This post considers the link between shame and popular applications of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and shame. These ideas stem from my reading Shelby Steele’s Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country and White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.
He suggests that advocates of “applied CRT” actually stigmatize blacks. After defining a few terms, we’ll explore why CRT virtually enslaves minorities, especially blacks, in the shackles of stigma.
BEFORE YOU READ:
CRT has become a buzzword of controversy that seems to mean whatever people want it to mean. For some, it represents an endless effort to rid America of racism; for others, it signals a Marxist agenda to divide the country. Consequently, a person immediately garners enemies when one speaks either well or ill of CRT. Whatever your position, intellectual integrity requires that we consider the potential benefit or harm introduced by such theories.
Defining CRT and “Applied CRT”
Let’s define terms. No single “critical race theory” exists, though all versions share common features. Before we define CRT, we need to understand what is a “critical theory” (of which “CRT” is but on type). Political and legal philosopher Daniel Koltonski, for a class on critical theory, writes:
A “critical theory” has a distinctive aim: to unmask the ideology falsely justifying some form of social or economic oppression—to reveal it as ideology—and, in so doing, to contribute to the task of ending that oppression. And so, a critical theory aims to provide a kind of enlightenment about social and economic life that is itself emancipatory: persons come to recognize the oppression they are suffering as oppression and are thereby partly freed from it.
Another scholar explains that critical theories entail “an exploration of embedded ideology, dominant cultural norms, and oppressive stereotypes.” To reinforce the point, another group of researchers explains,
“Liberation is a theme that runs through critical theory; liberation from objective oppressors such as colonizers and exploitive employers, and liberation from subjective forces such as mass culture and ideology.”
CRT is one application of this approach (focusing on power and oppression) to race.
I belabor the point because some people argue that genuine CRT advocates do not frame their discussion in terms of oppression. This is a half-truth. While the words “oppressed” and “oppressor” are not on every page, they routinely speak of those with power and the injustices inflicted on those without power. What we have here is a distinction without a difference.
To be clear, many people don’t realize that CRT is
“a legal movement aimed at understanding, resisting, and remediating how U.S. law and legal institutions such as law schools have fostered and perpetuated racism and white supremacy” (as defined by CRT scholar and Wheaton assistant professor Nathan Cartagena).
Formally, advocates of CRT are concerned with the ways in which laws and systems are used to perpetuate racism. In the effort, CRT can provide helpful insights for analyzing laws and social institutions.
However, something different emerges when CRT hits popular culture (no longer the property of legal scholars). When people begin applying critical theory to assess broader social dynamics, we come upon (what I’ll call) “applied CRT,” which is laced with Marxist antagonism. The following typifies “applied CRT.”
The worldview of [applied] CRT derives from Critical Theory, which frames human life through the Marxist lens of oppressed v. oppressor, placing all members of society in one of these two groups based on identity factors such as race, religion, gender, and socioeconomic status rather than individual responsibility in actual acts of oppression.
Formal academic CRT does well notes the systemic influence of racism on our laws and institutions; from it, applied CRT can tend to label nearly everything as fatally racist.
* I explicitly state this definition so that readers do not confuse my meaning with popular (mis)understandings of CRT as synonymous merely with wanting to oppose racism. Lest we succumb to false impressions, Bruce Ashford makes an important observation:
Although CRT finds many supporters in the black intellectual community, many prominent black thinkers reject CRT as a flawed theory. In their view, this way of thinking actually perpetuates racism and harms society. Such critics of CRT include economists (Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Glenn Loury), political scientists (Carol M. Swain, Wilfred Reilly), political commentators and activists (Derryck Green, Alveda King), professors of linguistics (John McWhorter), professors of divinity (Robert Smith, Jr.), public intellectuals (Coleman Hughes), and elected officials (Tim Scott), among others.
So, how does applied CRT harm minorities, especially blacks? We first need to understand racial stigma.
The Problems of Racial Stigma
The Oxford dictionary defines “stigma” as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” When a particular social group suffers from stigma, the public begins to have negative expectations about members of that group. As Glenn Loury summarizes:
An important consequence of racial stigma is “vicious circles” of cumulative causation: self-sustaining processes in which the failure of blacks to make progress justifies for whites the very prejudicial attitudes that, when reflected in social and political action, ensure that blacks will not advance.
Stigma deepens prejudice and furthers discrimination, regardless of what policies and laws are enacted.
Responses to stigma vary, but few are healthy. Personal shame and anger are common. These can lead to anything from violence and blame-shifting to anxiety and despair. Stigma perpetuates misunderstanding between social groups. Those who are stigmatized can feel a sense of futility as though nothing they do can overcome public perceptions.
How CRT Stigmatizes Minorities
Ostensibly, applied CRT seeks to help liberate racial minorities from centuries of cultural subordination. However, some argue that CRT produces the opposite effect. As an African American Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Shelby Steele explains how applied CRT effectively re-enslaves blacks in the shackles of stigma.
We must first consider the link between slavery, freedom, and being human. Steele says,
In slavery blacks were not free, but they were also not entirely responsible for their lives. Slavery was a form of incarceration that dehumanized its victims as much as denying them responsibility for their lives––by providing them with a subsistence existence––as by denying them freedom. Freedom is crucial for a decent life, but only in being responsible for one’s life can one take agency over it. And agency––sovereignty and will that we have over our individual lives––is what makes us fully human. (White Guilt, 47).
In his books, Steele returns to this theme again and again. Inasmuch as applied CRT perpetuates an enduring narrative whereby blacks are inescapably trapped in “systemic,” “structural,” or “institutional” racism, blacks are robbed of their agency and depend entirely on whites for their freedom.
In a word, Steele says,
No worse fate could befall a group emerging from oppression than to find itself gripped by a militancy that sees justice in making others responsible for its advancement. (62)
He underscores this humiliation when tracing the history of black militancy movements. He writes,
But the black militancy that actually emerged in the sixties— what might be called “white-guilt” militancy—was the opposite of this. Because it was really a strategy to redistribute responsibility to American institutions, it literally argued that blacks could not be fully responsible for their own advancement—this simply to make the point that whites had to be more responsible for it….
Black leader after black leader argued that we could not pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, because we “don’t have any bootstraps.” But this humiliating plea for white intervention only projected whites as powerful and blacks as helpless. So, finally, we embraced a black militancy that argued nothing more strongly than our own perpetual weakness—or, put another way, our inferiority. (60)
According to Steele’s reasoning, such thinking means that one day, whenever blacks achieve equality (using whatever measure we’re using), then it will be whites who get the credit, not blacks since the latter were “helpless.”
(For a related post on how some missionaries patronize Chinese Christians, click here.)
Do Policies Affirm Black Inferiority?
Steele poignantly underscores the point when speaking to affirmative action programs. After describing how the US military sought to lower standards to get more minority officers, Steele says,
Double standards always stigmatize precisely those they claim to help, so it will be minority officers––not white officers––who will be seen as second-rate under such a system. (116)
In fact, he argues that such programs and policies imply “an inherent and irremediable black inferiority.”
When you give a racial preference to a child of two black professionals with advanced degrees and six-figure incomes—as entrée to a university that has not discriminated against blacks in more than sixty years—then you are clearly implying an inherent and irremediable black inferiority. You are saying that even the absence of racism and the fruits of a privileged life do not make it possible for blacks to compete with whites and Asians who may come from fractured homes and underprivileged backgrounds. (134)
In part 2 of this series, I’ll expand the conversation to explore white guilt, black identity, and what Steele regards as “black privilege.”
 Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe. “Power, Emancipation, and Complexity: employing critical theory.” Power and Education Vol. 2, no. 2 (2010): 141 [140-151].
 Heather Davidson, Scot Evans, Cynthia Ganote, Jorie Henrickson, Lynette Jacobs-Priebe, Diana L. Jones, Isaac Prilleltensky, Manuel Riemer. “Power and Action in Critical Theory Across Disciplines: Implications for Critical Community Psychology.” Am J Community Psychol 38 (2006): 36 [35–49].