‘Critical race theory’ may sound like a daunting academic theory, but it is surprisingly important. Because the theory influences modern law, politics, business, and discourse, it is important that you understand it. Here is a simple, clear explanation of critical race theory.
Defining ‘Critical Race Theory’
Simply put, ‘critical race theory’ (or ‘CRT’) is a theory that tries to explain and change society by understanding the role of race in society. This will make more sense if we break the concept down into its three words.
Theory– Let’s start with the last word first, because it is the most important. CRT is a theory – a way of viewing the world. In other words, CRT is a system of thoughts, tenets, and ideas about race and society.
Critical– Not all theories are created equal. While ‘traditional’ theories aim to explain society, ‘critical’ theories have an added goal: they want to change and transform society. ‘Critical’ theories assume that society is molded by the powerful, who create rules to maintain their own superiority in society. Critical theories aim to not only explain this, but also fight against these tendencies of injustice in society.
Race– CRT, obviously, focuses on race. Its ideas are all based around the concept that ‘race’ plays a huge part in modern society.
The Central Tenets of CRT
Since CRT is a theory, it has certain ideas that are central to it. While it is hard to make an exact list, here are five key tenets of CRT.
1 – The Centrality of Racism
CRT asserts that America is fundamentally a racist country. Racism is ‘embedded’ deep in the structure of society. Everything from business to law to economics are racist. Racism, in fact, has been ‘institutionalized.’ Hence, because CRT is a ‘critical theory’ that aims to fight against oppression, CRT intends to recreate every aspect of America.
2 – Race as a Social Construct
CRT does not say that race is an actual reality; it is simply a mindset that has been created by those who hold power in society. Hence, CRT asserts that ‘race’ has no basis in biology or genetics. Instead, ‘race’ was created in order to give an advantage to the elite – specifically, those in power (‘white people’) can use their ‘whiteness’ as a ‘property’ to gain advantages in society. (This is where the idea of ‘white privilege’ comes).
3 – The Self-Interest of the Powerful
Those who have power in society are always going to use it for their own benefit. In the past, it benefitted the elites (‘white people’) to use minorities as slaves. Now, the elites find it more beneficial to give freedom to minorities.
The assertion that ‘all men are created equal,’ found in the Constitution, was only written because it was beneficial for the power-brokers in society. Similarly, the emancipation of slaves did not happen because of concern for the minorities, but only from self-interest on the part of the powerful. The same is true, says CRT, with the Civil Rights Movement – giving equal rights to minorities was simply a way for the powerful in society (‘whites’) to maintain their own self-interest. In fact, the elite (‘whites’) manipulate society, economy, and the law to constantly maintain their elite status.
4 – Repudiation of Classical Liberalism
‘Classical liberalism’ holds to the idea that all men are created equal; that each person must be dealt with as an individual. Individuals have rights, and society operates under the rule of law – free from the excesses of arbitrary power.
CRT rejects classical liberalism, viewing it as a vehicle of oppression. CRT thinks of classical liberalism as a tool that is used by the elites (‘whites’) to oppress minorities. For example, while classical liberalism teaches freedom of expression and freedom of the press, CRT argues that ‘hate speech’ is unacceptable. While classical liberals argue that bad arguments should be met with good arguments, CRT says that bad arguments should be prohibited. This is the mindset that has created the idea of ‘microaggressions.’
Similarly, while classical liberalism teaches that every single individual should be viewed as a unique individual, free from any stereotyping, CRT argues that race is so engrained in society that we should think in race-conscious terms. In other words, while classical liberalism argues for a color-blind approach to individuals, CRT wants active race-consciousness. People should be given advantages based on their ‘race,’ such as affirmative action that increases minority representation in schools.
5 – Postmodernism
CRT is a fundamentally post-modern theory. Postmodernism is a worldview that denies that there is such a thing as objective reality or truth. CRT views objectivity and logical reasoning as tools of oppression exercised by the elites in order to oppress minorities. Hence, CRT focuses instead on storytelling and asserting ‘my truth’ as ways to understand and advance CRT.
A Critique of CRT
What should we think about CRT? Is it a helpful way to view America, and does it provide helpful answers in the search for a more just society? Here are five critiques of CRT.
1 – CRT refuses to be critiqued
Because CRT is a postmodern theory, it denies that there is such a thing as objective reality or truth. Using logic or reason to try to critique CRT, therefore, is useless, since logic and reason do not exist. Instead, these are tools of the elites, and CRT focuses on storytelling and proclaiming ‘my truth.’ Of course, it is almost impossible to argue against someone’s subjective experience. Any argument against CRT can be branded as ‘oppressive’ and therefore unworthy of response. As Richard Posner points out,
“What is most arresting about critical race theory is that…it turns its back on the Western tradition of rational inquiry, forswearing analysis for narrative. Rather than marshal logical arguments and empirical data, critical race theorists tell stories — fictional, science-fictional, quasi-fictional, autobiographical, anecdotal—designed to expose the pervasive and debilitating racism of America today.” (Richard Posner)
2 – CRT Fuels Dangerous Emotions
By emphasizing storytelling and narrative over objective facts and reasoning, CRT has a dangerous tendency to fuel emotion. Particularly, by constantly telling stories about racism and injustice, CRT has the potential to drastically increase racial tension, creating enmity and hatred between the majority and minorities. CRT stories focuse on the division between the unjust elites (‘whites’) and the oppressed minorities, creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality.
One need not look far to see how dangerous this is. The ‘us versus them’ mentality has fueled horrible evil in the world, from the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust, to the slaughter of ‘whites’ during the Haitian Revolution, to the slaughter of Armenians during World War I, to the slaughter of the Tutsi during the Rwandan Genocide.
3 – CRT Makes Unprovable Assumptions
Remember, CRT is a theory. It does not aim to prove that America is fundamentally racist, or that society is completely engineered by the elites. Instead, it presupposes that these things are true, and it reinforces these assumptions through storytelling.
While there is no doubt that America has a sordid racist history – and while many American institutions have certainly been used for racist purposes – it is hard to make the assertions of CRT. Many people would argue that America is fundamentally built around the idea of freedom – and that while America has not always lived out that ideal, we continue to try to pursue it. If America is based on the ideal of freedom, then America has been, and can continue to be, reformed. But if America is fundamentally racist (as the New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’ affirms), then the only solution is the ultimate dismantling of America.
Similarly, it is hard to prove that the elites in society have always acted from self-interest. Can we say with certainty that the elites were motivated by self-interest more than kindness when they committed to the emancipation of slaves, or the civil rights movement?
4 – CRT Promotes Racist Thinking
We generally think of ‘racism’ as stereotyping people with negative characteristics based on their racial identity. CRT rejects the ‘color-blind’ approach in favor of a ‘race-conscious’ approach, and it says that the majority ‘race’ in America (‘whites’) are constantly manipulating society for their own advantage, in order to maintain superiority over racial minorities. Even those who ‘reject’ racism and seek to treat minorities justly can (and probably do) still use unconscious ‘microaggressions’ that make them unknowingly racist. While this may seem to be an anti-racist approach, it falls into the trap of racism – thinking about people not as individuals, but as members of a racial group who have stereotypical negative characteristics.
5 – CRT cannot provide solutions
CRT argues that America is racist to the core; society, law, language, business – everything is fundamentally racist. While CRT aims to create a ‘just’ society, it denies that America can be really just. If America is truly so racist, then there is no solution except the creation of an entirely new society.
Of course, many who hold to CRT may not think this way. Many still believe that a just society is possible. During the time of the civil rights movement, the answer was found in affirmative action. That did not create the justice that was desired, so CRT has moved to the next idea: reparations to minorities. Once it is seen that reparations do not work, CRT will probably move on to more radical ideas, like property reallocation (which is already being considered in South Africa). Of course, property reallocation will not create justice either (Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, accomplished little through property reallocation, except for racial strife and poverty). Haiti, which tried to entirely remove the ‘elite’ race during the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, only succeeded in destroying the country and reducing everyone to abject poverty.
It is important to understand CRT, since it occupies such an important part of modern discourse. By understanding CRT, its core tenets, and the critiques of this theory, you will be better able to engage with others in discussions about this influential and unique theory.