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

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In our last post, we assessed Trueman’s claim that the “basic claims” of CRT are self-certifying, unargued axioms, concluding that he either is misconstruing the nature of social theory or lacks familiarity with CRT’s many thousands of pages of peer reviewed argumentation. Today we move onto his third claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

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.”

Here I presume Dr. Carl Trueman is referring to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony,” as taken up by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is “the social, cultural, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group over other groups.”

This influence stems from the perception of legitimacy afforded the dominant group by the subordinate groups. Hegemony is an active process whereby legitimacy is sought and maintained by the dominant group through the balancing of consent (that is, tacit support for the dominant group) and coercion (that is, the threat or use of forms of force). (Beyond Critique, pp. 52-53; emphasis mine)

Similarly, the concept of “false consciousness,” early spoken of by Marx and later employed by György Lukács, was for them “the phenomenon in which workers come to believe in the benefits of capitalism,” presumably against their own interests, consistent with the “consent” aspect of hegemonic social control (p. 31). Frankfurt Theorists expanded this notion beyond just capitalism and class struggle to explain individuals’ willing participation in the whole social order, as patrons of the “culture industry,” locked in an “ontology of false conditions” masquerading as freedom, ultimately alienated from themselves in a permanent state of unfreedom, as subjects of the “administered society.” (Yes, a lot of jargon, as is much of traditional Critical Theory; see, “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt.)

It is true that Critical Legal Studies (CLS)—the legal school from which CRT originally emerged—relied heavily on Gramsci’s theory of hegemony to explain how the law masks and legitimates social subordination, making it appear natural, inevitable, just, and even advantageous to those exploited. CLS inherited this emphasis from “European critical social theory,” according to CRT scholar Robert Williams, which “has concerned itself with questions of hierarchy, hegemony, contradiction, and false consciousness since its proto-origins in the works of Marx and Nietzsche” (“Taking Rights Aggressively,” p. 118). Consistent with this European trajectory of critical social theory, CLS primarily emphasized the “consent” aspect of hegemony, thus arguing that false consciousness was the means by which exploited groups willingly participated in social orders which manifestly worked against their own interests, many even willing to give their lives for its maintenance. As such, it was ideology, ideas and beliefs in the minds of the oppressed, which facilitated and maintained their own subjugation, much like Dr. Trueman suggests. But, it is precisely this emphasis on consent and “false consciousness,” while downplaying, even dismissing, more traditionally understood forms of domination, that served as a major point of departure between the developing critical theory of race in the late 1980s and the CLS movement from which it emerged.

Coercion, argues Dr. Crenshaw in her 1988 “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment,”—the other side of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony—is a much more accurate description of the domination suffered by African Americans over the last 400 years. She takes critical historian Robert Gordon as an exemplar of CLS’s use of Gramsci and hegemony, arguing that “Gordon’s explanation of ideological domination illustrates how an exclusive focus on consent leaves gaping holes in his reader’s understanding of hegemony.”

Gordon writes that beliefs are “the main constraints upon making social life more bearable.” Yet how can others understand the fact that Black people, although unable to bring about a world in which they fully participate, can imagine such a world? Clearly, something other than their own structure of thought prevents Blacks from changing their world. This fact suggests that a more complete explanation of domination requires that coercion and consent be considered together.

The coercive power of the state operates to suppress some groups, particularly when there is consensus among others that such coercion is warranted. Racism serves to single out Blacks as one of these groups “worthy” of suppression. Gordon, however, does not offer any way to understand this. If his exclusive focus on ideological domination is to be taken literally, one is left believing that Black Americans are unable to change their world because they accept the dominant ideology and thus cannot imagine an alternative existence. Yet to say that the beliefs of Black Americans have boxed them into a subordinate existence because of what they believe is to ignore the history of coercive racial subordination. Indeed, it would be difficult for Blacks, given the contradiction between American fiction and Black American reality, to believe as much of the American mythology as whites do.

The most significant aspect of Black oppression seems to be what is believed about Black Americans, not what Black Americans believe. Black people are boxed in largely because there is a consensus among many whites that the oppression of Blacks is legitimate. This is where consensus and coercion can be understood together: ideology convinces one group that the coercive domination of another is legitimate. (p. 1358)

In this passage, Dr. Crenshaw turns Dr. Trueman’s claim completely on its head. For CRT, not only is it false that “the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo,” but, alternatively, the oppressor is the party understood to be suffering from a form of ideological false consciousness, viz., the false belief that continued domination of African Americans is “legitimate,” even in his own White interest. This understanding of “false consciousness,” as applying to the oppressor, has been a commonplace of both abolitionist and civil rights scholarship for over a century. Whether found in the mouths of sociologists like W.E.B. Du Bois, historians like Edmund Morgan, or CRT godfather Derrick Bell, scholars have argued that poor, underserved, and exploited Whites have been pacified and cajoled by higher relative social status to Blacks, going back to at least the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676/7. In fact, this idea figures centrally in CRT’s understanding of interest convergence—CRT commonplace (c) listed in Part 1.

Further, the deep divide between the abolitionist and civil rights inspired tradition of Critical Race Theory and the Eurocentric critical tradition of Critical Legal Studies came into clear view in their very public dispute over the traditional discourse of “rights” and “entitlements.” Again, according to Robert Williams,

CLS raises the possibility that the “rights” “won” under cases such as Brown v. Board of Education or Goldberg v. Kelly are only chimeras, partial makeshift concessions whose principal function is to preserve the intellectual as well as social stability of the dominant order. (“Taking Rights Aggressively,” pp. 117 – 118)

That is, “rights” themselves are means of social control, of eliciting willing consent from the exploited by offering legal words of enfranchisement without the substance, and producing, presumably, the “false consciousness” Trueman speaks of. CLS scholar Mark Tushnet explains how rights function in this manner:

(1) Once one identifies what counts as a right in a specific setting, it invariably turns out that the right is unstable; significant but relatively small changes in the social setting can make it difficult to sustain the claim that a right remains implicated. (2) The claim that a right is implicated in some settings produces no determinate consequences. (3) The concept of rights falsely converts into an empty abstraction (reifies) real experiences that we ought to value for their own sake. (4) The use of rights in contemporary discourse impedes advances by progressive social forces …. (as quoted by Crenshaw, “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment,” p. 1353)

Thus, according to CLS scholars, “rights” discourse itself is a means of preserving the status quo and a means of eliciting hegemonic consent, the very opposite of liberation.

CRT scholars, on the other hand, come to rights discourse with a very different perspective. Again, Williams:

The attack by the Critical Legal Studies movement on rights and entitlement theory discourse can be seen as a counter crusade to the hard campaigns and long marches of minority peoples in this country. Minority people committed themselves to these struggles, not to attain some hegemonically functioning reification leading to false consciousness, but a seat in the front of the bus, repatriation of treaty-guaranteed sacred lands, or a union card to carry into the grape vineyards. (p. 120)

Throughout American history, people of color have suffered and died for the cause of rights, “combatants for a terrain that people of color are now told may have been nothing more than the chimerical construct of a mystified consciousness” (p. 121). It is these very real historical circumstances of very real marginalized people-groups that transforms “rights discourse” from the false consciousness inducing “rights” of the European critical tradition to the liberating “rights” of the abolitionist and civil rights tradition of CRT.

The reason why leftist and neo-leftist law professors feel little remorse or fear over the abandonment of rights discourse is that for them “rights” represent a concept, rather than a phenomenon. It is easy to “trash” a concept. One cannot experience the pervasive, devastating reality of a “right,” however, except in its absence. One must first be denied that seat on the bus, one must see the desecration of one’s tribe’s sacred lands, one must be without sanitary facilities in a farm field, to understand that a “right” can be more than a concept. A right can also be a real, tangible experience. (p. 123)

Accordingly, Dr. Williams diagnoses the ideological source of these distinct views:

CLS’s attack reflects Eurocentric readings of peoples of color’s use of rights rhetoric. A discursive practice of abandonment dismissing minority peoples as irrelevant because of their anachronistic clinging to a false consciousness on rights can easily result from the acts of privileging and delegitimation which ground such Eurocentred readings. CLS’s attacks on rights discourse demonstrate the perils of a disengaged theoretical stance toward discourse unmediated by historical appreciation of the tradition from which a discursive practice is projected. (p. 121)

That is, CLS saw the topic of “rights” and “entitlements” through what Harlon L. Dalton called the “clouded prism.” CLS scholars read and interpreted the issues of rights and entitlements, even hegemony and false consciousness, with a “disengaged theoretical stance” lacking an “appreciation of the tradition” from which the ideas they sought to critique were born. In other words, unlike the scholars of color who would form CRT, CLS scholars viewed “rights” discourse through the perspective of White, male, economically privileged—categories never really in need of “rights” in America to begin with. CRT scholars, on the other hand, saw rights as those for which their fathers marched and bled and sometimes died in order to secure even basic social accommodations.

In a very real sense, this exact critique applies well to Carl Truman himself. Trueman’s claims throughout his article betray little awareness that CRT emerged principally from the abolitionist and civil rights tradition, though incorporating the critical method of social and legal interrogation. That is, he appears to be working from a “disengaged theoretical stance” lacking an “appreciation of the tradition” from which the ideas he seeks to critique were born. His critiques, though still weak and unargued, might be better suited to the European critical tradition beginning with Marx, Gramsci, Lukács, Frankfurt, Foucault, and emigrating to their transatlantic disciples, the White American Left. With his “Eurocentric readings of people of color’s … rhetoric,” he completely misses the very marks which distinguish CRT as a project of real-life liberation for very real-life historically marginalized people-groups—people-groups, as Crenshaw argued, not marginalized by thoughts in their own heads (“false consciousness”), but by 400 years of legal and de facto subjugation.

Fortunately, Williams and CRT offer a way out of this for Dr. Trueman:

In general, in a deep conflict, the eyes of the downtrodden are more acute about the reality of the present. For it is in their interest to perceive correctly in order to expose the hypocrisies of the rulers. They have less interest in ideological deflection. (Immanuel Wallerstein, as quoted by Williams, p. 126)

Likewise, we read earlier in Crenshaw that,

it would be difficult for Blacks, given the contradiction between American fiction and Black American reality, to believe as much of the American mythology as whites do.

That is, in Du Bois’ words, the “double consciousness” of subordinated peoples offers an antidote to the “false consciousness” of White Americans; an antidote to our belief that White interests are served by the racialized status quo, or at least not harmed. This is CRT commonplace (g) listed in Part 1, often referred to as the “unique voice of color” thesis.

The claim is that members of marginalized groups are more likely to have had experiences that are particularly epistemically salient for identifying and evaluating assumptions that have been systematically obscured or made less visible as the result of power dynamics. (Kristen Intemann, p. 791)

I want to be clear: none of this is to argue for the non-existence of false consciousness, nor to argue that only certain races suffer from it. I’d think a good theologian would already understand that habitually acting against one’s own interests through faulty ideology to the benefit of the powers of the age is as common as the curse is wide. I’m also not trying to argue that CRT scholars are in love with “rights” discourse either; they too see the potential legitimating dangers of formal verbiage without substantive action. CRT scholar Patricia Williams brilliantly summarizes the common early CRT sentiment on “rights” in the oft quoted passage:

To say that blacks never fully believed in rights is true. Yet it is also true that blacks believed in them so much and so hard that we gave them life where there was none before; we held onto them, put the hope of them into our wombs, mothered them and not the notion of them. And this was not the dry process of reification, from which life is drained and reality fades as the cement of conceptual determinism hardens round — but its opposite. This was the resurrection of life from ashes four hundred years old. The making of something out of nothing took immense alchemical fire — the fusion of a whole nation and the kindling of several generations. (“The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, p. 87)

(See also, “Looking to the Bottom: Critical Legal Studies and Reparations,” by Mari Matsuda, “The Clouded Prism: Minority Critique of the Critical Legal Studies Movement,” by Harlon L. Dalton, and “The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction,” by Angela Harris, for similar arguments.)

What I am trying to say is that Trueman’s claim that 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” is false. People of color have not been oppressed over the last 400 years primarily through thoughts in their own heads. Maybe the 2 or 3 percent more African Americans who voted for Trump this last time around, according to Trueman’s example, were in fact suffering from false consciousness. I don’t know—I haven’t interviewed them. But around 90 percent of African Americans didn’t vote for Trump at all, so I’d say the results are pretty consistent with the “double consciousness” of the oppressed as opposed to their supposed “false consciousness.”

Further, I am also trying to say that the very same “disengaged theoretical stance” and lack of “appreciation of the tradition” which led to CLS’s Eurocentric reading of the “rights” and “entitlement” discourse of the civil rights tradition also helps explain why Trueman falsely attacks CRT as though it were a simple manifestation of European-Critical-Theory-meets-American-Left. And, last, I believe a good prescription for Trueman (and like-minded Christians) is to abandon the lofty, intellectually superior, critical attitude toward people of color engaged in the work of antiracism (read: Onwuchekwa, Tisby, Edmondson), and to, rather, humbly recognize the unique voice of historically marginalized peoples—peoples not suffering for centuries due to “false consciousness,” but “gifted” (Du Bois) with “double consciousness” due to centuries of suffering.

To this end, I will leave you with one of the greatest passages produced in the English language, for personal reflection:

I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. (W.E.B Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”)

We will next examine Trueman’s fourth claim, “Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare.” And given today’s post, you should have a pretty good idea where we’re going.

On to the next: Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 4: Is CRT the Same Marxist Horse Ridden by a Different Jockey?

3 thoughts on “Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 3: False Consciousness or Double Consciousness?

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