The year is 2000. Extraterrestrials arrive on earth. They offer the United States gold, safe nuclear power, and several other technologies that will obliterate poverty and violence. In exchange for these commodities, the aliens want every Black citizen in the country. The United States government has five days to make its choice.
This is the beginning of Derrick Bell’s 1992 short story called “The Space Traders.” It’s a story that has lost neither its capacity to offend nor its potential to awaken White Americans to the realities of systemic racism in White American culture. In the story, both the White government and the general population lean toward accepting the terms of the trade.
Some modest resistance springs up, especially in the American Jewish community. But that resistance is quickly suppressed by the FBI. The Supreme Court upholds the legality of a national referendum to decide the issue. The referendum will amend the United States constitution to induct Black citizens into a “special service” – a draft.
The referendum takes place by telephone vote. It passes with a seventy percent majority. Black citizens are captured by US military forces. They are herded into the alien ships. The extraterrestrials deliver the promised goods in exchange. The story ends with twenty million Black men, women and children leaving on the alien ships – bound by chains and each wearing a single undergarment.
Victor Ray rehearses Bell’s story in his 2022 book, Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Ray reminds us that Bell’s account is a testimony to the systemic, enduring, and deadly character of racism in the United States and the Western world. “Bell’s aliens have always been here,” Ray writes, “It is only a slight exaggeration (and a fair one at that) to say that the history of American public policy can be told as a series of trades on the value of Black life” (page 70).
Ray notes that he wrote the first draft of this work “in a three-month sprint, attempting to outrun the anti-critical race theory laws spreading across the United States” (page 125). While Ray didn’t win that race, he has produced a concise, readable, and contemporary summary of the axioms and conclusions of CRT. If you are someone who would like to know what CRT actually is (as opposed to what it is often portrayed to be), this book will be a helpful read.
I find Ray’s discussion especially timely in our current political moment. Public conversation is consumed these days with talk about the potential “death of democracy.” I don’t think these concerns are exaggerated or overblown. However, Ray’s work reminds me that this death of democracy, if it happens, will not affect all citizens equally. This disparate effect is a direct outcome of systemic racism and can be predicted based on the tenets of CRT.
Ray quotes Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their book, How Democracies Die. They remind us, as Ray notes, that “the periods of greatest bipartisan agreement in the United States happened during eras when Black rights were explicitly suppressed. America has been a functioning multiracial democracy,” Ray continues, “only since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Prior to that,” he observes, “the American political system was, at best, selectively democratic” (page 68, my emphasis).
“Selectively democratic” – this is the most likely outcome of any death of democracy in the United States in the near term. If history is a guide, then democracy is unlikely to die for white people. Instead, we are likely to witness some real-world application of “The Space Traders.” Will we privileged White people hand over Black, Brown, Asian, Jewish, and/or Queer citizens in order to keep our own privilege? That was the outcome of the three-fifths compromise in the United States constitution. It was the foundation of the Jim Crow regime. These data points predict that it could be the outcome once again.
I am sure this sounds stridently alarmist to many White readers. Yet, if CRT is an accurate analysis of American history and practice, this is what we White people have been doing in one way or another for five centuries. That analysis stands at the heart of CRT. And that is why it is treated with such panicked disgust by many White people.
“Critical race theory doesn’t want to destroy America,” Ray writes, “but it does want to squarely reckon with the way American racism has destroyed lives” (page xxvii). CRT is not Marxism smuggled into American classrooms. It is not a way to teach White students to hate themselves or their heritage or their country. It is not a way to engage in “reverse racism” and to “persecute” the innocent White minority. It is not ideology dressed up in historical fiction.
These are criticisms lodged against CRT in the popular press and in state legislatures. The goal of these criticisms, however, is not protection of “The Truth,” no matter what proponents might say. The goal of these criticisms and the initiatives they represent is the sustaining of white ignorance of racial history and reality.
“Racial ignorance is central to the current moral panic,” Ray writes, “but as a number of scholars have shown, some white Americans work hard to maintain their ignorance of racial reality…” (page xxv). That should not be a controversial or controvertible statement. I have lost count of the number of times, for example, that my pastoral colleagues and I have been told that we have no business mentioning race from the pulpit or in Bible studies.
Efforts to address White racial ignorance are met (by our White parishioners) with suspicious pushback and active resistance. This pushback is not a morally neutral action. Instead, Ray argues, “Ignorance of American’s racial history and the causes of present-day racial inequality is a primary weapon in the current attacks on critical race theory” (page xxv). As Ray demonstrates repeatedly, this militant White ignorance of racial history produces and supports the ongoing White ignorance of racial reality.
When White people are forced to acknowledge that racial reality, we tend to adopt the “perpetrator perspective.” This perspective “evaluates racism based on the individual culprit’s intent. Rather than seeing racism as purely individual,” Ray writes, “critical race theorists argue that racism is structural” (page 18). This violates the White ideological commitment to individualism, however, and is thus rejected.
The perpetrator perspective gives us, for example, the “one bad apple” theory of ongoing police violence. Despite the systemic patterns of that repeated violence, White people evaluate this behavior as the cruelty or mental illness or bad judgment of the individual in question. That analysis allows me as a White person to keep my distance from the actor and the behavior. CRT points out, however, that apples fall from trees, and that trees are systems with roots and branches.
“Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray argues. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). Ray reminds us that this is the goal of systemic racism – the unequal allocation of resources in a society, based on the constructed meanings of skin tone. Structural racism is a system of distribution that is based in constructed racial inequality and then reproduces that inequality in that resource distribution.
We are watching in real time as another policy tool used to dismantle systemic racism. The United States Supreme Court is likely during this term to outlaw the last vestiges of Affirmative Action college placement policy. Ray reminds us of the importance of the Bakke decision a generation ago in this discussion. That decision “recognized that universities had a compelling interest in using race to diversify their student bodies but outlawed the use of race to ameliorate the harms of slavery, Jim Crow, on ongoing discrimination” (page 46, my emphasis).
That decision made the use of race to repair harms just as “racist” as the used of race to inflict harms. Amelioration and reparation were, therefore, outlawed as reasons to use Affirmative Action in college placement schemas. The only permissible rationale was to increase “diversity.” Now we see that this rationale is under attack and is likely to be outlawed.
Under this legal theory, attacking racism through policy is “racist.” This is the legal outcome of what Ray calls “colorblind racism.” This is the “I don’t see color; I just see people” school of racism. “Colorblind appeals also allow their users to claim their opponents are bringing race into otherwise race-neutral situations,” Ray writes, Colorblind racism effectively denies that structural racism is a political system while using racist appeals to gain power” (page 38).
This is why I cannot take part any longer in conversations where the complaint is, “Why does everything always have to be about race?” Regardless of the questioner’s intent, the outcome of that question is continued support for systemic racism and White supremacy. As Ray argues, “Colorblind language is an ideological shield for structural racism, entrenching racial inequality through laws, politics, and practices that are race neutral in name only” (page 35). I would refer you to Clyde Ford’s Of Blood and Sweat, for the receipts on that assertion.
“Bell’s aliens have always been here.” Now we are facing real referenda on whether we will hand over Black, Brown, Native, Asian, Jewish, and Queer bodies to protect White supremacist “democracy.” I wish I could be more optimistic about how we will decide.
Note: I found a copy of Ray’s book at my local library. I’m grateful for such efforts to inform the public conversation. A dramatized version of Bell’s short story can be found here.