregation in the South fell on deaf ears in the North, because so many black Americans in the North lacked a sense of self-worth to begin with.

"The Negroes of Chicago have a greater feeling of powerlessness than any I ever saw," Hosea Williams, Dr. King's chief field lieutenant, said after discovering the ghettos of Chicago. "They don't participate in the governmental process because they're beaten down psychologically. We're used to working with people who want to be freed."

These differences between the North and the South shows that racism is not an invincible bogeyman. It's not an all-powerful force permeating everything and keeping all black people down. The opposite is true: It can be brought to kneel by a strong, robust, and vigorous black community.

And it's this complexity that critical race theorists fail to grapple with. On the contrary, they are committed to the opposite view: In Words that Wound, Crenshaw and Matsuda write that the goal is not to extract racism from things like traditional values or established property interests; "[i]nstead we ask how these traditional interests and values serve as vessels of racial subordination."

But again, this approach has much to learn from the historical record of how black Americans overcame the indignities of the Jim Crow South. It was precisely traditional values like free enterprise, Protestantism, and those selfsame property interests that created black wealth in spite of white supremacy, proving that no matter how cruel and corrupt, institutionally enshrined discrimination was simply no match for the power and resiliency of a "forward-looking, upward-striving people."

You can see this kind of resiliency in the description the late, great jazz critic Albert Murray gave of dancing or "swinging" in jazz. He called it the ultimate achievement, the highest thing that person can do: "I submit that there is nothing that anybody in the world has ever done that is more civilized or sophisticated than to dance elegantly, which is to state with your total physical being an affirmative attitude toward the sheer fact of existence."

None of this is to dismiss the cruel racism and bigotry that has scourged our nation's history; nor should one ignore how it has played a role in shaping social and political realities on the ground. But we should be cautious in overemphasizing this factor in the name of social justice. Such a move threatens to distort our collective understanding of black life and reduce it to nothing more than an endless cycle of degradation and despair.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We should reject critical race theory's social gospel not only from a wish to see no one — including white people — dehumanized because of their skin color but also as an affirmation of the enduring power, beauty, and triumph of black American life, despite the tragedies we have been made to bear.

Chloé Valdary is the founder of Theory of Enchantment, a compassionate antiracism firm based in New York City.