In a 1992 essay, novelist Saul Bellow noted the prevalence of a particular class of people: well-intentioned, well-educated folk, uninterested in the mental workout involved in forming original opinions, preferring instead to purchase them wholesale, packaged and delivered by the good people at the New York Times or the news anchors on NBC. Their taste for packaged opinion stemmed from their desire to be approved by their peers. “The right sort of thinking,” Bellow writes, “makes social intercourse smoother. The wrong sort exposes you to accusations of insensitivity, misogyny, and perhaps worst of all, racism.”
Bellow called this class “the nonthinking good.” Today, they are all around us. They post black squares on Instagram. They claim that racism is as American as apple pie. They read and retweet articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates. They say that “riots are the language of the unheard,” without the recognition that Martin Luther King Jr. was acknowledging the rioters’ anger, but condemning their violence. They’re for all the good causes and against the bad ones. And they’re poised to become Critical Race Theorists.
Many ordinary citizens have noticed the slow creep of critical race theory into everyday life. Unconscious bias training has rampaged through corporate offices. When two black men were arrested inside a Starbucks, after baristas phoned the police, the company closed 8,000 of their stores so that their employees could undergo racial bias training. Later, the beauty shop Sephora closed their stores, so employees could receive diversity training, after the singer SZA claimed to have been racially profiled. Even after such high profile events, the growing influence of Critical Race Theory remained on the periphery of our awareness. Yet it has seeped into our culture and positioned itself to capitalize on the current moment.
The killing of George Floyd has people asking how they can fight racism. Sales of antiracism books have surged. In the UK, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is Amazon’s #1 bestseller. In America, it’s Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism. In Canada, sales of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to Present by Robyn Maynard shot up by 172%. Behold the nonthinking good scrambling for their opinions.
Rarely does the entire world stop to reflect on their actions, and how they should change. When such a moment occurs, the resulting outcome needs to propel us forward. One dreaded result of these protests is for people to begin seeing race everywhere. To imbibe Critical Race Theory. This would send society back to a time before the 1960s. Race will become not just an aspect of a person’s character (already a dubious statement)—it will be their character.
We are already seeing early signs of this. The claim that Canada is a systemically racist country is being made increasingly often. The rise in popularity of Maynard’s book, together with the fact that so many companies have been forcing mandatory unconscious bias training upon their employees, will probably disseminate such claims further. A 2019 survey of Canadian attitudes to race relations found that nearly three-quarters of Canadians of all races believed that racial relations were generally good. Many Canadians also believed that racially charged incidents were symptoms of individual prejudice, not signs of systemic racism. If Critical Race Theory is allowed uncontested access to the airwaves and newspapers, permitted entry into downtown corporate offices and our school system, we will witness a reverse metamorphosis: Canada will go backwards—from humanism to racial essentialism.
The more conversations I have with those around me, the stronger the dread becomes. Friends are encouraging others to read White Fragility. Co-workers are taking classes on how to spot racism and bias within themselves. Remarks about the structural racism of western societies are as frequent as they are vapid. Of most concern is that the origins of these philosophies are unknown to most. Critical Race Theory means nothing to most people. The average person bemoaning societal racism knows little about the theory from which these complaints stems or the future it envisions. Critical Race Theory is not seen as a radical ideology, uninterested in the core tenets that stirred Dr King and Baldwin to action. It is seen as the only way forward.
As an outlook, Critical Race Theory can be alluring (especially if one is not exposed to other perspectives) and easy to adopt. For the nonthinking good, it has attractive qualities. The core tenet of Critical Race Theory requires any potential ally to surrender her mental freedom. White society cannot understand black experience, so what is said must be accepted uncritically. From there, a seductive narrative is spun: a story about the virtuously oppressed fighting their evil oppressors, about black people abused and exploited, their culture destroyed and their bodies violated by the white system in the past and the present, about modern societies that are implicated in past atrocities.
Critical theorists utilize the guilt and shame they inspire. Once white people are satisfactorily steeped in self-loathing, a road to absolution appears. Admit your complicity in upholding a racist society, acknowledge and denounce the racism within yourself, and seek to extinguish it in others. Always keep in mind, while fighting this virtuous battle, that you will never be cleansed of original sin. As a white person, racism is embedded deep within your being, liable to manifest itself in a multitude of ways. Always suspect your motives and confess when they are tainted by racist impulses.
James Lindsay has deconstructed the flaws of this theory better than I could. This belief system is inherently racist and divisive, cynical and Sisyphean in the extreme. It is opposed to the humanist beliefs about race that made us what we are today: an imperfect, but decidedly less racist society than any that has come before.
One of the great tragedies that befalls those who uncritically adopt the commandments put forth by critical theorists is that they deprive themselves of writers and speakers who offer a more sympathetic and optimistic view of race relations: people like Glenn Loury, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, Chloé Valdary and John McWhorter, people with an inexhaustible capacity for compassion and nuance, who too often go unread and unlistened to.
This happens in part because such people refuse to conform to a narrative. They do not agree with each other on all issues, but they are all interested in getting at the truth. They’re unwilling to sacrifice accuracy to score rhetorical points, nor do they demand agreement from their audiences. They respect their individual autonomy enough to allow them to form their own opinions.
And therein lies the divide between Critical Race Theory and its opponents. One spins a narrative and provides the answer in easy-to-follow steps. The other requires the slow burn of deliberate thought. Anyone caught thoughtlessly parroting the words of Loury, McWhorter or Valdary would be rightly criticized for not doing his homework. Anyone thoughtlessly echoing the words of Coates or DiAngelo would be doing precisely what is asked of her.
Right now, people are being asked what they personally are doing to be antiracist. Silence is compliance, says the placard. In turn, many feel compelled to provide a satisfying answer. And, in today’s climate, one can rarely go wrong by acknowledging one’s whiteness and unconscious racism. To answer that you’re slowly reading the work of intellectuals on the history and theories of racism, and that you are not yet entirely convinced of this whole nation of white supremacists rhetoric will not, as Bellow says, make social intercourse smoother.
Bellow regarded the nonthinking good as cowards: all too willing to surrender their minds to swindlers and con artists, who will eventually reveal their true intentions. How prescient he was. Some advocates of Critical Race Theory are less interested in equality than it might at first appear. Any claim of equality loses credibility when one group is asked to abase itself before another.
The solution to the problem of nonthinking good is thought. Do more than passively accept the diagnosis and cure delivered by those who host unconscious bias training seminars. Help suffering communities by putting yourself through the arduous exercise of forming your own opinions. Do the daily reading. (Yes, that includes the books of DiAngelo, as well as those of Baldwin and Williams). Experience the dizzying sensation of changing your mind on a daily basis. The other option is to accept the proclamations delivered by the Critical Theorists. To pray that the people who asked for your unquestioning allyship have the best interests of society at heart. I am willing to wager a considerable sum that that would be an unwise gamble.