Good Intentions Gone Bad

Why Critical Race Theory is a poor choice for the flagship of racial justice

“Critical Race Theory”

What the…?

How did Critical Race Theory become the poster child for the movement? It’s a mystery to me. In the mainstream news, mentions of it appear to have eclipsed mentions of Black Lives Matter. But, to understand what is going on here, let’s take a closer look.

The Name Sucks

Based on the name alone, Critical Race Theory (or CRT) should have been left where it has been lying for the last few decades—in the back corners of law school or a budding social scientist’s Ph.D. dissertation. How many people outside of academia are even inclined to figure out what an opaque term like that even means? (Luckily, I’m going to figure it out for you down below!) But first, let’s look at why this was a poor label for communicating the importance of racial justice to the masses.

Using this complicated label allowed Republican shills like Christopher Rufo to capitalize on people’s misunderstanding and disdain for such an imposing term. The BBC reports that Mr. Rufo quickly recognized the fallibility of this label. According to Mr. Rufo himself:

[Critical Race Theory] made for the "perfect villain" because it sounded academic, elitist, racist and divisive.

His assessment was correct because academia and elitism are concepts that already scare Republicans. As shown in this Pew Research poll, a lot of Republicans already distrusted higher education.

Sometimes pollsters don’t ask the best questions, so let’s take a closer look at those bottom two questions from the perspective of a Republican voter.

  • “Too much concern about protecting students from views they might find offensive.” What this probably means for Republicans is, as former President Trump has oft-commented to his base, too much concern for “political correctness.” Of course that is code for too much protecting minority students or women from racist or demeaning comments.

  • “Professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom.” Now if you are a Republican, this doesn't mean conservative political views, right? So those responses almost certainly refer to left-leaning and allegedly socialist views, which also terrify Republicans.

So with that backdrop, Mr. Rufo purposely beat up CRT like a nerdy child on the playground. The Washington Post described how Mr. Rufo leveraged people’s lack of understanding to attach all kinds of misconceptions and negativity to the term on purpose:

In March, he [Rufo] wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory. “We have successfully frozen their brand—'critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” Rufo wrote. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

This characterization arguably contributed to Terry McAuliffe’s loss of the Virginia governorship.

CRT Is Actually Hard to Understand

To be fair, Critical Race Theory is an easy target because it is inherently difficult to understand. If you Google “What is CRT?” you will get a lot of people telling you about it, but not what it is. I have studied critical theory, postmodernism, hermeneutics, epistemology, and topics like that in graduate school, and I still had to go through hours of web pages, Youtube videos, and some academic papers to figure out what it really is.

Yet, to understand what something is, you have to be able to relate it to something tangible. This is one of our Positive Politics guiding ideas—to clarify terms and what things mean.

You can see the problem in the video below, which purports to define what Critical Race theory really is.

If you watched the video, you saw that it mostly talks about topics related to CRT but not what it is. The speakers say it “provides Americans with a way to understand the legacy of racism” and “is a body of ideas and set of approaches to understanding history and present of American society that looks at the ways racial unfairness have been woven in the fabric of our institutions.” Then the rest is talking about its history, its beliefs, what the contention is, and the value it might have. But we still don’t know in tangible terms how it is conducted or how adherents would behave differently. That’s because even journalists don’t really understand it.

To some extent, this is on purpose. According to the American Bar Association,

Crenshaw—who coined the term “CRT”—notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice.

So there’s a problem. I know some activists like to keep ideas vague and broad so they can sweep in anything they want, and they fear being pigeon-holed and subsequently dismissed. The originators of CRT probably wanted it to be a movement or a conversation. They wanted to take advantage of the fact that people will see what they want to see in the concept and they wanted it to evolve based on later understanding. But they also opened the door for a person like Rufo to define it for his own ends.

Principle: In Positive Politics, we are not trying to sway the masses by dangling shiny vague objects or using misinformation to scare people. Instead, we are trying to collectively make good decisions about the future society we want to live in. To do that, we need to clarify things and know what we are talking about. Concepts that are everything to everyone are not really anything to anyone.

Critical Race Theory in a Nutshell

To answer the question, “What is Critical Race Theory?” I’ve finally come up with something—after a lot of work. But, here’s a caveat: CRT is so complex that anyone who hasn’t studied it for years should not claim to be an expert. So, I’ll not say this is a definitive description. It’s what I understand now. But I think you might find it informative.

According to the American Bar Association, Tara Yosso, a leading proponent of CRT, says that

CRT can be an approach used to theorize, examine, and challenge the ways which race and racism implicitly and explicitly impact social structures, practices, and discourses.

So it’s basically a practice—or an activity—based on a set of beliefs. This practice is really a methodology to make verifiable knowledge claims about what happened in history. See the graphic below.

There are several fine points of this that strike me as being problematic.

  • The denial of meritocracy—A long-standing belief in the Western world is that value and social standing accrue to people on the basis of their talent and hard work. Many people feel this is a core aspect of the American Way; thus, to deny it is un-American. While pure meritocracy is a myth (there is a lot of luck and bias involved) meritocracy can’t be wholesale rejected. Dedication, talent, and effort still normally pay off better than not applying them.

  • The denial that people are rational, independent actors. The rational actor is a core aspect of our legal system, economics, and financial systems. We believe that individuals can make rational decisions to pursue their own ends. While it is true that our decision-making is influenced by our socio-cultural upbringing, it is not wholly determined by social forces. If we start assuming people have no agency (do not make their own choices), then how are choices made? This seems to lead to a victim mindset where everyone can blame their circumstances on conditions beyond their control, resulting in a lack of responsibility for one’s own actions.

  • Overreliance on personal stories as science. Historically, CRT has given priority to the experiences of individuals. The theory is that while statistics tell the average of a group, they do not tell the experiences of any one member of the group. So through story-telling, we can learn through the experience of an individual, and through their eyes, we can understand how actions, laws, and policies affected them. This is valuable, but there are serious problems with relying solely on stories and rejecting the scientific method and statistics.

    First, while a person’s story might be true for them, a lot of people also lie or are unaware of their own motivations and thought processes. Second, just because a story is true for one African American does not mean it is true for all African Americans. For that we need statistics. Granted, this oversight appears to be now being corrected by researchers, such as Jessica T. DeCuir-Gunby, Thandeka K. Chapman, and Paul A. Schutz, who discuss the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in Understanding Critical Race Research Methods and Methodologies. Thus, I have included their methods in the image above, although this may not be widely accepted by CRT adherents.

  • Revisionist History as a Method. Adherents of CRT believe we should review history and discover how racism became embedded in our legal, economic, social, and political structures. This is proposed as a way of learning how racism gets embedded in social structures and also as a way of finding those instances and removing them. But, because this approach starts with the conclusion in mind (“there is racism”) and seeks to purposely find it, it sounds like a witch hunt to white conservatives who in turn assume CRT is “teaching kids that white people and America are bad.” Of course, CRT adherents would deny this.

    Apart from that, do we really need to perpetually root through the past and rectify all its stories to accomplish these ends? Sure, it is often insightful to know the history of something, but I think it would be fine to review some examples to get the idea and then focus on what is occurring in the present. The problem is that nobody really knows what happened in the past anyway. It’s like continuing to argue with your wife about something that happened 20 years ago (you shouldn’t). This is why there are statutes of limitations in criminal cases. After a while, people forget, the record is inherently incomplete, and there is no way to really know the truth. When there are issues, we should always focus on the behavior in front of us.

Hopefully, this brief discussion gave you the essence of what CRT is. Of course, there are plenty of academic criticisms that could be made about CRT and its fine points. For more depth on the origins and critiques, see this PDF of Delgado and Stefancic’s Critical Racy Theory: An Introduction.

If you would like further clarification or want to contest a point, feel free to comment.

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Do We Even Need Critical Race Theory?

Our goal—which I hope we can all agree on—should be to foster a society that provides equal treatment for all. To do that, we need to be able to separate our intention to improve society from the methods we use to do it. Critical Race Theory is just one means to that end, certainly not the only one, and arguably a flawed one.

Hopefully, you can see from the above that CRT is complex approach. While it has a good intention on the surface, it glorifies certain philosophical approaches that were popular in he 60s and have since been critiqued and re-thought. It’s not necessary or advisable to use a methodology that that comes with this much baggage. We need simpler, more positive approaches. We can tuck CRT back in graduate school and still pursue racial justice.

Beyond that, we should look forward rather than backward. We should start with “how do we want to be together in the future?” not “What have we done wrong in the past?” This is not ignoring the past or sweeping anything under the carpet. Historians can continue to bring out multiple viewpoints, whether they are of African Americans or the perspectives of Soviet citizens in the Cold War or any other voice typically left out of the Western historical account. We can incorporate those insights into our decision making. But, we just need to sidestep the CRT pitfall and accept that while we can do better in the future, we cannot change the past. We need to make our primary method focusing on now and the future .

What do you think? Start a conversation. Leave a comment!

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