If you’re like most of humanity, you might tell a little white lie to make folks feel better. Fido’s gone to live on the farm, and it means she won’t live with us anymore. These lies become easier to tell the more they’re practiced: whether we’re explaining Christmas through the power of Santa Claus, or we’re hiding a family secret no one’s supposed to know. As good as our intentions might be, the lies keep us from practicing what it means to grapple with the truth.
Some kids, however, don’t get the choice to live in that protected bubble for very long. The world is tough for everyone, but it doesn’t dole out its harm equally. Millions of kids learn hard truths through trauma, abuse, or bullying, while others remain blissfully unaware of the impact those lies have on the rest of the world.
We’re here to start telling the truth about how our world works because no progress can be made without acknowledgement of the barrier. How? One way to start is to learn how Critical Race Theory can reshape our perspective.
In our first article on the topic, we laid out the key tenets of the framework by shining a light on how CRT shows up in the real world. CRT teaches us first and foremost that racism is a system much, much bigger than any single person. Once we know that, we’re led to some devastating and illuminating secondary truths.
- First, we don’t choose to live in a racist society; we inherit one at birth and are forced to deal with its consequences.
- Second, that system we inherit was designed to protect some of us - white people - from its ugly truths while harming everyone else, and as a result, too many of us are barred from seeing and/or accepting the reality of white supremacy and how to end it.
CRT doesn’t absolve blame from us as individuals for holding racist attitudes, but it does unlock how and why we hold them in the first place. CRT places the highest priority on breaking the cycle by upending the institutions that protect the few at the expense of the many.
But what exactly are the “institutions” that perpetuate systemic racism? In short, all of them. If something is systemic it means that it touches everything in a system, after all. The reality of racism as a system is that it works very hard to conceal lived truths under “colorblind” language, creating racial divisions while insisting on nonracial solutions to them. So bringing these truths under the microscope can help us understand exactly how these “nonracial” institutions actually work to further racist ends, and it can show us what we have to do to fix them.
Here are 40 examples of CRT in real life to guide the way.
- Christian imagery - There are several instances of how white supremacy is upheld in the Christain and Catholic churches, but one of the most prevalent is the widely distributed image of “White” Jesus. Biblical text and historical archives describe Jesus as a dark-skinned, Middle Eastern man (“his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze”) with coarse hair (“the hair of his head like pure wool”). However, the now-ubiquitous image of Jesus we see in our culture today, created in 1941, depicted him as a White man with loose, wavy, golden blonde hair in order to appeal to white American masses and advance the supremacist idea that whiteness is godly.
- Wealth inequality - Today, the average Black family in the US holds less than 15 percent of the wealth of an average white family, and that wealth gap is growing. At current pace, projections show that the average wealth of Black families could fall to $0 by 2053. The vast and persistent racial wealth gap, which is today as large as it was in 1968, is impossible to understand without tracing the history of the systematic robbing of Black wealth and blocking from wealth-building models; particularly how that wealth was transferred to white people and their heirs.
- Health and healthcare - Black people and individuals of other non-white races experience disproportionately poorer health and health outcomes than white people. Lots of systemic factors contribute to this phenomenon, including higher rates of poverty and poorer environmental quality, but the healthcare system itself is also at fault. Western medical knowledge continues to use white bodies almost exclusively as the standard for teaching and research so Black people's symptoms are often invisibilized or disregarded. Persistent stereotypes such as the extremely harmful and false idea that Black people can endure more pain have a massive impact on the behavior of healthcare professionals when treating Black patients. Black people, in particular, also justifiably hold higher levels of distrust of healthcare providers and institutions due to historical abuses of medical power and experimentation on Black people.
- Beauty and desirability - We’ve all heard some iteration of the phrase “everyone is beautiful in their own way,” but when people are asked to state what they find beautiful - particularly in women - the reality is that white, European features tend to dominate: blue eyes, blond hair, “fair” skin. Beauty standards of Western culture tend to emphasize these traits at the expense of all others. Black women specifically face discrimination on the basis of their skin tone, where women with lighter skin tones are considered more attractive and treated more favorably in personal and professional settings, and natural hair is considered less attractive simply because it differs from the dominating mental models of beauty and desirability.
- Economic mobility - The story of American wealth-building is typically told as this: if you work hard and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” you’ll find money and success. In reality, economic mobility is almost entirely dependent on your race and the wealth of your parents at birth. The “American dream” is extraordinarily difficult to achieve for almost everyone born into lower wealth and income classes, but is disproportionately hard for Black and indigenous people who are far more likely to a) be born into lower wealth thanks to historical racism and b) prevented from achieving higher incomes thanks to continued systemic racism.
- School funding - In most US school districts, public schools are funded through the property tax revenue of in-district homes and businesses. That means that low-income districts - which are disproportionately Black and brown due to the racial wealth gap and other phenomena with far-reaching, intergenerational consequences like white flight - are automatically at an extreme financial disadvantage. Though the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision made explicit school segregation illegal, the reliance on property taxes to fund schools coupled with the voluntary self-segregation of white families and businesses from minority communities has resulted in a devastating de facto segregated school system that persists today. Barely half of America’s 50 million public school children attend an integrated school and majority Black or Latinx schools receive up to 3 times less funding than majority-white schools.
- Brown v. Board of Education - Speaking of segregated schools, the infamous Supreme Court opinion in Brown v. Board of Education is often depicted as the lofty, upstanding moral decision of the Court’s nine justices, but in reality, it was heavily influenced by the Cold War. Contemporary records show that the justices and the politicos around them were deeply concerned about the success of Soviet propaganda decrying US racism as a hypocritical inflection point; the Truman administration filed a brief to convince the justices to rule in favor of Brown, citing foreign policy and international influence concerns. Those “Red Scare” concerns were also the primary influence on President Eisenhower sending in troops to help the Little Rock Nine rather than a genuine desire to end racist school segregation. CRT helps explain that progress on civil rights during this era was only possible when the white people in power, who for the most part espoused racist views themselves, also benefit from the action.
- Educational content - The modern K-12 school system mutes - even erases - stories of people of color from standard curricula. Ever heard the story that Rosa Parks was a seamstress that refused to give up her seat to a White patron because she was tired? What about Rose Parks being a trained social activist commissioned to enact resistance to White supremacy and segregation laws? The same event is told from two perspectives; however, one is much less empowering to Black/African Americans than the other. Standard school curricula neutralizes cultural studies in this way to encourage a “colorblind” view - a “let’s all get along” message at the expense of censoring the true stories and counter-stories of people of color.
- Student loans - Black students hold an average of twice the student loan debt of white borrowers, and are five times more likely to default on those loans. CRT helps us trace the roots of this to the persistent and generational racial wealth gap. Black borrowers typically accumulate more student loan debt because they are less likely to hold generational wealth than their white counterparts thanks to the historical financial extraction of Black labor and capital, and less likely to be able to rely on friends or relatives to help them take on less initial debt in the first place or pay it back after.
- Therapy and mental health - Awareness of mental health in general is on the rise in the United States, but there’s very little understanding of or sensitivity to the unique trauma that both interpersonal and institutional racism can inflict on people of color’s mental health. Mental health professionals agree that racism can cause or worsen an individual’s mental disorders and the elevated levels of psychological stress can cause other physical health conditions to become more severe, contributing to worse overall health outcomes. Still, the widespread lack of understanding among care providers like therapists, 77 percent of whom are white, negatively harms the mental health of millions of people every year. By naming racism as a system rather than an individual experience, CRT helps us explain and better diagnose and treat mental health conditions related to racism.
- Prisons - The US has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with Black men bearing the disproportionate brunt of mass incarceration. Black men make up 35 percent of the prison population despite being only 13 percent of the male population overall, and 1 in 3 Black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 6 Latinx men and 1 in 17 white men. CRT helps explain this disparity by observing that American prisons were historically used to punish Black people for opposing racist laws and institutions and to extract cheap labor off their backs, with many prisons quite literally evolving out of the plantation system.
- Policing - The Black Lives Matter movement sprung from infamous horrific instances of police brutality and violence such as the murders of Mike Brown, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd but the history of policing is deeply intertwined with racial violence from its very inception. The earliest forms of policing in America were formed to seize indigenous lands and subjugate people of color through institutions like slave patrols. As modern-day police departments began to form, they were traditionally tasked with responding to perceived “disorder” from overwhelmingly Black, poor, and/or immigrant populations rather than actually preventing crime.
- Artificial intelligence - Artificial intelligence is often exalted as some kind of improvement over human thinking, but the reality is that AI is only a reflection of the human minds that create it - and is therefore riddled with human biases. For instance, most facial recognition software doesn’t recognize darker faces and the most popular social media algorithms automatically deprioritize Black and brown creators on users’ news feeds. Digital tools created to try and rise above human bias often merely end up reinforcing it by excluding Black and other people of color from the process of creating it. Basically, automated technologies that control, divide, and manipulate the most vulnerable people in our society - modeled after the poorhouses of old - are present in the digital space because they are present in the human space.
- Maternal health and healthcare - In many Black communities the “Strong Black Woman” archetype is praised, out of the realization that Black women are incredibly resilient in their work of consistently “making a dollar out of 15 cent”. However, this archetype also largely speaks to the myth that Black women, by design, have a higher tolerance for pain than the average White woman. As a result, healthcare professionals often ignore Black women’s indication of pain, especially during childbirth, leaving Black women to experience higher rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality. The “Strong Black Woman” myth shows how racism in the healthcare sector is historic and systemic and in turn, has detrimentally impacted Black families.
- Feminism - Although early feminism posed as a movement of liberation, it intentionally excluded Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian women and prioritized aspects of White womanhood. Feminist leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger are consistently praised as change agents for women but are seldom recognized as racists who believed that equality was only meant for White women. Critical counter-storytelling of feminist waves offers us a way to critique first, second, and third-wave feminism to redefine what its liberation means for all women, especially those at the interactions of various marginalized identities (e.g., race, SES, sexual orientation, gender expression).
- Zoning laws - When people conjure up images of the American dream, they tend to imagine the single-family home with a yard and a white picket fence - but this ideal actually had deeply racist origins. During the 20th century, as the Great Migration saw more Black folks sweep into urban areas, single-family zoning skyrocketed in popularity as white communities sought to deliberately exclude non-white families from living near them. Single-family zoning laws proliferated even more with the rise of the suburbs during white flight in the 60s and 70s. They persist today in urban areas where wealthy, predominantly white residents wield them to prevent communities from building affordable multi-family housing units - whose residents are disproportionately Black and brown - in a racially-coded “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) movement.
- Names and naming - Research studies have shown that people with Eurocentric names are more likely to get hired even when all other qualities are equal to those with more “ethnic-sounding” names on paper. In addition, it is not common practice in society to give care and attention to name pronunciation. If a name looks difficult to pronounce or contains accents and linguistic influences that some may not recognize, people are quick to ask for a simplification or “nick name”. This disregard for the cultural significance of someone’s name as well as discriminating against someone based on their name reinforces the racial hierarchy in white supremacy.
- Language - Alternative forms of communication in the English language often arise from attempts to culturally adapt to mainstream norms. “Spanglish” or “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE), for instance, are English dialects but not treated as such because they are deemed “low class”. Language is fluid and dynamic with many dialects arising in other languages but English as a language has a reputation of drawing racial lines for what is “proper” versus “broken”.
- Memorializing the contributions of Black, Indigenuous, and People of Color (BIPOC) - Throughout the history of America, we’ve seen consistently, a swift knee jerk reaction to memorialize the struggle and work of BIPOC communities. Whether it's renaming a street, creating a mural, or erecting a statue, it has become common practice to allow “moments'' for acknowledgement through holidays, monuments, and/or displays without commiting to actual policy changes that would mediate disparities common in BIPOC communities.
- Tipping - Though the practice of tipping dates back to the middle ages in Europe, it didn’t become popular in the US until after the Civil War, when Black workers started getting restaurant and hospitality jobs and employers used the tipped wage system as an excuse to pay them less. That legacy stretches into today, with women of color comprising the highest share of tipped workers and earning a sub-poverty level tipped minimum wage of just $2.13 an hour (where it’s remained since 1991).
- Hair Discrimination - Workplace environments place a ton of importance on having an “appropriate” appearance, which almost always tend to exclude Black hairstyles. A compelling study done by Dove “CROWN” Research Study(Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) found that 80% of women reported that they’ve changed their hair from its natural state to fit in a corporate environment. Ideas around what it means to “look professional” in a workplace environment is concealed language for a companies’ prioritizing the appearance of straight hair as the norm - another way that mainstream, White, middle-class values dominate what others consider as common and acceptable.
- Voting practices - Most countries in the world require voting by law or have automatic voter registration, but the US has a long history of heavily restricting voter registration and engagement in order to specifically suppress the political power of people of color. The politics of voting laws is suffused with discussions of “election integrity” and “security” despite data clearly and consistently showing that voter fraud is extremely rare and doesn’t make a large impact on election results. This narrative plays into racist tropes seeking to invalidate the political opinions and power of people of color, and prevents the public at large from recognizing that our uniquely difficult voting practices are deliberately designed to be anti-democratic.
- Housing - The Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, further institutionalized Jim Crow-era racism and segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time that the government accelerated segregation, individual homeowners used racially restrictive covenants nationwide to prevent people of color from purchasing homes in white communities. These housing policies shaped stark racial divides in thousands of cities across the country with persistent and devastating economic effects for Black families even today; modern segregated neighborhoods have lower home values, higher poverty rates, higher rates of crime, and schools with lower funding.
- Climate change and the environment - The recent IPCC report, the world’s authoritative study on climate change, warns that the current state of human-caused climate change is “code red” for humanity, threatening unlivable conditions and civilizational collapse within this century if we do nothing. But it’s important to note that the both causes and consequences of climate change are not shared equally among the population; the fossil fuel companies, super-wealthy individuals, corporations, and nations driving the vast majority of carbon emissions are overwhelmingly white while the people who currently and will continue to bear the brunt of climate catastrophe are Black, indigenous, Asian, Latinx, and other people of color in the global majority who emit the least. CRT helps us understand the roots of the climate crisis as exploitation, colonization, and extraction, but more importantly, it shows us the way out: cooperation.
- The digital divide - In the 21st century, it’s nearly impossible to succeed without digital connectivity through tools like broadband and home computers, but over 24 million Americans don’t even have basic access to the internet. But this digital divide is also a racial one, as only 56 percent of majority Black rural communities have broadband access compared to 75 percent of majority white rural communities. The divide is also racialized for digital tools. While 82 percent of white adults report having a desktop or laptop computer at home, only 58 percent of Black adults can say the same.
- Sales taxes - Regressive taxes like sales and drink taxes first became popular in the US during Reconstruction, when racist state legislatures sought to shift the tax burden away from white landowners’ property taxes and onto the backs of free Black people. Such taxes disproportionately impact Black adults with little other wealth (inherited, property, high income or otherwise) to tax, with the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers - who are disproportionately Black and brown - paying up to 63 percent of their total tax burden through regressive taxes.
- The federal tax code - The current US tax system is an outgrowth of Reaganomics in the 1980s, wherein the rich receive the lion’s share of tax cuts while Black taxpayers and other adults of color pay a higher rate and reap fewer benefits. Politicians have frequently paired these tax cuts with sharp, drastic spending cuts to “the welfare state” on the campaign trail - a racist dog whistle to white voters - once revenue inevitably drops, harming Black Americans more than any other group. Republican strategists have even openly admitted that they formed their electoral strategy around this dog whistle.
- Banking and payday lending - Despite discrimination on the basis of race being formally outlawed, persistent racist practices in credit and lending from banking institutions prevent Black adults from accessing sufficient capital for critical wealth-building ventures like homeownership and starting new businesses. Lenders, for example, deny mortgages for Black applicants at a rate 80 percent higher than white applicants, and are twice as likely to refuse credit for Black-owned firms compared to white ones. When bigger banks deny Black applicants the credit they seek, predatory lenders like payday loan services will often explicitly target Black and other people of color for high-risk, high-interest loans that keep credit seekers in a cycle of poverty that’s incredibly hard to break.
- Culture - Culture is powerful because it is omnipresent and, at the same time, extremely difficult to identify and be aware of; through messages, social media feeds, advertisements, music, and even day-to-day conversations culture is co-created and constantly perpetuated, consciously or not. The characteristics of white supremacist culture are harmful because they’re used as unquestionable norms and standards instead of relative beliefs, and promote white supremacist thinking and behavior patterns without being proactively named or consciously chosen. Examples of white supremacist culture include individualism, private ownership, personal responsibility, worship of the written word, objectivity, either/or binary thinking, power hoarding, and paternalism. Because we all live in America’s white supremacist culture, ingesting it unconsciously like breathing air, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us and get reproduced each time we express them.
- Land ownership - Land ownership has always been and continues to be exploitative and restrictive in the United States as a country founded on settler colonialism for white Europeans. Genocide, Indigenous land theft, and 300+ years of racist housing and land policies have created many of the economic inequities currently experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. The Homestead Act of 1862, which remained in place for 124 years until 1934, granted more than 270 million acres of virtually free land to over 1.5 million white families, while excluding Black families in practice. This means that roughly 46 million white Americans can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership to a single, segregationist entitlement program.
- Congress - America is a nation founded by, and deliberately structured to favor, the governing power of white male Protestant property owners at the expense of everyone else, but especially Black people, through the founding document’s implicit and explicit endorsements of slavery and racism. Though the Constitution has been amended to try and extend democratic power to women and people of color, CRT can instruct us on why legal changes don’t automatically translate to guaranteed rights. The United States Congress was founded in 1789 but did not seat its first Black member until 1928. Out of the 12,348 individuals that have served in Congress over the course of its history, only 162 have been Black. The legacy of racist laws and suppressive voting practices has ensured that white men dominate the system of representative political power and purposefully exclude Black people.
- Food - Racism underscores the history of agriculture and food access in this country. It began with violently stealing Indigenous land to create farms. It continued with the enslavement of Indigenous and African peoples to work the farms, and on again with the exploitation of Asian, Central American, and South American immigrant labor. Racism is also evident in food swamps and food apartheid, which describe the great divide in access to healthy fresh food evident when comparing the average white community to the average community of color. This inequality in access to healthy food is a major contributor to the disproportionately high rates of diet-related disease found in populations of Indigenous, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders.
- Military - While the US military markets itself as benevolent and heroic arbiters of freedom and democracy, global surveys that ask respondents from different countries what they see as the greatest threat to world peace and security consistently rank the United States (and its military) as the top threat. What can explain that gap? CRT can help us understand how the stories of the global majority are often repressed or excluded from American national and political narratives. Failing to tell these stories prevents the public from seeing and understanding the frequent darker motives and actions of the military as a tool of organized violence, resource extraction, and imperialism in the broader world.
- Venture capital - Venture capital, as an industry of exclusive white-collar investing into the most sought-after, innovative startups, is predominantly made up of and led by white men. In other words, it’s plagued by deeply-rooted racism that plays a significant role in Black entrepreneurs suffering lower access to all forms of financial capital, including venture funds, than their white peers. According to a Silicon Valley Bank study, out of the $130B that venture capitalists invested last year, only 1% of that money went to companies founded by Black entrepreneurs. The extraordinary gap in venture capital investment isn’t due to a shortage of ideas or startups in the Black community; Black adults are actually twice as likely to start a business as white adults.
- The Senate filibuster rule - Arguably the most significant barrier to getting anything done in Washington, the Senate filibuster is a procedural rule that requires 60 out of 100 Senators to vote in favor of passing legislation through the chamber. While this sounds like a race-neutral rule, the modern filibuster was deliberately designed to empower white supremacists in the Senate during Jim Crow. Since then, white supremacist politicians have used it as a kill switch to block civil rights, voting rights, and democracy-protecting policies to preserve the system of white power. In fact, civil rights laws account for a full half of all the legislation blocked via the filibuster from 1917 to 1994, and it was used as recently as 2017 to block an anti-lynching bill.
- Parks and lakes - America has worked hard to conceal a long and deliberately racist history of flooding and bulldozing Black towns to make lakes and parks for white leisure. Oscarville, GA, once a thriving Black town, was purposely flooded to make Lake Lanier (named after a Confederate soldier) in Forsythe County in an act of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. Kowaliga, Alabama, another prosperous Black town complete with a Black college and the first Black railroad, was flooded to make Lake Martin. And the creation of Central Park in New York City required the forced displacement of a thriving Black community called Seneca Village through the use of eminent domain. These are just a few examples of a widespread phenomenon, as countless American parks fail to reckon with the violent history on their lands that continues to box out Black people and other folks of color.
- Media - In shaping how we view society and the people who live in it, the media plays an explicit and increasingly influential role in perpetuating racist ideas about who is smart, beautiful, dangerous, worthy of admiration or condemnation, and so on, and it obscures the policy violence that coincides with that dehumanization. Structural racism in the makeup and cultural attitudes of modern, corporate-owned media affects whose story gets told and how communities are depicted. It can negatively impact our beliefs, emotions, and behaviors towards identity groups of people, especially at the institutional and systemic level of policy and law enforcement. CRT helps us illuminate how the oft-discussed issue of “objectivity” in journalism is actually a tool of White supremacy by putting racists and anti-racists on the same moral platform and giving equal credence to supremacist ideas and narratives, which can and does majorly influence nationwide campaigns of dehumanization, criminalization, divestment and violent punishment.
- Philanthropy - In philanthropy, white donors are overrepresented, even when accounting for the fact that the systemic racism and colonization roots driving America’s racial wealth gap has created more white-owned wealth. Studies show that race plays a deciding factor in which organizations get funding, how much they receive, and what kind of restrictions those funds have. In many ways, philanthropic institutions function like bank loan officers, and possess the same racial biases that result in less funds going to Black and Latinx leaders, despite demanding a more proven track record from them. Outside of individual philanthropy, a foundation’s board is a big driver of what and who gets funded, and with white people comprising over 85% of private foundation board seats, the decision-making process is often utterly disconnected from communities of color and are uninformed by the way systemic racism works.
- Nonprofit sector - Nonprofit organizations, like foundations, are overrepresented by well-intended but problematic white people who dominate charitable funding; of the 315 largest nonprofits in the country, 90 percent are white-led. The excess of funding for majority-white nonprofits (while Black and brown led nonprofits struggle to meet basic needs) in conjunction with the lack of knowledge on equitable and just practices that center the most marginalized can create racialized barriers for Black and brown employees and nonprofit constituents alike. It also leads to the delivery of inadequate social services that fail to address the interconnected nature of systemic racism.
- Museums - Museums are notoriously for erecting monuments to white supremacy and galleries that promote cultures of racism and class privilege, oftentimes displaying cultural artifacts that were stolen from Indigenous people in the process of violent colonization. The roles of owner, curator, art practitioner, and exhibit visitor are all overrepresented by whiteness and white people, making for a consistent exhibition of racial inequality and whitewashed history.
Here’s a secret you need to know: Critical Race Theory, by itself, isn't enough.
There are countless other perspectives that help us understand the world we live in today; womanism, intersectionality, disability studies, queer studies, and many more. What these topics have in common, however, is this: they were built by the people who’ve been stepped on so the powerful can have, create, and forget the reality of a world where their voice doesn’t matter.
But that world has reached a crossroads.
By not being honest about the harm inflicted on the historically marginalized, we’ve created a space where people in power are caught in the web of history’s lies. How did disinformation become such a massive issue? How did climate change cause so much devastation? How do we build a world where inequity isn’t built into the roots of our civilization?
The people at the margins have always known. You just needed to listen.
Here’s the lesson: both honesty and deceit are skills we decide to practice. If we want to find ways to survive as humans, we have to learn how to be honest with each other about how we got here. Change like this requires speaking truth to power; but first, we have to tell the truth.