By Julia Strugala
A discussion on critical race theory titled “Facts & Snacks: Let’s Talk About Race” was held in the Miron Student Center Little Theater on March 28, 2022. The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion sponsored the presentation where Dr. Kisha Dasent was the speaker, touching on points of critical race theory and the racism that our society was built on.
“Complicated origins inform our present” was the overall message of the discussion. Dasent took the audience through different events in history that structured the systemic racism present in our society today.
Saartije Baartman, more commonly known as Sarah, was a South African woman who was brought to Europe on false pretenses by a British doctor. For years, Baartman was paraded around “freak shows” put on display and used for entertainment purposes because of her “exotic” look.
“Exotic could be nice when you’re talking about plants, but not when you’re talking about people,” Dasent said.
Baartman was put on a block with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks as she stood there nude. Today she is seen by many as a symbol of colonial exploitation and racism, being the first Black woman known to be subjugated to human sexual trafficking.
“This is where the stereotypes come from about Black women resisting pain. When you hear different stories about Black women being turned away [by health professionals], it is because of steroetypes and tropes that came from slavery,” Dasent said.
This idea of racism carried on into the United States where eight out of the twelve founding members had slaves. These men that are to this day considered national heroes have buildings, streets, and schools amongst other places named after them.
There was never a time that the U.S. was without slaves when it began. Fundamentally, the United States was built on racism and to this day, is structured around this idea that never went away.
“When you have that idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, how do you believe in slavery at the same time?” Dasent said.
During the reconstruction period after the American Civil War, Freedmen’s Bureau was an agency from 1865 to 1877. An act was passed to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services, and land to newly freed African Americans.
Three million dollars went missing in this time period. That money was supposed to be used to help free slaves and aid them in the start of their new lives in a country that they were brought to against their will.
In 1915, The Birth of a Nation was released as the first full feature length hollywood blockbuster with negative depictions of Black people. The film made history by being the first to ever be streamed at the White House.
The movie was a breakthrough with its use of night photography and long panoramic shots. Despite all of its production glory, what is unavoidable in any analysis of the film is the horrifying racism that jumps off the screen.
The first African American woman to win an Oscar was Hattie Mcdaniel starring in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. McDaniel accepted her award in a segregated “No Blacks” hotel where they had to call in a special favor to have her allowed in the building. Even then, McDaniel had to sit separately from the rest of the film’s cast, at a small table set against a far wall.
“You can see that not much has changed in that time frame. Only 7 African American women have won Oscar awards. 87% of people that have won Oscars have been white,” Dasent said.
Along with the film industry and the segregation that it brings, the music industry is no different. Originally, Jazz blues was called race and jungle music so it could appeal to the Black market. It quickly became very popular and was the beginning of the exploitation of Black music.
Later, Jazz blues became R&B and rap. Once white people started covering R&B songs, pop charts were created to separate themselves from the rest of Black music. Black people could only get on pop charts if their songs were at the top of R&B charts.
In 1921, Greenwood District also known as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma was one of the most prosperous African-American communities at the time. That same year on May 31, the Tulsa Tribune reported that a Black man named Dick Rowland attempted to rape a white woman named Sarah Page.
The white community nearby did not wait for the investigative process to play out. Instead, they decided to take matters into their own hands and began two days of ongoing racial violence.
Thirty-five city blocks went up in flames, leaving 9,000 black Americans homeless and 800 injured. Black businesses and homes were looted and burned to the ground.
“The census says that only 36 people died, but historians have calculated that 300 people died during that time,” Dasent said.
The racially motivated crime was done in spite of the thriving community where their economic status could not save them from the racial hostility of that time period. The less fortunate white neighborhoods surrounding the area resented the upper-class lifestyle of the Greenwood District.
“Every time there was one foot put forward, there were twenty steps taken back,” Dasent said.
World War I and II were a time where a lot of African Americans were giving their service to the military. They fulfilled the roles of the white Americans who were drafted for the war. When they came back home, they were met with the same predicament that they left in, with some soldiers being lynched in their uniforms.
“Once these dominant structures no longer need us, they send us away,” Dasent said.
In 1955, Emmett Till was only fourteen years old when a white woman claimed that he whistled at her. Till was dragged from his home, shot, and drowned in a river.
His body was fished out of the lake three days later. After his death, the woman recanted her story and admitted that the event never happened.
In every aspect of life, African Americans have to be cautious and aware of their rights to receive the same treatment as white people. The same goes for the United States healthcare system.
From 1930 to 1972, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study took place. During this time, the CDC and PHS knowingly withheld treatment for syphilis from nearly 400 African American men with syphilis. The study was done in collaboration with Tuskegee University, a historically Black college in Alabama.
The men involved in the study were promised free health care as incentive for participating although they were never informed of their syphilis diagnosis. What was meant to be a six month study turned into forty years. 28 patients died from syphilis, 100 died from complications, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.
When the intent of the study was leaked to the press, the government created informed consent meaning they were no longer allowed to experiment on human beings without their knowledge. During this time, Black & Latina women were forcibly sterilized so they could not procreate.
White women were fighting for reproductive rights while women that are a part of minority groups were being sterilized against their will. This resulted in very different feminist problems because of race.
In 1964, an area of public land was offered to any US citizen wanting to settle and farm on it. This was called the Homestead Act of 1964. Because of the Industrial Revolution, a large majority of Black people moved north into cities. The government offered free land for people in the suburbs with the contingency that Black people were not allowed to take part in this.
Banking systems made sure that Black people were not approved for this land. This resulted in Black neighborhoods being deemed as “undesirable”. White people fled to suburbia and segregation once again took place.
All of this being said, critical race theory comes into play. It is a way to put into context what certain groups of people have to face and how racism is embedded into the structure of the criminal justice system. It is a format and for many, a foundation that helps to understand institutional racism.
Critical race theory is used as a defense. “[Critical race theory] started out as a way to understand how the structure of the judicial system operated. How that context had an effect on how trials and juries were weighing in on minority black and brown suspects,” Dasent said.
Privilege has a negative connotation, but it is a resource. “It has power, but it doesn’t determine the nature of the behavior. It’s what you do with it,” Dasent said.
To help better understand CRT, Dasent discussed certain myths behind it, one of them being that the theory is only for Black people. This is not true as there are critical Latinx studies amongst other races as well.
Critical race theory is not meant to be divisive; it is meant to bring people together and stand against racism. Unfortunately, systemic racism is something that cannot be escaped because it is embedded in every structure we know as a society.
Black Feminist Theory is a byproduct that emerged from both Feminist Theory and Critical Race Theory. It became prevalent that there was a need for a feminist theory made specifically for Black women.
It states that black women have their own valid way of thinking. Black women had to figure out a way to get their needs and challenges met. The theory centers black womanhood and validates their voice where others relegate it to invisibility.
The first wave of feminism happened in the late 1800s. White women were fighting for the right to vote while Black women were coming out of slavery. Their interests and needs did not align, therefore the demand for a separate theory surfaced.
Today, both of these theories are used to help Black people navigate a world that was not structured in their favor. They are a crucial tool used in today’s criminal justice system to ensure that Black people receive the same treatment as everyone else.
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