I was rather surprised to see my book The End of Policing being used as a prop by Senator Ted Cruz during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on March 22. Given that Judge Jackson has impeccable credentials and abilities, the strategy of the GOP has been to use her nomination to tar the Democratic Party broadly with the brush of “reverse racism” rather than speak to her actual qualifications.
During the hearing, Cruz attempted to discredit Jackson by falsely linking her to critical race theory, a specific school of legal scholarship that sees law making and enforcement processes through a lens of structural racism. This is an easily defensible view given the central role racism has played on our legal processes from slavery through Jim Crow and into the modern period of mass incarceration and abusive policing.
But, of course, Cruz doesn’t actually want to debate the fine points of legal jurisprudence, much less explore the nature and history of American racism. Instead, he wants to suppress such discourse through McCarthyist fearmongering. Cruz is hoping the American public will be terrified by the idea that their children are being exposed to the existence of American racism in its many forms.
While I’m honored to be included in Senator Cruz’s list of critical race theory texts, this intentional confusion of a specific school of legal scholarship with the broader effort to shed light on the nature and history of racism in America is actually a dangerous attack on the movements to advance racial justice in America. Cruz hopes both to suppress ideas critical of core American institutions and to gin up a white nationalist backlash—one that can not only be used to rally the GOP base at the polls but also be deployed against calls to end mass incarceration, reduce our reliance on policing, and invest in the schools, communities, and families that have suffered generations of discrimination, abuse, and defunding.
Cruz and his fellow travelers are committed to the myth of color-blindness, in which race is reduced to a discredited ideology of the past. According to this view, we don’t have active racism in the United States, and anyone who complains of it is mobilizing a form of “racial essentialism” that not only discriminates against white Americans but also relegitimizes race as a real thing.
But of course this is not how racism works. Race is neither a biological fact, nor an empty ideology. It is a complex set of social facts that have very real power to shape the lives of those subjected to its organizing power. When employers, landlords, bankers, and cops make decisions about people based on a racial categorization, that has real implications for those affected, even if no one uses the “n-word” or writes race into a statute. Predatory lending practices, real estate steering, housing segregation and its effects on education access, racial profiling in policing, and workplace discrimination are widespread in the United States. But anyone who complains about these things is quickly labeled as someone trying to maintain a system of biological racism. By erasing the reality of racism both historically and today, Cruz is facilitating the continuation of those racist practices. And that is the ultimate aim of the right-wing attacks on critical race theory.
While Jackson deflected these attacks in relation to her nomination, we must go much further. It is not enough to buy a few banned books or put a #Black Lives Matter sign in our yard. We need to take concrete steps to build political power around an agenda of social transformation that fully acknowledges the role that racism plays in advancing the interests of the wealthy and powerful who mobilize racial difference to deny us high-quality public schools, national health care, living wages, decent housing for all, and truly safe and secure communities.
The only way we are going to win these things is by bringing the history of US racism into the open and developing strategies to work across race lines to build solidarities rooted in our shared interests. All across the United States, labor unions, community-based movements, and civil rights organizations are working to build these alliances through campaigns to provide Medicare to all; build supportive housing for those on the streets; demand well-funded schools, not school police; insist on a living wage for all; and turn the problem of opioid overdoses over to public health providers, not police and prisons.
Cruz, like many GOP members of Congress, has built his political career on mobilizing the myth of race-blindness to stoke racial resentment by whites. He understands that as long as the United States refuses to stare its history of racism in the face, it is doomed to repeat it—in fact, he’s counting on it.