Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 1: “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory?


Carl Trueman’s recent article, “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” purports to be about Critical Race Theory (CRT)—I think. He offers no definitions, no citations, and doesn’t even mention a single CRT scholar. He does, however, make a series of unargued claims which might constitute a characterization for our purposes. From what I can gather, Dr. Trueman believes the following:

(1) CRT contains a set of “basic claims,” among them are “racism is systemic” and “being non-racist is impossible.” (2) the “basic claims” of CRT are “self-certifying,” they are “axioms,” and are “not conclusions drawn from argument.” (3) CRT “relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo.” (4) “Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare”; that is, CRT simply replaced the role of “class” in Marxism with “race.” (5) “Critical race theory rests on simple, therapeutic premises,” including that life is a “zero-sum game”: “Some people do not have power. They struggle and do not ­flourish. This happens because somebody else has seized power from them and oppresses them in an ongoing and unrelenting way.” And, last, (6) CRT claims to offer a “comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.”

Presuming the article is supposed to be about CRT, I plan to take a look at each of these claims in turn over the next several days, rather than cram it all into one article. As someone said to me recently, it takes one paragraph to spread bad information and a dozen to correct it. And while I don’t think Trueman’s article merits these full responses, especially on CRT, I do think it useful to leverage its warm reception as an opportunity to answer some quite common, though quite misguided, claims. For a broader reaction to Truman’s article, I commend Valerie Hobbs‘s article, “Is Critical Race Theory a Religion? Responding to Carl Trueman.” I intend only to address his characterization of CRT in these posts, but will assuredly draw some more general conclusions in the end.

1. CRT contains a set of “basic claims,” among them are “racism is systemic” and “being non-racist is impossible.”

To begin with, it is debatable whether CRT does in fact have any set of basic claims—it certainly has no strict agreed upon definition, nor list of “tenets” that are both necessary and sufficient to uniquely distinguish CRT from fellow travelers. As CRT founding scholar Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw has explained, “CRT is not so much an intellectual unit filled with natural stuff—theories, themes, practices, and the like,” but is “better thought of as a verb” (“Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking Back to Move Forward,” p. 1261). Tightly defining and policing the boundaries of what should be considered proper “CRT scholarship” tends to prescribe in advance the internal critical dynamic that is itself a feature of the theory, threatening to calcify CRT into a particular historical contestation with diminishing applicability to ever new contexts.

Nevertheless, Dr. Crenshaw, along with CRT co-founders Mari MatsudaCharles Lawrence III, and Richard Delgado have offered answers to “What is critical race theory?,” even calling the list they produced “defining elements” (see chapter 1, “What is Critical Race Theory?,” in Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, And The First Amendment). Further, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic answer the same question in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, calling their list “basic tenets” (see chapter 1.F, “Basic Tenets of Critical Race Theory”). Last, in one of my favorite treatments, “Critical What What,” CRT scholar Devon Carbado answers, “What are (or should be) some of CRT’s core ideas?” (see pages 1607 – 1615). If we were to take Crenshaw, Matsuda, Lawrence, and Delgado’s “defining elements” found in Words That Wound as normative—given their central role in the development of CRT—and sprinkle in the answers of Stefancic and Carbado, I think we get a pretty broadly accepted set of CRT commonplaces, namely:

  • “CRT rejects the standard racial progress narrative that characterizes mainstream civil rights discourse—namely, that the history of race relations in the United States is a history of linear uplift and improvement” (“Critical What What”).
  • “Critical race theory recognizes that racism is endemic to American life. … [W]e ask how … traditional interests and values serve as vessels of racial subordination” (Words That Wound).
  • “’[I]nterest convergence’ or material determinism, adds a further dimension. 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” (Introduction).
  • “CRT also weighs-in directly on the very idea of race, rejecting the conception of race as a biological fixed social category and arguing instead that race is socially constructed” (“Critical What What”).
  • “Critical race theory expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, color blindness, and meritocracy” (Words That Wound).
  • “Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law. Current inequalities and social/institutional practices are linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear. More important, as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service. Our history calls for this presumption” (Words That Wound).
  • “Critical race theory insists on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color and our communities of origin in analyzing law and society. This knowledge is gained from critical reflection on the lived experience of racism and from critical reflection upon active political practice toward the elimination of racism. (Words That Wound)
  • “Critical race theory is interdisciplinary and eclectic. It borrows from several traditions, including liberalism, law and society, feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism, critical legal theory, pragmatism, and nationalism. This eclecticism allows critical race theory to examine and incorporate those aspects of a methodology or theory that effectively enable our voice and advance the cause of racial justice even as we maintain a critical posture” (Words That Wound).
  • “Another, somewhat more recent, development concerns differential racialization and its consequences. Critical writers in law, as well as in social science, have drawn attention to the ways the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs” (Introduction).
  • “Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression. Racial oppression is experienced by many in tandem with oppression on grounds of gender, class, or sexual orientation” (Words That Wound).
  • “The theory is both pragmatic and idealistic. It grapples with the immediacies of now without losing sight of the transformative possibilities of tomorrow” (“Critical What What”).

In short, according to CRT founders Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, Critical Race Theory developed as a

project … uncovering how law was a constitutive element in race itself: in other words, how law constructed race. Racial power, in our view, was not simply—or even primarily—a product of biased decision-making on the part of judges, but instead, the sum total of the pervasive ways in which law shapes and is shaped by “race relations” across the social plane. Laws produced racial power … through myriad legal rules … that continued to reproduce structures and practices of racial domination. … With such an analysis in hand, critical race theory allows us to better understand how racial power can be produced even from within a liberal discourse that is relatively autonomous from organized vectors of racial power. (Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed a Movement, p. XXV)

(For more, please see: “In Short, What is Critical Race Theory?“)

With this general understanding of CRT in place, we should be able to see that Trueman’s purported “basic claims” show little awareness of either Critical Race Theory itself or the broader tradition within which it was developed.

First, decidedly lacking from CRT scholars’ answers to “What is CRT?” (or similar) is the claim, “being non-racist is impossible.” My guess is that Trueman gets this idea from a marginal awareness of Ibram X Kendi’s work—the only secular race scholar he mentions in the piece. According to Kendi, ideas or policies can be either racist or antiracist, there is no in-between. While I do believe this conclusion is a direct and logical implication of Kendi’s own explicit set of definitions, these definitions are peculiar to Kendi and not particularly reflective of CRT scholarship. In fact—and this seems to come as a surprise to many—Kendi is not a CRT scholar at all; he doesn’t even claim to be. To be clear, I’d be willing to defend many of his arguments and conclusions as he is a brilliant historian and race scholar. But the claim, “being non-racist is impossible,” is simply not a basic claim of Critical Race Theory, but rather a conclusion drawn by Kendi from his own definitions.

As for “racism is systemic,” a way of understanding this claim is certainly included within CRT. But the general idea of systemic racism is an inheritance of the traditional civil rights discourse, not a creation of CRT, nor a distinguishing mark. For example, following the abolition of slavery a century and a half ago, Frederick Douglass explained the intrenched, systemic nature of what we now call “racism,” while also explaining its provenance:

During all the years of their bondage, the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the Negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. … Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line. It is broad enough and black enough to explain all the malign influences which assail the newly emancipated millions to-day. In reply to this argument it will perhaps be said that the Negro has no slavery now to contend with, and that having been free during the last sixteen years, he ought by this time to have contradicted the degrading qualities which slavery formerly ascribed to him. All very true as to the letter, but utterly false as to the spirit. Slavery is indeed gone, but its shadow still lingers over the country and poisons more or less the moral atmosphere of all sections of the republic. The money motive for assailing the negro which slavery represented is indeed absent, but love of power and dominion, strengthened by two centuries of irresponsible power, still remains. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 653)

And it was Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton who provided the classic definition of “institutional racism” following the formal abolition of Jim Crow—in 1967, twenty years prior to the birth of CRT:

Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type.

When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city—Birmingham, Alabama—five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn—at least in words. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. … A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are “better” than blacks; therefore blacks should be subordinated to whites. This is a racist attitude and it permeates the society, on both the individual and institutional level, covertly and overtly. (Black Power, pp. 3-4)

This idea—that racism has and can structure systems, institutions, and ideologies to the disadvantage of historically marginalized peoples—is a traditional idea, not a distinctively CRT idea. In fact, many of the most popular economic, sociological, and legal works on systemic racism have either no, or little, connection with Critical Race Theory at all—see, for example, the work of William Darity, Jr., Joe Feagin, Allan Johnson, William Julius Wilson, etc. A perusal of some of the most popular introductions to the idea of systemic racism, like Feagin’s “Excluding Blacks and Others From Housing: The Foundation of White Racism” or Darity’s “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap,” quickly reveals the concept’s independence of Critical Race Theory. Even the Southern Baptist Convention itself, the organization whose struggles over CRT ostensibly spawned Trueman’s article, has corporately acknowledged the existence of systemic racism in its 1995 “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation,” apologizing “to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.”

What CRT offers, as mentioned above, is a specific approach to understanding and explaining systemic racism, predominately as a function of law.

CRT repudiates the view that status quo arrangements are the natural result of individual agency and merit. We all inherit advantages and disadvantages, including the historically accumulated social effects of race. This racial accumulation—which is economic (shaping both our income and wealth), cultural (shaping the social capital upon which we can draw), and ideological (shaping our perceived racial worth)—structure our life chances. CRT exposes these inter-generational transfers of racial compensation. Building up over time to create racial shelters (hidden and protected racial privileges) and racial taxes (hidden and unprotected racial costs), racial compensation profoundly shapes and helps to support the contemporary economies of racial hierarchy. CRT intervenes to correct this market failure and the unjust racial allocations it produces.

One way the theory does so is by challenging two dominant principles upon which American anti-discrimination law and politics rest-to wit, that colorblindness necessarily produces race neutrality and that color consciousness necessarily produces racial preferences. By historically contextualizing existing racial inequalities, CRT is able both to contest the [colorblindness/race-neutrality]/[color-conscious/racial preferences] alignments and to reverse them. The theory effectuates this reversal by demonstrating how colorblindness can produce racial preferences and how color consciousness can neutralize and disrupt embedded racial advantages. (Devon Carbado, “Critical What What,” pp. 1608 – 1609)

Tomorrow we will address the next of Trueman’s claims, viz., that the “basic claims” of CRT are “self-certifying” “axioms” and are “not conclusions drawn from argument.”

“Tomorrow” has come! Click here to move on to Part 2: “Carl Trueman’s “CRT”: 2. The “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory Are Unargued Axioms?

6 thoughts on “Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 1: “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory?

  1. loulove January 19, 2021 / 1:54 pm

    Thank you, brother. This is a much-needed response to Trueman.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Leon Chisolm Wilkeson March 31, 2021 / 1:32 pm

    TL/DR, your self-loathing and virtue signaling is boring. You white leftist ladies are nothing short of pathetic.


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