The Fight Over "Critical Race Theory"

Bad label. Real problem.

“Critical Race Theory,” or CRT, is everywhere these days—ever since Donald Trump put it on the map by launching an effort to eradicate it from diversity training at federal institutions and contractors. Trump’s executive order on the subject was promptly repealed by Joe Biden once he took office; but now, several states are considering bills that restrict or ban critical race theory “indoctrination” in schools and other organizations. (Mostly recently, such a bill was signed into law in Idaho.) Critical Race Theory also figured in recent school board elections in South Lake, Texas where supporters of a “Cultural Competence Action Plan” suffered a crushing defeat.

Leaving aside for now the specific details of these developments, the anti-CRT backlash has raised the obvious question of what “Critical Race Theory” is and invited claims that its foes don’t know anything about it. Several publications have run explainers; more explanations and defenses have been offered on Twitter and on blogs. (On Arc, Matthew McManus offered a brief explainer on Critical Theory, which is not specific to racial analysis.)

While most of the criticisms suggest that the anti-CRT crusaders are just using a buzzword they don’t understand, the critics are also arguing that the backlashers know exactly what they’re doing and are using the CRT label to target all discussions of racial injustice. According to Boston Review:

The exact targets of CRT’s critics vary wildly, but it is obvious that most critics simply do not know what they are talking about. Instead, CRT functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all specter lumping together “multiculturalism,” “wokeism,” “anti-racism,” and “identity politics”—or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society. They are simply against any talk, discussion, mention, analysis, or intimation of race—except to say we shouldn’t talk about it.

Personally, I dislike the “CRT” label, because the phenomenon of “wokism” and the ideology behind it is much broader and goes far beyond racial issues. One of the people behind this crusade, Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, has openly admitted using a deliberate strategy to make the concept of “critical race theory” toxic by tying it to a wide range of “cultural insanities” of the “woke” kind. This seems not only disingenuous but likely to backfire for many reasons. The label sounds too esoteric to catch on outside conservative activist circles. It opens the door to “that’s not what critical race theory is!” rebuttals. It also sounds like using an obscure academic term to create a bogeyman—especially since Rufo seems to admit to exactly that.

On the other hand, many defenses of CRT are also off the mark. Yes, it’s inadequate as a general synonym for “woke” ideology or for the radical social justice movement. But if you look at what its defenders say about it, you will see that it does provide much of that movement’s ideological foundation.

Consider, for instance, this sympathetic summary of CRT by Pennsylvania State University education professor Uju Anya:

Like many progressive ideas, these tenets have elements of truth to them: for instance, that we have not yet achieved racial equality and that racial prejudice, especially against black Americans, remains distressingly commonplace; that objectivity, neutrality, and meritocracy often exist in principle but not practice; or that multiple disadvantages can reinforce each other. But, stated as absolutes, they are reductionist and extremely unhelpful in explaining modern-day America, dramatically underrating American society’s flexibility, adaptability, and capacity to evolve. The concept of whiteness as a valuable “property,” for instance, may have been highly relevant in the literally black-and-white world from which it was derived by one of its creators, UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris—a world in which Harris’s white-passing grandmother could conceal her racial background and get a job that would have been off-limits otherwise—but far less so in a multiracial, culturally pluralistic society with many different centers of power.

The CRT framework cannot explain, for instance, why many “communities of color”—not only Asian-Americans but some black populations, e.g., Nigerian-Americans and Guyanese-Americans—have outpaced white Americans in median earnings, while others such as West Indian and Jamaican-Americans or Palestinian-Americans are close to the white median. (Obviously, this does not mean that the racial gaps that leave U.S.-born black Americans worse off are their own fault; it does suggest that these disparities are shaped by far more complex historical and cultural forces than “baked-in” racism and white supremacy.)

This framework cannot explain why white Americans today have a lower life expectancy than Hispanics and especially Asian-Americans, though higher than blacks and Native Americans. It cannot explain why Asian-Americans increasingly dominate elite educational institutions, and the clearest bias against them comes in the form of efforts to promote more “diversity” of underrepresented groups. It cannot explain why, while the risk of being shot by police is far greater for black males than white males, the risk for black women is only slightly higher than for white women—and between 7 and 16 times lower than for white men. (Intersectionality generally does not deal very well with male disadvantage, since the burden of sexism, in its progressive framework, can only fall on women.) It cannot explain why racial gaps in incarceration have narrowed steadily since 2000, with fewer blacks and Latinos but more whites going to prison.

CRT cannot even explain some specific events invoked as examples of its fundamental truth. For instance, Anya points to Amy Cooper, the woman in Central Park who falsely accused a black man named Christian Cooper of attacking her last year when they had a dispute about her unleashed dog.

But, actually, what Amy Cooper “knew” turned out to be inaccurate: the police did not believe her or assume that Christian Cooper was the assailant. What’s more, when news of the incident got out, it made Amy Cooper a pariah and got her fired from her job. Given that Amy Cooper made a false report of an assault while being filmed and openly stressed that her alleged assailant was black, in a city with overwhelmingly progressive politics and a “majority-minority” police force, suggests that perhaps her assumptions should not be taken as a valid measurement of the realities of American culture.

Obviously, there are instances, even fairly recent ones, where black men and sometimes women have been presumed guilty due to racial profiling. But once again, the overall picture of race relations in the U.S. in 2021 is incredibly complex and multilayered, with much depending on region, specific location, local culture, and social milieu. Critical Race Theory paints not only with a broad brush but, as liberal legal historian and Gratz College president Paul Finkelman told me last year in the somewhat related context of the 1619 Project, “with a paint roller.”

While “CRT” is far narrower than “wokism,” it is easy to see that its tenets do in fact underlie the brand of “anti-racism” that not only conservatives but liberals such as John McWhorter have criticized as toxic. To take just one example: the scholar most responsible for popularizing the concept of “microaggressions” (small and unintentional insults, or at least perceived insults, based on racial, gender, and other biases) is Derald Wing Sue, who is not a critical race theorist as such but a clinical psychologist at Columbia University. However, the concept of microaggressions is also very much a part of critical race theory, as a look at the academic literature will show; a search for “microaggressions” and “critical race theory” on Google Scholar yields nearly 29,000 titles, some going back to the 1990s (e.g., “Critical race theory, race and gender microaggressions, and the experience of Chicana and Chicano scholars,” from 1998). The introduction to the latest edition of the definitive volume Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by prominent Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (2017), opens with an account of “microaggressions”: how slights that may feel trivial or mildly annoying if you’re white (a cashier being surly, sales clerks snubbing you, a passing jogger failing to acknowledge your greeting) may be demoralizing or infuriating if you are a minority and feel that racial bias is involved.

Or take an example from the current CRT debate. It’s true that, as philosophy doctoral student Sam Hoadley-Brill points out in a blogpost that deconstructs “anti-wokist” James Lindsay’s critique of CRT, White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo is not a “critical race theorist.” But is her line quoted by Lindsay as the essence of CRT—“The question is not, ‘Did racism take place?’ but, ‘How did racism manifest itself in this situation?’”—really far removed from CRT? My own criticisms of Lindsay are many and scathing; but here, I think Hoadley-Brill is doing definitional nitpicking. He also thinks it’s an “inductive leap” for Lindsay to say that “Critical Race Theory believes racism is present in every aspect of life, every relationship, and every interaction.” It’s overstated, yes; but as summed up by Anya, CRT certainly does see it in just about every aspect of life, and starts with the broad presumption that it exists in most interracial dynamics.

Likewise, Anya’s CRT Tenet 5 easily turns into the dogma that one cannot question “counternarratives” of racism—or other bigotries—by people with “marginalized” identities without being guilty of racism or bigotry.

(By the way: If CRT proponents really believed in Tenet 4—that white people will only support change that benefits minorities if they see that it benefits them as well—would they promote activism that aggressively tells whites they must give up their unearned advantages, accept their “complicity” in racism, and work on purging themselves of toxic “whiteness” in order to be absolved of guilt? And would they, for instance, portray police brutality as an almost exclusively racial problem, or stress that it’s an issue for white people as well? Do they take their own tenets seriously?)

Does this mean that the anti-CRT broadsides in the current backlash are intelligent or accurate critiques? Hardly. I haven’t read the critical theory critique by Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, Cynical Theories, which has gotten mixed reviews from people broadly on “their” side. But Lindsay’s recent “exposé” of Critical Race Theory in a Prager University video, which is the main target of Hoadley-Brill’s post, is indeed extremely sloppy. (Its examples of “CRT” include comments by antifa activists.)

However, Hoadley-Brill’s defense of Critical Race Theory isn’t much more convincing. For instance, he clearly bends over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to CRT proponents who make broadly anti-liberal statements. For instance, he mentions that CRT critics often play “gotcha” with a quote from Delgado and Stefancic from the same 2017 introduction to Critical Race Theory:

Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

Hoadley-Brill comments:

I really wish Delgado and Stefancic had taken a second to clarify what exactly they meant by this. It is often taken in a completely uncharitable direction; because CRT is said to “question the foundations of the liberal order,” it is assumed that they reject liberalism wholesale.

Yes, it would have been nice if they had clarified it; but they haven’t. Instead, they published another book, in 2018, which argues for removing First Amendment protections from “hate speech” and “white supremacy”—terms that can be quite broadly construed.

Next, Hoadley-Brill asserts that many CRT exponents are in fact devoted to liberalism. His first example is the late Derrick Bell; Hoadley-Brill writes that in his essay, “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?” “Derrick Bell emphasizes his commitment to freedom of speech for all citizens as compatible with his skepticism about the possibility of neutral principles of constitutional law.” But his only actual quote from Bell’s essay is one deeply skeptical of freedom of speech:

“I am committed equally to allowing free speech for the KKK and 2LiveCrew” is a non-neutral value judgment, one that asserts that the freedom to say hateful things is more important than the freedom to be free from the victimization, stigma, and humiliation that hate speech entails.

I have read Bell’s essay in its entirety, and I cannot find the affirmation of commitment to freedom of speech for all. I did find a passage that is, at the very least, not liberalism-friendly:

The work [of CRT] is often disruptive because its commitment to anti-racism goes well beyond civil rights, integration, affirmative action, and other liberal measures. This is not to say that critical race theory adherents automatically or uniformly “trash” liberal ideology and method (as many adherents of critical legal studies do). Rather, they are highly suspicious of the liberal agenda, distrust its method, and want to retain what they see as a valuable strain of egalitarianism which may exist despite, and not because of, liberalism.

To say that critical race theory does not “automatically and uniformly” trash liberalism and that it’s somewhat less illiberal than its predecessor, critical legal studies, seems like a rather weak defense to the charge that CRT is anti-liberal.

(Also, the idea that Bell was pro-liberalism is somewhat undercut by his outspoken admiration for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a virulent anti-Semite, homophobe and anti-white racist. Just sayin’.)

Lastly, Hoadley-Brill cites a passage from critical race scholar Angela Harris as evidence that critical race theory is not anti-freedom, since Harris writes that ultimately serves the goals of “emancipation” and “the liberation of people of color from racial subordination.” I don’t know anything about Harris’s work. She may indeed be sympathetic to liberal goals. But using the language of “liberation” hardly makes one liberal or pro-freedom: Communists and other totalitarians have routinely used it too.

Other recent comments by CRT defenders offer added reasons for concern. For instance, one educator quoted in a Washington Post story explains the backlash thusly: “It [i.e., critical legal theory] runs counter to a narrative that we want to tell ourselves about who we are. We have a narrative of progress, that we’re getting better.”

You don’t have to be adamantly opposed to the recognition or discussion of enduring racial problems to see that the denial of progress is both detached from reality and incredibly counterproductive.

So, bottom line:

Is “Critical Race Theory” a misnomer for many of the practices targeted by the anti-CRT backlash? Sort of; but CRT is more connected to those practices than the counter-backlash is often willing to admit.

Are most of the anti-“critical race theory” bills just as crude and illiberal as the ideology they target? Probably. Are many of them unconstitutional, in that they can be easily read as restricting the academic teaching of “divisive concepts”? No doubt.

Are some or even many people involved in the backlash racist to some degree, or easily outraged by perceived slights to white people in a way that mirrors “woke” hypersensitivity, or invested in a crude version of patriotism that sees any discussion of America’s racist history or current racial problems as (to quote old Soviet lingo) “slander against the Motherland”? No doubt.

But this backlash is also a pushback against some genuinely terrible stuff, in schools or in workplace diversity training: obsessive focus on race, insidious racial stereotyping in progressive guise, “privilege-checking” that can amount to browbeating the “privileged” and patronizing the “marginalized,” language-policing that goes as far exhorting children to avoid “gendered” words like “Mom” and “Dad,” hyperawareness of “microaggressions,” etc. Just because people oppose this brand of “anti-racism” does not mean they oppose all discussions of race or all acknowledgment of enduring racial problems.

We need a better pushback. But we also desperately need a better approach to racial and gender equity.

(A minor edit has been made to the paragraph following the second quote from Derrick Bell to clarify the distinction between critical race theory and critical legal studies.)