Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 5: CRT Portrays Life as a Zero-Sum Power Game?


In our last post, we grappled with Carl Trueman’s claim that CRT is just Marxism with “class” replaced by “race.” I showed that CRT, following CLS, rejects this “vulgar Marxism” as both “essentialist” and “racialist.”

Today we move onto his fifth 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.)

(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.”

To begin with, no CRT scholar I’ve ever heard of “portrays life as a zero-sum game.” I think we could leave this at “citation needed,” were I that type of guy. But since Trueman believes Ibram X Kendi is somehow representative of CRT (he is not), he should actually read him on this. In this case, Kendi captures well the sentiment of most CRT scholars:

Racial reformers have customarily requested or demanded that Americans, particularly White Americans, sacrifice their own privileges for the betterment of Black people. And yet, this strategy is based on one of the oldest myths of the modern era, a myth continuously produced and reproduced by racists and antiracists alike: that racism materially benefits the majority of White people, that White people would lose and not gain in the reconstruction of an antiracist America. (Stamped From the Beginning, loc. 7980)

This reality was described by W.E.B. Du Bois nearly 80 years ago. A basic tool of exploitative American power brokers has always been to divide White and Black people, paying the former a “psychological wage” while degrading the latter, thereby keeping White laborers content with poverty wages and rigid social hierarchy.

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.

… Thus every problem of labor advance in the South was skillfully turned by demagogues into a matter of inter-racial jealousy. (Black Reconstruction in America, loc. 16468, 16485)

As we pointed out in Part 3, this is a more common site of “false consciousness” than that suggested by Trueman; in particular, the false belief that continued domination of African Americans is somehow in White people’s interest. 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. Ending this social, political, and economic power differential would be to the benefit all Americans, period, and CRT scholars have never suggested otherwise. Again, it must be that either Trueman has very little awareness of CRT and the Black abolitionist/civil rights tradition, or he really just doesn’t care.

And the same goes for his understanding of racial “power.” We could, I suppose, just state that, for example, “Black Power” is much, much older than CRT and call it a day. But, as I noted at the beginning of this series, I want to use the warm reception of Trueman’s piece as an opportunity to shed some light on Critical Race Theory, answering some of its common objections and misunderstandings. And since I think that what follows is essential to understanding CRT, to understanding the concept of “power” in the context of racism, and to understanding why so many American’s recoil at both, I’m going to delve into a little ideological history.

Liberal Integrationism

Soon after the close of the Civil Rights Era, progressive White and middle-class Black Americans successfully absorbed the message of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) into White Americans’ existing ideals of liberalism. According to CLS and CRT scholar Gary Peller,

Liberals take social justice to mean the right of individuals to be treated neutrally and objectively when subject to collective power (through law or any other state act). The liberal conception of justice is one of transcending bias and prejudice in the name of rationality-one of neutral and “equal rights.” The regulative ideal is to achieve neutrality in order to guarantee individual liberty. (“History, Identity, and Alienation,” p. 1483)

Racism, according to this liberal analysis, is just a specie of the general mythological, backward, and irrational emphasis on the particularities of humanity, as opposed to the more enlightened, universal understanding of humanity, human nature, and the attendant ideals of transnational/transhistorical normative social relations. Peller details this ideological history in his 1990 article, “Race Consciousness.”

The meaning of race has been grafted onto other central cultural images of progress, so that the transition from segregation to integration and from race consciousness to race neutrality mirrors movements from myth to enlightenment, from ignorance to knowledge, from superstition to reason, from the primitive to the civilized, from religion to secularism, and, most importantly, the historical self-understanding of liberal society as representing the movement from status to individual liberty. In other words, integrationist ideology comprehends the issue of racial domination by viewing race relations through stock images about the nature of progress in liberal society…. (p. 774)

Peller dubbed the resulting ideology, which by the 1970s had become the dominant liberal White American ideology, “liberal integrationism,” or simply “integrationism”:

[I]ntegrationism should be understood to comprise a set of attitudes and beliefs for perceiving the meaning of racist domination and for identifying the goals of racial justice. The concepts of prejudicediscrimination, and segregation are the key structural elements of this ideology. Each idea embodies a different manifestation of what is seen as the central aspect of racism—the distortion of reason through the prism of myth and ignorance.


Racism, according to integrationism, is seated in the consciousness. It consists primarily of irrationally according any weight or significance to the “arbitrary fact of skin color.”

The mental side of racism is accordingly represented as either “prejudice”—the prejudging of a person according to mythological stereotypes—or “bias”—the process of being influenced by subjective factors. (p. 767)

The problem, at root, is a matter of knowledge and enlightenment. The problem with Southern segregationists, on this account, is that they were backward hicks who held irrational and unjustifiable beliefs about Black people. They assumed there were important characteristics connected with color—like laziness, dullness, and hyper-sexuality vs. industriousness, intelligence, and moral piety.

The cure, therefore, is knowledge. One must clear away this backward, archaic thinking and recognize the falsehood of these stereotypes. In fact, according to integrationism, one must see no significance in “race” whatsoever; it’s best not to notice it at all, if you’re going to be enlightened.


Prejudice translates into social action as “discrimination,” that is, allowing race to count in social action, decision making, policy, etc. It is, according to integrationism, racist to allow race to enter into social calculations. If one has overcome prejudice, one will not allow himself to make decisions based on race, for race is only skin deep and makes no actual difference in any sense to the enlightened. Therefore, the solution to discrimination is to make race neutral-decisions and create race-neutral decision procedures and policies. This, for most integrationists, is perfectly possible, for “integrationists assumed that fair, impersonal criteria simply would be what remained once the distortion of race consciousness was removed” (p. 799). That is, once consciousness of race is removed from interpersonal and social decision making, neutral categories were already present, intact, and ready to be applied, including assessment of individual “merit,” objective “value,” and neutral “standards.” These latter guaranteed equal treatment would be achieved so long as prejudice and race-consciousness were removed from the social calculus; that is, so long as people were treated as individuals rather than racial group members.


Segregation is, of course, the institutionalization of prejudice and discrimination. Paradigmatic examples of de jure segregation include South African apartheid and the Jim Crow South. These represent institutionalized prejudice in the form of White supremacy. Simply enough, the solution is integration. Integration at the level of consciousness means overcoming “bias” and sweeping away mythologies and stereotypes and seeing that there is no difference at all between “races.” At the level of discrimination, it means treating everyone as an individual, as un-raced, as equal, “according to neutral norms.” At the institutional level, integration means what the segregationists called “race mixing”; that is, the dismantling of “the social system of racial segregation” (p. 769).

In sum, the cure for racism would be equal treatment on an individual level and integration on an institutional level. In any event, integrationists believed the two would go hand in hand. Once neutrality replaced discrimination, equal opportunity would lead to integrated institutions; experience in integrated institutions would, in turn, replace the ignorance of racism with the knowledge that actual contact provides. (p. 770)

Thus, the social problem of racial domination is understood to stem from ignorant prejudices and “bias,” leading to irrational “discrimination” and partiality, institutionally manifested in segregation. In order to address the social problem of racial domination, according to the integrationist ideology, one must overcome prejudice through knowledge, overcome discrimination through “neutrality,” and overcome segregation through integration. This ideology contains a theoretical and practical framework to not only diagnose the social ill, but also to address it.

Integrationism as a Contingent, Historical Development

But anyone familiar with the traditional Black abolitionist and Civil Rights discourse (for example, see HERE) are sure to see the overly narrow and historically abstracted nature of this ideology. This was certainly not the message of Martin Luther King, Jr., despite his adoption into the White narrative of liberal integrationism. On the contrary, we read that,

The dilemma of white America is the source and cause of the dilemma of Negro America. Just as the ambivalence of white Americans grows out of their oppressor status, the predicament of Negro Americans grows out of their oppressed status. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 109)

Further, and directly related to our discussion with Carl Trueman, Dr. King spoke and wrote much about the problem of unequal power:

One of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power. From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny, he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore, a problem of power—a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. … Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. … There is nothing essentially wrong with power. The problem is that in America power is unequally distributed. (p. 37)

In fact, according to Dr. King, racism itself “arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery” (p. 73). Accordingly, Dr. King wrote,

[w]e must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…. This means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order. (“Report to SCLC Staff [May 1967]”)

The fact of the matter is, liberal integrationism did not capture the message of the CRM. It was not even Dr. King’s fundamental ideology. And like every other ideology, the ideology of liberal integrationism was forged in the furnace of history, not found in the pages of the Bible, the imprint of nature, conscience, common sense, or what have you. It needn’t have become the dominant American ideology; there were other analytics available. In fact, by the late 60s and early 70s, a much older tradition than integrationism had become commonplace in the Black community.

Black Nationalism and Black Power

Though legal integration had become the norm throughout the South and the federal government had imposed civil rights reforms throughout the nation, the majority of African Americans saw little change in living circumstances. Even more, they had begun to see their own institutions being destroyed, their talent and leadership absorbed by the White community, and were witnessing, according to Robert S. Browne, “a sort of painless genocide.” Stokely Carmichael—who originally popularized the slogan, “Black Power!”—and Charles Hamilton captured these popular sentiments well in their 1967 book, Black Power : The Politics of Liberation:

“Integration” as a goal today speaks to the problem of blackness not only in an unrealistic way but also in a despicable way. It is based on complete acceptance of the fact that in order to have a decent house or education, black people must move into a white neighborhood or send their children to a white school. This reinforces, among both black and white, the idea that “white” is automatically superior and “black” is by definition inferior. For this reason, “integration” is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy. It allows the nation to focus on a handful of Southern black children who get into white schools at a great price, and to ignore the ninety-four percent who are left in unimproved all-black schools. Such situations will not change until black people become equal in a way that means something, and integration ceases to be a one-way street. Then integration does not mean draining skills and energies from the black ghetto into white neighborhoods. To sprinkle black children among white pupils in outlying schools is at best a stop-gap measure. The goal is not to take black children out of the black community and expose them to white middle-class values; the goal is to build and strengthen the black community.

“Integration” also means that black people must give up their identity, deny their heritage. We recall the conclusion of Killian and Grigg: “At the present time, integration as a solution to the race problem demands that the Negro foreswear his identity as a Negro.” The fact is that integration, as traditionally articulated, would abolish the black community. The fact is that what must be abolished is not the black community, but the dependent colonial status that has been inflicted upon it. (pp. 54-55)

Hence, “Black nationalists” and advocates of “Black Power,” drawing on the works of Martin DelanyMarcus GarveyW.E.B. Du BoisOliver CoxMalcolm X, and many others, offered a different approach to “race relations.” As we have seen, liberal integrationism came to analyze racial domination in terms of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation; Black nationalists, alternatively, had come to see racial domination in terms of “powersubordination, and colonialism” (“Race Consciousness,” p. 829).


According to Black nationalists, an extreme power differential between two communities was at the heart of racial domination. Their analysis began with race-consciousness, the recognition that there are somewhat stable entities that we can call the Black community and the White community. Black nationalists did not come to this conclusion based upon any racial biology or the like, but rather by contextualizing present circumstances within the actual history of American society, economics, and politics.

[N]ationalists articulated what might be seen as an “historicized” view of social relations. In opposition to the universal vantage point used by integrationists to identify bias and prejudice, nationalists presented the time-bound, messy, and inherently particular social relations between nations as the central ground from which to perceive race. In opposition to the essentializing of race engaged in by white supremacists, nationalists located the meaning of race in history, in the social structures that people—rather than God or some objectified nature—have created. (Peller, p. 794)

Thus, nationalists saw the particularism of racial difference, and the particularity of racism itself, as historically rooted realities that could not simply be ignored or absorbed into broader neutral categories. The problem of racial domination was not, contrary to integrationism, some general lack of liberalism, viz., too much ignorance, irrationality, and inability to “progress.” If anything, by the 1960’s, it was too much liberalism and integration. And the solution, in short, was Black power.


Just as White men had intentionally enslaved African peoples, separated them from the rest of humanity, obliterated their disparate heritages, erased their family names, enshrined their social status into law, beat, lynched, and raped their wives, mothers, and daughters—all with intention to exploit them for personal gain and psychological superiority—so the White power structure continued to dominate and subordinate African people-groups in America. There was simple continuity. The “race problem” in America was not primarily a matter of consciousness, psychological and internal, but rather material and external.

In contrast to the integrationist image of discrimination as the social practice of racism, the nationalist image was subordination, the hierarchy of the white community over the black community. (Peller, p. 808)

The solution, then, is to break the White power structure, liberate Black people and Black communities from White control, and to allow Black people to control their own social institutions, determining their own fate in America. The solution was not to let the dominant White community absorb the subordinate Black community—destroying the latter’s identity, institutions, and culture—but rather to build a table of equal power brokers, wherein African Americans could explicitly and unapologetically control and effect the interests of Black lives.

The goal of black self-determination and black self-identity—Black Power—is full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people. (Carmichael and Hamilton, Black Power, p. 47)

This, of course, directly contradicted the vision of integrationism, which presumed the objective, neutral, “race”-less character of “integrated” White institutions.


Finally, the predominate metaphor of Black nationalism was colonialism. Black Americans, according to nationalists, were functionally a conquered, dominated, and subordinated nation within a nation. Thus, American society was not seen as an un-raced set of neutral laws, institutions, and people-groups into which Black Americans could be integrated without loss; rather, the predominating culture, society, and institutions in America constituted an imperial White nation who had committed countless crimes against a colony within, the Black nation. Again, the solution was not to let the dominant nation absorb the subordinate nation, but rather to transfer power from the oppressor nation to the oppressed nation within. Thus, a reparation model, a transfer of power and resources from one nation to another, for past and continued crimes and injustices, was the properly “historicized” means to a peaceful and civil society for both Black and White Americans.

The Convergence Against Nationalism and Black Power

It was this nationalist movement which ultimately led to the convergence of upper-class White liberals and middle-class Black Americans around the modern ideology of integrationism. Black Power and Black nationalism struck at the very liberal foundations of White social and political liberal ideology.

The integrationists saw two problems with Black Power. First, the concept assumed that power should be distributed on a racial basis, thereby assuming that American society should be thought of in terms of separate white and black communities. Black Power thus violated both the integrationist principle to transcend race consciousness at the ideological level and the integrationist program to end the segregation of whites and blacks at the institutional and community level.

Second, the Black Power concept troubled integrationists because it assumed that power determined the distribution of social resources and opportunities, rather than reason or merit. It was not simply the theory of Black Power that engendered the charged reaction, but rather the resistance to the reigning liberal idea of progress through reasoned discussion and deliberation that the Black Power movement, for a time, embodied. The clenched fist of the Black Power salute and the militaristic affectation of many black nationalist groups were the overt physical manifestations of this dimension of the movement. (“Race Consciousness,” pp. 789 – 790)

Further, Black Power and Black nationalism also threatened the progress enjoyed, nearly exclusively, by the Black middle-class. It was seen by many as a destabilizing force, threatening to undo the successful integrationist litigation programs, predicated on Brown v. Board Education and the more recent civil rights acts, especially in the eyes of the NAACP and LDF. As a result, both Black and White power brokers in America condemned Black Power as a “racist philosophy” and nationalists as “black neo-segregationists,” “advocates of apartheid,” and the like. “In fact; the virulent and extreme denunciation of Black Power symbolized the unity of what would quickly become the new center of American consciousness about race” (Peller, p. 789); that is, of course, the ideology of liberal integrationism discussed above.

And the historical upshot has been, and continues to be, “that the price of the national commitment to suppress white supremacists would be the rejection of race consciousness among African Americans” as well (p. 760). Once the ideology of liberal integrationism was adopted, both Black nationalists and White supremacists could together be rejected as backward, prejudiced, unenlightened, anti-liberal enemies of racial progress in America—and, more realistically, enemies of the status quo. And, of course, any talk of power imbalance or redistribution of power could be written off as the strict moral equivalent of the neo-Nazi movement for White Power.


CRT has inherited this rich tradition of Black Power and nationalism, though with modifications. To my mind, it is absurd to suggest that they are the villainous creators of a racial analytic that goes back at least 200 years to Martin Delany. It is likewise absurd to suggest that rejection of liberal integrationism for a more traditional option can function as a distinguishing mark of CRT, a movement born in the late 1980s. What CRT scholars did uniquely offer was, arguably, a more sophisticated legal critique of liberal integrationism, as well as the hindsight achieved by 20 years of integrationist ideology’s bitter fruit. To read about some of these critiques, please see “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 5: A Misalignment of Frames: Integrationism.” But for our purposes, it is enough to locate the ideology with which Trueman finds fault in the pages of history, long before CRT, and even in the mouth of “I have dream” Dr. King.

The trouble is, Carl Trueman just does not know how much he does not know. He has taken one historically contingent ideology as the natural, obvious, commonsense analytic of racism and then channeled his reaction to the analytic of racial power into his modern chosen villain, CRT. Most all of us White people have as well, to be honest. And if we care enough to write essays critical of antiracist brothers and sisters in the Church—after centuries of White Christian victimization of peoples of color—we at least owe them enough care to do the homework.

On to the Conclusion: Carl Trueman’s CRT, Conclusion: Why the Critiques Keep Missing the Mark

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