Prelude: Our Aim
As fears of Critical Race Theory (CRT) spread across the United States—including within US churches—many of us find the common descriptions of CRT unrecognizable. What is CRT, really? Dr. Nathan Cartagena and I, Bradly Mason, have developed this series of dialogs, or “chop sessions,” to answer this and related questions. Our goal is fourfold: (1) accurately present CRT, situating it in the movement’s historical context; (2) relate CRT to our shared faith; (3) explore CRT’s impact on our own lives within our own differing social locations; and (4) help other brothers and sisters interact honestly and redemptively in our deeply racialized and stratified culture. ¡Bendiciones en Cristo!
A son of the US South (Mom) and Puerto Rico (Dad), Dr. Nathan Luis Cartagena is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College (IL), where he teaches courses on race, justice, and political philosophy, and is a fellow in The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies. He serves as the faculty advisor for Unidad Cristiana, a student group working to enhance Christian unity and celebrate Latina/o cultures, a scholar-in-residence for World Outspoken, and a co-host for the forthcoming podcast From the Underside. He’s also writing a book on Critical Race Theory with IVP Academic. For more about hermano Nathan, visit his website.
1. How did you first learn about Critical Race Theory?
Bradly: I wonder, brother, how you first came to learn about Critical Race Theory (CRT)? I came to it late, probably not until the beginning of 2019. I had been familiar with Critical Theory proper, specifically the Frankfurt School, for many years, focusing on the work of Jürgen Habermas and Herbert Marcuse. This followed my training in analytic philosophy in college (Habermas) and my later dabbling in political philosophy (Marcuse). I had been writing about race and racism beginning near the end of 2017, but had heard little about CRT.
Originally, I thought CRT was just Critical Theory incorporated into the discussion of racism—ideas like social pathology, historical immanence (historical dialectic), anti-essentialism (social constructivism), and social change as rational participation straightforwardly applied to the specific pathology of racism. I suppose this wasn’t too wide of the truth, but it was nevertheless wide. It wasn’t until some Christian apologist folks began describing other Christians discussing race in the Church—people I liked and respected—as captives of an anti-Christian ideology called CRT that I began to dig into the primary CRT texts. The logical errors throughout these apologists’ claims were obvious, and I’d already studied enough Marx to reject their claims that CRT was just a repackaged Marxism. But, more positively, I also began to sense that there was something quite accurate and helpful in CRT analyses.
In the end, one of the first CRT articles I read—prior even to Delgado and Stefancic’s Introduction—was Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment.” Honestly, I was smitten. And I couldn’t conceive how any of it contradicted my Christian faith, nor, specifically, the creeds and confessions to which I subscribed.
Nathan: Whereas you first heard of CRT in ecclesiastical settings, hermano Mason, I initially heard of it in academia. While attending a Texas A&M University graduate philosophy department welcome dinner in 2011, Tommy J. Curry introduced me to CRT. Curry is a disciple of Derrick Bell, CRT’s founding father. And the two had a sustained correspondence, which Curry discusses here.
During my conversation with Curry, he directed me to canonical CRT texts, including the 1995 Reader edited by founding CRT scholars. Curry warned me to stay close to these texts, because even then scholars such as Shannon Sullivan were gentrifying the movement. (Curry writes about that gentrification process here and here). Curry’s warning reminds me of this line by CRT founder Kimberlé Crenshaw: “The name Critical Race Theory . . . [is] now used as interchangeably for race scholarship as Kleenex is used for tissue.” Sadly, things haven’t improved. If anything, they’ve gotten worse within academic and non-academic settings. Seems your introduction to CRT, hermano, along with the past two years make this plain.
2. How would you define Critical Race Theory?
Bradly: So very true, brother! And in response to Crenshaw’s argument in the text you mentioned, Gary Peller, another founding CRT scholar, said, “in the context of claims that American society is now ‘post-racial,’ virtually any work that treats race as a salient factor in social analysis has come to be associated with ‘Critical Race Theory’ (CRT)’” (“History, Identity, and Alienation Commentary,” p. 1481). But CRT actually is something, and it is, therefore, not some other things. I’ve used the following “definition” of Critical Race Theory in a few of my pieces:
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is, at bottom, the radical abolitionist and Civil Rights tradition critically transformed to address a post-Civil Rights legal era rooted in the liberal ideology of “color-blindness” and “equal opportunity,” which have together preserved and legitimated the continuation of racially subordinated circumstances.
I also offer a list of general “tenets,” or as I prefer, “commonplaces” culled from Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, Devon Carbado, and other CRT scholars’ explicit answers to, “What is Critical Race Theory?,” if for no other reason than to distinguish CRT from near competitors (See, for example, Section 16 HERE or the tweet thread HERE.)
But, as a caveat for clarity’s sake, I know we agree that there is no universally accepted “definition” of CRT. As Crenshaw wrote, “the notion of CRT as a fully unified school of thought remains a fantasy of our critics,” (“The First Decade,” p. 1362). And as we have quoted elsewhere:
CRT is not so much an intellectual unit filled with natural stuff—theories, themes, practices, and the like—but one that is dynamically constituted by a series of contestations and convergences pertaining to the ways that racial power is understood and articulated in the post-civil rights era. In the same way that Kendall Thomas reasoned that race was better thought of as a verb rather than a noun, I want to suggest that shifting the frame of CRT toward a dynamic rather than static reference would be a productive means by which we can link CRT’s past to the contemporary moment. (“Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking Back to Move Forward,” p. 1261)
As a professor, though, I’m sure you have a much sharper definition in mind than mine. (Readers of my work know that brevity is not one of my strong points!). How would you define Critical Race Theory proper?
Nathan: Good question, hermano Mason. My definition of CRT proper differs from and complements yours. I define it as follows:
Critical Race Theory is a legal movement aimed at understanding, resisting, and remediating how US law and legal institutions such as law schools have fostered and perpetuated racism and white supremacy.
Before unpacking this definition, I note that founding CRT scholars such as Robert A. Williams, Jr. (Lumbee) have supported it in personal correspondence.
Now to unpack.
First, CRT began in legal studies. Its creators are law professors, law students, and practicing lawyers.
Second, CRT proper was and is a movement within legal studies. As such, it houses multiple and at times competing traditions, which themselves house multiple and at times competing theories.
Let me provide a contrastive example to illustrate what I mean. Derrick Bell operates from and within the Black Radical tradition, and usually sticks to evaluating racism along a Black-White binary. Bell rarely draws upon Critical Theorists and the Frankfurt School (I’ll say more about this point in a future conversation). Robert A. Williams, Jr., in contrast, operates with commitments to the Red Power Movement; though Williams respects the Black Radical tradition, it is not the primary nor secondary tradition informing his work. Likewise, as a scholar and activist committed to promoting Indigenous rights, Williams does not operate within a Black-White binary. Instead, he tends to highlight different ways in which racialized minority communities—Black and non-Black—experience racism and white supremacy. And unlike Bell, Williams draws substantially from Critical Theorists such as Walter Benjamin.
Third, CRT scholars employ multi-disciplinary/dedisciplinary (Cornel West’s phrase) sources to understand, resist, and remediate how US law and legal institutions such as laws schools have nurtured, maintained, and spread racism and white supremacy. Therefore, some CRT texts are principally about understanding these phenomena; others are principally about how to resist them; and yet others are principally about how to remediate them.
Let me conclude by flagging that readers interested in learning more about the origins and development of CRT proper should check out the “Introduction” to the CRT Reader, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s discussion of CRT ten years after its inauguration, and Crenshaw’s most recent essay on the formation of CRT.
3. Are there any other “definitions” you’d identify within the broader discussion of CRT?
Bradly: Well, my expectation was met, thank you! I’ve also seen you discuss elsewhere a three-fold way to define CRT, including not just a proper definition that tracks its canon in legal theory, but also how CRT has moved into other fields and disciplines.
Nathan: That’s right. I distinguish two other general senses of “CRT”: The derivative academic senses of CRT, and the Culture War senses of CRT. Let me say something about each.
Derivative academic senses of CRT. This refers to the forms of CRT that develop in academia as the movement and claims CRTers make travel into other academic disciplines and practices, such as education (e.g., CRT in education) and philosophy (e.g., the work of Tommy J. Curry).
I understand this sense of CRT in terms of Edward Said’s work. In his essay “Traveling Theory,” Said writes:
Like people and schools of criticism, ideas and theories travel—from person to person, from situation to situation, from one period to another. Cultural and intellectual life are usually nourished and often sustained by this circulation of ideas, and whether it takes the form of acknowledged or unconscious influence, creative borrowing, or wholesale appropriation, the movement of ideas and theories from one place to another is both a fact of life and a usefully enabling condition of intellectual activity. Having said that, however, one should go on to specify the kinds of movement that are possible, in order to ask whether by virtue of having moved from one place and time to another an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength, and whether a theory in one historical period and national culture becomes altogether different for another period or situation. (page 226)
The way disciplines and theorists use CRT proper varies. For example, Gloria Ladson-Billings emphasizes the importance of applying CRT insights and methods in ways that are informed by and consistent with the CRT proper. Daniel G. Solórzano, in contrast, acknowledges that, he “reinvents CRT” in ways that track with is commitments to pedagogical practices and scholarship inspired by Paulo Freire. Solórzano writes, “I believe it is our responsibility to reinvent CRT for the various fields and contexts in which it finds itself.”
Culture-war senses of CRT. These senses of CRT are so capacious and amorphous, they’re nearly impossible to define. To see what I mean, consider this revealing quotation by Christopher F. Rufo.
We have successfully frozen their brand—“critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under the brand category.
The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans. (Christopher F. Rufo Twitter, Mar. 15, 2021, 3:17 pm)
Culture-war agitators such as Rufo aren’t interested in offering a just, charitable understanding of CRT. Their testimony makes this clear.
Bradly: I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of this third “definition.” It is an intentional mess, fabricated to slime whomever the culture warriors deem the next necessary casualty. It is sinful, slanderous, hatred of neighbor.
There is also an interesting connection between your second and third definitions—maybe even a warning. As Devon Carbado relates concerning “travelling”:
More than a decade later, Said revisited the topic, not so much to repudiate his prior position but to more fully articulate another possibility: that theories can become more insurrectionary and capacious as they travel. In other words, rather than domesticating or enervating theories, “movement” might radicalize and invigorate them.
When CRT travels to other disciplines, should we be concerned about what it carries back? (“Critical What What,” pp. 1619 – 1620)
As we close out this first discussion, brother, do you have any parting thoughts on Carbado’s point?
Nathan: I’ll be brief here, but let’s revisit Said’s/Carbado’s idea and question in another conversation.
Two thoughts come to mind.
First, CRT founder Richard Delgado laments the domestication of CRT within legal studies. More accurately, Delgado lambasts second-generation CRTers for getting lost in discourse-debates and failing to address the racist material conditions and suffering of racialized minority communities. This internal CRT critique highlights the importance of asking how CRT proper changes over time apart from and because of its traveling into other fields.
Second, I think CRT proper has undergone an invigoration through the ways CRT in Education scholars such as David Gillbron, for example, have tested and connected ideas and methods to antiracist practices and literatures in the UK. When Gillbron notes that antiracism in Britain “also has a long tradition of emphasizing the need to build upon and respond to the viewpoints and experiences of minoritized groups,” he offers trans-Atlantic support for CRT founder Mari Matsuda’s emphasis on listening to the voices at society’s bottom to understand society’s ills. Likewise, Tommy Curry’s philosophical work on misandric racism against Black males challenges, refutes, and extends ideas about patriarchy and gendered racism that Kimberlé Crenshaw has championed. We could say something similar about William A. Smith’s work on Black misandry, racial battle fatigue, and microaggressions (for an example, see here).
Well hermano, I hope our opening chop session on CRT helps those feeling lost at sea in the craze surrounding “CRT.” I look forward to our next conversation. ¡Saludos!
Bradly: Thank you so much, brother Nathan! In our next post, I’d like to dive into a discussion about our favorite CRT texts and why we appreciate them. At the very least, it will expand some reading lists out there!
On to Part 2: “A Christian Chop Session on Critical Race Theory: Part 2″