Kimberlé Crenshaw is a professor of law at Columbia and UCLA, and she’s probably the most prominent figure associated with critical race theory—she coined the term, 30 years ago. She’s also creator of the concept “intersectionality” and host of the podcast “Intersectionality Matters.” And she cofounded the African American Policy Forum, now one of the country’s leading social justice think tanks. In 2015, it created the hashtag #SayHerName. This interview has been edited and condensed.

—Jon Wiener

Listen to Kimberlé Crenshaw on the Start Making Sense podcast.

Jon Wiener: We’re a little late talking about Critical Race Theory (CRT). In the past three and a half months, the Fox News Channel has talked about it nearly 1,300 times. It’s being banned from public schools and colleges in something like 13 Republican states. But what is critical race theory? And why is this happening now? The first thing you ever published on the topic was in the Harvard Law Review a long time ago—in 1988.

Kimberlé Crenshaw: “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment.” The basic point of that article was that wherever there is race reform, there’s inevitably retrenchment, and sometimes the retrenchment can be more powerful than the reform itself. And some of what we are experiencing right now is exactly that.

JW: It’s rare that a professor’s scholarly work gets banned in more than a dozen states. I guess that’s a measure of the power and significance of your writing. But I’m not sure I should say congratulations.

KC: I’m not sure if I would receive it, either! Of course the whole point of writing about ideas is for them to spread, but it’s an entirely different thing when the idea that you are writing about has been gentrified effectively by an incendiary opposition.

JW: The warriors against CRT think the idea is that, “By your race alone, you will be judged.” They don’t seem to know about intersectionality.

KC: Not only do they not know about it, they don’t want to know about it. They don’t care about what the ideas are. They can take the name, fill it with meaning, and create this hysteria, and that can be a winning issue when they really don’t have any other agendas to push. Obviously they don’t get that one of the main points of critical race theory is that to understand racism in our history only as a matter of prejudice or bias—as a matter of individuals who are morally bankrupt—is not to understand the history of race in America. The whole point of critical race theory was to repudiate the idea that we can talk about racism only as a quality of individuals rather than as a structured reality that’s embedded in institutions.

JW: The Oklahoma bill banning what they call critical race theory prohibits teaching the concept that a person “by virtue of his or her race bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.” What actions in the past committed by white people do you think they don’t want students to learn about—in Oklahoma?

KC: This the best example of what’s at stake and why it’s surfacing now. Just last month, we turned our attention to the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre, to finally draw attention to the fact that thousands of Black homes and businesses were destroyed, and hundreds of African-Americans of means were killed. The truth about that had been literally and figuratively buried in Tulsa. We finally were at a moment where the implications of it were ripe for public discussion and education. Then this bill comes along that chills efforts to talk about that history, to interrupt the conversation about what does repair look like? What does compensation for the survivors of that race riot look like? What do we have to think about if we then start talking about all of the other ‘riots,’ all of the ways that mobs of people destroyed Black property and Black futures? Precisely when we are in a moment of racial reckoning, when we are broadening our concepts of what racism has been and what its contemporary consequences are, that is the moment when these new laws say, “That was then, this is now, and anything that contests that cannot be raised in our school systems.” This is about a contemporary agenda controlling narratives of the past in order to limit what has been unfolding in this country for the past year.

JW: People on the right also connect critical race theory to the 1619 Project, a history curriculum launched by The New York Times that emphasizes the centrality of structural racism in America since the very beginning. The latest on that front is the refusal by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to give tenure to the historian who led the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was up for tenure to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

KC: It is a bone-chilling story because the board of trustees, under pressure from Right-wing donors and from others who have money and means, effectively refused the appointment that is usually a routine affirmation of the vetting process of the school itself. Her advancement to tenure had been already voted by her colleagues and approved by the administrators in charge of that position. It is highly unusual for the board of trustees to overturn a decision that’s gone through every university review process. So the fact that they were able to do it is a reflection of how powerful this effort to suppress these interrogations of the past actually are, and how little they fear from exposure. This was going to be the highest profile effort to actively punish people for exploring, in an academic way, alternative narratives about the nature of our founding, to punish the very effort to say, “What if we thought about the formative moments of this country not in terms of 1776, but in terms of 1619, when the first African people arrived on these shores, whose stolen labor created the capital that allowed for the massive expansion of these colonies into what is currently thought of as the United States?”

You don’t have to agree with every part of it. But to deny someone tenure because of a project for which she has won a Pulitzer Prize, that is telling us that all the traditional things that are said about meritocracy, all the traditional things that are said about academic freedom, are wrong—that everyone who’s not Nikole Hannah-Jones is also potentially at risk. This is an assault not just on critical race theory, or the 1619 Project, but on the academy; it’s an assault on freedom of ideas. To fight back, we’re using our #TruthBeTold Campaign. You can look us up at https://aapf.org to find about how this repression is coming to a town near you.

Update: On June 30, after this interview was conducted, UNC announced it was granting tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones.