The Trump administration’s recent executive order banning Critical Race Theory from all federally funded institutions has exposed this previously obscure legal theory to public scrutiny. The order calls on government agencies to identify and put a halt to any contracts and spending “related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” Instead, the president has extolled the virtues of a “patriotic education” that will teach young people to “love America with all of their hearts and all of their souls.” In the UK, Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch described CRT as an ideology that sees her blackness as victimhood and whiteness itself as oppression.
Wonderful speech by @KemiBadenoch Equalities Minister. What a relief it is to have an Equalities Minister who gets it!
“We do not want white teachers teaching white pupils about white privilege and white inherited guilt.”pic.twitter.com/VYQ2OvyffU
— Katharine Birbalsingh (@Miss_Snuffy) October 21, 2020
The US administration’s decision has reanimated familiar race debates across the political spectrum. However, the precise relationship of CRT to the most extreme expressions of woke anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement has yet to be made clear. How do we get from a niche academic discipline to calls to defund the police, lamentations over the existence of America itself and expressions of loathing towards white people?
Steelmanning Critical Race Theory
As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic have shown, CRT emerged as both a continuation of and corrective to the black freedom struggle of the 1960s. Drawing on disciplines from radical feminism to critical legal studies and postmodernism, and spearheaded by activists and scholars like American lawyers Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, CRT developed in the 70s in reaction to the stalling of civil rights gains and the persistence of socioeconomic inequality between whites and blacks. As they saw it, the traditional liberal framework was no longer sufficient to examine the confluence of historical, cultural, psychological and economic forces that perpetuate racial injustice in contemporary America, i.e. the exclusion of blacks from important social networks; implicit anti-black cultural norms, stereotypes and stigmas; the intergenerational social and economic impacts of historical racism; and the psychological and cultural damage leftover from past oppression.
CRT is premised on two indisputable facts: America’s brutal legacy of historical racism and white supremacy, and the existence of outcome disparities disadvantaging blacks and other racial minorities today. To critical race theorists, the question is not whether these facts are connected but how. “Unlike traditional civil rights discourse,” they write, “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.” By applying a critical lens to the subtler forms of racial oppression, Critical Race Theory sets out to dismantle the remaining barriers to true equality that classical liberalism has been unable to eradicate. The goal is to engender a society where, if you chose to belong to a racial group from behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, that choice would not have a major impact on your outcome in life. The aim is to build a country in which race is not predictive of how our lives turn out.
The core principles of CRT are as follows:
- Due to our history, racism is widespread in American society and virtually no aspect of public life is untouched by it.
- The dominant group—in this case whites—has an underlying psychic and economic investment in prevailing societal structures.
- Races are entirely socially constructed in the service of the powerful, and with the right amount of social and political pressure the system can be rearranged to the benefit of everyone.
Some other principles of CRT include intersectionality—the idea that human beings are composed of a multitude of intersecting group identities; standpoint epistemology—the notion that people with certain racial identities have worldviews that are inaccessible to those who don’t share those identities; differential racialization—the attempt to grapple with the different ways in which a group has been racialized at different times in history to the benefit of the majority culture; and historical revisionism—a belief in the importance of unearthing historical events that challenge received wisdom about who we are.
These beliefs form the basis of a structural or systemic analysis of racial inequality that ventures beyond individual racist attitudes, looking to specific policies and cultural practices to make sense of continuing racial disparities of outcome. As philosopher Liam Bright, a proponent of CRT, writes:
Critical Race Theorists think of racism in terms of social or institutional structures systematically favouring the dominant group—in our society white people—over non-dominant groups. Core claim is: racism, so understood, is persistent, influential, and maintains itself whether or not the individuals staffing bureaucratic roles have ill will towards black people or non-whites … Small initial disparities, when combined with salient but arbitrary means of dividing persons (like, say, skin colour and hair texture!) tend to generate persistent inequality in social mores and norms. We won’t just divide the pie unequally, but will tend to develop norms that make sharing the pie unevenly seem just natural.
Important debates and disagreements are ongoing within the field, such as how much to focus on the economic versus the cultural and psychological roots of racial inequality. CRT is by no means monolithic. Its basic framework is interesting and can be useful in certain cultural, social and legal contexts, and its central principles are reasonable, if not obvious: some racial inequality can be attributed to the intergenerational impacts of Jim Crow and slavery; the colorblind ideology of post-civil rights liberalism can neglect the more subtle expressions of racism; one’s racial identity can inform one’s worldview; our relative advantages and disadvantages can make us more or less aware of a given issue; and racism still endures in America. Much of this is common sense.
A Critical Look at Critical Race Theory
But how do we get from this analysis to, say, Robin DiAngelo’s insistence that every single white person is inherently racist and that to question this is evidence of white fragility; or Ibram X. Kendi’s binary framework in which every idea and policy is either racist or anti-racist with nothing in between; or the belief that America is so irredeemably racist that we’d be better off scrapping the constitution and starting anew? (Not to mention the spate of reactionary ideas—from cultural relativism to censorship—championed by some on the woke left in recent years.)
One common defense of CRT is that it’s unobjectionable in theory but can be taken to extremes in practice, largely as a reaction to broader structural issues, such as declining living standards or pervasive economic inequality. But this argument is far too charitable. The issue is not merely the disparity between theory and praxis, but the following assumptions, which are built into the framework of CRT itself.
- The assumption that contemporary racial inequality is a direct consequence of historical racism lends itself to a historical determinism that only looks at modern issues through the lens of the past, obscuring the complexities and exigencies of the now.
- The notion that any outcome disparity between two groups is necessarily the result of systemic racial bias—rather than a complex tangle of cultural, historical and socioeconomic forces—perpetuates unnecessary interracial tribalism and polarization.
- The transition from negative liberalism (freedom from) in terms of individuals to positive liberalism (freedom to) in terms of groups erases an important distinction between privileges and rights, between our relative advantages over others and what we are all entitled to as human beings, thus contributing to a zero-sum attitude that thinks in terms of which group deserves what, rather than what we all owe each other as citizens.
- The definitional expansion of racism from an ideology influencing the behaviour of individuals to the structural force that pervades our institutions, leads to concept creep of the meaning of racist, from a person who, for example, genuinely believes blacks to be inferior to someone who agrees with the statement “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame their prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors.” Even the notion of colorblindness is considered racist to some.
Critical Race Theory’s emphasis on the influence of historical narratives can overflow into outright revisionism (as the controversy surrounding the New York Times 1619 Project shows), empowering an alternative, compensatory vision of history that centers exclusively on the nation’s moral errors. This is ultimately just as biased as Trump’s idea of a “patriotic education” that fixates on the country’s past glories while ignoring the rest. Moreover, the explicit race-consciousness of CRT, along with its emphasis on the lived experience of those belonging to certain groups, can blur into a form of race essentialism that bestows an almost mystical essence upon racial identity, injecting moral meaning into melanin. CRT’s explicit opposition to classical liberalism can also encourage certain illiberal policies, such as implicit race quotas in universities, mandatory diversity seminars and sensitivity training and even Ibram X. Kendi’s proposal to add an anti-racist amendment to the US constitution and institute a Department of Anti-Racism armed with “disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
The concept of structural racism itself, which is the central building block of CRT, comes with some pre-packaged flaws. For one, too many factors fall under the structural racism umbrella for the theory to be either coherent or accessible. Structural racism is meant to include implicit racial bias in our culture and institutions, the intergenerational socioeconomic impacts of past racism, and even harmful cultural patterns that arose due to historical oppression—as well as garden-variety racism. Basically, the concept of structural racism is used to explain the unequal outcomes between whites and blacks, without exploring what caused those outcomes. A concept so nonspecific will ultimately mean very little in practice. We can’t understand the amalgam of factors that result in racial inequality by throwing them all into one big bucket, labelling it racism, and pledging to combat it. Present day racism, racial inequality and historical racism are not the same phenomena and must be broached separately.
Similarly, it has never been adequately explained where, whether or at what point the individual meets the systemic in the structural racism narrative. Is racism transmitted through institutions to individuals or vice versa, or both? If there is no evidence of racism in the policies of a given institution or the behavior of its members, where is it to be found, if it is to be found everywhere? In effect, the concept operates as a rhetorical sleight of hand, a way of institutionalizing guilt over racism without the attendant responsibility of identifying particular instances of the phenomenon. It anthropomorphizes society. It is not obvious that a system can be racist as that word is traditionally understood. The killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, for example, look like old-fashioned racism, not some amorphous systemic force that results in racial disparity through complex yet invisible institutional norms. There is a major gap between our gut-level reaction to behavioral racism and its ever expanding structural definition, and within that gap lies a great deal of moral confusion. The concept of structural racism emerged when individual racist attitudes were in sharp decline, and it seems that the former has expanded its remit to account for the decline of the latter.
These flaws can be traced back to the foundations of CRT. A major progressive shift in society is often met with an expanded notion of what true progress would mean and an attendant feeling of disappointment arising from the gap between outcome and expectation. The Black Panthers, the concept of institutional racism, white guilt and black power politics, all arose only after the unprecedented victories of the civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter came into being only after the two term success of the first black president. Third wave feminism arose after the vote was won, contraception had been invented and abortion made legal. Of course, there are historical exceptions, but this is a pattern that appears to repeat itself over time. CRT came into being as white supremacy was in decline—and it shows.
Critical Race Theory offers an effective analytic toolkit for understanding the lingering effects of racism and in this regard it makes a major contribution to intellectual life. But the overall shift in our notions of racism that CRT has ushered in: from interpersonal to structural, overt to implicit, conscious to unconscious, political to personal, present to past, discrimination to disparity, invariably collapses our sense of time, proportion and history. For CRT proponents, the reality of racial progress can be swiftly dismissed. How else would it be possible for a bestselling author like Robin DiAngelo to write that racism is worse now than it was before the 1960s? This is delusional, as are attempts to portray Black Lives Matter as occupying the same moral high ground as the civil rights movement. The goal of the latter was to abolish legal segregation and the goal of the former is, as far as I can tell, to abolish the police—or something. Left unchecked, the incentive to dissociate ourselves from historical racism to achieve a sense of innocence can become a self-reinforcing moral identity, exaggerating racism in order to keep the specter of white supremacy alive and well.
Of course, there is always a risk of tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Many conservative commentators are far too willing to ascribe any race politics that annoys them to Critical Race Theory, treating it as a ubiquitous bogeyman, just as many progressives do with racism itself. Still, there is some truth in their critiques—that CRT contributes to the racialization of everything, keeps us stuck in the past, worsens racial polarization and intensifies people’s sense of grievance, employs an oversimplistic paradigm of majority guilt and minority victimhood and presents a one-sided version of American history. Obsessing about race is like playing with fire. We may start by seeing these debates about race as a means to an end, but end up treating them as an end in itself.