Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D.
Although the election results in Virginia were hardly a surprise given that the party not in the White House usually wins the gubernatorial elections in that state, pundits were too eager to declare Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a major factor in the “surprise” results. Whether it played a role or not, I am familiar how the propaganda surrounding CRT has misled otherwise well-meaning people. Recently, I was presenting about racial wealth inequality when someone asked my views about CRT being taught in schools. When I inquired which schools, the questioner had no answer, because CRT is not taught in K-12 schools.
I do not teach CRT either. However, as an economist interested in wealth and income inequality, I do ask questions similar to those posed by CRT scholars. According to a study from the Urban Institute, in 1963, during segregation, “the average wealth of white families was $121,000 higher than the average wealth of nonwhite families.” By 2016, that disparity had grown to over $700,000. In addition, white families accumulate more wealth over time than Black or Hispanic families. When a family is in their 30s the average white family has $147,000 more in wealth than Black families. However, the time those families reach their 60s, the gap balloons to $1.1 million. What explains the persistence of such disparities?
CRT scholars, as well as many economists, will point to past laws. For example, when the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, it left out two occupations – agricultural workers and domestic servants. Not coincidentally these workers were predominantly Black and brown, thus left out from benefitting from this social welfare program. Similarly, when the Wagner Act of 1935 granted unions the right to collective bargaining it carved out a loophole allowing unions to exclude nonwhites. Well into the 1970s, some worker unions remained all white, once again depriving Black and brown people the benefits of union negotiated wages and benefits. A New Deal program on housing, allowed the Federal Housing Administration the practice of excluding predominantly Black neighborhoods from being eligible for FHA housing loans, also known as redlining. As a result, between 1934 and 1962, $120 billion in FHA backed home loans went to whites, a staggering 98 percent of the time. Thus, over generations, Black families disproportionately suffered under laws that were ostensibly race-neutral but effectively perpetuated wealth divides. The net effect, that by 2019 the median wealth of Black households in the United States was $24,100, compared with $189,100 for white households, a disparity of nearly 1:8. Even after controlling for education and marital status, these disparities persist.
CRT posits that systemic or structural factors explains the persistent Black-white divides not only in wealth creation but also in criminal justice, education, healthcare, and housing. Other inquiring minds are certainly within their right to disagree, but they should at least posit plausible alternative explanations. But instead of robust intellectual debates that will force corrective legislative actions, politicians have found it electorally advantageous to demagogue the issue, invoking imagined fears about CRT.
Nearly a decade after 9/11, in 2010, I witnessed first-hand how demagoguery led to a media frenzy around my nomination to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission. That same year hysteria also erupted around the so-called Ground Zero mosque, which was a term invented to distract from the original plan that was to be called the Cordoba House. The project was a nod to the spirit of Cordoba, a city remembered as being part of a civilization that witnessed extraordinary coexistence between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in 15th century Spain (Al-Andalus). With zero evidence to back any claims, flames of hatred were fanned calling the project a “monster mosque” and a “victory lap” for terrorism. The divisive tactics worked. The project envisioned to revive a culture of mutual coexistence was ultimately sacrificed at the altar of hate.
Having tasted success by creating controversy out of nothing, hatemongers looked for newer targets. The anti-CRT legislations now sweeping across GOP controlled state legislatures, were preceded by similar delirium around anti-Sharia law bills (Sharia is to Muslims what Halakah is to Jews and Canon law is to Catholics). Southern Poverty Law Center documents that 201 anti-Sharia law bills have been filed in state legislatures since 2010. At least 14 of these have become law. Similar to anti-CRT bills, they are legislations in search of a problem. Just as CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools, American law is under no threat of being overrun by Sharia law, because our Constitution prevents any foreign law to subsume national laws in the United States.
The rise in anti-Sharia law legislation also coincided with increasing hate crimes against Muslims. Anti-CRT propaganda too is ensnaring innocent victims, as it being used as an excuse to infringe on academic freedoms in higher ed and put a chill on schoolteachers attempting to prepare students for a world that is increasingly diverse.
With each passing year, America will become more diverse, soon becoming a country where no one racial group will be a clear majority. Our city of Jacksonville is already in that state of being majority-minority but leadership across many institutions in our city do not reflect this reality. As a result, from city government to higher ed, from corporate board rooms to non-profit boards, diversity has yet to be fully harnessed as a source of our strength and the reason for our growth. Instead, diversity is offered as a lame excuse for our polarization.
While it is easy to blame politicians, ultimately in a democracy, the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves. We the people are failing we the people. Until that changes, new enemies will be imagined as way to distract us from the real problems facing our collective humanity, from climate change to unequal access to prosperity. We can either learn from the echoes of our past or ignore them at our own peril as merchants of hate fan the flames of outrage to further erode our democracy.
Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Professor of Finance at the Coggin College of Business, University of North Florida.