As an academic librarian in the United States, I have watched with dismay as Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become the dominant framing of the continuing impact of America’s terrible racial history on group well-being metrics. CRT has not only spawned jargon-filled institutional diversity, equity and inclusion policies, but affects individual academic departments and libraries. The way in which it constrains inquiry and pre-biases our research is not only evident in the classroom, but is beginning to influence how we academic librarians provide resources and teach research skills. CRT framing has even found its way into our job descriptions and library policies, and has taken on the character of a political or religious litmus test. Its slippery discourse carelessly uses loaded terms such as white supremacy and racism to describe downstream outcomes, rather than intentions and attitudes. It is increasingly hostile to the fundamentals of effective research.
Perhaps even worse, it risks obscuring the actual ways in which the shameful racial history of the US set in motion the present day observed racial disparities and prevents us from formulating the policies that might best address such disparities in the present. Both free inquiry and unbiased research and the ability to help groups disproportionately impacted by our history are going to become increasingly difficult if CRT continues to be the only way of thinking about systemic racism.
CRT makes two central claims. The first contains a crucial insight from the civil rights movement, without which we could make little sense of our cultural and social reality. The second, however, asserts that disparities themselves constitute racism and are evidence of and perpetuate white supremacy and must therefore be targeted by policies. This logical sleight-of-hand threatens both the cohesion of any pluralistic society and prevents us from addressing the actual problems that lead to racial disparities.
CRT approaches, then, rest on two claims, the second of which is believed to flow from the first.
Claim One: Systemic Racism
The first claim is that blacks suffered not only two hundred and fifty years of slavery, resulting in a direct and massive group-level difference in wealth, but another subsequent one hundred years of official subjugation and segregation and denial of the public goods that underwrite flourishing. This has led to group-level disparities in human capital development, resulting in, among other things, disparate outcomes.
This is an inescapable fact. The modern racial landscape is not caused by something fundamentally wrong with black people—as true a white supremacist or racist would claim.
For example, the higher crime and victimisation rates among black communities could, as James Foreman Jr. has argued, be the product of an honour culture put in motion by Jim Crow-era underpolicing of any crime that did not disrupt the then racial and economic hierarchy. Higher poverty rates can be traced in large part to the economic legacy of slavery, as well as to various racist policies that prevented the acquisition of wealth.
Rerun the same multifaceted group immiseration experiment with any group, and you will get largely the same results. If blacks had immigrated to the US and been treated like, say, Norwegian immigrants, these massive developmental disparities would probably be largely absent. Although immigrants can certainly arrive with different cultural and economic averages that can manifest in some group-level differences, given the particular traits needed to succeed under different cultural circumstances, the massive differences in flourishing between black and white Americans are certainly impacted by our history around race.
In the US, discrimination against blacks has historically been orders of magnitude more profound than discrimination against other ethnic groups. Even without the racist post-hoc justifications of the practice, slavery would have had group-level ramifications on its own, given the near total lack of wealth held by blacks in 1865. Add a century of segregation and racism and you have a situation unmatched in its capacity to reproduce group-level generational misery.
This empirical claim about upstream group-level causation does not necessarily imply specific downstream personal or policy solutions. In fact, we need to consider a wider range of possibilities for reducing group-level suffering.
Where CRT runs into serious conceptual trouble, though, is in its second central claim.
Claim Two: All Disparities Are the Result of Continuing Racism
The second claim is that, because these disparities were set in motion by America’s reprehensible racial history, each of them is literally caused by this history in both the group and individual instance. Every disparity observed today stems from racism and white supremacy. Those who fail to seek a forced repair of the disparity are guilty of racism and perpetuating white supremacy. Any judgement, system or policy that perpetuates a disparity that can be traced to a racist past is itself white supremacist and racist. Since racism is the underlying cause of all disparities, large and small, insufficient alarm and concern at these disparities is also racist.
This second claim allows anti-racist ideology to be weaponised by both moralists and authoritarians.
This presents a dilemma: if racist policies have resulted in disparate flourishing metrics, why not address these disparities in every arena in which they exist?
The error here is imagining that group disparities continue to be neatly tied to the racism that set them in motion. This leads to a strange obsession with the disparities themselves and not their upstream, proximate causes, which at the individual level are not racially unique.
Conservative economist Glenn Loury has convincingly argued that present disparities are the result of developmental challenges that may have arisen as a consequence of racism, but no longer depend on it. Leftist political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has reached a similar conclusion, from a Marxist perspective: the developmental problems of the black community are simply the result of greater exposure to a destructive political economy that can handicap anyone’s flourishing. While this greater exposure owes its origins to racism, Reed argues that the political economy itself, not black identity, should be the focus of policy efforts, since that same political economy can be the source of misery for anyone.
Despite their ideological differences, Loury and Reed have hit on an important point: disparities, rather than being independent variables that prove racism, are the result of experiences that can cause anyone suffering. The fact that blacks suffer more from them originated in racism but no longer tied to it.
Imagine a university that sincerely wants to reflect American demographics by having 14% of its faculty and students be the descendants of slaves. What do we do with the fact that being a successful student or faculty member requires human capital that our racial history has distributed unequally? How do you address a disparity in flourishing when there is a disparity in the human capital required for flourishing? Do we simply nullify those requirements and denounce them as racist, as CRT advocates do? Or do we give up entirely and say it’s all in the past and there’s nothing we can do, and focus solely on individual merit, as staunchly colour-blind meritocrats and opportunistic racists do?
A Better Definition of Systemic Racism
The unique history of blacks in the United States has left them more exposed to political, economic and developmental problems that can immiserate anyone. The best way to address this is to concentrate on the economic and developmental problems more broadly, and in so doing address the racial disparity without overtly racializing either problems or solutions.
This opens the door to various approaches: economic leftism, which focuses on wealth and opportunity; social conservatism, which focuses on culture and norms; and capitalist developmental economics, which focuses on markets and wealth creation. This ecumenical focus would ultimately result in the reduction of group disparities, since those problems are unevenly distributed. Furthermore, it broadens the number of possible solutions while acknowledging that our racist history matters. And it allows us to focus on suffering as experienced by real-life individuals, rather than metaphorical groups, thus placing all individual suffering on the same level.
Modern racial disparities have their roots in the past, but in the proximate, individual sense, black people are poor for the same reasons white people are poor. Black people commit crime and are victims of crime for the same reasons as white people. And these issues can prevent any individual from gaining entry to institutions and careers—outcomes that are downstream of the addressable problems of poverty, education, crime and so on. If we attempt to address those problems without regard to race, we will both disproportionately help black people and endorse a pluralistic vision in which we seek to expand human flourishing, without racializing either the suffering of individuals or, importantly, the human development problems that can lead to suffering and inequality.
We also need to take a closer look at why we conceive of flourishing so narrowly—as success in professional or managerial careers. Perhaps the largely one-sided economic havoc caused by the Covid pandemic can help us recognize that we have tied economic security too strongly to narrow career paths reliant on a suite of traits that are largely the gifts of luck. We need to reflect on why our economy extravagantly rewards this narrow genre of work, while everyone else is condemned to hourly wage jobs, serial unemployment and the gig and underground economies.
For a purportedly leftist movement, CRT validates the decidedly neoliberal ideas that education and professional class jobs should be the main avenues to economic self-sufficiency and that diversifying professional managerial jobs is the key to social justice. Despite the frequent charges that the woke are Marxists, there is nothing Marxist about this: it completely ignores the way in which economic disadvantage can cause suffering.
CRT gives extravagant help to the most fortunate members of underprivileged groups and does little for the least fortunate. For example, imagine that all universities undertake to hire 14% black faculty. Given the far lower chance of a black person being qualified for a faculty position, this just hands the proportionally fewer black PhDs more high-paying jobs to turn down. In essence, if Harvard increases the number of black professors, other less prestigious universities will end up with fewer. This is because the cause of the disparity is not racists on university hiring committees, but upstream developmental problems. This is classified as diversity, equity and inclusion—but it fails to address the underlying causes of the disparity, such as poverty, high crime and lower educational attainment.
As John McWhorter has reported, Georgetown University law school professor Sandra Sellers recently found herself in hot water for noticing with dismay that black law students tend to be under-represented at the top of their classes. (They also pass the bar exam at far lower rates than white students.) She has been accused of racism because, to the Critical Race Theorist, the discrepancy itself is racist—any system that permits a racial disparity is itself racist and the law professor is therefore an instrument of a system that leaves black people disproportionately at the bottom. By extension, all the standards and expectations that permit this discrepancy should be thrown out as perpetuating white supremacy.
But, as McWhorter points out, it is not surprising that blacks are under-represented in top tier flourishing metrics, given that the history of systemic racism has resulted in uneven distribution of the human capital required for such endeavours. As McWhorter observes:
Systemic racism does affect how well all but a very few black students are prepared to excel in top-ranked law schools. Why would it not, given black people’s history in this country? Not to mention racist white teachers, in the wake of desegregation of public schools, alienating black students in the 1960s to the point that in synergy with the new Black Power ideology, a new element was introduced into black culture of seeing nerdiness—i.e. what you need to do well in law school—as white. The effects of this could be subtle—an invaluable study showed black fifth graders were more likely to say homework was for the teacher while white ones were more likely to say it was for their parents—but powerful.
James Forman Jr. has made a similar argument about the higher rates of violent crime commission and victimization among blacks. He has argued that Jim Crow instituted both under-policing (of intra-racial crime) and over-policing (for interracial social control). When a segregated and impoverished group of people cannot count on the state to care about the crimes that cause the most routine daily misery—intragroup assaults, murder, robbery, sexual violence—an honor culture of self-policing via credible threat of retaliatory violence can take hold to fill that role. So while the higher crime rate can be traced to past racism, the current racial disparities in policing can’t be separated from these higher crime and victimization rates and the racism that set all this in motion may prove to be a marginal factor in our search for solutions.
A racist past created conditions that disproportionately expose black people to circumstances that make it harder for them to reach the top tier of certain difficult pursuits, but the key to easing the disparity is to address the actual problems as they present themselves and as people actually experience them—as individuals. Different groups are differently affected by this on average but we should apply the policy fixes at an individual, not a group level, if we want to target the people who are actually experiencing the challenges.
I live in a racially and economically segregated city in the American Deep South, and the problems I see that are starkly related to—but now unmoored from—our racist past will never be addressed by professional and academic obsessions with disparities in proximate group-level outcomes. The upstream issues causing professional and academic racial disparities require the same solutions as the similar problems that bedevil the local rural white people, who are also poorly represented in professional and academic careers. Only by focusing on the actual barriers to human capital development and economic flourishing—not the misleading selection bias of race that surfaces only after these forces have taken effect—can meaningful solutions be found.