Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 2: The “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory Are Unargued Axioms?


Yesterday we covered Trueman’s first claim, concluding that his purported “basic claims” show little awareness of either Critical Race Theory or the broader tradition within which it was developed. Today we move onto his second. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

2. The “basic claims” of CRT are “self-certifying,” they are “axioms,” and are “not conclusions drawn from argument.”

There are a couple ways to take this. We could take it to mean that the actual commonplaces of CRT are self-certifying axioms not drawn from argument, or we could take it to mean that what Trueman believes to be “basic claims” of CRT are self-certifying axioms not drawn from argument. If he means the former, I would first point him to the many thousands of pages of law review articles making the very arguments he believes are lacking. It is an incredulous, laughable claim, to be honest. If this is what he is suggesting, maybe he could begin with a Derrick Bell reader, then move on to some collections like Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, then Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. That would get him hundreds of articles into the vast literature making the supposedly non-existent arguments.

Or it could be that Trueman is simply misconstruing (or misunderstanding?) the nature of social theory. According to sociologist Austin Harrington,

Social theory refers to ideas, arguments, hypotheses, thought-experiments and explanatory speculations about how and why human societies—or elements or structures of such societies—come to be formed, change, and develop over time or disappear. … [S]ocial theory most commonly encompasses the range of explanatory concepts, analytical tools, and heuristic devices on which sociologists and social scientists draw in their efforts to interpret statistical or qualitative data about particular empirical social phenomena. (“Social Theory“)

Sociologist and anthropologist Dr. Bradley Levinson defines “social theory” simply as “a set of interlinked concepts that minimally aspires to give an account of how and why ‘society’ works.” Further,

the interpretive side of social theory … helps us “see” the world better in order to orient our action in it more successfully. … As Kenneth Allan puts it, “Theory is that which lifts the veil and connects the dots. It lifts the veil because it can show us what is going on beneath the surface” (2005, 3). (Beyond Critique, pp. 6 – 7)

And CRT scholar Khiara M. Bridges relates this explanatory, heuristic, analytic sense of “theory” directly to the aspirations of Critical Race Theory:

If one defines a “theory” as an idea that one can test with experiments in order to prove its truth or falsity, then CRT is not a theory. There is no test that can prove that CRT is “right” or “wrong” when it argues that the law constructs, naturalizes, and justifies racial inequality.

However, if we embraced a more expansive definition of “theory”—defining it as an analytical framework that can be used to explain or examine facts or events—then CRT would qualify.

Consider [American] incarceration rates…. Social theories, like CRT, are sets of ideas that can help us explain or otherwise make sense of those statistics.

    • A person employing a Marxist social theory, for example, may conclude that the capitalist class’s need to control the laboring class explains those numbers. To a Marxist theorist, the criminal law and the prison are tools that the bourgeoisie uses to manage the proletariat.
    • A person employing a Foucauldian social theory may think that the U.S.’s incarceration rates are interesting because, according to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the prison is a model of modern power at its most perfected. Thus, to a Foucauldian theorist, the high rates of incarceration in the U.S. make sense, as the state is most powerful when its subjects are as visible as they are when they are incarcerated.

Like Marxist and Foucauldian social theories, CRT is a social theory that we can use to explain or examine the U.S.’s incarceration rates. CRT would argue that the fact that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, together with the fact that people of color are overrepresented among those who are incarcerated, show that the law—the criminal law, in this case—is deeply implicated in sustaining racial subordination. (Critical Race Theory: A Primer (Concepts and Insights), pp. 8-9)

Accordingly, CRT was originally developed to answer (explain/examine) how, within the space of just twenty years, the Civil Rights revolution was so successfully stymied in making lasting substantive changes to the circumstances of African Americans? The “whites only” signs had indeed come down, formal equality had been legally established, massive victories were won for civil rights throughout the nation at every level of government, yet the historically expected and inevitable social and economic disparities suffered by African Americans seemed obstinate, even intrenched, by the time Crenshaw, Matsuda, Gotanda, Peller, Thomas, Lawrence, Delgado, etc., began to form the basic outlines of a critical theory of race.

Immediately following the passage of the historical Civil Rights Acts, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated plainly the substantive goals of the Civil Rights Movement, viz., to change the subordinated circumstances of African Americans, not just their subordinated legal status:

[F]reedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result. (“To Fulfill These Rights”)

But by the time of the first ever CRT Workshop in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw was, sadly, able to report a far different outcome:

Continuing disparities exist between African-Americans and whites in virtually every measurable category. In 1986, the African-American poverty rate stood at 31%, compared with 11% for whites. … “[B]lack median income is 57 percent that of whites, a decline of about four percentage points since the early 1970’s.” … Between 1981 and 1985, Black unemployment averaged 17%, compared to 7.3% for whites. … In 1986, approximately 44% of all Black children lived in poverty. … Blacks comprise sixty percent of the urban underclass in the United States. … The African-American socioeconomic position in American society has actually declined in the last two decades. Average annual family income for African-Americans dropped 9% from the 1970’s to the 1980’s. … Since 1969, the proportion of Black men between 25 and 55 earning less than $5000 a year rose from 8% to 20%. (“Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law,” pp. 1332-1333)

(For more on this post-CR reversal, please see: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment.”) It was, in fact, this rapid civil rights retrenchment that ultimately led to the formation of a critical theory of race—a peeling back of the common, normative assumptions of American life to find the root of racism’s hearty persistence, even where it was so publicly and universally condemned.

Economists, sociologists, and statisticians have provided reams of data, scientifically gathered, and peer reviewed, registering vast society-wide disparities between Black and White Americans. Following the Civil War, the abandonment of Reconstruction, and 100 years of both legal and de facto nationwide Jim Crow, the results are clear: the average “white” child is born into a family with ten to twenty times the wealth of his “black” peer, is twice as likely to live through infancy, 2.5 times as likely to live in a two-parent household (though will likely spend less time with his father than his black peer), is much more likely to go to a well-funded, academically superior school, is more likely to be put into advanced coursework as opposed to remedial or special needs coursework, regardless of ability; the white child is likely to live in de facto segregated neighborhoods, attend de facto segregated schools, and worship in de facto segregated churches, is much more likely to make it to college without being incarcerated, even if he commits the same or similar crimes as his black peer, is more likely to graduate from college, is much less likely to be shot and killed by a police officer, is more likely to secure a job, even with precisely the same resume, is likely to be paid more for the same work, is likely to accumulate 3 times the net worth of his black peer, is likely to have significantly more wealth mobility, while his black peer is more likely to spend what he has to care for his aging parents, is much more likely to own a home, will likely have greater access to healthcare, and the care his black peer does receive is likely to be lower quality, and in the end, the white child is even likely to outlive his black peer. (See, “Confronting Racial Disparities in America, From Cradle to Grave: A Reading List.”)

Critical Race Theory offers a theoretical framework to explain this data set—to understand its genesis, to untwine the legal and social mechanisms which have created and sustained it, and to offer a means to effectively address it, rather than just tinker around the surface of traditional “individual prejudice” and “race-relations” doctrine. But this is a far cry from suggesting CRT’s “basic claims” are unargued axioms. That’s just silly.

Finally, it could be that Dr. Trueman meant that “being non-racist is impossible” and “racism is systemic”—that is, those claims which he thinks are “basic claims” of CRT—are unargued axioms. While I’m not really motivated to defend the first, Ibram X Kendi does offer plenty of arguments to justify his unique claims. A careful consultation of his work should suffice. As for suggesting that “racism is systemic,” on the other hand, is a self-certifying, unargued axiom, I am simply perplexed. Might I suggest “The Case For Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Persistent Disparities and From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, by William Darity, Jr., More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, by William Julius Wilson, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, Black Wealth / White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality, by Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet Washington, and many, many other works filled with hundreds of pages of data, arguments, explanations, and proposed solutions, born of decades of rigorous and peer reviewed research? This should easily disabuse Trueman of his risible claim; if that is indeed what he intended. It’s hard to tell, since Trueman, ironically, offers no arguments.

On to Part 3: “Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 3: False Consciousness or Double Consciousness?

5 thoughts on “Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 2: The “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory Are Unargued Axioms?

  1. loulove January 19, 2021 / 1:52 pm

    I really appreciate this interaction with Trueman’s claims. Thanks brother.

    Liked by 1 person

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