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 Luis 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!
Explanation about Chop Sessions Two and Three
Conjunto: We ended our last post promising to discuss some of our favorite CRT works in the next chop session. But since publishing that post, many have voiced their surprise about our not mentioning Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo in a session answering the question “What is CRT?” Because this series es para el pueblo—“for the people”—we’ve decided to change course and use the next two chop sessions to explain why Kendi and DiAngelo did not appear in our first post, and why, apart from those sessions, they’re unlikely to appear in the rest of the series.
This chop session will focus on Kendi. The next one will focus on DiAngelo. Enjoy!
1. Why Didn’t Ibram X. Kendi and his award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning Appear in Our Opening Discussion of CRT?
Nathan: Hermano Mason, you kicked-off our last chop-session, so let me ask you: Why didn’t you mention Kendi or Stamped in our last chop session?
Bradly: In short, I read his Stamped From the Beginning a few years ago and I learned quite a lot. Stamped is well-written, loaded with facts, eye opening, and even heart rending. I had many moments of personal repentance while reading this text. It’s definitely an important work of antiracism.
Still, Stamped simply isn’t a book on CRT, about CRT, or doing CRT; and it isn’t even claiming to be those things. In fact, it isn’t even a book about racism per se, but a history of anti-Black racism. Kendi spends little time treating legal theory and doesn’t directly discuss CRT commonplaces. I’ve never considered it a CRT work, nor Kendi a CRT scholar.
Nathan: Hermano Mason, you’ve given us much to chew. Let me breakdown your points while sharing about my engagement with Stamped from the Beginning.
First, I too read Stamped a few years ago. This seemed wise given Stamped’s popularity in US-based discussions about antiracism.
Second, I agree that Stamped is well written, saturated with historical facts, and eye opening. I find Kendi’s presentation of the history of anti-Black racist ideas rocks many US readers, because most in the US know little of this history.
While we’re on this point, hermano Mason, do you mind if I say more about the absence of historic awareness in the US before saying more about my engagement with Stamped.
Bradly: I’m here to learn, brother, go for it!
Nathan: Gracias hermano.
Let’s start here: Widespread US ignorance about the country’s history of anti-Black racism is a side effect of what CRT scholar Kendall Thomas calls “organized forgetting.” By the intentional, repetitious omitting of certain facts, narratives, and artifacts, and the repetitious presenting of other facts, narratives, and artifacts, communities form themselves to know some things and to overlook or disremember other things. Thomas’s idea builds on the work of cultural studies scholar Roger Bromley. According to Bromley:
Forgetting is as important as remembering. Part of the struggle against cultural power is the challenge to forgetting posed by memory. What is “forgotten” may represent more threatening aspects of popular “memory” and have been carefully and consciously, not casually and unconsciously, omitted from the narrative economy of remembering.
Bromley’s points about the careful and conscious omitting of details to shape communal remembering are especially relevant to the organized forgetting inherent in the US’s history of anti-Black racism.
Reflecting on the rise of intentionally false narratives about U.S. Reconstruction after the Civil War (1865–1877), W.E.B. Du Bois writes:
I stand at the end of [writing Black Reconstruction in America], literally aghast at what American historians have done to this field…[these histories are] useless as science and misleading as ethics… [and they show] that with sufficient general agreement and determination among the dominant classes, the truth of history may be utterly distorted and contradicted and changed to any convenient fairy tale that the master of men wish.
What Du Bois chastised in Reconstruction histories in 1935, Leon Litwick president of the Organization of American Historians, applied generally to U.S. historians in 1987: “No group of scholars was more deeply implicated in the miseducation of American youth and did more to shape the thinking of Americans about race and blacks than historians.”
This brings us back to Stamped. Kendi’s book is a corrective to the false narratives about anti-Black racism in the US. Given the book’s breadth—Kendi starts in the 15th century and concludes with Trump’s election—Stamped is a colossal work of antiracism that resists and remediates many forms of organized forgetting about anti-Black racism.
Bradly: I couldn’t agree more. Problematic historians have been organizing racialized forgetfulness for the sake of empire since at least Gomes Eanes de Zurara, nearly 600 years ago! But that’s a discussion for another day.
Nathan: Let me conclude this reflection on organized forgetting in a distinctively Christian key.
Remembering well is a key part of loving God and neighbor. The Eucharist (i.e., Communion/the Lord’s Supper) stresses this point. So do the biblical texts that link individual and communal remembering to life with God (e.g., Do a word search on “remember” in the book of Deuteronomy). Christians therefore have biblical, love-inspired reasons to work like Kendi to resist and remediate organized forgetting about anti-Black racism in the US.
Bradly: Amen. Brother, might I share a quotation that came to mind while I considered your reflection?
Nathan: Go for it hermano Mason.
Bradly: Thanks. You got me thinking about this extended quotation from Willie James Jennings’ commentary on Acts.
History, because it is a creature, must always be treated in its truth. It is created. It is storytelling that comes to life from the minds and mouths of other creatures. It shares in the beauty and majesty of the creature and through the incarnation has been embraced by the Creator. God has entered the life of the creature and joined the storytelling that is history. … History understood in this way aims at one thing: witness. Why witness? Witness lives. Witness is about the living and the ways we chose to live. History that becomes witness is history that shapes the paths of the living, bound up with their heartbeats and their breathing. Witness reveals the telling of history without the false pretense of history for history’s sake. Witness is history being honest about its wishes. Witness exposes the storytellers and their desires to shape worlds, large or small. (Locations 290-309)
It strikes me that Stamped is Kendi’s effort to bear witness to the historic truths about anti-Black racism in the US.
Nathan: I agree, hermano. And in this way Stamped undermines some of the racist histories Du Bois and Letwick lamented. It’s a partial remedy to the ills of organized forgetting.
Bradly: These are fantastic points and I can see we both recognize the many benefits of Kendi’s work. But, again, is it CRT? Or do you agree with my summary assessment at the beginning?
Nathan: Let’s circle back to breaking down your opening comments about Kendi, hermano Mason.
You said Stamped “simply isn’t a book on CRT, about CRT, nor is it doing CRT, and I don’t think it is even claiming to.” I agree. And the textual evidence supports us. So let’s get into the details.
The words “critical race theory” appear six times in this 582-page tome. Four of these appearances are in Stamped’s main text; the other two are in the endnotes and index, respectively. The acronym “CRT” never appears. That said, the phrase “critical race theorists,” appears twice. The first of these appearances is page five’s introduction of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Kendi writes:
Like the other identifiable races, Black people are in reality a collection of groups differentiated by gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, skin color, profession, and nationality—among a series of other identifiers, including biracial people who may or may not identify as Black. Each and every identifiable Black group has been subjected to what critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw has called “intersectionality”—prejudice stemming from the intersections of racist ideas and other forms of bigotry, such as sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia.
Readers must wait 439 pages before they again see the phrase “critical race theorist.” When they do, they find Stamped’s lone sustained discussion of CRT. I’ll quote the passage in full.
SEVERAL DOZEN LEGAL scholars met at a convent outside of Madison, Wisconsin, on July 8, 1989, as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” topped Billboard charts. They came together to forge an antiracist intellectual approach known as “critical race theory.” Thirty-year old UCLA legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw organized the summer retreat the same year she penned “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” The essay called for “intersectional theory,” the critical awareness of gender racism (and thereby other intersections, such as queer racism, ethnic racism, and class racism). “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices,” Crenshaw wrote three years later in another pioneering article in the Stanford Law Review. Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado, the early formulators of critical race theory in law schools, were also in attendance at the 1989 summer coming-out party for critical race theory. One of the greatest offshoots of the theory was critical Whiteness studies, investigating the anatomy of Whiteness, racist ideas, White privileges, and the transition of European immigrants into Whiteness. Critical race theorists, as they came to be called, joined antiracist Black Studies scholars in the forefront of revealing the progression of racism in the 1990s. (pp. 443-444)
This one paragraph houses three of the six times Stamped mentions CRT, and three of the four times it appears in the main text. Here’s the other occurrence.
As 1995 began, the critical and affirming responses of The Bell Curve began to cross fire. It is hard to imagine another book that sparked such an intense academic war, possibly because the segregationists, in their think tanks, and the assimilationists, in universities and academic associations, and the antiracists, in their popular Black Studies and critical race theory collectives, were all so powerful. (pp. 458-459)
The three quotations I’ve provided—one introducing Crenshaw, one discussing the rise of CRT, and one relating CRT to the book The Bell Curve—exhaust Stamped’s treatment of CRT.
To your point, hermano Mason, Stamped isn’t on CRT nor claiming to be. Indeed, it barely addresses the legal movement over the course of 582 pages.
Bradly: Exactly. And where Kendi does discuss CRT, specifically the larger passage you quoted above, he is presenting the CRT movement as one among several strands of 1990’s antiracism—hip hop, Black studies programs, Angela Davis, Black feminism, LA protestors, etc.
Nathan: Exactamente. And the “etc” is apt, because we could multiply examples (e.g., the Red Power and Chicano movements).
But returning to CRT, you said earlier that “Kendi spends little time treating legal theory and doesn’t directly discuss CRT commonplaces.” I again agree with you. Though Stamped discusses some racist laws—e.g., Naturalization Act of 1790, https://immigrationhistory.org/item/1790-nationality-act/.which limited US citizenship to “free white persons”—it says little about how laws and legal institutions have served to maintain and perpetuate racism and white supremacy. And as we said last time, https://www.nathancartagena.com/blog/achristianchopsessiononcriticalracetheorypart1. these topics are precisely what CRT proper addresses.
And this is an important point. As Kimberlé Crenshaw discussed in “Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory,” it’s no accident that CRT was born from and finds its locus in law. Law constructed race, continues to interpret race, has allocated rights and privileges according to race, created and preserved Jim Crow, and continues to legitimate and preserve racial disparity. Moreover, most Americans expected law to be the means to remedy US racism, for example, through the Brown v. Board decision, the Civil Rights Acts, and continued litigation. And it was law that became central to creating our new era of color-blindness and equal protection as equal treatment, which have jointly served to roll back many of the Civil Rights Movement’s gains.
I know we will get into these details later; I just want to point out that CRT is uniquely a product of civil rights crises in law, as well as law school contestations, and is therefore uniquely directed at both the structural disparities created and preserved by law and the ongoing legitimation of the subordinated circumstances of people of color it has produced.
Nathan: Tell the story, hermano. I’m with you.
Bradly: Even when, for example, careful CRT in Education scholars appeal to CRT proper, they emphasize that they are applying aspects of CRT to their discipline—not inventing nor doing CRT proper.
Nathan: That’s right. You mind sharing an example for our readers before we return to discussing Kendi?
Bradly: Sure. When Tara J. Yosso introduces CRT in Education, she writes:
For the field of education, Daniel Solórzano (1997, 1998) identified five tenets of CRT that can and should inform theory, research, pedagogy, curriculum and policy:2 (1) the intercentricity of race and racism; (2) the challenge to dominant ideology; (3) the commitment to social justice; (4) the centrality of experiential knowledge; and (5) the utilization of interdisciplinary approaches. (“Whose culture has capital?,” p. 73)
Note: Even these “CRT tenets” are explicitly adapted for education. They’re the product of Solórzano’s filtering CRT proper for the purposes of educational theory and practice. I bring this up only to emphasize that legal theory is rightly the locus of CRT, even upon travelling, and is therefore important when assessing whether a work is properly CRT or not.
Nathan: Es verdad. And your point brings us to how Stamped engages CRT commonplaces. As the above quotations show, Stamped engages Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality, but ignores most everything else in the CRT literature—including the consistent refrain since the mid-90s to resist a Black-white binary. Indeed, Stamped fails to narrate “the entire history of racist ideas” (p. 6) because it fails to treat the histories of racist ideas against non-Black racialized minorities. As I wrote last summer:
The systematic stealing of Indigenous lands; the building of Indian reservations; the forcing of Indigenous peoples into heritage-killing boarding schools; the Anglo-Americanizing of formerly Mexican lands and their peoples; the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act; the constructing of the Asiatic Bared Zone; and the interning of Japanese people—none of these racialized events or the racist ideas inciting them receive attention [in Stamped]. Thus, Stamped sidelines the racially marginalized, omitting their histories while claiming to treat “the entire history of racist ideas.”
CRT scholars analyze all the racist events I listed; Stamped didn’t. As a CRT scholar, I found Kendi’s omissions glaring (I’ve said more on this point in a blog post). As a Christian, I found them worthy of lamenting:
The Church must speak out against the Black-white binary’s impact. If part of the Church suffers, the whole suffers (1 Cor. 12:26). When a monumental, award-winning book claiming to treat the entire history of racist ideas omits histories of racist ideas weaponized against oppressed racialized minority groups within the Church, those neglected groups suffer. So does their Church. Christians therefore have ecclesiastical reasons to celebrate Stamped from the Beginning’s antiracist gains and lament its binary-induced shortcomings.
Bradly: Absolutely. And in case anyone is still skeptical about the scope of Stamped, Kendi himself writes in the prologue, “I define anti-Black racist ideas—the subject of this book—as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (loc. 183 – 199; italics mine).
Nathan: Excatamente. Stamped houses contradictory claims about its scope.
Let me say one more thing about Kendi’s limited employment of CRT commonplaces in Stamped: Kendi’s using an intersectional analysis is insufficient to make him a CRT scholar. Many non-CRTers use intersectional analysis—including white nationalists.
I’m not saying anything new. Consider this passage from Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge book Intersectionality.
[Some] projects invoke intersectional rhetoric in defense of an unjust status quo, using intersectional frameworks to criticize democratic inclusion. They can use intersectionality as an analytic tool to justify social inequality. For instance, Jessie Daniels’s study of white supremacist literature identifies the connections among women, blacks, Jews, “mud people,” lesbians, and various forms of mixing as the root cause of the declining fortunes of white men…as depicted in white supremacist literature, the mixing of races, genders, sexualities, and religions contributes to the fall of white men from places of economic and political superiority ([Jessie] Daniels 1997; [Abby] Ferber 1998). Ironically, intersectionality as an analytic tool is deployed not as a tool for democratic inclusion, but rather to justify racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual segregation and subsequent social hierarchy. The example suggests that if white supremacists discourse can find a way to deploy intersectional arguments, so too can other less contentious projects. (pp. 40-41)
If white supremacists employ intersectional analysis to champion white supremacy, then employing intersectional analysis is insufficient to make someone a CRT scholar. Since the first part of this claim holds, the second does, too.
2. Why Didn’t Kendi’s popular book How to Be an Antiracist Appear in Our Opening Discussion of CRT?
Nathan: Hermano, let’s transition to talking about Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. Why didn’t you mention this book in our opening discussion of CRT?
Bradly: I feel similarly about this book as I did about Stamped, in terms of whether it is a work of CRT or not. Again, I enjoyed the book and benefited from it. But his definitions of racism, racist ideas, racist policies, etc., were different than those I’d read in CRT literature. And here, as in Stamped, he doesn’t directly discuss CRT proper commonplaces, and seems to, overall, be crafting his own unique approach.
I just didn’t read it as a work of Critical Race Theory. In fact, I see some explicit contradictions between Kendi’s analysis and that of foundational CRT texts.
Nathan: I’m tracking. Do you mind sharing an example of such a contradiction?
For example, How to be an Antiracist runs up against the whole of Charles Lawrence III’s “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection.” This is important, for Crenshaw, the CRT founder Kendi engages most, has referred to Lawrence’s article as a core canonical CRT text on several occasion (see, e.g., p. 1282 of Crenshaw’s “Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory”).
According to Kendi:
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups. (p. 18)
Compare this with Lawrence’s analysis of Washington v. Davis (1976). The case involved a written test the DC Metropolitan Police Department used for hiring. And as the Court noted, “blacks failed [the test] at a rate roughly four times that of whites.” Commenting on this outcome, Lawrence writes:
The most obvious racial element is the exam’s racially disproportionate impact. One can argue that the government’s action racially stigmatizes because blacks fail the exam in larger numbers than whites. But not every case of racially disparate impact has racial meaning. An increased bus fare may burden a larger percentage of blacks than whites, but we do not think of the fare increase as a direct stigmatization of blacks. It does not convey a message of racial inferiority. Thus, if the governmental action in Davis conveys a racial message, it must derive that meaning from something other than, or in addition to, its racial impact. Like the traffic barrier in Memphis v. Greene, there must be something in the particulars of its historical and cultural context that causes us to interpret this action-at least intuitively-in racial terms. (p. 370; emphasis mine)
The difference between Kendi’s and Lawrence’s positions are stark. Both are concerned to overturn the requirement of intention to identify racially discriminatory acts or policies, viz., to counter “the doctrine of discriminatory purpose” (p. 318). But whereas Kendi takes disparate impact itself as definitional of racist policy, Lawrence goes to great lengths to establish a set of legal principles to distinguish mere disparate impact from racist disparate impact, that is, disparate impact that consciously or unconsciously assumes or promotes racial inferiority. Basic to Lawrence’s racial impact test is assessing the public meaning of an act or policy as contextualized within an identifiable history of racial meanings and cultural symbols shared by a community.
Nathan: Preach, hermano Mason. Preach. And notice how Lawrence’s position, unlike Kendi’s, reflects a common belief CRTers champion. As CRT founders Mari Matsuda, Richard Delgado, Charles Lawrence III, and Kimberlé Crenshaw write:
Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law. Current inequalities and social/institutional practices are linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear. (Words That Wound, p. 2)
Bradly: Exactly! Matsuda et all claim that this view is a “defining element” of CRT. And they continue the passage you quoted with the following:
More important, 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.
We see here that something like Lawrence’s historicized cultural impact test is a definitional component of CRT. This directly contradicts a basic and central claim of Kendi’s definitional system and overall program. So, in this case, Kendi is not only not doing CRT, he is substantially departing from its basic commonplaces.
Nathan: Let me emphasize your point, hermano Mason. Not only does Kendi’s claim contradict Lawrence’s, but insofar as it does, Kendi parts from what four founding CRTers determined was a defining element of CRT proper.
Nathan: Solid points. May I add a few other thoughts before we conclude?
Bradly: Of course!
Nathan: Gracias hermano.
I’ll start by noting that Antiracist doesn’t discuss critical race theory nor CRT (hence their not being in the book’s Index). It also doesn’t mention three of the four CRT founders we just mentioned—Matsuda, Lawrence, or Delgado. Yes, Crenshaw makes a brief appearance, but it’s mainly in service of Kendi’s aims to take intersectional analysis beyond Crenshaw’s 1989 and 1991 essays (see pages 188, 191-2). So apart from Crenshaw, Antiracist doesn’t mention, let alone engage, CRT proper. And as you noted, hermano Mason, Kendi’s own definitions contradict foundational CRT texts.
These omissions and differences don’t surprise me, for Kendi doesn’t claim to be a CRT scholar. He doesn’t claim it in either of the texts we’ve discussed, and he doesn’t claim it as part of his scholarly expertise. Kendi is an historian. He’s committed to writing antiracist histories and promoting what he takes to be antiracist policies—even if those policies differ from what CRTers like Lawrence would champion.
Bradly: Exactly. And that shouldn’t be understood as a knock on Kendi. One does not have to be a CRT scholar to significantly contribute to antiracist scholarship.
Nathan: Exactamente. Du Bois, Gloria Anzaldúa, Vine Deloria, Jr., Erika Lee, and Edward Said aren’t CRT scholars but have made major contributions to antiracist scholarship.
Bradly: And many non-CRT pastors, seminary professors, and authors labor daily against racism in the church, many of whom are nevertheless daily maligned by means of aberrant cultural war definitions “CRT.”
Nathan: Amen, hermano. Es verdad.
I’ll say one more thing about Kendi. Although Kendi isn’t a CRT scholar—he doesn’t work in CRT proper or CRT derivative fields such as CRT in education—many people think he is CRT. This is a side effect of the disinformation suffusing the CRT culture wars. And it’s a side effect of outlets such as First Things publishing essays about “CRT” that don’t mention or quote a single CRT scholar—but do quote Kendi as if he stood in for CRT proper or CRT’s derivative senses. He doesn’t. And he’s not claimed to be a CRT scholar in either of his major, widely read books.
Bradly: Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to be a long haul resisting and redressing these misrepresentations. And there’s much more work to be done as we turn our focus to Robin DiAngelo in the next chop session.
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.