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Cutting Through the Gibberish Around Critical Race Theory

It does not require the second coming of Émile Durkheim to notice that many Americans turn to comedians for information about social and political issues and developments. Those who lean left look to professionals like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart, and Samantha Bee, while the rightwardly inclined are drawn to amateurs who might have benefited from more nights honing their craft at open mics, Tucker Carlson, Kayleigh McEnany, Joe Rogan, Lara Logan, etc. The best, take John Oliver for example, are bright and well-meaning, the worst, and here you may choose your own examples, are crude political hacks.

Sometimes the subject taken up is too gnarly to be addressed in even a lengthy performance by a comic, even a bright and well-meaning comic. John Oliver recently waded into the minefield of critical race theory with a 28-minute exposition that came to my attention when a bright, thoughtful friend shared it on Facebook, another source of information for many Americans. There he provided a solid rebuttal of the mind-bending stupidity, lies, and pernicious agenda peddled by Carlson, Christopher Rufo, and the like. Unfortunately but quite predictably the episode was devoted entirely to this side of the foofaraw over CRT. Apart from a scant forty seconds with CRT scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (at about the five-minute mark; don't blink or you will miss it), there is no examination or discussion about what race crits (as distinguished from the crits of critical legal studies) actually believe and teach. No viewer will come away knowing one iota more about the tenets of critical race theory than they knew before watching.

Crenshaw used her time to push back against charges that CRT is unpatriotic, asserting that in fact race crits are more patriotic than their ideological adversaries because they believe in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Critical race theory calls attention to "what is happening in this country" and examines why that continues to produce differential outcomes. Critical race theorists, she says, believe we must talk honestly about inequality in order to achieve equality. Who but a blockhead could object to this?

I raise my hand cautiously. Critical race theory is an academic school of thought. As such it should be subject to critique and disputation the same as any other academic school of thought. Knowledgeable critique and disputation are notably missing from the public debate. The Carlson-Rufo treatment of CRT is anything but knowledgeable. If scholarly critique and disputation are happening at higher academic and intellectual levels, it has not filtered down to popular culture. With a few notable exceptions, John McWhorter being one, the response to nonsense spewed by Carlson, Rufo, and outraged MAGA parents disrupting school board meetings is rote recital of the line that CRT is an abstruse academic doctrine taught in law schools and graduate seminars having nothing to do with elementary and secondary education in public schools, a mantra routinely trotted out both by reputable commentators like Jonathan Capeheart (Washington Post columnist, PBS NewsHour regular) and by mainstream journalists who sound like they are fresh from a session of self-criticism and thought reform at a cultural revolution reeducation camp.

My statement at the beginning of the previous paragraph is accurate as far as it goes but does not go far enough. CRT is not just an academic school of thought. Cornel West describes it as a "scholarly and politically committed movement in law" that examines "the entire edifice of contemporary legal thought and doctrine from the viewpoint of law's role in the construction and maintenance of social domination and subordination" (foreword to Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings). Critical race theorists themselves affirm this commitment to not just to understand but to change the existing state of affairs:

Although Critical Race scholarship differs in object, argument, accent, and emphasis, it is nevertheless unified by two common interests. The first is to understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America, and, in particular, to examine the relationship between that social structure and professed ideals such as 'the rule of law' and 'equal protection.' The second is a desire not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it. (editors' intro to Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings)

Critical race theory, like its sister feminist legal theory, is an offshoot of critical legal studies, a movement formed in the late seventies by refugees from the sixties, neo-Marxist intellectuals, former New Left activists, and more conventional liberal activists who enrolled in law school and did not like what they found there.

Critical legal studies (CLS) is a theory which states that the law is necessarily intertwined with social issues, particularly stating that the law has inherent social biasessupports the interests of those who create the law…[and as such] supports a power dynamic which favors the historically privileged and disadvantages the historically underprivileged. (Critical Legal Theory)

Initially, just about everyone in the network was a white male with some interest in 60s style radical politics or radical sentiment of one kind or another. Some came from Marxist backgrounds—some came from democratic reform. The ex-Marxists tended to be people who were disillusioned by sectarian left politics of the 60s and moved away from seeing themselves as hard liners. The liberal reform people had been disillusioned in a different way: by the failure of the federal government and the “system” as a whole to respond to the social problems of the 60s, the war, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. They had been moved to the left by their experiences of the 60s, whereas the more radical types had been moved to the right, or at least out of the hard militant posture. (Duncan Kennedy, quoted by Schierman, Rise and Fall of Critical Legal Studies)

Intellectual roots of CLS can be found in Karl Marx, Max Weber, the Frankfort School and critical theory associated with Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, whose philosophical critiques and doctrines migrated from Europe to American universities in the sixties and seventies. There they assumed outsized influence in English, history, and philosophy departments, literary criticism, and other intellectual arenas, often under the aegis of second-generation scholars and critics more noted for pedantry, dogmatism, and obscurity than profound analysis and insight. (Memo from the editorial desk: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse split from Germany after the Nazis forced the Frankfurt School's closure in 1933; more widespread academic influence and popularity in the US came later.)

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic is a popularization, readable, brief at 198 pages in the edition I found at the library, not intellectually rigorous but a place to start for someone interested in what critical race theorists believe and teach. Delgado is considered one of the founders of CRT. Stefancic is also a legal scholar.

The lengthy introduction to Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement is a useful supplement to Delgado and Stefancic. I confess I did not make it much past the introduction to The Key Writings, a tome that checks in at 496 pages, before it was due back at the library with several people waiting for it with holds in place, so I could not renew the book. The book is dense and slow going. It is unlikely that I would have slogged much further if I had kept it for another three weeks.

Critical race theorists interpret their subject matter through a prism of power differentials within a schematic of binary oppositions, victimizer and victim, oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized, white supremacist and person of color. There are genuine insights to be found in critical race theory, scholarship deserving of analysis and consideration, worthy of critique and disputation. There is also intellectual rigidity, dogmatism, and reductionism of all manner of injustice and inequity to race and racism. Erasure of distinction between racism and effects of racism leads to generalizations that overlook or ignore other factors that more rigorous analysis would take into account.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, a liberal, and an outspoken critic of critical race theory. In an NPR interview last November ('Woke Racism'), McWhorter says that antiracism is a religion. While I would not put it quite way, it is a reasonable analogy. Parallels between antiracist ideology and religious thinking are also applicable to elements of critical race theory. There are people, he says, "whose devotion is less to changing lives for people who need help than showing that they understand that racism and especially systemic racism exist."

There is a suspension of disbelief where logic is abandoned and

instead of it being about your faith in Jesus, it's about showing that you know that racism exists above all else, including basic compassion. That's religious…the way we talk about white privilege is eerily consonant with the way one talks about original sin. You have it from the beginning, it's a stain that you'll never get rid of…regardless of the condition of your life…white privilege becomes the original sin that you're supposed to live in a kind of atonement for.

Delgado and Stefancic tell us that the word "racism" is used by race crits to encompass a complex phenomenon that includes biological racism; intentional racism; unconscious racism; microaggressions; institutional racism; racism tinged with homophobia or sexism; "racism that takes the form of indifference, coldness, or implicit associations; and white privilege, reserving favors, smiles, kindness, the best stories, one's most charming side, and invitations to real intimacy for one's own kind or class." They cite a "famous" list compiled by feminist, antiracism activist, and scholar Peggy McIntosh documenting that white people can enjoy and rely on forty-six privileges that attach by reason of having white skin, including the assurance that store clerks will not follow them around, that people will not cross the street to avoid them at night, that their achievements will not be regarded as exceptional or credits to their race, and that their occasional mistakes will not be attributed to biological inferiority.

There is something to some of this and much that is just silly. In this interpretation of social interactions there is no such thing as being less than courteous because caught up in one's own cares and concerns or maybe just being a jerk. The specter of racism lies behind every slight and no slight is innocuous. The famous list is about as enlightening as calculations by medieval theologians of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. For the record, there are white people in my city I will cross the street to avoid in daytime.

Myths of color blindness and meritocracy warrant critique, as does the conception of law as rational, apolitical, and technical. What is fashionably called systemic racism exists, although we might do well to adopt a name more suggestive of complex dynamics often in play. Critical race theorists are right when they point out that gains made by the civil rights movement in the sixties were rolled back in subsequent decades. Derrick Bell had a point when he criticized liberals and NAACP lawyers for treating school desegregation as an end in itself while giving scant if any consideration to the real issue of how best to provide a quality education for black children.

Race crits are on more questionable ground when they attribute injustice and unequal outcomes exclusively to racism and power differentials between races. People and groups will always push back on what many of us think of as progressive advances. Race and racism can play a part. So do self-interest, preservation of power and wealth, and a host of other factors such as misinformation and sometimes honest, good faith disagreement about how best to go about confronting and addressing injustice and inequity.

Molly Ivins used to hammer on this. Conservatives and reactionaries will always push back against progressive legislation and regulation. This goes for civil rights, environmental protection, workplace safety, and much else. The struggle is not about reaching some utopian promised land. The political work for liberal types is about pushing back on the pushback, advancing a righteous cause a little further, hopefully far enough to preserve some gain when the next rollback comes. It is about making a things a little bit better than they were before, then getting up the next day and doing it again.

Critical race theorists will have none of this. They deride liberalism's cautious, incremental quality and insist that radical measures are in order. Delgado and Stefancic assert that 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." They emphasize CRT's "activist dimension. It tries not only to understand our social situation but to change it." The editors of The Key Writings speak of "a desire not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it."

Running through much of critical race theory are strands of utopianism that carry with them temptation to absolutist remedies. For example, Ibram Kendi proposes an antiracist amendment to the Constitution to establish and permanently fund a Department of Anti-Racism (DOA) composed of formally trained experts on racism that will be guided by the principles that racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and different racial groups are equal.

The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.

The scope of the department's mission is mind-boggling, as would be the size of the bureaucratic apparatus required to carry it out. Kendi specifies that there will be no political appointees but is silent as to minor details such as who will vet these formally trained experts, how they will be selected, provisions for appeal of department rulings, and accountability of DOA officials.

Tucker Carlson, Christopher Rufo, et al., do not know what they are talking about when they rant about critical race theory being taught in public schools, and they do not care that they do not know. For them the term is a rhetorical weapon used to demonize anyone and anything of which they disapprove, a condemnation to which there is no appeal. This does not mean there is nothing to be concerned about on the education front. Critical race theory need not be taught as a course or a topic within a course for tenets of CRT to enter the classroom in ways that a reasonable person might question. Per Delgado and Stefanic:

Today, many scholars in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT's ideas to understand issues of school disciplines and hierarchy, tracking, affirmative action, high-stakes testing, controversies over curriculum and history, bilingual and multicultural education, and alternative charter schools…Some question the Anglocentric curriculum

The issue is not simply what CRT scholars write and teach, but how their teachings trickle down, sometimes in vulgarized form, into popular culture. Of greater concern than CRT scholarship, but not entirely unrelated to it, are the unquestioned acceptance of Kendi's doctrinaire antiracism and stupid, goofy stuff promulgated by diversity entrepreneurs like Robin D'Angelo and Tema Okun. D'Angelo is a bestselling author (White Fragility, Nice Racism). Okun is less well known and, according to Matt Ygelsias (Tema Okun's "White Supremacy Culture"), not a major thinker but one who is widely hired and cited as some kind of authority. Her ideas about white supremacy culture are making the rounds in schools of education, among education administrators, and in organizations that style themselves progressive as D'Angelo's gospel of white fragility did before her. Characteristics of white supremacy culture include among other things perfectionism, urgency, paternalism, objectivity, valuation of things that can be measured over things that cannot, and worship of the written word. Yglesias notes in passing that writing "was invented in the Middle East and Egypt; the Chinese state was built around written exams for centuries; there was an independent invention of writing in Mesoamerica—one could go on and on like this."

The doctrine is presented without evidence or argument. It is apparently revealed wisdom or the lived experience of Okun's teacher Kenneth Jones. Okun's account of white supremacy reads like a propaganda poster:

The term white supremacy refers to the ways in which the ruling class elite or the power elite in the colonies of what was to become the United States used the pseudo-scientific concept of race to create whiteness and a hierarchy of racialized value in order to

  • disconnect and divide white people from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC);

  • disconnect and divide Black, Indigenous, and People of Color from each other;

  • disconnect and divide white people from other white people;

  • disconnect and divide each and all of us from the earth, the sun, the wind, the water, the stars, the animals that roam(ed) the earth;

  • disconnect and divide each of us from ourselves and from source (see below).

The power elite constructed white supremacy (and construct it still) to define who is fully human and who is not.

Yglesias asks rhetorically why we should be concerned about this kind of thing, then answers in practical terms:

I do not think a bunch of folks running around telling the world that asking for written memos and focusing on measurable results is racist are going to take over the United States and extinguish human liberty. Frankly, I don’t think they’re going to do anything at all other than run a bunch of basically useless trainings and disrupt the internal functioning of progressive organizations. My concern is less that Woke Conservation Biologists are going to oppress us and more that they aren’t going to do conservation biology very well.

But this can still be very harmful.

If you tell teachers and principals that having a sense of urgency about teaching kids to read is a form of white supremacy, then that is going to hurt kids’ learning. And if young people entering the progressive nonprofit sector believe that any effort to construct disciplined, hierarchical organizations is a form of white supremacy, then they are not going to accomplish anything.

So what do we talk about when we talk about critical race theory? Are we talking about a certain type of scholarship engaged in by serious, committed scholar-activists on law school faculties? Do we have in mind the agendas of people like Kendi, D'Angelo, and Okun who are influenced by CRT scholarship as it has made its way into other disciplines and popular culture? Or CRT as conceived by the Carlson-Rufo crowd in an entire ideological alternative universe?

What is covered here might serve as preface for a book-length examination of critical race theory and issues related to it. Every topic mentioned merits more extensive treatment, and it is a safe bet there are things worthy of mention that I missed. My research is earnest but sketchy; thus, so is my discussion. I hope the essay cuts through some of the gibberish, the misinformation and general dingbattery coming from the right and disingenuousness, sometimes worse, from the left, and casts a little light the subject.

References and Related Reading

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