Critical Race Theory: What Does It Teach? (Part 2)

Critical Race Theory: What Does It Teach? (Part 2) January 28, 2020

In part one, we charted our first principles on this general subject. In this section, we seek to sketch—in a brief manner—the core commitments and ideas of CRT. This is not an exhaustive accounting and is not intended to be, please note; in addition, when I cite sources to give a quick tracking of the conversation over CRT, I am in no way necessarily commending the argument or worldview represented in the source. In most cases, as will be clear, the opposite is true.

At its core, CRT is a system of thought that advocates for the reorientation of both worldview and world. Our current order is based, to a significant degree, on unjust foundations grounded in white privilege and systemic racism (see this article and this book). We live in a racist world, therefore, where major policy decisions inhibit people of color in a societal way and “microaggressions” do the same at the personal level (here’s one pro-CRT source on the latter).

Power Politics and Power Principles

CRT leans heavily on power dynamics, viewing society as the allotment of power and culture as the argument funding that allotment. In this sense CRT has resonance with a Marxist framework, for each sees the world in terms of power dynamics and unjust institutional structures (see Roger Scruton’s powerful critique of cultural Marxism in this book). The Marxist critique is primarily economic (though it has profound theological and philosophical import), while the CRT critique is primarily racial (though it too is impactful across the board). The systems are not precisely the same, but do surely overlap in many troubling ways (as Noah Rothmann has shown in his book Unjust).

The person who leans into CRT will see the world in a newly sensitive way, it is said. In many cases, the embrace of CRT works together with an embrace of intersectionality, the argument that diverse minority groups of “race,” class, sexuality, physical disability, and gender have intersecting interests given their shared powerlessness (see this book and this article). This recognition leads into “identity politics,” the practice of advancing a given group’s cause based on the lack of public support for that which they represent.

“Social justice” occurs when such groups are given agency they previously did not have and thus led, effectively, to the head of the societal line (for perspective, see this brief interaction and this essay). Those who become “woke” are those who awake to the need for intersectional justice such that these different groups are given the cultural voice and societal power they have been denied. (As a quick aside, it is true that people can be wronged in different ways per the intersectional observation, but noting this truth does not entail the necessity of adopting intersectionality as a prism or solution.)

For those who read the world theologically, CRT thus offers a theological system of sorts. Our major problem is “whiteness,” understood mainly as a mentality (and in many cases an embodied one), our intellectual aim is to gain critical awareness of the inequities of our world, our solution is to right the power imbalances in our institutions by advancing the interests of disadvantaged groups, and the ultimate end of such work is a just society in which division is rooted out (see this resource and this book). Theology is a key term to use in analyzing CRT, much as CRT may seem distant at first blush from theology. This is a movement of liberation from oppression, oppression that is meted out at the level of law and policy, and at the level of personal interaction in even uncomprehended ways.

As we can see, CRT is a blend of both argument and narrative. On the one hand, it is driven by the stories of oppressed people; on the other, it is an argument about the nature and structure of our world. Those who engage CRT in different ways will find that CRT is presented as personally true (which makes it difficult to refute in polite terms), but also has all the trappings of a system of thought (which means Christians must test it as with any such system). It is not wrong, though, to see CRT as directed at activism; though an argument, it is not so much a full-blown philosophy as it is a collection of ideas aimed at social and cultural transformation, transformation that is driven by activism.

CRT, Postmodernity, and Collective Guilt

CRT has much in consonance, we see, with postmodern thought. Postmodernity—as you may have heard—emphasizes truth, but truth in a personalized and thus relative way: “my truth” and “your truth” (see this blog and this essay). Yet late-stage postmodernism is a curious thing, for even as it narrativizes truth (makes it personal and not absolute, that is), it also views some personalized truths as more needful than others. The personalized truth of historically disadvantaged people, in other words, takes precedence over the personalized truth of historically privileged people. Past powerlessness effectively functions as the determinant of whose truth norms the truth of others (per Neil Shenvi, CRT is dependent on standpoint epistemology, which emphasizes our social appropriation of truth, even as it professes belief in absolute truth). We note carefully at this point that CRT assumes that disadvantaged groups have an inherent right to power; there is no absolute metaphysical standard by which to measure power claims, then, but rather a social or cultural standard. This is a noteworthy point for those who hold to the Christian faith, which is a system of absolute, all-systems-norming, truth.

By this line of reasoning we come to understand why CRT lays certain expectations at the feet of certain groups. CRT divides people into different groups, as we have seen, and not only holds privileged peoples responsible for righting current wrongs, but also holds those same privileged peoples responsible for righting past wrongs. People who have seeming affinity with past oppressors—buying into “whiteness” which usually people (especially men) with “white” skin innately do—are asked or ordered to repent for past wrongs (see this report and this talk). Here again we note the strongly theological cast of CRT and its body of language. “White” people, for example, are encouraged to offer collective confession and repentance for the wrongs of “white” people who lived decades or even hundreds of years prior. Such a perspective depends upon the view that shared skin pigment, without respect to ethnicity, social class, education, upbringing, economic ability, family, religion, spirituality, repentance, change, personal experience, or other factors, is the determinant of participation in past oppression.

To put this more simply: if white people did it 100 years, white people today are guilty for it. They have associational guilt by virtue of their skin pigmentation (or their mindset). Not only do they have guilt (in what seems to be a “legal” sense, an unmoveable and objective verdict), they should repent of the actions of past peoples. Not only should they repent, but they should take active steps to reorder their individual life and their community and country to atone for past wrongs. Not only should they take such steps, but they should strongly consider (per some CRT advocates) the issuing of reparations to the descendants of unprivileged peoples (see this famous essay). Not only should reparations be issued, but the law should be recast, such that legal matters are not fundamentally about righting wrongs and encoding morality, but about the restructuring of society to make it equable and fair, with privilege and power redistributed (here’s one UN resource that makes this argument). Justice per CRT is not retributive; it is distributive, and it is oriented per its leading theorists to a secular and quite possibly utopian end.

Hard Questions for CRT

Moving from the analytical to the personal, what does all this mean, say, for the average person? Let’s take an average “white” person in the Midwest. Here again, CRT makes no major effort to distinguish one “white” person from another; it thus is in grave danger of falling prey to the same view that wronged so many people of color in past days in the West, that is, to racial essentialism. The “white” person from the Midwest—let’s say this person is a man—is the inheritor of great privilege. This person should, per CRT, repent of whiteness, repent of toxic masculinity (by virtue of being a man in solidarity with all men), repent of microaggressions committed unknowingly against unprivileged peoples, repent of the past wrongs of white people, and so on.

CRT, we see, makes little effort to understand the person as an individual, a unique and complex individual both made in God’s image yet fallen in Adam. This particular person in question may not have a richly developed understanding of the American past, or the experiences of different groups in history, and definitely does have real sin and prejudice to deal with in spiritual terms. However, it is potentially problematic to view this person in monolithic terms. Are all white people the same? Are all men toxic? Does the Bible allow for such views?

For example, playing this out a bit, is the experience of a “white” abolitionist the same as that of a “white” plantation owner? Are those two figures equally guilty if both have “white” skin? In terms of one’s lineage, if a descendant of a Holocaust survivor meets the descendant of a Nazi commandant, are the fates and identities and spiritual destinies of these two people fixed by their differing genes and families? Does the poor “white” person in rural Maine born into abject poverty, lost in opioid addiction (of whom there are many), benefit from privilege the same way as a “white” Mainer born into wealth? Is the one born into wealth in some form guilty for that accident of birth—is it wrong, inherently, to enjoy some form of what is called “privilege”? Again, taking into biblical warnings about the danger of the love of riches, does the Bible teach that wealthy people are worse—are more wicked by nature—than non-wealthy people? What about wealthy people who are minorities and inherited tens of millions of dollars—how should we understand “privilege” in their case?

These questions are not “gotcha” questions. They are real, and they must be asked. Yet this bevy of queries only begins to scratch the surface of the difficulties inherent in classing people by their skin color. Yet CRT offers just such a worldview. It is in fundamental terms a worldview that thus comprehends real human conditions, differences of experience at the most basic level, and that offers a system of thought and activism by which to address them. Many can understand why CRT would catch traction in historical terms, for America as one example did harbor real racial sin in past ages, whether the antebellum or postbellum eras, all the way up the Civil Rights Era.

Further, racism and ethnocentrism are sins that have no place in the Christian worldview. Like every major sinful temptation, these problems have not “gone away”; you cannot legislate sin out of existence in this fallen world. We must fight racism and ethnocentrism until the end of the age, even as we must avoid replacing the sinful prejudice of previous eras with a new one that threatens to compromise union with Christ—and unity with one another.

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