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We need more, not less, critical thinking about race in Australia

Debbie Bargallie and I wrote about the Australian right’s attack on Critical Race Theory as a signalled by Liberal senator and Assistant Attorney General, Amanda Stoker’s pressure on the Australian Human Rights’s Commission to drop a recent tender after it invoked ‘anti racism’ which she said comes from Critical Race Theory.

As with my previous work on the ‘crises of multiculturalism’ with Gavan Titley, it should be understood that any commentary on the rising attacks on CRT does not stand for uncritical acceptance on my part of CRT, some of which is prone to liberal conceptions that elide the exploitative functionings of race that a body of work less focused on the US legal system would lead us to. It is rather to point out how the war on CRT has nothing to do with scholarship; very few of those who attack critical race theory, in particular people like Senator Stoker, has ever read anything from the critical race literature. So CRT is a cipher for everything about race that the right objects to, most specifically Black struggle against racist domination. The main reason CRT is becoming such an object of ire from the Right around the Global North is because it is Black theory.

Therefore, it is not coincidental that Stoker (despite her obvious ignorance) claims that anti racism ‘comes from’ CRT. Of course the anti racist struggle has a much longer history than Critical Race work in the academy. But the entire reason why the Right has fixated on CRT, particularly if employed in schools (which in Australia it quite simply is not) is because it is correctly interpreted as seeking to undo current racial arrangements by increasing understanding of how race works among learners. The Right has a problem with CRT because its aims are to defeat the anti racist struggle, particularly the global movement for Black lives as witnessed in the uprisings which exploded around the world following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and which will not end, as centrists hope, with the sentencing of his killer last month.

In Australia, currently witnessing two coronial inquests into Blak deaths in custody as they are euphemistically referred to – of Wayne Fella Morrison and Bailey Mackander – the anti racist struggle centres on the determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to force an end to racist carceralism which is a centrepiece of ongoing colonisation. There are clear reasons why the state would wish to discredit this struggle.

In some sense then it is of little use it define CRT, because the Right has no interest in actually learning what it is. However, beyond these culture warriors, there is a need to better understand what critical race theory is and what it is not, especially because there is little to no teaching of race in Australia, and very little institutional support within higher education to change that reality. CRT, therefore, as Debbie Bargallie and I argue, is not an ideology, as the Right would have it, but a toolbox of concepts to be used to better understand the role played by race in structuring institutions in the racial colonial state.

Personally, I have chosen to think of my work as race critical, implying thus an implicit critique of any impulse to naturalising race as a category while insisting at the same time that we cannot relinquish race as an analytical framework because its logic continues to underpin our world. Above all, the attacks on CRT are an attack on any critical deconstruction of race, whatever the terminology used, because current racial arrangements service the ongoing project of white supremacist colonial domination. We can have scholarly debates on the utility of CRT versus race critical approaches, and indeed on how these approaches complement a view from Critical Indigenous Studies – work pioneered by Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson. This work is ongoing, often done as mentioned without the requisite institutional support that we see in other countries despite the Right’s best efforts to undermine it with state and legislative support (see the efforts to ban CRT in several US states, etc.).

Politically, however, we must work to expose the attack on CRT for what it is, an attempt to further discredit and criminalise the fight against racism. We must remain clear-eyed about that and respond accordingly. This will take effort from everyone committed to the struggle, which is always as Walter Rodney and others have said, accompanied by study. This is therefore the time to unite.

Alana Lentin