A critique of critical race theory

CRITICAL RACE THEORY: an introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Strafancic (2017) is a college textbook about an idea that is transforming the USA.

Supporters of CRT—Crits for short—claim that the only thing holding back black citizens of the United States is the racism of white people, including unconscious racism and the legacy of past racism.

Their goal is to make us aware of how racism works so we whites will yield our privileged place in society to blacks. 

CRT rejects the old liberal ideal of civil rights, which is to guarantee all individuals equal rights under impartial laws. 

The claim is that this ideal only deals with obvious forms of racism and prevents rooting out racism in its deeper and more subtle forms.

In some parts of American life, CRT has become a creed to which you must swear allegiance if you care about your reputation or career.

Being an old-fashioned liberal myself, I am taken aback by how quickly CRT theory has taken hold in academia, journalism, the liberal churches, and government and corporate administration. 

I read this book because I wanted to understand CRT from an authoritative source and engage with its arguments.

According to the textbook, there are two main schools of CRT.

“Idealists” hold that racism arises from “thinking, mental categorization, attitude and discourse.”  The way to fight racism is to change “the system of images, words, attitudes, unconscious feelings, scripts and social teachings by which we convey to one another that certain people are less intelligent, reliable, hardworking, virtuous and American than others.” (p.11)

“Materialists” hold that what matters is that race—for whatever reason—determines who gets “tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools and invitations to parties in people’s homes.” (p.11)  The way to fight racism is to eliminate racial disparities in access to jobs, education, credit and the other good things of life.

By analogy, the same ideas apply to other oppressed groups (Hispanics, native Americans, women, LGBTQ people, the disabled and so on) in regard to their defined oppressors.

Obviously there is truth to all of this.  Obviously racial prejudice—past and present, conscious and unconscious—has a big impact on American life.  Obviously it is a valid topic of research and debate.

As a specialized social science research agenda, CRT could make a good contribution to human knowledge, in dialogue with other research agendas—for example, sociological and anthropological research into group differences, and how they contribute to success or failure.

The shape of society has multiple causes, and if you insist limiting yourself to one, you risk becoming a dangerous fanatic.  This would be true whether your single explanation is economic self-interest, class struggle, religious heritage or something else.  CRT is no exception.

I’m opposed to treating CRT as unquestioned dogma because I’m opposed to treating anything as unquestioned dogma.  But I also have problems with CRT specifically, not so much because the theory is wrong as because of what it leaves out.

If not liberalism—what?

Richard Delgado

Critical Race Theory “questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning,  Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of Constitutional law” (p.3)

In other words, you shouldn’t bother with equal rights or impartial justice, but only concern yourself with what arguments you can make that will help raise up oppressed people.

But if you reject liberalism and the ideal of equal rights for all, why should any identity group, including whites, show solidarity with any other identity group?

One possible answer is belief in Christianity, or some other universalist religion, that teaches we are all equal in the sight of God, but I think Crits would reject this as well.

Another possible answer is empathy.  Delgado and Stefancic emphasize the importance of African-Americans and other minorities telling their stories and sharing their experiences. 

I agree about the importance of understanding others’ “lived experiences.”  We can all benefit from trying to see things from the viewpoint of people different from ourselves.

But, as the two authors admit, true empathy is in short supply.  And the Crits’ empathy is limited.  Part of CRT ideology is that individuals can be in poverty and endure hardships, and still enjoy “white privilege.”

Delgado and Stefancic believe that the people in the oppressed categories should join show solidarity against the common enemy, straight white Anglo men.  But they find that this unity is often lacking.

Native-born black people can be just as hostile to immigrants as native-born white people.  The NAACP did not protest internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.   Some Hispanics and Asian-Americans align themselves more with white people than with black people.  And so on.

But why should this be surprising?  Without liberalism or some other universalist ideal, what binds these different groups together?

CRT grew out of Critical Legal Theory, which says law has nothing to do with impartial justice, but is merely the system of rules by which the rich and powerful run things.

If you believe this, then you forget about being impartial and objective, and just think about how you can manipulate the law to the benefit of society’s victims.

The problem is that this philosophy doesn’t work if everybody believes it.  If it is okay to manipulate the law for your own purposes, the rich and powerful are in the best position to do it.

‘Convergence of Interests’

Jean Stafancic

Delgado and Stefancic pointed out that white elites do not always work against minority groups.  Sometimes, for their own purposes, they make concessions.  The authors call this “convergence of interests.”

One example is the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregating schools.  (p.21)  It wasn’t because the elite had developed a new sense of justice; it was because the USA was contending with the USSR for the good opinion of people in Africa and Asia, and segregation tarnished the American image.

I was alive during that era, and I made that exact argument—that racial discrimination had to end because it tarnished the image of the USA in the eyes of the world.

So the authors are right.  Good will was not enough to end segregation.  It required good will plus self-interest, with self-interest possibly weighing the most.

In the light of this, I wonder how Delgado and Stefancic interpret white elite support for affirmative action, Black Lives Matter and CRT itself.  None of these things would have take hold as they did without support from top corporate, foundation and university administrators.

A cynic would interpret such support as a technique to divide and rule.  I don’t necessarily assume that, or think it is the whole story.  I’m not saying the fact that elite white people support something means that the thing is bad. 

It does, however, mean that the thing the elite supports is not radical.  Rich and powerful people will never, for long, support anything that threatens their wealth and power.

The Rejection of Solidarity

The tried and true method of overcoming racial prejudice is for people of different races to work together for a common goal.  They can be a sports team, a band of musicians, a military unit in combat, a ship’s crew, a militant labor union local or a c movement. 

In working together, they come to appreciate each others’ unique individuality and common humanity—maybe not always, but commonly.

Convergence of interest can also take place between non-elite white and black people.  The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said that, in U.S. politics, black people seldom get anywhere without the support of liberal white people, and vice versa.

The Free Soil Party prior to the Civil War, which opposed the spread of slavery beyond the South, included both abolitionists and white people, some of them racist, who objected to competing with slave labor.

Inter-racial labor unions, from the IWW to the CIO, were based on a common interest in worker solidarity.  The opposition to racism came later. 

I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 not as an anti-racist, but because I mistakenly thought he would reverse the militarist and authoritarian policies of the George W. Bush administration.

I don’t claim that appeals to mutual self-interest always work.  But they have a more solid foundation than appeals to guilt.  

Disparity and Inequality

Crits say that they’re more radical than liberals, because liberals merely want equality of opportunity, but Crits want equality of results.

But in fact, CRT does not call for greater equality.  It calls for a redistribution of the fruits of inequality.

CRT calls for an end to the disparity between the percentages of whites and blacks in poverty. CRT calls for an end to environmental racism, the practice of concentrating pollution in poor Hispanic and black neighborhoods.  CRT wants to end police abuses directly specifically against black people.

There are all good goals.  But they fall short of calling for an end to poverty, an end to pollution and health hazards or an end to police abuse as such. 

CRT does not reduce inequality overall.  There is more inequality within racial groups than there is between racial groups.   CRT can be and is used to validate existing systems of inequality. 

Lack of Footnotes

Delgado and Stefancic make many sweeping assertions, which they do not document.  “Police shootings and killings of unarmed black men,” they wrote, “have risen so rapidly that even a leading medical journal recognizes them as growing health concerns.” (p.120)

But this isn’t so.  The long-term trend is in the opposite direction.  I suspect the unnamed journal was referring to the homicide rates in poor black communities generally.

Annual average number of killings per million population. Source: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Unjustified police killings still go on, the disparity between white and black killings still exists and there is good reason for Black Lives Matter protest.  But it’s necessary to be careful about facts.

For example, one criticism of affirmative action in higher education is that it pushes too many young African-American men into their Peter Principle level of incompetence.

The argument is that young men who’ve attended mediocre or sub-standard public schools and admitted to Harvard, Yale or Princeton fail to successfully compete with the products of elite private preparatory schools.  But these same young men, it is argued, might do well in a state college or a historically black college or university.

“Defenders counter that minority graduates who attended top universities are, on the whole, well-adjusted and successful in school and in later life,” the authors wrote. (p.133)  Maybe so.  I’d like a reference I can check.

∞∞

I’ve written more about what Delgado and Stefancic failed to say than what they did say.  You might say this is unfair, but my criticism of their work is that it is not so much wrong as incomplete.

LINKS

White skin, black squares by Sam Kriss for Idiot Joy Showland.

Examples of Critical Race Theory

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. by Peggy McIntosh (1989)

WHITENESS by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Unsettling Whiteness by Barnor Hesse.

The eight ways of being white by Gillian Schutte for Thought Leader.

Why White Space – Organizing Whiteness by AWARE-LA.

Criticisms of Critical Race Theory

The Trouble with Critical Race Theory by Samuel Kronen for Areo.

Words Like Racism Have Lost Their Common Meaning by John McWhorter for The Atlantic.

Unspeakable Truths About Racial Inequality in America by Glenn Loury for Quillette.

The Trouble With Disparity by Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr. for Nonsite.org.

Critical Race Theory as dogma

New Language’: School asks parents to rate their ‘whiteness’ and become ‘race traitors’ or abolitionists by RT News.

Teachers Compile List of Parents Who Question Racial Curriculum, Plot War on Them by Luke Rosiak for the Daily Wire.

I Refuse to Stand By While My Students Are Indoctrinated by Paul Rossi.

Stop Firing the Innocent by Yascha Mounk for The Atlantic.

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3 Responses to “A critique of critical race theory”

  1. Stephen Badrich Says:

    This is a truly remarkable piece of clear thinking and excellent research. I think it’s a particularly telling point that the elite American establishment supports CRT.

    Daniel Brandt, years ago, discovered that when the head of the Ford Foundation was questioned about what he was doing, funding Black Studies and similar programs, he responded: “I’m saving capitalism.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vincent Says:

    I speak as a privileged white man whose other half is black from Jamaica, of slave ancestry; both of us having an equivalent level of education. From this perspective I stand at a distance from any academic theory, but offer my own touchy-feely ideas.

    That Africans were chosen by whites to bring slaves to the New World on account of their physique, and because they could. (The native Caribbean Arawaks were systematically wiped out by the Spanish because they could not be tamed.)

    Scars from past centuries of oppression might have healed by now if fresh racist horrors had not been reported world-wide. Laws cannot change hearts. Who make laws, anyhow? Cui bono?

    Like all oppressed people everywhere, blacks have bonded into a world-wide brotherhood of fellow-feeling, as shown recently by the Black Lives Matter movement. I see it as we walk down the street together, a recognition and unspoken greeting from which I’m excluded. (Perhaps because I’m an aloof standoffish Englishman! I cannot blame them.)

    I believe privileged whites from a culture of unthinking superiority are unconsciously envious. We have no equivalent brotherhood. We are too much in our heads, making up theories instead of rejoicing at God’s gift of our bodies.

    Like

  3. fgsjr2015 Says:

    Although some research reveals infants demonstrate a preference for caregivers of their own race, any future racial biases and bigotries generally are environmentally acquired. (Adult racist sentiments are often cemented by a misguided yet strong sense of entitlement, perhaps also acquired from one’s environment.) One means of proactively preventing this social/societal problem may be by allowing very young children to become accustomed to other races in a harmoniously positive manner.

    At a very young and therefore impressionable age, I was emphatically told by my mother (who’s of Eastern European heritage) about the exceptionally kind and caring nature of our Black family doctor. She never had anything disdainful to say about people of color; in fact she loves to watch/listen to the Middle Eastern and Indian subcontinental dancers and musicians on the multicultural channels. This had a positive effect upon me. Had she (for whatever reason) told me the opposite about the doctor, however, I could have aged while blindly linking his color with an unjustly cynical view of him and, eventually, all Black people.

    When angry, my (late) father occasionally expressed displeasure with Anglo immigrants, largely due to his own experiences with bigotry as a new Canadian citizen in the 1950s and ’60s. He, who also emigrated from Eastern Europe, didn’t resent non-white immigrants, for he realized they had things at least as bad. Plus he noticed — as I also now do — in them an admirable absence of a sense of entitlement.

    I believe that as a result of my rearing environment, and basically by chance, I reached adulthood essentially unstricken by uncontrollable feelings of interracial contempt seeking expression. Not as lucky, some people — who may now be in an armed authority capacity — were raised with a distrust or blind dislike of other racial groups.

    The first step towards changing our irrationally biased thinking can be our awareness of it and its origin. But until then, I believe, such biased sentiments should either be kept to oneself or counselled, especially when considering the mentality is easily inflamed by anger.

    Like

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