(Throughout the challenge below, I use “gospel” as a near metonym for “Christianity,” hoping to sidestep many secondary and tertiary doctrinal arguments which might derail the task. I’m sure this could be sorted out in practice; assuming critics, that is, don’t believe in a small gospel with few doctrinal and moral implications.)
It has become nearly a truism for many Christians that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is incompatible with the gospel or Christianity, though none so far have met the burden of proof necessary to sustain such a claim, nor even begun to travel down the rigorous path to do so.
In his final book before assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asks, “What is racism?” In answer, he quotes Dr. George Kelsey’s The Christian Understanding of Man:
Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry… In its early modern beginnings, racism was a justificatory device. It did not emerge as a faith. It arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 73)
It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 76-77)
Just as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has—for all its potential faults, both real and imagined—reoriented modern New Testament scholarship away from shoehorning 1st century Jew/gentile conflicts into the interpretive paradigm of 16th century Catholic/Reformation conflicts, so I’d suggest a new perspective on Christian antiracism is needed to reorient modern antiracists away from shoehorning 17th to 21st century racial “conflicts” into the interpretive paradigm of 1st century Jew/Gentile conflicts. Though NPP scholars were seeking to rid New Testament hermeneutics of a much later distorting imposition, I’m suggesting many Christian antiracists are unintentionally doing the reverse, viz., distorting our understanding of modern racism by the imposition of very unlike circumstances recorded in the New Testament.
A discussion developed online the other day surrounding Neil Shenvi’s blog post, “Does ‘Systemic Racism’ Exist?” I don’t intend to directly address the piece as I don’t think it fruitfully interacts with the subject matter. But the discussion did point up the need for clarification on the history of the concept, its definition(s), and its current presence, or lack thereof, in Critical Race Theory (CRT) scholarship. I intend to be brief, but will be sharing many quotes.
Systemic “Race Prejudice” in Traditional Abolitionist and Civil Rights Discourse
To begin with, I think it’s clear that racism, or “race prejudice” as it was called prior to the 1940s, was understood to be intimately related to systems for as long as there have been abolitionists and civil rights activists. This is primarily because racism has always been understood by activists to be a symptom of social, political, and economic exploitation. Frederick Douglass spelled this out 140 years ago (1881):
As many folks continue to conflate Critical Race Theory (CRT)with Critical Theory (CT) proper, though they are quite different, I thought it might be helpful to gather some of my old writing on CT in one place to help distinguish.
Further, there may be some overall added benefit to understanding the “critical” in CRT, at least as it appears broadly in various traditions. As we’ve defined elsewhere, “CRT is, at bottom, the radical civil rights tradition critically transformed to address a post-Civil Rights legal era rooted in the liberal ideology of ‘color-blindness’ and ‘equal treatment,’ which have together preserved and legitimated the continuation of racially subordinated circumstances.” Given that CRT has inherited this “critical” edge from Critical Legal Studies (CLS), and CLS inherited it from Critical Theory proper, it might be helpful to better understand the latter in order to better understand the former, despite the many transformations the Critical has undergone.
My Lutheran brother Keith Haney was kind enough to invite me back on the show, and we had a great discussion on CRT. As before, he asks the questions and poses the objections that are in the forefront of many people’s minds regarding CRT, and I do my level best to answer!
In case you haven’t already seen it, I had the pleasure to return to Southside Rabbi along with CRT scholar Dr. Nathan Cartagena. In this episode, we each define CRT, discuss where our definitions differ on emphasis, together respond to the culture war on CRT and antiracism, and discuss the impact of colonialism on the Church. Also, are Kendi and DiAngelo CRT scholars? Such a good time!
Please have a listen and let me know what you think!
As Christians, we should be very aware of the pathological nature of both individual and social ills. That is, social ills are not just easily individualized and conceptually isolatable bad actions, ideas, practices, policies, or stereotypes. Rather, just as a pathological liar habitually lies without even taking note of it, or just as a disease can infect a whole body with looming death yet appear perfectly healthy, so economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and the like can be embedded within whole social systems, producing symptoms that may even seem quite normal and ineradicable, though we feel the existential burdens of their bitter fruit.
We call it sin, and we recognize its far-reaching effects. Not only has sin brought about spiritual and physical death, but sin has broken man’s community with God (Gen. 3:24-25), broken his community with neighbor (Gen. 3:16; 4:1-8; Gal. 5:14-15), corrupted his economic activity (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 3:5; Mic. 2:2), corrupted his habitation and environment (Rom. 8:19-21), and has even distorted his very mind and reason (Matt. 15:19; Rom. 1:28; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18). In fact, the Scripture declares that our minds must be “renewed” in order to escape conformity “to this world” (Rom. 12:2).
I had a fantastic conversation with Scott M. Coley on his Faith, Philosophy & Politics podcast a ways back. We discussed the relation of Christian traditions to colonialism, Marxism at length, our blindness to our own social philosophies, all the recent shenanigans surrounding CRT and “systemic racism,” and more!
Please have a listen and let us know what you think!
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is, at bottom, the radical civil rights tradition critically transformed to address a post-Civil Rights legal era rooted in the liberal ideology of “color-blindness” and “equal treatment,” which have together preserved and legitimated the continuation of racially subordinated circumstances.
Broadly speaking, two visions of civil rights law emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). On the one hand, White progressives, along with the developing Black middle-class, centered their continued civil rights vision on the analytics of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. That is, the social problem of racism was understood to be personal prejudice and bias due to irrationally allowing physical and ancestral difference to justify partiality; discrimination was thought to be the specific, individuatable, and intentional actions resulting from personal prejudice—in particular, allowing race to figure into decision-making; and, last, segregation was thought to be the social, legal, and political manifestation of prejudice and discrimination.