Wednesday, January 19, 2022

What is CRT?

Critical Race Theory by Delgado and Stefancic
What is critical race theory? What do proponents want? Is it just a legal theory or something more?

Where better to turn for answers to these questions than one of the founders of the movement? Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (his wife, so hereafter, the Delgados) is a popular level introduction to the movement among legal scholars and civil rights activists. This is not going to be a book review: Rather than waste time telling you what a poorly written book this is, I’m just going to distill its contents as a series of questions it should have clearly answered.

The authors frequently emphasize the variety of thought among CRT proponents (called “crits”), and this book — first written in 2001 and revised in 2017 — cannot tell us how it has evolved in recent years, but I think it is fair to say that CRT is at minimum what the Delgados describe.

Because this is going to be longish, here is an outline for those who want to skip to a specific question.

What is CRT?
 What do crits believe about race and racism?
   What is racism?
   Why do white people do this?
   What responsibility does an individual white person bear for this system?
 How can our society learn about race?
The Goals of CRT
 What do they want?
 How would we achieve their goals?
Is CRT “just a legal theory?”
Is CRT anti-Christian?

Critical race theory comes from critical legal studies (page 4*). This, in turn, comes from critical theory, which is based in part on Marxist thought. The word “Marxism” only appears in this book in the glossary, and I saw nothing overtly Marxist, but Delgado describes himself and his fellow founders as “a bunch of Marxists” elsewhere, so we should expect the subtler signs that are present in the book. They’re not teaching Marxism here, but it shapes how they think.

That Marxism appears in one of their basic premises, that fairness requires equal results (eg, p28, 132). Two other premises that are never explicitly stated but are assumed throughout the book are that unequal outcomes are proof of racism (eg, p47) and equal outcomes supersedes all other rights (eg, p28). These are assumptions, not arguments, so they are never explained or defended.

What is CRT?
1. What do crits believe about race and racism?
“Racism is ordinary, not aberrational ... the usual way society does business” (p8). “Racism is much more than a collection of unfavorable impressions of members of other groups. For realists [a prominent group of crits], racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status" (p21). “The status quo is inherently racist, rather than merely sporadically and accidentally so" (p159).

And unequal outcomes are proof of that racism. Unstated here, but seen in other works like Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is the idea that, if black people make up 13% of the population, they should make up 13% of the doctors, senators, and prisoners and own 13% of the wealth (cf, p12). Since that is not the case, the only (or at least primary) explanation is racism. “Many modern-day readers believe that racism is declining or that class today is more important than race. And it is certainly true that lynching and other shocking expressions of racism are less frequent than in the past. ... Still, by every social indicator+, racism continues to blight the lives of people of color, including holders of high-echelon jobs, even judges” (p10).

1.1. But what is racism?
“Everyone has heard the story about Eskimo languages, some of which supposedly contain many words for different kinds of snow. Imagine the opposite predicament—a society that has only one word (say, “racism”) for a phenomenon that is much more complex than that, for example, biological racism; intentional racism; unconscious racism; microaggressions; nativism; institutional racism; racism tinged with homophobia or sexism; racism that takes the form of indifference, coldness, or implicit associations; and white privilege, reserving favors, smiles, kindness, the best stories, one’s most charming side, and invitations to real intimacy for one’s own kind or class” (p30). Of course, we might point out that the authors had no problem making distinctions here, but it appears that use of the blanket term “racism” for a variety of situations is standard for crits.

So “racism” consists of “outright racism—the oppression of some people on grounds of who they are ... [and] white privilege—a system by which whites help and buoy each other up" (p90), where “white privilege” is “the myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race" (p89).

It also includes what we would call systemic racism: “Studies show+ that blacks and Latinos who seek loans, apartments, or jobs are much more apt than similarly qualified whites to suffer rejections, often for vague or spurious reasons” (p12). In these cases, the person turning them down doesn’t necessarily have a personal racial bias; the rules are simply designed to disadvantage minorities (p27).

“Color-blind, or ‘formal,’ conceptions of equality, expressed in rules that insist only on treatment that is the same across the board, can thus remedy only the most blatant forms of discrimination" (p8). In fact, color-blind solutions can only address “extremely egregious racial harms, ones that everyone would notice and condemn” (p27).

The authors give an example of a magic pill that would make personal, race-based prejudice go away. They believe that the system that oppresses minorities would continue to function just as it had before (p19-21).

1.2. Why do white people do this?
“Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it. Consider, for example, Derrick Bell’s shocking proposal ... that Brown v. Board of Education—considered a great triumph of civil rights litigation—may have resulted more from the self-interest of elite whites than from a desire to help blacks” (p8, cf p21).

1.3. What responsibility does an individual white person bear for this system?
Part of the argument that affirmative action is reverse discrimination “rests on an implicit assumption of innocence on the part of the white person displaced by affirmative action. The narrative behind this assumption characterizes whites as innocent, a powerful metaphor.... By contrast, many critical race theorists and social scientists hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white member of society seems quite so innocent” (p90).

So it seems that passively benefitting from this racist system — though I think the authors would say that a white person upholds that system at every opportunity — makes a white person guilty of racism and responsible for the harms done by our racist system.

2. How can our society learn about race?
“The voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism” (p10). Implicit in this is the presumed incompetence of non-minorities and their duty to be silent, to listen and learn.

A direct result of this is what the Delgados call “revisionist history” which “reexamines America’s historical record, replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations of events with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences. It also offers evidence, sometimes suppressed, in that very record, to support those new interpretations. ... Revisionism is often materialist in thrust, holding that to understand the zigs and zags of black, Latino, and Asian fortunes, one must look to matters like profit, labor supply, international relations, and the interest of elite whites” (p 25). It seems natural, then, that they would hold that it is their right and even duty to produce things like the 1619 Project to educate Americans as to what, in their view, really happened.

The Goals of CRT
1. What do they want?
It’s obvious that, first and foremost, crits want equity (that is, equal outcomes) for minorities. But what does that look like? It would look like criminal justice reform, including considering whether some things should be felonies or crimes at all (p120). That would include giving felons their votes back (p124) and intersectional sentencing guidelines (p64).

It would also look like a redefinition of merit (p131-132) including getting rid of standardized testing requirements for college (p141) and racial set-asides in education and employment (p114). It would include color-conscious politics (p154) including special rules to make black votes more effective and black politicians more influential (p139). There would be laws against hate speech (p124-126, 157, 159) and more liberal immigration policies (p137, 155).

They want CRT to be the “new civil rights orthodoxy” (p156). Which leads us to ...

2. How would we achieve their goals?
“Many liberals believe in color blindness and neutral principles of constitutional law. They believe in equality, especially equal treatment for all persons, regardless of their different histories or current situations. ... Color blindness can be admirable, as when a governmental decision maker refuses to give in to local prejudices. But it can be perverse, for example, when it stands in the way of taking account of difference in order to help people in need. An extreme version of color blindness, seen in certain Supreme Court opinions today, holds that it is wrong for the law to take any note of race, even to remedy a historical wrong. ... Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery” (p27).

“Crits are suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights. ... In our system, rights are almost always procedural (for example, to a fair process) rather than substantive (for example, to food, housing, or education). Think how that system applauds affording everyone equality of opportunity but resists programs that assure equality of results, such as affirmative action at an elite college or university or efforts to equalize public school funding among districts in a region” (p28).

“[Liberalism] also has been criticized as overly caught up in the search for universals, such as admissions standards for universities or sentencing guidelines that are the same for all. The crits point out that this approach is apt to do injustice to individuals whose experience and situation differ from the norm. They call for individualized treatment—’context’—that pays attention to minorities’ lives” (p64).

Notice the repeated comparison to liberals. Crits see themselves as being to the left of liberals and see color-blind laws and rights as impediments to progress. What they want are very much race-conscious solutions.

It seems that would include direct payments. They believe the usual government programs (eg, welfare, GI Bill, Social Security) benefit whites more than minorities (p118), so special reparations are in order (p158).

Is CRT “just a legal theory?”
CRT began as a legal theory, but that is not where it wants to remain. It wants to become “commonplace, part of the conventional wisdom. Consider how in many disciplines scholars, teachers, and courses profess, almost incidentally, to embrace critical race theory. Consider as well how many influential commentators, journalists, and books ... develop critical themes while hardly mentioning their origins in critical thought. Might critical race theory one day diffuse into the atmosphere, like air, so that we are hardly aware of it anymore?” (p158).

Could this be taught in an elementary or secondary classroom? Absolutely. Even if the whole is not presented, the basic assumptions, claims, and goals — not to mention the “revisionist history” — could easily be integrated into lessons.

Is CRT anti-Christian?
As presented here, I do not see anything anti-Christian. That’s not to say some elements aren’t incompatible with the scriptures, but that’s not the same thing. Marxism tends to be anti-Christian, and this does have clear Marxist roots, but nothing the Delgados present calls for attacking, much less trying to stamp out, Christianity. But, as I said before, CRT is evolving, and if some begin to identify Christianity as an oppressor group, it would be a natural target. New writings and programs should be examined for that, but it’s not necessarily a part of CRT. So we cannot just write the whole thing off as "anti-gospel"; we have to engage proponents on their ideas and see what they're actually teaching. 

Critical race theory is a way of looking at the world and at racial issues, one that sees race in everything. The authors tacitly admit that it is not the only way of looking at racial issues even though they clearly believe it is the best way. It is not “merely a legal theory”. It is also not necessarily an attack on the gospel.

I disagree with much (though not all) of what they teach, but I appreciate where they’re coming from. This is not going to go away until we deal with the issues CRT was designed to deal with — the lingering effects of centuries of racism and poverty among minorities. We can do it their way, or we can show them a better way.

* Because I used the Kindle version, page numbers may be off a page in either direction.
+ A footnote here would be a great idea. There are zero footnotes in this book to back up their claims of studies that support their views.

The Truth About the Color of Compromise
The Ground is Shifting Under Evangelicalism
I Don't Want to Talk about CRT

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