Observations of an Expat: America’s Original Sin

America has developed its own version of Original Sin. It is called the Critical Race Theory and is proving to be yet another toxic debate topic dividing Black and White and the growing chasm separating America’s right and left.

Original Sin was propagated by St Augustine in the 4th century. It maintained that every human was born sinful and spent a lifetime fighting against it. The Augustinian philosophy was a major tenet of the medieval church and proved especially with the breakaway Protestant sects. Gradually, however, first the Catholics, and then most of the Protestants revised their thinking. Sin was washed away with sacrament of baptism and replaced with personal responsibility.

Critical Race Theory maintains that all Americans—or at least all White Americans—are born racist.

Racism is systemic in American society, reinforced by the law, sub-consciously taught in American classrooms and a key element in American political structures and police forces because of the country’s tainted history. It can only be rooted out with a serious re-education effort and change at every level.

This does not sit well with a lot of White Americans—and not just the White Supremacist brigade. They willingly accept that slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were bad and shameful. But White America made recompense for that with subsequent civil rights laws.

Critical Race Theory attacks their self and national image as the land of meritocracy where every person has an opportunity to rise to greatness on a level playing field which stretches from sea to shining sea. Yeah, sure, say Americans of colour. If you are White.

Critical Race Theory has another element which disturbs many Whites. It vilifies slave-holding founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and attacks the constitution as pro-slavery. Generations of Americans have deified the founding fathers and the constitution is virtually a secular Bible. It is nigh impossible for them to jettison those beliefs.

Critical Race Theory (or CRT) had its origins in the 1970s with African-American Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell. He noted that despite the raft of civil rights legislation, there had not been that much of a change in the economic conditions of African-Americans. Bell concluded that that this was because the building blocks of American history had constructed a society which was systemically racist and that precedent-based law supported it.

CRT remained a relatively obscure theory until 1990 when President Bill Clinton tried to appoint one of its strongest proponents to a federal judgeship. The nomination was opposed by all Republican senators and a significant smattering of Democrat lawmakers. The nomination was withdrawn and CRT sprang into the headlines.

However, it did not become “The issue” until the Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd Matter. And it truly took off with the New York Times Pulitzer prize-winning 1619 Project. The date is significant as the first time African slaves were landed in Virginia. The project itself “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very centre of the US narrative.”

The result was that companies and federal offices introduced CRT-based anti-racist training for their staffs and, more importantly, it started being taught in schools. The White backlash was led by one Chris Rufo who maintained that Critical Race Theory “poses an existential threat to the United States” and is “anti-American” He was given a megaphone platform by Fox News, from which called on President Trump to stop CRT training in federal offices. Trump listened and did just that, and went further and set up a commission to reinforce the traditional teaching of American history. He called it the 1776 Commission as a clear dig at the New York Times 1619 Project.

When Joe Biden took office he re-introduced CRT training in federal offices and scrapped the 1776 commission. “We can’t continue to just teach what we want to know instead of what we need to know.” He told a crowd gathered to mark the anniversary of the previously unmarked 1921 massacre of African-Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The political lines are now clearly delineated. The Democrats have embraced Critical Race Theory. The Republicans—seeing it as profitable stick with which to bludgeon the looney left Democrats—have attacked it as “toxic, anti-American, neo-Marxist, communist and, in its own way, racist.

The issue of CRT training in schools has already led to fights and arrests at normally boring public meetings of county state education boards. Corporate America is struggling with how to deal with the issue. It is now at the forefront of political debates between candidates battling in next year’s mid-term elections.

It is not about to go away. CRT will soon cross the Atlantic—if it hasn’t already—and become part of the debate over the colonial legacy of Britain and Europe. Critical Race Theory is here to stay. It can no longer be swept under the carpet. Ways must be found to deal with it to prevent dangerous divisions in society.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” is published on 15 October.

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22 Comments

  • ……………..Critical Race Theory maintains that all Americans—or at least all White Americans—are born racist………..

    I thought it was the opposite..that racism is not natural but is ‘acquired’…

  • If we are going to import Ideas developed in The Americas we need to look at how relevant they are to our experience.

    There are two crucial differences between Europe & The Americas – the Conquest by groups who had little in common with the peoples already there & then the Introduction of Slavery. Europeans bought & sold Slaves but very few were imported into Europe itself, the corruption was kept at arms length.

    In The USA & Brazil the descendants of Slaves are living in the Countries to which their ancestors were brought in chains & a lot of Whites have absorbed the idea that they accepted their enslavement.

    The experience of Immigrants in Europe is very different & American models will only confuse things.

  • Nigel Hunter 17th Jul '21 - 12:08pm

    Yes it may confuse things but you can bet your bottom dollar that Johnson and the right will do their best to cause division with it which we must guard against

  • I think the historical reality of America, as in many places, is the myth of empty land that reclassified the local populations as savages. This enabled invaders to put in legal frameworks to impose the idea of private land ownership as the rule of law and the dehumanisation of other peoples to legitimise it. It’s a short step to slavery for a ruling class with its roots in feudalism and the idea the legal right to literally lord it over others. As Proudhon put it “all property is theft”.

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Jul '21 - 1:38pm

    The only property is builders’ tea.

    I’ll get my coat.

  • When Joe Biden says “We can’t continue to just teach what we want to know instead of what we need to know.” I expect he is referring to the historical experience of indigenous Americans, slaves brought from Africa, displaced Mexicans from Oregon to Texas, Irish immigrants fleeing famine and Chinese immigrants that came to work on the West coast or in the plantations of Hawaii, among others.
    About 1/3rd of the iconic American cowboys were African-Americans and they were a significant element of the migration into the Great Plains too https://www.homestead.org/homesteading-history/exodusters-the-roots-of-african-american-homesteading/

  • That’s why anarchists drink Earl Grey. Proper tea is theft.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Jul '21 - 5:56pm

    The often brilliant Tom, always enlightened, has I think not explained this correctly here early. Expats is I believe right. Critical race theory is not, all are born racist, if white. some extreme left might think it so, but theory rather than view is different. It is the theory that race is social in its effect, that racism is endemic in the white societal organisations. It is that although individual whites might not be racist, the communal is, as a whole.

    As with culture war, the Democrats take up these things too extremely, and alienate moderates. And thus the farther right do too, its now best to stand still, and regroup. Embrace ideas like these but no way, as dogma.

    Training people in antiracism ought t to tell all races they must be decent. Not merely whites. Yes blacks in the American context are only really racist as a result of years being treated badly by some whites. But all racism is wrong as well as some is also wrong, even as a result of victimisation.

    America is too divided. The current Democrats, good though the party is, are feeding the frenzys much as Fox and friends!

  • Jayne mansfield 18th Jul '21 - 7:15am

    @ Tom Arms,
    As someone who was baptised into the Church, I really must take issue with you Mr Arms.
    The idea of original sin was not replaced by the notion of personal responsibility but by religious control. Many children bear the scars of those who thought their state of original sin could be beaten out of them. Many ‘fallen women’ were treated cruelly and in many cases separated from their babies.

    It is ludicrous to suggest that racism is innate rather than acquired.

    The problem with pointing the finger at a country with a different history, eg. America is that it gives the people of this country a ‘get out of jail free card’ . It is a diversion from the systematic disadvantages people of colour suffer in this country.

    Black Lives Matter has raised the issue of social inequality and social injustice in this country. It has been there for everyone to see if they chose to look. The Right have done their best to portray those who support BLM as Marxists whatever, because of the words and actions of a few very angry people who talk about the defunding of the police etc., whilst arguing that racism is limited to a mindless minority. Racism is what people of colour in this country suffer every day of their lives.

    When England and Denmark took the knee, I filled up with tears, something that doesn’t happen often. That Germany have left the field during a football match before the end of a game because one of their players was racially abused suggests to me that the culture war, which is a Right wing attempt at division , should not lead to those who rally abhor racism and social injustice to take our foot off the pedal. We briefly had this feeling of hope during the London Olympics.

    Thanks to Sajid Javid, testing positive, because of the continued issues of an incompetent test and trace system, it seems that the whole cabinet may have to socially isolate. Great, replace them with Gareth Southgate and the England team. Come on England.

  • The Wikipedia entry for Critical Race Theory says that:

    “Critique of liberalism: Critical race theory scholars question foundational liberal concepts such as Enlightenment rationalism, legal equality, and Constitutional neutrality, and challenge the incrementalist approach of traditional civil-rights discourse.”

    They refer to Delgado and Stefancic who have published various books on CRT.

    Surely as liberals we have no alternative but to oppose any theory which is hostile to our fundamental principles?

  • In retrospect, I probably should have written that Americans are born into a racist society created by their historical experience.

  • Laurence Cox 19th Jul '21 - 12:15pm

    Lorenzo Cherin as usual hits the nail on the head. “Training people in antiracism ought to tell all races they must be decent. Not merely whites. ”

    Equally, Tom Arms is right to make an analogy with Original Sin; for slavery and the racism used to justify it is known throughout recorded history.

    Even today, we find people (not just white people) saying that past generations should not be judged by modern standards:

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53444752

    In this example, the Nigerian journalist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes about her great-grandfather who was a slave-trader.

    My concern about CRT is that it is an offshoot of the Marxist-inspired Critical Legal Studies, so is antithetical to Liberalism as Marco notes. Whilst there will be good things that we can take from it, we should be careful not to swallow it whole.

  • ‘The Right have done their best to portray those who support BLM as Marxists whatever, because of the words and actions of a few very angry people who talk about the defunding of the police etc.’ I am sorry, but that is simply not the case. The founding members of BLM have been very open in fair interviews about their intentions, and they are to ABOLISH the police, destroy the nuclear family, and bring about a Marxist/Communist/add a far left group at your discretion, economic system. All Liberals and indeed all non-Marxists should be appalled by those aims, which would reduce any country that applied them to some Mad Max dystopia.

  • Jayne mansfield 19th Jul '21 - 1:29pm

    @ Mark Seaman,
    Who are the founding members of Black Lives Matter that you refer to?

    The three that I am aware of who are credited with starting the Black Lives Matter were community activists involved in Human Rights issues. The death of Trayvon Martin, seeing police brutality agains younger male family members and anti gay prejudice seems to have been the issues that stimulated the Black Lives movement.

    The Black Lives Matter movement is a much needed and uncomfortable spotlight on the social injustice that black people continue to suffer in many countries because of structural racism in those countries. If accepting the fact that there is structural inequality built into our social systems that work against people of colour makes me a structural marxist, I can live with that.

    The England football team, Lewis Hamilton et al, marxists? I think not.

    I would happily take the knee if there was someone close by to help me get back up again.

  • The issue here is that the debate gets derailed by people playing silly word games. What is objected to is the teachings that teach “racial consciousness” and practice “racial consciousness raising” CRT is one approach (and applied to the analysis of law), but it is not the entirety.

    The ideas ore highly critical of the approach of the civil rights approach of all races being treated equally. It obscures the actual issues that should be analysed by assuming cause is race. This is a almost childish “paint by numbers” approach to analysis of public policy.

    A lot of the debate in the US descends in to the “technically you are using the wrong term” arguments. It is best to avoid this by pointing out that racial consciousness and racial essentialism (even if that is dressed up as “an inevitable consequence of being X race in environment Y”) are terrible ideas.

    There are plenty of negative outcomes that distribute unequally but you need to know the proper cause not invent nonsensical ideas to explain it.

    As with the 1619 project, that was an activist piece of work that falls apart on the most basic analysis (as many historians pointed out).

  • Jayne mansfield
    I suspect that the three founders Mark Seaman is referring to are the three that are listed as such on the Black Lives Matter website:
    1) Patrisse Cullors (self described as Marist in an interview to 2015).
    2) Alicia Garza (described by Cullors as Marist, there are other sources claiming she self-described as this but there appears not to be primary sources).
    3) Opal Tometi (there don’t appear to be claims that she is a Marxist).

    The family claims appear to be based upon one from the Black Lives Matter website that stated:
    “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”

    This statement was removed from the website along with many other statements when the intentions of BLM started to be questioned. In particular the observations the adverse impact of the collapse of the “nuclear family” in black communities in the US, in particular on black boys and young men (the group who are most likely to be killed).

  • Tom Arms writes “Critical Race Theory has another element which disturbs many Whites. It vilifies slave-holding founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and attacks the constitution as pro-slavery.”
    This is the trouble with history. It is not neat and simple. Black Americans (slaves and freemen) fought on both sides in the American revolutionary war https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/african-americans-and-war-independence just as Englishmen did in the English civil war and Frenchmen did in their revolution of 1789. Irishmen fought on both sides in the Rebellion of 1798 as did Scotsmen in the Jacobite uprising at Culloden in 1745.
    As the linked article writes “at the time of the War for Independence the institution of slavery was practiced in all thirteen colonies.
    Slavery and serfdom was ubiquitous throughout the world during the classical and medieval periods. Slavery was practiced in most of sub-Saharan Africa, in most Arab societies, in Morocco, in The Ottoman Empire (where it still existed in the early 1900s). China abolished slavery in 1910. Japan abolished slavery early, it had “mostly disappeared” by 1200 but the tenant farmers of the Samurai class may not have noticed much of a difference.. India had slavery, perhaps more common in Muslim than Hindu ruler ships. It was abolished by the British in 1843, though it took some while after that to disappear.
    Slavery was always based on some form of class systems. A Roman Citizen could not be a slave nor could a Muslim in Islamic societies. Muslim traders took their slaves from
    Non-Muslim Africa, in particular the Horn; Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
    The impetus for the abolition of slavery came largely from colonial powers as the cruelty and horrors of the Atlantic slave trade became widely known. In America there were fierce debates around Abolition from the time of Independence until the emancipation proclamation during the civil war. It is perhaps, an irony of history that if the American colonies has still been administered by Britain in the early 1800s, slavery would have been abolished decades earlier.

  • Jayne Mansfield 19th Jul '21 - 3:27pm

    @ FSPeople,
    Thank you for that information. Those are the three founder members I was referring to.

    It doesn’t alter my view that Black Lives Matter is an important human rights issue. Many people who respond to injustice go on to look for an intellectual framework for their beliefs. One doesn’t have to accept them, one can argue against them. The questioning of the nuclear family was doing the rounds in feminist circles long before BLM.

    What is interesting it me is that as you say, it was removed from the website rather than an explanation given for its removal. I don’t question your facts about the break down of the nuclear family and its effect on young black boys and men in the US. It s an argument used here. The issue for me is , to put it crudely, one of ‘chicken and egg’. What causes the breakdown of the family unit? What stresses cause the marital dysfunction, a child observing them and thinking marriage and the nuclear family ain’t for me? What makes some young men unable to see that there may be merit in a stable, loving environment for the nurturing of children if they haven’t experienced it themselves. Why do young black boys and young men ( and white one’s) yield to peer pressure and seek out family loyalty and acceptance in criminal gangs rather within a family?

    BLM for me, is one way of seeking social equality and social justice, the removal of discriminatory practices, that cannot be other than detrimental to human relationships.

  • Mark Seaman 19th Jul '21 - 4:37pm

    @Jayne Mansfield ‘The England football team, Lewis Hamilton et al, marxists? I think not.’ I agree on that.

    FSPeople is entirely correct about the three BLM founding members, as only two appear to self-identify as Marxist, whereas the other is ‘anti-Capitalism’ (a term entirely defined by Marx anyway).

    I understand that many people WANT BLM to be some beautiful movement that will rid the world of racism for all time, but the closer it is examined the more it is quite the reverse, and I recommend folks check you-tube for Black but conservative (with the small c) for a balanced view of the US situation at least.

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “Why do young black boys and young men ( and white one’s) yield to peer pressure and seek out family loyalty and acceptance in criminal gangs rather within a family?”

    I’m not sure I see that there is a choice being made. A 14 year old who is not from a supportive family environment and surrounded by gangs is not exactly given a simple binary choice of:
    1) safe happy family or
    2) violent gang.

    I’m always sceptical of denying agency form individuals but I think we need to be very careful about attributing excessive agency depending on circumstances.

  • Jayne mansfield 19th Jul '21 - 7:22pm

    @ FSPeople,
    I agree with your last paragraph. The debate about structure and agency will long outlast me. But in the meantime, black people suffer.

    There is so much social science research available, but as a carer for my husband I no longer have time to evaluate it.

    What I do know, is that it comes down to a belief in human rights, a belief that any child born should be treated equally, as a society we are left wanting.

    What I find amusing about Mark Seaman’s post, in a sort of wry sort of way , is that Black Lives matters is a non hierarchical, grassroots, decentralised International movement. The sort of values that Liberal Democrats claim to espouse.
    Signed,
    Useful Idiot.

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Aug '21 - 2:10pm

    As we grow as children and develop our personalities we to a lesser or greater extent become intolerant of anything or anybody that is different from ourselves. This can be reinforced by cultural beliefs and used for political objectives. Racism fits into this picture. Young children accept everything and everybody so there’s hope.

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