Of all the crazy things this year has been, more than anything else, it has been a distraction.
2020. The writers decided to start and end all the plot arcs at once, replacing the storyboard with the trash bin. Yet each thread – the virus, the masks, the election, the president, etc. – is, relatively speaking, a red herring. Each distracts from a philosophy representing a much larger danger to our Republic – one which threatens its very foundations. Yet it has existed and expanded within our universities and corporations for decades without serious challenge. I’m talking about “critical race theory” or “CRT.”
I’m not immediately going to launch into a tirade against CRT. In writing on controversial issues, it is advisable to make one’s points with as much charity and precision as possible. Further, if the writer desires to critique a theory, he should endeavor to do so using the definitions put forth by the theorists themselves. This method is known as creating a “steel man” argument – the opposite of a “straw man.” In this series, I will utilize CRT’s founders and theorists’ source materials to expose its fatal flaws. In part one, we’ll first establish the case in favor of CRT. We’ll then examine the first way CRT poses a lethal threat to the West in what I term “Racial Determinism.”
As one final premise, I’ll note that none of my critiques of CRT should be taken as a statement that racial issues are exclusively a thing of the past (they aren’t) or that system-level analysis of bias has absolutely no place in our tackling of race issues in the United States.
The Case for Critical Race Theory
Though CRT technically arose out of legal theory, its primary growth strains came from literary and legal scholars who came of age in the Civil Rights Movement’s aftermath. These lawyers and academics had an important observation: Simple legal equality has been heretofore insufficient to bring about significant racial parity increases on achievement and opportunity. Further, it is difficult to address these enduring gaps without looking at how prejudice manifests itself in our unconscious assumptions and actions. All else being equal, these are both fair points.
It is from these observations that Attorney Kimberlé Crenshaw manifested her now-famous theory of “Intersectionality.” Crenshaw made waves when she asserted that identity categories act in a multiplicative fashion on an individual. In a lawsuit against General Motors, she showed that the company hired plenty of black men and plenty of white women. Yet somehow, they employed very few black women relative to the population. Thus, being black and female at the same time is said to be more disadvantageous than the sum of “black” and “female” alone – the identities “intersect” to form a larger effect. On its own, this is a fair point.
Beyond legal theory, the historical ancestors of CRT base their claims in an even more reasonable and important point: Race is a social construct created to justify real, actual white supremacy. Imperialist movements wrought by European nations wouldn’t have been morally acceptable for any significant period of time without some compelling narrative told about the people groups they were subjugating. Take, for example, this particularly repulsive colonialist narrative circa 1871:
The regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races, by the superior races is part of the providential order of things for humanity…. Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese Race, who have wonderful manual dexterity, and almost no sense of honour; govern them with justice, levying from them, in return for the blessing of such a government, an ample allowance for the conquering Race, and they will be satisfied; a race of tillers of the soil, the Negro; treat him with kindness and humanity, and all will be as it should; a race of masters and soldiers, the European Race…. Let each do what he is made for, and all will be well.
Joseph-Ernest Renan, La Reforme intellectuelle et morale (1871)
Such de-humanizing narratives are part and parcel of strategies employed whenever one group seeks to commit atrocities on another. I am thankful we live in a society able to recognize them as such, and I’m further mindful of what these historical realities say about our human nature.
People often talk of race as a biological reality, but it isn’t that simple. Genetics can separate people quite reliably into ancestral populations based on geography – but not on skin color. With the exceptions of kidney function and sickle-cell anemia, medicine doesn’t find race very useful either, as our socially constructed conceptions of race don’t reliably correlate to genetic realities. Modern geneticists note that there is more genetic diversity within and among African populations than among all other population groups. Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, historical literature makes plenty of reference to tribes and people groups, but none concerning skin color or anything we would recognize as race. As it regards science, race isn’t real.
The average 21st Century white American might logically conclude from the previous paragraph that we ought to do away with race to pursue a “colorblind” society. Yet, continued research on the subject suggests that subtle biases against black individuals persist in our society. A “black-sounding” name on a resume gets fewer interviews than an identical resume with a “white-sounding” name. While police kill black persons in the US at a rate roughly proportional to the crime rate, they also have disproportionately more interactions with law enforcement; those interactions are also more likely to be negative in nature. Lastly, I’m sure any upper-middle-class African American can relate to the experience of being told, “Wow, you’re so articulate!” as if the expectation was that he or she would be “inarticulate.”
So, there is good reason to doubt our society’s ability to quickly “drop” race as a construct that influences our decisions and perceptions. And so long as it negatively affects our perceptions, one wonders to what extent such a cycle becomes self-perpetuating.
If such a narrative regarding our society bears any truth, the next question is, “what should we do about it?” In answering that question, we have to identify what we’re aiming for – and this is where things get interesting.
If asked to paint an ideal picture of America regarding race relations, most Americans would allude to core values with which we are all familiar: Equal opportunity for each individual, without regard to immutable characteristics. For many lay men and women, CRT appears compatible with this vision. After all, if an individual suffers an injustice committed by a non-individual (vis-à-vis systemic racism), it is still wrong. The empathy and compassion expressed here are understandable. So long as the Individual remains the locus of concern, this is a fine point. However, this is where critical race theory breaks from classical liberal values. I will endeavor to show that this is a fact, not an opinion. As you will see, most critical race theorists would not disagree with me on this point.
CRT’s opposition to Liberalism starts with “Standpoint Theory” or “Multiple-Consciousness Theory,” the brainchild of legal scholar Angela Harris. Standpoint Theory asserts that individual perspectives do not exist independent of social conditioning. Rather, a multiplicity of opposed “selves” constructed by external identity forces engage in an internal battle for supremacy.
In her words:
… we are not born with a ‘self,’ but rather are composed of a welter of partial, sometimes contradictory of even antithetical ‘selves.’
Angela P. Harris, “Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory,” Stanford Law Review 42, no. 3 (1990): 584.
Harris is not merely saying that multiple identity sources influence human self-perception. She asserts that these competing selves fundamentally form what we consider to be the “Individual.” (As an aside, Harris also just published an article advocating for the abolition of the justice system.)
Kimberlé Crenshaw also states this principle explicitly (though densely) in writing about race as identity as opposed to a secondary characteristic to personhood:
We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, nondeterminant.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1224n9.
In plain English: Crenshaw openly denounces the idea that someone should first be valued as an individual over and above their race. Simultaneously, she advocates for the reinvigoration of race as a method for ‘empowerment,’ rejecting the view of race as “nondeterminant.” To her, the average American’s aforementioned vision of “Equal opportunity for each individual, without regard to immutable characteristics,” is not the goal. Although she readily admits that race is a social construct built to justify centuries of oppression, Crenshaw insists that the construct be re-valued, rather than done away with. I suppose in her version of the story, no contingent of genuine white racists seizes upon this racial reification for nefarious purposes. Instead, all white people embrace their identity as the ‘oppressor’ class, accepting a subservient role to even the scales, trusting in the oppressed class’s inherent benevolence.
(Understanding the deeper roots of CRT’s affinity for this revivification of race as a social construct requires an analysis of a method of literary criticism called “Deconstruction” – a product of the French postmodernist Jacques Derrida. We’ll table that part of the discussion until a later piece.)
The concept of racial consciousness as an internal “self” subject to opposition from alternate “selves” has real-world effects. Take, for example, this video. In it, a protestor screams at a black police officer, calling him a race traitor and “a f***ing black Judas.” In the minds of the protestors, the officer isn’t Black (note the capitalization). Instead, he is a black person possessed by a false “white” consciousness. Thus, despite being black, the officer is an avatar for white supremacy.
A worldview that attributes individual actions to false consciousness quickly does away with any possibility of personal agency or free will. After all, how is one to tell when they are acting out their “true” self rather than the “false” one?
Granted, this is an isolated incident, and it is doubtful that the persons in the video hold any real positions of influence or responsibility in our society. So, take a look at this graphic published by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Titled “Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States,” the infographic starts by affirming Angela Harris’ Multiple-Consciousness Theory. It then takes a list of basic Western principles and classifies them as part of the “dominant white culture.” This classification, of course, implies that the principles are not part of ‘black’ culture. The list includes the following:
- Family Structure:
- “The nuclear family”
- “Father, Mother, 2.3 children is the ideal social unit”
- Scientific Method:
- “Objective, rational linear thinking”
- “Cause and effect relationships”
- “Quantitative emphasis”
- Protestant Work Ethic:
- “Hard work is the key to success”
- “Work before play”
- Future Orientation
- “Plan for future”
- “Delayed Gratification”
- “Progress is always best”
- “English common law”
- “Protection of property and entitlements”
- “Intent counts”
So, according to the Smithsonian Institute, delayed gratification and rational thinking aren’t part of ‘black’ culture. Is it worth pointing out that David Duke would agree?
Now, lest the reader thinks that this is simply the work of a rouge intern who has since been fired, I point further up the ladder to CRT’s most fundamental educational text: “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Each year, this book is read by tens of thousands of undergraduate students in introductory college courses.
In it, the authors restate the same principles found in the Smithsonian graphic:
Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 3.
And again a few pages later:
[C]ritical race scholars are discontented with liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems.
Delgado, et al., 26
They don’t even pretend that critical race theory is a proper academic discipline:
Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It tries it not only to understand our social situation but to change it, setting out not only to ascertain . . . but to transform. . .
These views are fundamental to CRT. They’ve been taught carte blanche to impressionable undergraduates for decades. We shouldn’t be surprised when these ideas manifest themselves outside the university. And if after hearing the previous quote alongside all of the talk of “false consciousness,” you’re getting Marxist vibes – good, because they’re both direct derivatives of Marxian philosophy.
Now let’s take a minute to think about the practical implications of what we’ve just learned. If we take the Smithsonian graphic as gospel truth, how do we address these apparently irreconcilable ‘cultural’ differences? If emphasizing the scientific method is a construct of “whiteness,” should we steer black students away from STEM professions? This will make the earnings gap worse.
And what of English Common Law? If it’s a manifestation of whiteness, shouldn’t we create an alternate legal system for black individuals? What will that look like? How will these separate legal systems deal with interactions between races?
What about economics? If ‘black’ culture ‘doesn’t value’ delayed gratification and hard work, how do black individuals participate in the economy? How do you measure their productivity? Isn’t such measurement a product of the ‘white’ obsession with quantity and analysis? If the graphic is correct, we couldn’t subject black individuals to payment by the hour – that would be an imposition of the ‘white’ proclivity to value time.
Do I really need to point out how completely unworkable this is – much less how few black individuals would accept it as plausible? I challenge you to walk up to the next black person you see and treat them with the assumption that they don’t value hard work and thinking for the future. Do you feel cringy and racist yet? This isn’t practical. It isn’t supposed to be. Such a society would be feasible under only one doctrine: Apartheid. I’m reasonably sure we just spent the last 160 years fighting to defeat those ideas.
CRT activists usually claim to be motivated by compassion for the oppressed. Like any decentralized movement, many declared ‘supporters’ of CRT lack background knowledge on the subject. Such people often think the word “critical” in CRT refers to “critical thinking” – it doesn’t. Instead, it relates to the purpose of the theory: To “problematize.” A CRT activist’s mission is to find out how racism manifests itself in a given social scenario. Hence their heavy use of the word “problematic.”
For CRT activists, the question is not whether racism took place in a given situation, but how it took place. Everything we do is assumed to be tainted with a racial undercurrent that must be identified and called out in perpetuity. Again, don’t take my word for it. To quote Robin DiAngelo of “White Fragility” fame, alongside other academics, speaking on a 2014 panel (emphasis added):
“The question is not ‘Did racism take place?,’ but rather ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’”
“Racism must be continually identified, analyzed, and challenged. No one is ever done.”
“The racial status quo is comfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.”
And my personal favorite:
“Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.”
This is like ‘original sin’ in Calvinist circles, but without the redemption. Sin is always there, you’re never done fighting your sinful nature, you should never feel entirely comfortable in your faith, and resistance to admitting your sinfulness is to be expected. In Calvinist communities, you can even sometimes gain social status by wallowing in a public display of self-sorrow over one’s sinfulness. This stuff is not new. Non-falsifiable, self-fulfilling, but unlike Christianity, you’re also irredeemable. Those aren’t ingredients for a society which remains coherent
This piece’s point is simple: Critical race theory is not a plan for mere modification of our society. This is not a conversation about expanding the social safety net or reinstituting affirmative action. The fundamentals of CRT plainly conflict with the precepts of most left-leaning liberals in the United States. Indeed, CRT directly contradicts the Liberal governmental structures of countries like Finland, Sweden, and Norway – so admired by members of the American left. If this were about highlighting the nuanced ways in which bias continues to be a factor in economic outcomes for African Americans, I would not be writing this essay.
Rather, I would like for all of us to continue sharing this country and living our lives together, imperfectly, genuinely, and humbly. Problems with racial disparities and racism persist and deserve our attention. Critical race theory is not the solution.
I expect this piece to be controversial. I’d like to have a good-faith conversation with those who might disagree. Nevertheless, I might lose friends, and I might be called names. Do not expect comments expressing such sentiments to receive any attention from me.
Part 3 of this series will dig in to… something else. We’ll see. I’ll be back after another two weeks of annoying my wife with these subjects.