Is Critical Race Theory Marxist?

Base Superstructure

Is Critical Race Theory (CRT) Marxist? I see this claim multiple times per day. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which nearly every modern social theory is working within a loosely “Marxist” sociological tradition; sociology itself is the intellectual legacy of, primarily, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. On the other hand, Marxist social theory is far removed from Marx’s own metaphysical, economic, and political ideology—not to mention far removed from Leninism, Stalinism, or Maoism. Further, and as an added complication to answering this question, CRT scholars simply don’t write much about Marx or Marxism, despite being treated like his ideological puppets.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which contestation with Marxism in the arena of law was formative in the development of Critical Race Theory. But in order to properly tell this story, and hopefully answer our question in the process, it is first necessary to understand how Critical Legal Studies (CLS) related to Marxism; for, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, Critical Race Theory might best be understood as a “spin-off” of CLS, having been distinguished as an unique movement by its alignment and misalignment therewith. In the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw,

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Is Critical Race Theory Racist?

John Carlos and Tommie Smith

Is Critical Race Theory (CRT) itself racist?

I’ve heard this about CRT often lately. But quite clearly, visibly, and overtly, CRT scholars reject the “myth of inferior peoples” (Dr. King’s description of racism); that is, CRT rejects the claim that races can relate as superior or inferior, whether according to body, mind, morals, culture, or behaviors, and therefore even current social and economic maldistributions are not primarily attributable to supposed racial difference. According to CRT founders Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw,

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, p. 2)

And, according to CRT scholars, every race is capable of sharing in and participating in this racism:

Americans share a common historical and cultural heritage in which racism has played and still plays a dominant role. Because of this shared experience, we also inevitably share many ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that attach significance to an individual’s race and induce negative feelings and opinions about nonwhites. To the extent that this cultural belief system has influenced all of us, we are all racists. At the same time, most of us are unaware of our racism. We do not recognize the ways in which our cultural experience has influenced our beliefs about race or the occasions on which those beliefs affect our actions. (Charles Lawrence III, “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection,” p. 322)

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A Brief Pedagogical Presentation of the “Tenets” of Critical Race Theory

CT painting

When we presented the tenets—or, as I prefer, “commonplaces”—of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in, “What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading)” (see section 16), I closely followed the order given by Mari Matsuda, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Charles Lawrence III, and Richard Delgado as found in Words That Wound. Here I would like to rearrange these same commonplaces in a way that suggests a logical development of the central ideas of CRT, somewhat in contrast to my previous presentations based more on the historical development of the movement. While it does leave the enterprise looking woefully anemic, I nevertheless believe it is a helpful path for the more analytic among us to grasp some of CRT’s basic commitments.

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The Christian and CRT, an Interlude: The Most Segregated Hour and Liberal Integrationism

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The next post in my series, The Christian and Critical Race Theory, is now up on The Front Porch! Here we make some application of what we’ve learned.

Are we to assume that churches and denominations—whose leaders and members had enslaved, segregated, and/or barred their own Black parishioners from institutional authority for centuries—could simply remove the shackles, take down the signs, open the doors, and nothing else internally would need to be changed? These institutions had held their doctrinal standards, understandings of virtue and justice, their qualifications for leadership, their diaconal commitments, and their order of service, music, and preaching to be consistent with racial enslavement and segregation for all the time they had participated. Are we then to believe that none of these inherited “race-neutral” ideas, practices, and institutional commitments are legitimate sites of racial critique? I think not.

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