Apparently I didn't realize that decades ago I should have been discouraged about ever accomplishing anything. That's what Mitch Pearlstein suggests in "Making sense of the debates over CRT and 'systemic racism' " (Opinion Exchange, Nov. 13).
African Americans of my generation, Pearlstein claims, who believed in what used to be called institutional racism, were likely to infer "that their chances of adult success were crucially abridged, prompting them to conclude in turn, 'What the hell, why should I do any homework? Why should I study hard? I don't have much of a future anyway.' "
With "concerned friends" like Pearlstein, who needs enemies?
Never, I should like to inform Pearlstein, did we, cohorts and myself, feel helpless while believing, correctly, that racism was pervasive in 1960s America. But more important than the label we gave to that correct belief were our actions. We organized and fought back through mass protests and confidently felt that we could be effective.
The exercise of real power, we instinctively knew, took place in the streets and not the suites. We later learned that in doing so we transformed not only ourselves but the larger reality in which we were enveloped, including — for those of us who were inspired by Malcolm X — the world beyond the United States.
Pearlstein does raise an important point. Without understanding the reason for what Critical Race Theory (CRT) calls "systemic racism," it is possible to fall into the trap of victimhood.
Contrary to his claim about its origins, CRT is rooted in the frustrations of African American civil rights lawyers who more than seven decades ago had sought to employ the country's legal system to redress racial discrimination. Their increasing recognition that there were institutional barriers to racial equality birthed what later became CRT.
Marxist-inspired "critical theory" seemed to offer an explanation — systems of oppression. But critical theory was a poor cousin of genuine Marxism. It was bereft of the revolutionary element from its supposed progenitor — resistance, namely the class struggle.
In the hands of mainly academics, for whom intellectual work and not activism is primary, Marx's insights were reduced to structures of oppression. The all-so essential dynamic element, the fights of the oppressed and their allies, was missing.
Too bad the civil rights lawyers didn't read Marx in his own words. A trained lawyer and one-time aspiring academic, the young Karl Marx also thought working within the system could advance the interests of the oppressed. He quickly discovered otherwise — specifically, the original Golden Rule: those who have the gold make the rules. The legal system, in other words, was embedded in a larger system of class privilege and oppression.
Capitalism, class society's modern edition, depends on, reproduces and over time deepens social inequality — including that of race. So, yes, "systemic racism" exists: it's called capitalism.
To ignore that fact is to ignore potential allies in the fight for racial equality. Only the working class in all its skin colors and other identities has a class interest in ridding the world of social inequality — the only class that requires social solidarity in order to advance its interests. That the awareness of that fact isn't automatic and has to be consciously fought for doesn't negate it.
In good capitalist fashion, there are indeed persons and institutions, as Pearlstein also suggests, who have an investment in focusing exclusively on race. It advances their business model. For that reason, they conveniently ignore facts that challenge their claim that racism is as pervasive today as it was in the 1960s.
Thus, their deafening silence about inconvenient facts, such as the six white jurors who voted to convict Derek Chauvin for George Floyd's death — the first time, incredibly, a U.S. jury was able to convict a white cop for killing a Black person.
The promoters of the race-first industry are in a symbiotic relationship with someone else whose business model is also mostly about race — Tucker Carlson. They enable each other's businesses.
In the last half year of his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. revealed an epiphany. On more than one occasion, he pointedly drew attention to the sobering fact that despite the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the socioeconomic reality of African Americans had not fundamentally improved. For there to be racial equality in the U.S., he concluded, "a radical redistribution of economic and political power" was required.
We'll never know whether King, assassinated in 1968, understood the full implications of his words. But is there any doubt that what he proposed would have challenged the very foundations of capitalism?
No wonder so many of King's latter-day cheerleaders have a memory block when it comes to his insight. It threatens the very basis upon which they thrive. It is, I argue, as relevant today as when first uttered more than half a century ago. Well-intentioned proponents of CRT, unlike its self-serving entrepreneurs, ignore it at their peril.
Moving to Minneapolis a half-century ago luckily put me in touch with the authentic and not the academic Marx — with veteran working-class fighters who, beginning in 1934, forever changed politics in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Had I known of King's revelation, I might have reached revolutionary conclusions a bit earlier.
August H. Nimtz is professor of political science and African American and African Studies, University of Minnesota.