Critical Race Theory: What It Is, What’s Wrong With It, What’s Right With It

The hot topic as of late has been Critical Race Theory (CRT). It’s the boogie-man that right-wingers use to malign everything Democrats do, and to proponents it’s the best way to end racism. Republican states are banning it from schools, and advocates are writing books like How to Be an Antiracist and White Fragility. But what are the actual tenants of CRT? What are the valid criticisms and invalid criticisms? I’m no expert, but I’ve tried to understand these questions as best I can as a layperson to the field. I am not a neutral observer with no bias, but I will try my best not to straw-man CRT. I will directly quote as much of actual CRT scholars as possible.

In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2017) authors Delgado and Stefancic say:

The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up, but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces 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.

Most people wholeheartedly support the civil rights aspect of CRT. The disagreements I and many other non-partisan skeptics have begins with rejection of incrementalism and CRT’s seeming preference for a radical burn-it-all-down-and-rebuild-from-scratch attitude. This radical approach is readily adopted by left-anarchists/libertarians, and is taken even further by leftist anti-capitalists and left-wing “tankies” who mythologize the likes of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara. These leftists are the same people that invent dumb slogans like Abolish the Police; the same people who point out the truth that most post-George Floyd protesters were non-violent, but in the next breath say violent rioters were justified and right too. It is that which many of us skeptics of CRT reject; we don’t reject acknowledging the hard truths of racism, historic and modern, and working to make change to address problems.

The other major aspect CRT skeptics take serious issue with is the rejection of the ideals and values of the European Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. These ideals are rejected because they are considered white values. Such ideals include the belief in an objective reality and our ability to devise methods to discover that objective reality to some degree, even if that degree is still imperfect. Enlightenment values are right there along with CRT in pushing to challenge old dogmas, but they seem to differ in the respect that CRT wants to lean heavily on biased personal experience and anecdote rather than try to remove the corrupting influence of bias. They believe that neutrality is an unachievable façade, so why even try to be neutral in how you seek or present information. Advocating CRT, Calmore (1991) says:

Critical race theory reflects the colored intellectual’s persistent battle to avoid being rendered inauthentic by the pressures of adapting to the white world and to take instead an oppositional stance… Critical race theory calls upon one to adopt a “multiple consciousness,”… not the random, ambidextrous perspective that enables us to incorporate all points of view, but rather the consciousness that involves deliberate attempts to view the world through the eyes of the oppressed… Critical race scholarship also rejects the traditional dictates that implore one to write and study as a detached observer whose work is purportedly objective, neutral, and balanced. In the classic sense of “professing,”… Traditional scholarship’s appearance of balance presupposes a status quo baseline that hinders both understanding and social change. Critical race theory tends, in response, toward very personal expression that allows our experiences and lessons, learned as people of color, to convey the knowledge.

To be clear, we people who value Enlightenment rationalism are not saying the lived-in experiences of the oppressed are worthless. They are of great value with regard to developing empathy and sympathy. It is just that they are of much less value when trying to determine objective fact. What people feel like is true and what is actually true are very different things. Moreover, we are not saying that all Western values are universal or beneficial to a society. But we are saying that there are measurable facts that do not change depending on culture, and that whatever values you have should be in light of the facts.

Deconstructing and Reconstructing

As quoted by John Calmore (1991), Ambalavaner Sivanandan says:

[The black man must contend with] Racial prejudice and discrimination, [which] he recognizes, are not a matter of individual attitudes, but a sickness of a whole society carried in its culture. And his survival as a black man in white society requires that he constantly questions and challenges every aspect of white life… white speech, white schooling, white law, white work, white religion, white love, even white lies… [He must fight] the ideology of white cultural hegemony.

CRT theorists advocate deconstructing and analyzing the racist roots behind things from a racially conscious perspective, and reconstructing it in what they believe is an anti-racist way. An example of this is academia. They deconstructed it, determining that the academic values of presenting information in an objective, balanced, and neutral way are values (delusions) of the white world. The alternative reconstructed values are acting subjective and explicitly political. You are not to be impartial when discussing information, but instead look at everything from the lens of your personal experience and with your political goals in mind.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is the perspective of deconstruction every CRT proponent endorses, but it is certainly a prominent one. Indeed, while the CRT intellectuals may very often be of a less extreme mind, perusal through the socialist, woke, and other leftist corners of social media will firmly demonstrate that much (if not the majority) of the CRT laity are fanatic and embody the sketch I made. You cannot tell one of those people that their personal anecdotes are not evidence of fact without being accused of racism and invalidation of identities.

Color-Blindness and Race Consciousness

CRT theorists are against color-blindness. Not just color-blindness as in old white conservatives pretending that racism disappears if we ignore it, but color-blindness in the sense of not acknowledging a racial/racism component in just about every part of our culture, governmental system, and every undesirable disparity in society.

Peller (1990) states that traditionally whites have divided between white supremacists who supported segregation, and white liberals and progressives who fought for integration and civil rights reform. He goes on to make a sketch of “cosmopolitan” white liberals who believed neutrality and color-blindness to be superior to the backward race consciousness of the white supremacist. CRT theorists tend to fault this supposed color-blind neutrality as if liberals actually thought that ignoring race and treating everyone the same regardless of past oppression or early bad luck was what they meant by neutrality (e.g., Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). This is provably false in light of these same liberals being the ones who supported singling out black Americans for extra assistance with programs like affirmative action. Indeed, modern conservatives attack modern liberals for doing the very thing CRT advocates say they’re not doing. It seems the only political breed CRT proponents approve of are those much further to the left, those who feel insulted when called liberals and are of the revolutionary anti-incrementalism perspective.

In contrast to color-blindness, CRT theorists advocate race consciousness. They want race to be salient and a part of our everyday thinking. If you’re white, your whiteness is supposed to be in the back of your mind, reminding you of your privilege. This extends to teaching children as young as 6 that they are privileged if they are white, that they unfairly benefit because they are white, and that being white makes them distinct from being black. Self-loathing may not be an explicit goal of this aspect of CRT, but it seems more than likely to be a result.

Look, I get it. The idea is that teaching about racism and how it affects the real world will help get rid of racism. This is almost certainly true. But CRT goes about it with race consciousness in ways that are likely to cause people to essentialize race even more, not less. CRT’s approach is what a person would develop if they drew the completely wrong conclusion from the Jane Elliot “Blue eyes/Brown eyes” experiment with children. Indeed, CRT wants children to pay special attention to their skin color in a way very likely to exacerbate the othering of one-another.

Race conscious for black individuals means your pride in being black is to be with you at all times. CRT advocates the black nationalist approach:

“The exclusion of a nationalist approach to racial justice from mainstream discourse has been a cultural and political mistake that has constrained the boundaries of racial politics.”

(Peller, 1990)

Such a nationalist approach references perspectives like Malcom X. and Stokely Carmichael who see integrationists as trying to obliterate black culture. Carmichael in 1967 said “‘Integration’ also means that black people must give up their identity, deny their heritage… The fact is that integration, as traditionally articulated, would abolish the black community. The fact is that what must be abolished is not the black community but the dependent colonial status that has been inflicted on it.”

Malcom X. even rejected integrated schools. He believed the problem with segregated schools was not the lack of diversity, but the power whites still had in black schools.

if we can get an all-black school, that we can control, staff it ourselves with the type of teachers that have our good at heart, with the type of books that have in them many of the missing ingredients that have produced this inferiority complex in our people, then we don’t feel that an all-black school is necessarily a segregated school. It’s only segregated when it’s controlled by someone from outside… So, what the integrationists, in my opinion, are saying, when they say that whites and blacks must go to school together, is that the whites are so much superior that just their presence in a black classroom balances it out. I can’t go along with that.

Malcolm X, 1963, quoted in Peller (1990)

It’s ironic considering the modern progressive emphasis on diversity. I am one of the people on the left who wants more diversity. I recognize the simple fact that the more one group interacts with another, the more prejudice and stereotypes break down. There is robust scientific literature on this fact (e.g., Allport & Ross, 1967; Hodson, 2011; Rosenblith, 1949)

While the perspectives of people like Carmichael and Malcom X. are perfectly understandable given the time and level of oppression, they are nonetheless extreme, and are in line with numerous other concurrently-held bizarre beliefs. Based on teachings within the Nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad, Malcom X. accepted beliefs that “the white man is the devil.” They meant this literally in a black supremacist way. Even Peller (1990) acknowledges this thread of extremism:

The extreme manifestation of this tendency occurred in the rhetoric of mainstream Black Muslims, for example, which regarded the white community in monolithic and universal terms as the eternal “white devil.”

Malcom X. would, near the end of his life, soften and depart from this perspective in 1964. Unfortunately, most of the quotes of his which CRT advocates use as inspiration were prior to that, when he was still quite extreme. It was even common in the black supremacist culture to believe in conspiracies about whites and Freemasonry.

CRT, Marxism, and Capitalism

Most people that support CRT are likely not hardcore Marxists. But it would be a lie to say Marxism, Neo-Marxism, and similar anti-capitalist philosophies weren’t prominent in the development of CRT. Indeed, CRT is very open about the Marxists that inspired it, and is often directly hostile to all forms of capitalism.

Ibram X. Kendi believes capitalism to be inseparable from racism, and sees anti-racism as inseparable from anti-capitalism. He doesn’t seem to believe there is a middle ground; a system is either capitalist or anti-capitalist, with no in-between (he takes the same binary approach to racism/anti-racism). He says:

To love capitalism is to end up loving racism… The conjoined twins are two sides of the same destructive body. The idea that capitalism is merely free markets, competition, free trade, supplying and demanding, and private ownership of the means of production operating for a profit is as whimsical and ahistorical as the White-supremacist idea that calling something racist is the primary form of racism.

Crenshaw (1988) says:

Critical scholars derive their vision of legal ideology in part from the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian neo-Marxist theorist who developed an approach to understanding domination that transcends some of the limitations of traditional Marxist accounts.

Delgado and Stefancic (2017):

American crits [critical race theorists] and their supporters may do well to follow carefully the alterations and advances that their counterparts in Europe, Canada, Australia, and Latin America are making. For example, British scholars in the field of education are developing intriguing analyses of class and maintaining lively exchanges with Marxist scholars, something that has been missing in the American scene, at least to date.

I don’t mention this point on Marxism to demonize people who critique capitalism; I critique capitalism myself. That doesn’t mean I want to get rid of capitalism, to throw the baby out with the bathwater (as Kendi appears to desire).

Right-wingers have always had and continue to have a pathological fear and hatred of anything that even hints of Karl Marx. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Marx had a lot of good ideas, and that both him and Engels were absolutely right with shining a spotlight on the plight and exploitation of the working class. But predicting/advocating a violent revolution and a subsequent dictatorship of the proletariat is not among good Marxist ideas. And it is this, a complete rejection of private property, and a bent for utopianism that Marxism gets wrong. It is these things that most people who consider themselves “Marxists” are advocating. So, it is perfectly reasonable that Marxism’s involvement in CRT makes CRT suspect.

The CRT critique of “liberal” economics doesn’t stop here. In line with the general economic naïveté of the non-moderate political left (like Bernie Sanders), they reject free-trade (e.g., removing tariffs and other trade barriers) and globalism. Ironically this is actually where they align with the Trumpian right and Brexit voters. In this position, they reject what is basically one of the few things almost all expert economists of the left and right accept; that the net effects of globalism and free trade are overwhelmingly good. Far-leftists see global economics as a zero-sum game, and they pay attention to only the people hurt by globalism while ignoring the many more who benefit. CRT theorist appear like Luddites who would sooner see technological progress stop or regress than let greater efficiency put one person out of a job. They say as much in their manifestos:

A fifth issue that is very much at the forefront of critical race theory currently is international globalization. A globalizing economy removes manufacturing jobs from inner cities…, creates technology and information industry jobs for which many minorities have little training, and concentrates capital in the pockets of an elite class… A globalizing economy often includes free-trade agreements, like NAFTA, which can decimate the economies of a weaker nation such as Mexico… Sweatshop and other exploitive conditions… afflict poor, formerly colonized people of color, many of them women… The reason… wages are low and the new jobs attractive is that U.S. and European colonialism has robbed the former colonies of their natural wealth, suppressed the development of local leaders, and conspired with right-wing dictators to keep the people poor,
fearful, and disorganized.

(Delgado and Stefancic, 2017)

If you are, like me, interested in what benefits the most people the most amount, you wouldn’t reject free trade. When technology improves and the system changes, somebody always loses out. That doesn’t mean we reject progress. It means we make social safety-net policies to catch the people falling through the cracks during the progression forward.

Closing Thoughts

Many people sympathetic to CRT claim that it is merely recognizing that racist laws and policies were made in the past which have led to systemic racist real-world outcomes; that many of the historical teachings in the US unrealistically mythologize our history while minimizing the ugly facts. Any reasonable CRT skeptic accepts these facts too. However, CRT actually goes much further than well-meaning apologists for it even seem to be aware of themselves. CRT rejects the values most important to the scientific method as being too white, instead seeing biased, unfalsifiable, and arbitrary personal anecdotes and “lived-in” experiences as superior. CRT also seems to have no room for shades of grey; everything is either bad or good, with nothing being neutral or “kinda good.” That isn’t an intellectually sophisticated way of going about things. There also seems to be a great deal of utopian revolutionary socialism/anti-capitalism mixed up in CRT.

When political right-wingers whine about CRT they are most often just carrying on a tribal partisan culture war about something they likely know nothing about. They just see CRT as being synonymous with being a Democrat, and therefore something they must viscerally oppose. However, despite them opposing CRT for dumb and ignorant reasons, learning about CRT would still leave most rationalists in opposition.

Sources

  • Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(4), 432–443. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0021212
  • Calmore, J. O. (1991). Critical race theory, Archie Shepp, and Fire Music” Securing an authentic intellectual life in a multicultural world. Southern California Law Review, 65, 2129–2230.
  • Crenshaw, K. W. (1988). Race, reform, and retrenchment: Transformation and legitimation in antidiscrimination law. Harvard Law Review, 101(7), 1331–1387. https://doi.org/10.2307/1341398
  • Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. In Routledge Handbook of Law and Society (Third). New York University Press.
  • Hodson, G. (2011). Do ideologically intolerant people benefit from intergroup contact? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3), 154–159. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411409025
  • Peller, G. (1990). Race consciousness. Duke Law Journal, 1990(758), 758–847. Rosenblith, J. F. (1949). A replication of “some roots of prejudice.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44(4), 470–489. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0055399
  • Rosenblith, J. F. (1949). A replication of “some roots of prejudice.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44(4), 470–489. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0055399

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