The Future of Critical Race Theory
What we need is a future of, and for, critical race theory. Although critical race scholars have seen much in critical race theory's evolution and application across disciplines in the literature, we have done little to articulate a future for critical race theory. The progressive community has done well to articulate where critical race theory has been, but not where it is going. This is expected because, as National Lawyers Guild National Vice President Mumia Abu-Jamal has written: “[T]he law looks backward for its precedents. I think we are in a new era of social movements where the precedents will fall short of where society needs to Abu-Jamal's insight is an imperative--progressives must answer this call.
Why is a future so important? To advance a theory we must have a notion of where it will go--not necessarily in terms of a final destination but in terms of a condition of possibility. The goal of any theoretical project must be to advance the understanding of not only the past and present, but also the future. To think without an eye to the future is to think without a future.
Critical race theory has made tremendous strides in articulating a deeper understanding of social justice; in articulating an evolving understanding of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, criminal law, post-racialism, identity politics, etc. Derrick Bell writes: “Despite our best efforts to control or eliminate it, oppression on the basis of race returns time after time--in different guises, but it always returns. That all the formal or aspirational structure in the world can't mask the racial reality of the last three His words are a reminder that we must articulate a theoretical future to cultivate this risk into of the possibility for success.
What does this look like? An instance of the critical race theory's future occurred when French President Nicolas Sarkozy dedicated a statue commemorating victims of slavery in spring 2012. In doing so President Sarkozy dedicated a monument that gave a future to the past. Its inscription reads, “By their struggles and their strong desire for dignity and liberty, the slaves of the French colonies contributed to the universality of human rights and to the ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity that is the foundation of our republic.”The Paris monument represents an important acknowledgement of history's evils coupled with a striking public commemoration. There is some success in this recognition and representation. Of course monuments do not make a movement nor solidify the relevance of struggles long past, but the Paris monument represents the beginning of an important future--a future that is aware of its sordid past. The United States has no such monument.
Critical race theorists should find the crisis from which the Occupy movements emerged as an important time to advance their goals, to look forward, to move beyond the politics of the present. When critical race theorists are able to engage the present with an eye toward the future, then and only then will we see critical race theory embracing social justice. The Occupy movements have been correct in their politics in this respect. White supremacy sees a future and is invested in it, so why not invest in racial justice's future? Reiland Rabaka argues:
Even in its mildest and most unconscious forms, white supremacy is one of the extremist and most vicious human rights violations in history because it plants false seeds of white superiority and black inferiority in the fertile ground of the future.
Critical race theory must combat the world in the present as well as the future to truly challenge white supremacy and offer real solutions for our racialized world.
The focus of the Occupiers is not necessarily on the immediate destruction of the capitalist order, but is instead on constant struggle both for the present and the future for a capitalism alternative. Capitalism did not arise in a day and it will not fall in a day, but the best strategy for transforming our economic system is to focus on immediate goals with an eye for long-term success. The Occupy movements are, at once, strong in their political present and many of the protesters are strong in the belief that their project has futurity (although more of their ranks certainly could be). Critical race theorists better known in the academy as “crits” ought to take heed of this example, putting theory to work, and focusing on the long road ahead.