Kimberle Crenshaw ’81, Critical Race Theorist, Returns to The Hill

October 18, 2013 12:07 am0 comments

By ERICA AUGENSTEIN

Visiting Cornell, a prominent theorist on issues of race and gender equality said recent Supreme Court cases addressing affirmative action and voting rights have devastated the progress of the civil rights era at a lecture Thursday.

Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw ’81, law, University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia Law School spoke as part of her five-day visit at Cornell, where she studied government and Africana studies when she was an undergraduate. During the course of her visit, Crenshaw will be meeting with faculty and students.

Crenshaw focused on recent major Supreme Court decisions made primarily this summer, including Shelby County v. Holder, Hollingsworth v. Perry and Fischer v. University of Texas.

“If we were to subtitle this summer, it would be called the good, the bad and the ugly,” Crenshaw said. Crenshaw acknowledged both the advancement of gay rights in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry — which overturned Proposition 8 and allowed gay couples to marry in California — and what she called several devastations for the advancement of civil rights.

Prof. Crenshaw '81

Prof. Crenshaw ’81

Crenshaw said the decision of Shelby County v. Holder –– which was designed to prevent discrimination by striking down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act –– “was truly ugly in the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. The crown jewel of the civil rights movement … it will surely suppress the voting rights of tens of thousands, perhaps millions of voters of color.”

Crenshaw also discussed the effects of Fisher v. University of Texas, in which a white female claimed she was rejected by the university on the grounds of racial descrimination. While the Supreme Court did not overturn affirmative action generally, it did clear the way for the program to be subjected to a test designed in a lower court through the case.

Crenshaw focused on the arguments of colorblindness that were brought up through this case.

Crenshaw explained that the rationale of “colorblindness” — the idea that society has become race-neutral and does not have to redesign status quo institutions to prevent discrimination — is used to disguise a defense of the status quo. Crenshaw argued that substantive changes are necessary to be truly post-racial.

“To be post-racial calls for us to attend the actual conditions of racial equity. It is not how much time has passed but how much our institutions have been transformed,” Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw made the point that the colorblind argument has a clear agenda in the overall social structure.

“Colorblindness has been resurrected to roll back the social infrastructure enacted during the civil rights movement,” Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw said these setbacks were the result of decisions made by the Supreme Court under Justice John Roberts, since 2005. She said that the Roberts court ended active restructuring of social structures to prevent racial discrimination, pointing to the Parents Involved v. Seattle case where, she said, “the Supreme Court ends active school desegregation.”

Crenshaw said the legal move toward race neutrality is reminiscent of much discriminatory policy like grandfather clauses and literacy tests, “efforts to suppress access to the franchise has always used measures that were formally race neutral.”

Crenshaw concluded by saying truly combating racism requires scrutinizing the structures that perpetuate racism and confronting inequality with the status quo.

Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, worked to bring Crenshaw to Cornell after being inspired by a previous presentation she had seen Crenshaw give.

At the speech, Alexander heard Crenshaw speak about discrimination in higher education.

“[Crenshaw] said that you should hold your alma mater accountable. She said ‘I left and never looked back,’” Alexander said. “I went up to her and I said, ‘I’m Renee Alexander and I want to give you the opportunity to come back.’”