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Berkeley Conversations: Critical race theory and the 2020 election

UC Berkeley Law experts had a discussion about the study of race and anti-racism, and its role in this year's election.

Protesters in the 1963 March on Washington carried signs demanding voting rights and an end to police brutality
Protest signs carried in the historic 1963 March on Washington show that issues of voting rights and police brutality have remained points of bitter frustration for more a half-century. (Photo: Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. Library of Congress)

Berkeley Law experts analyzed the study of race and anti-racism, and its role in this year’s election. (UC Berkeley video)

Critical race theory and anti-racism initiatives — and dogged efforts to subvert them — are gaining considerable momentum and attention. Last Friday, four scholars described how police violence, social unrest, racialized campaign messaging and other factors have fueled this movement, and they assessed their potential effect on the election and American democracy. 

During a livestreamed Berkeley Conversations event moderated by Berkeley Law professor Russell Robinson, faculty director of the school’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, the panelists confronted race’s indelible imprint on our political landscape. 

“The last four years have been tumultuous, and I think historic, when it comes to race,” Robinson said. “We’re seeing more messaging that you’re either racist or anti-racist, that white silence is violence.” 

Berkeley Law professor Ian Haney López, author of the book Dog Whistle Politics, said President Donald Trump “is engaged in strategic racism designed to trigger racist stereotypes,” but that he does so in coded language “so it won’t come across as bigoted racism to most people.” 

But even if Trump loses the election, Haney López foresees and described a prevailing narrative that could slow meaningful racial justice reforms: “Racism reared its head, we defeated that dragon, can’t we all just get along?”

“Joe Biden has looked at Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 and drawn the wrong lesson, that she emphasized racial justice too much,” Haney López added. “People are susceptible to racist fears, but hold to moral ideals that racism is wrong. We need to connect with them on those ideals and show that their fears are unwarranted.” 

UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris echoed that concern. “People are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed,” she said. “The idea of taking up fights that intensify social friction is going to be a hard sell, but I don’t think we have any choice.” 

Discussing Trump’s recent executive orders against diversity training and critical race theory, Harris said, “These people wouldn’t know critical race theory if it hit them over the head. But demonizing anti-racist advocacy as anti-Americanism goes back to slavery, when it was illegal to have abolitionist literature.” 

K-Sue Park, an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center, noted that this year’s police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor spurred a change in popular consciousness that challenges America’s “legacy of (historical) erasure, which is centuries long.” 

Pointing to the ensuing mass protests and the police response, Park said, “We’re not going to put this genie back in the box.” If Trump wins, she added, “I’d be very nervous if, under federal policy, this galvanizing consciousness is met with sheer force, like we saw over the summer.” 

Ohio State University associate law professor Amna Akbar anticipates the specter of government repression intensifying, whether Trump gets ousted or reelected. 

We’re kind of in a place where I don’t think the movements and radicalization of young people are going away overnight,” she said. “I think they’re here to stay. The only way to make consistent gains is to keep organizing and to build grassroots power through different means and strategies.”