Frederick Douglass and the Trouble with Critical Race Theory

August 2, 2021   •   By Robert S. Levine

ONCE A SPECIALIZED SCHOOL of thought developed in law schools, critical race theory (CRT) has become a favorite wedge issue for the Republican Party. During the final months of his presidency, Trump warned that CRT was infiltrating American schools and ordered a halt to what he claimed was CRT-inspired diversity training in federal agencies. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, regularly refers to CRT as a Marxist plot to undermine the nation, and Christopher Rufo, director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the conservative Discovery Institute, terms it “a grave threat to the American way of life.”


In a recent Washington Post piece, Christine Emba attempts to explain why conservatives find CRT so threatening: they become anxious when they believe white people are under attack, and their anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that they view CRT as standing in “for anything that reexamines the United States’ racial history.” In Idaho, one state legislator, in the service of promoting anti-CRT legislation, cited To Kill a Mockingbird to call for banning Critical Race Theory from public schools because the book supposedly makes white people look bad.


Frederick Douglass could just as easily be banned from school systems in states adopting anti-CRT legislation, for this is a man who from the beginning of his career in the late 1830s to his death in 1895 viscerally and intellectually understood the centrality of slavery and race to American history and culture. Consider the most famous lines from his most famous speech, his 1852 “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass declares about the supposedly democratic nation in which slavery is the law of the land:


[R]oam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.


Could such a speech be taught in Idaho, Texas, Florida, or any other state with anti-CRT legislation on the books? Would educators be willing to take this risk? In his 1845 Narrative, Douglass displays white people’s anti-Black racism in action: he shows Black people being indiscriminately killed and tortured under slavery and depicts racism penetrating the North as well. In the autobiography’s devastating appendix, he attacks white Christianity, North and South, for its hypocrisy and cruelty, stating sarcastically that white Christians profess “to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.” Douglass did not relent on white racist practices after the Civil War, attacking Radical Republicans for not moving quickly enough to help the freedpeople, proclaiming that Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men,” laying bare the prejudice that made it difficult for his sons and other Black people to find jobs in the Northeast, and condemning the nation for becoming a charnel house of lynching in his last major speech, “Lessons of the Hour” (1894).


Douglass was also a student of the law, and some of his greatest speeches expose the racist underpinnings of Supreme Court decisions supposedly made in relation to an objective or originalist vision of constitutional law. In this way, Douglass could be considered a founder of CRT practice. He wrote and spoke powerfully about the racist underpinnings of the 1857 Dred Scott case, which at the time denied Black people citizenship in perpetuity, and he later assailed the Supreme Court’s 1883 nullification of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 for the way it upheld white supremacist racial hierarchies. It was a “deed,” he said, “done for slavery, caste, and oppression.” Had he lived another two or three years, his would have been a powerful voice speaking out against the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), showing how its “separate but equal” outcome ultimately meant separate and unequal — which he would have critiqued for violating the nation’s founding principles.


Here is where Douglass instructively diverges from CRT. Consider the propositions that Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic set forth in their third edition of Critical Race Theory, published in 2017. They state that “critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” For this reason, “Crits,” as they call themselves, reject “liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems.” Delgado and Stefancic go on to assert that “Crits are suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights,” arguing that they are “alienating” and “separate people from each other.” The authors assert that CRT’s skepticism about rights activism derives from such figures as Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass.


But as Douglass well knew, a lack of rights is also alienating. Throughout his career, he placed a good deal of pragmatic faith in the ideals of the nation’s founding documents. Like many Black people in the 19th century, he was willing to downplay Jefferson’s implication in slavery in order to celebrate his declaratory proposition that “all men are created equal.”


Douglass regularly called on Americans to live up to that egalitarian ideal. His 1852 Fourth of July address was energized by his notion that a nation under slavery had betrayed its founding ideals and that Fourth of July celebrations were therefore a sham. He initially agreed with William Lloyd Garrison that the Constitution was a proslavery document, but he changed his mind by 1850, and in his Fourth of July address termed it a “glorious liberty document” that was antislavery in spirit. His faith in the ideals of the nation’s founding documents informed much of his antislavery and then antiracist activism over 50 years. Unlike the exponents of CRT, who claim him as their own, Douglass also valued Enlightenment ideals, which he linked to the rise of antislavery activism in England and indeed throughout Europe. In his Narrative, he credited Enlightenment thinking — as he discovered it in the antislavery rhetorical reader The Columbian Orator — with helping him to understand, when still a child, that he was fully human.


For Douglass, the lack of rights for Black people kept them separate from white people. He believed that such separation was noxious. Prior to the Civil War, the essential right that Douglass fought for was freedom for enslaved people. But he also championed women’s rights, attending the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 and regularly arguing for women’s right to vote.


Garrison proclaimed that the work of Black liberation was over after the Civil War; Douglass disagreed and continued to champion rights for Black people. He was at first buoyed by Andrew Johnson, who had attempted to liberate all Black people in Tennessee when he was military governor, and then disillusioned by a man who revealed himself as a racist serving the interests of Southerners. But Douglass was also disillusioned by the Radical Republicans, who he thought didn’t work quickly enough for Black male suffrage, excoriating them, for example, for leaving Black voting rights out of the 14th Amendment.


He presented his own dictum on rights in “Lessons of the Hour,” delivered a year before his death: “Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as those of the highest,” he said to Americans in the midst of the lynching crisis, “and your problem will be solved.”


In our current moment, we need CRT to remind us about the structural inequities built into the nation’s legal and social institutions and about the pitfalls of liberalism. But we need a more capacious CRT that entertains dialogue and debate, allows that insights into structural inequities aren’t theirs alone, and recognizes the importance of securing rights at a time when rights are under assault. More than that, we need a paradoxically multipronged and unified response to the Republicans’ assault on such basic rights as voting and free speech — a sort of e pluribus unum of progressive antiracist action in which CRT is part of a larger coalition of resistance.


White supremacy right now is at the heart and soul of a Republican Party driven by Trump’s authoritarianism and racism. It is not too far-fetched to start thinking about the 2024 election as an occasion for a Trumpian coup — changes to election laws in key states will allow Republicans to monitor and essentially control vote counts. A political approach that sees rights as invariably subsumed into a larger racist structure will not help us over the next few years. Douglass worked pragmatically and not programmatically to resist white supremacy and argue for Black rights, as did Sojourner Truth and W. E. B. Du Bois.


I agree with proponents of CRT that these are inspirational people whose example could help lead us to a better future, but their spirit (and their actual lives) suggest that there isn’t a single way of doing that. Pragmatic action, strategic coalitions, and concerted efforts to recuperate national ideals need to remain a crucial part of an antiracist politics; they cannot be reduced to one set way of thinking and one group. The Republicans have been canny in depicting all antiracist action as the work of a devious agenda called CRT. Following the lead of Douglass, who would have been inspired by some aspects of CRT and appalled by others, we would be wise to regard CRT as just one of many ways to defend (or aspire to) democracy. It is a testament to Douglass’s prophetic vision and vitality that he continues to speak to us during hard times.


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Robert S. Levine is a distinguished university professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. His new book is The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (W. W. Norton, August 2021).