Critical Race Theory II: Is It Coherent?

Critical Race Theory II: Is It Coherent? February 7, 2020

The study of race in America is an enormous undertaking.  It has been taken up in nearly every academic discipline, even the hard sciences.  CRT is only one small sub-discipline that started in law schools.  But after fifty years of influence, CRT has had disproportionate impact on a wide variety of academic disciplines and the broader reaches of American society.

So my criticism of CRT is not a criticism of other academic studies of race.  Nor do I mean to say that everything about CRT is faulty.  That it finds racism to be evil is without serious contestation today.  Its insistence that racism can be systemic is also undeniable.  When one recalls the days of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow, it is easy to see how racism affected entire social systems. But CRT begs new questions.   Does white racism continue to be systemic in American society?  Is CRT itself racist?

In what follows I want to address some internal contradictions, inconsistencies, and unwarranted assumptions.  The general problem I see with CRT is that most of its assertions rest upon convictions about social realities that are either plainly wrong or highly debatable.  In addition, some of its most fundamental convictions contradict its own basic principles.  Thus the question about coherence.

Let’s look more closely at the seven basic principles we discussed in Part I.

  1. Racism is ordinary, pervasive, and systematic in America.
    1. This claim of pervasive white racism is contradicted by historical realities. The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought great political and spiritual change.  The Civil Rights Act and many other laws made illegal racist practices that previously were legal.  Today affirmative action is enforced in public education and the universities, government, corporations, and the media, so that blacks and other minorities are often preferred over whites and Asians.  If anything, this is reverse racism that favors certain races, but not whites.
    2. In the meantime white thinking about racism has changed. Whole generations of white Americans in the last sixty years have come to regard as evil what previous generations thought unimportant or even justified—judging another human being by the color of his or her skin. Americans today disagree about who is racist and what makes a racist, but the vast majority agree that racism is a deep moral wrong.  The result is both dramatic and contrary to CRT claims.  What is ordinary and pervasive is not white racism but the condemnation of racism.  What is systemic is not white oppression of people of color but institutional preference for people of color over whites by affirmative action in most American public institutions.
  2. Race is a social construction with no basis in biology or genetics.
    1. If this is true, and we agree that it is, and if “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity,” then how can CRT say that every white person shares in the racist mentality it calls “whiteness”? As genetic background studies are now showing, millions of whites share biological background with blacks and other minorities. So how can the mere appearance of being white implicate them in the racism of “whiteness”? If racial distinctions are social and not biological, and if racism is therefore learned socially, how can CRT know that millions of whites have not learned socially to be color-blind?  If race is merely social, why does CRT treat all whites as determined by their white skin to be racists?  CRT’s ascription of racist “whiteness” to all who appear white treats race as a biological and not social phenomenon.  It ignores the possibility of social conditioning that might have taught some whites to be color-blind and some blacks to be racist, yet CRT says racism is socially determined.  When it ignores these things because of the appearance of whites and blacks, it treats race as a biological phenomenon—the presumption which it has explicitly repudiated.  This is incoherent.
  3. There is a unique voice of color so that people of color must be presumed to have competence.
    1. Like whites, blacks disagree deeply over every issue that matters. Think of Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell on the one hand, and Al Sharpton and Cornel West on the other. If people of color have “competence,” what does that mean?  That black conservatives are more competent than white conservatives? Or black liberals than white liberals?  No one would assert that.
    2. This is coherent only if it means that there is a unitary black voice, or a single Hispanic voice. But we all know this is untrue.  For every Ted Cruz there is a Bob Menendez.
    3. Our conclusion is that this assertion lacks coherence.
  4. The liberal order is fundamentally oppressive, which means all of the following are complicit: Enlightenment rationalism, neutral principles of law, and the idea of merit.
    1. If reason, neutrality, and merit are no longer governing principles for public life or educational institutions, then what will replace them?
    2. It is true that there will never be pure objectivity. But CRT wants to replace the pursuit of objectivity with storytelling by people of color, whose stories are presumed to have competence.  Yet as we saw above, what happens when people of color tell stories with radically different agendas?  If reason and merit are not used as criteria for judgment among rival stories, what will be the new criterion?  Nietzsche was right that when reason is rejected and even the pursuit of objectivity is abandoned, only power is left.  The powerful people of color will rule the less powerful.  And the ruled will not be able to appeal to any neutral standard such as reason or merit.  So CRT, which claims to fight against oppressive power, will justify a new order based on power rather than reason or merit.  This too is oppressive.
    3. If small improvements under the liberal order are rejected and only the end of the liberal order will suffice, what will replace the liberal order?  CRT denounces capitalism and the existing neutral system of law that purports to be color-blind.  The only alternative to capitalism is socialism, which has brought misery wherever it has been applied. A color-conscious political order that rejects the principle of neutrality in law will favor some over others based on skin color, the very racism and injustice which CRT claims to oppose.  Again, this is incoherent.
  5. Color-blindness should not be our ideal because it is a tool of oppression.
    1. A new society based on color-consciousness will exalt some colors over others. Again, this is the very racism which CRT says is evil.  It is to replace one kind of oppression with another.  Another incoherence.
  6. White privilege is a reality and is at the heart of systemic oppression of people of color.
    1. The CRT claim that white is used in our culture for goodness and black for evil is a tendentious caricature.  Our culture also treats “whitewashing” and “white trash” as negative examples.  It thinks of black-tie events as important and elegant, and black limos and black helicopters are associated with power.
    2. To suggest that only white people hire one another’s kids, give promising students ways to raise their grades, or help borderline candidates get a position is insulting to people of color who do the very same things. There is nothing “white” or racially privileged about these social patterns.
    3. One can speak today of minority privilege today in government, education, media, and many corporations where minority representation is routinely and eagerly sought.
  7. Minorities should not be expected to fit in to existing American society, such as giving up the priority of their native languages.
    1. To permit children in American schools to speak non-English languages and not force them to learn good English is a form of child abuse. It handicaps them against success in a society where English is expected and needed.

In sum, CRT claims to fight white racism by proposing a new racism that favors some races over others. It argues that race is not biological but social, yet treats one race as biologically determined against social influence.  It claims white privilege that systemically oppresses people of color, yet concedes that its theory has become “part of the conventional wisdom” (158).  It is incoherent.

Stay tuned for . . . Critical Race Theory III: Is It Compatible with Christian Faith?


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