Minnesota Law Review
Essays in Response to Beyond All Reason
TO THE BONE: RACE AND WHITE PRIVILEGE
Jerome McCristal Culp, Jr.d1
Copyright (c) 1999 Minnesota Law Review Foundation; Jerome McCristal Culp, Jr.
Toni Morrison once explained how deeply meaning can be buried in a text. She was asked where in the text of her novel, Beloved, Sethe killed the baby. She answered the questioner by replying confidently that it had happened in a particular chapter, but when she went to look for it there she--the author-- could not find it. Meanings can be difficult even for the authors of a text. The same thing is true for the texts written by the multiple authors of a movement. What did we mean and where is a particular event or idea located? These are questions that are difficult for any one person, even someone who, like myself, has at least been a participant in the writing of the text. There may be meanings--unintended meanings--that we who participate are not aware of and it is important to ferret them out.
Ten years after its formal beginning, critical race theory is under assault by those inside and outside the legal academy for supposed ugly things contained within the texts that make up the body of its work. Our movement has been almost exclusively a written and spoken community. We have met to facilitate those words, and the product of those meetings and that collaboration is strewn among law reviews and books that have become central to aspects of the legal academy. Unfortunately, some of our critics have claimed to find within those multiple-authored multiple texts anti-Semitism, anti-white, anti-white male, anti-Asian and other uncivil by- *1638 products. The critics of critical race theory have attempted to find this message of hate buried in the clear testament of hope and a requirement of transformation stated in the pages of the law reviews and books written by many authors. I do not believe that an evil message is there and certainly none of the critics have come close to naming it. These critics do not understand that there are critical race theories. There are many theories that unite and divide everyone who could be accused of being or claim to be members of the critical race theory movement, but there is a common belief in an opposition to oppression.
In making this charge the critics of critical race theory have failed to acknowledge the deeply embedded message of critical race theory. That message is that race is only skin deep, but white supremacy runs to the bone.1 Race is only skin *1639 deep because it is always a social construction (but a very important social construction) and the work of critical race theory is to go beyond the socially constructed boundaries and is exactly about understanding race’s importance but scientific insignificance.
The second and related part of the construction of critical race theory is that white supremacy goes to the bone. White racism in its many guises is deeply buried in the structure of the law and the legal academy.2 This view of the world reverses the way that race has traditionally been seen in the legal academy. To the traditional legal scholar race, in the words of Neil Gotanda, is simply formal race--race is biologically connected and socially insignificant and racism is something that can only be done by Bull Connor or George Wallace before his salvation. The racism of proposition 187 or Amendment 2 in Colorado or the racism that is part of sexism are not possible. The people of California or Colorado or most men [white and nonwhite] are simply not racist or sexist. To the legal world before critical race theory, race went to the bone, but racism was only skin-connected and deep. The whole process of critical race theory has been to construct a new and powerful story. Part of the argument of American legal scholarship, like Sethe’s baby, is dead and haunts our present. The ghost here is our loyalty to the status quo and a certain part of liberal theory. Ultimately, the part of liberal theory and the status quo that we must reject is the white privilege embedded there. The problem of course is to find it and our own privilege with it, and to keep it from continuing to haunt our present.