Prelude: Why Chop Session Three is on Robin DiAngelo
Conjunto: We ended our first chop session promising to discuss some of our favorite CRT works in the next chop session. But since publishing that piece, 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 chop sessions two and three 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 is on DiAngelo. The previous one was on Kendi. Enjoy!
Bradly: Brother, the anti-CRT craze continues.
Nathan: Sure does. Seems that attacks on “CRT” are becoming as commonplace as death and taxes. And two people we’ve discussed in our previous chop-sessions—Christopher Rufo and Ibram X. Kendi—have supported the claims we made about their relationships to CRT proper. Kendi confirmed that he’s not a CRT scholar but an historian. In fact, Kendi made this point to reject Rufo’s persistent mischaracterization of him as a CRT scholar.
Nathan: Joy Reid of MSNBC challenged Rufo’s claim that Ibram X. Kendi is “the guru of critical race theory” during an interview Rufo did on her show, The ReidOut (6/23/21). Here’s what she shared:
We reached out to [Kendi]. And we asked him, are—we asked him if he’s a critical race theorist.
He said: “I admire critical race theory, but I don’t identify as a critical race theorist. I’m not a legal scholar. So I wasn’t trained on critical race theory. I’m a historian. And Chris would know this if he actually read my work or understood that critical race theory is taught in law schools. I didn`t attend law school, which is where critical race theory is taught.”
Such direct refutations haven’t slowed down Rufo. Instead, Rufo has been balder in publically acknowledging his unjust efforts to appropriate and rebrand the label “Critical Race Theory.”
Bradly: Yep. And in addition to what we’ve shown from Rufo in our first post, he’s gone on to admit even more:
It doesn’t get clearer than this. Christopher Rufo, the lead anti-CRT demagogue, who began the misinformation campaign on Fox News and brought the manufactured crisis to Donald Trump while still president, tells us that he is intentionally “redefining” CRT, turning it into a toxified “catchall” for “the new racial orthodoxy.” We see this at play in another recent tweet as well:
Literally anything the anti-CRT crowd disagrees with is CRT.
Nathan: Exactamente, hermano Mason.
Bradly: When I read that list, I don’t even think of CRT. My mind makes largely different associations:
—Whiteness? W.E.B. Du Bois (not CRT)
—White privilege? Peggy McIntosh (not CRT)
—White fragility? Robin DiAngelo (not CRT)
—Oppressor/oppressed? Every liberation movement in human history
—Intersectionality? Kimberlé Crenshaw
—Systemic racism? Joe Feagin (not CRT)
—Spirit murder? Never heard of it
—Equity? Moses, Jesus, MLK
—Antiracism? Hundreds of non-CRT antiracists
—Collective guilt? MLK
—Affinity spaces? Sensitivity training (not CRT)
Nathan: I hear you, hermano. Of course, some of our readers will dispute your contrast. Which parts do you anticipate they will challenge?
Bradly: Probably the most disputed of this group would be “Whiteness,” “White Privilege,” “White Fragility,” and “Intersectionality”; most readers will easily recognize that the others are not indicative of CRT.
Nathan: Why don’t you discuss these in reverse order, because we acknowledge that intersectionality is a part of CRT.
Bradly: Sure. Granted, intersectionality is deeply interwoven into CRT and CRT analyses. But the presence of an intersectional analysis is not sufficient to make something CRT. In fact, you’ve already covered this in our last chop session, including a substantial quote from leading intersectionality scholars Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge demonstrating the variable application of the concept, concluding that “[m]any non-CRTers use intersectional analysis—including white nationalists.”
Nathan: That’s right—and a point worth repeating.
Bradly: As for White privilege, Peggy McIntosh has told me directly that she is not CRT and was simply working from personal experience when she wrote her formative article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”:
This leaves “Whiteness” and “White fragility.”
Nathan: Rufo, Kendi, and McIntosh—these are prominent names attached to the culture-wars sense of “CRT.” But there’s a name that’s missing from this list: Robin DiAngelo.
Bradly: It’s true. Due to the anti-CRT propaganda campaigns, many think that Kendi and DiAngelo are CRT. We’ve explained why Kendi isn’t a CRT scholar. Now let’s talk about DiAngelo. And then, I’m sure, “Whiteness” and “White fragility” will likewise be settled in the process.
1. Does working in whiteness studies make Robin DiAngelo a CRT scholar?
Bradly: Let’s start here. Many people presume that DiAngelo is a CRT scholar because she works in whiteness studies. As she says in her bio, “My area of research is in Whiteness Studies and Critical Discourse Analysis, tracing how whiteness is reproduced in everyday narratives.” Does DiAngelo’s working in whiteness studies make her a CRT scholar?
Nathan: The short answer is “no.”
Bradly: What’s the long answer?
The beginning of the study of whiteness as a socially constructed phenomenon should be traced back to W. E. B. Du Bois, whose Black Reconstruction elevated the concept of ‘whiteness’ as an analytical problem in determinations of class and stratification. He theorized that even white workers enjoyed a ‘public and psychological wage’, regardless of their position in the social hierarchy, that was derived from their whiteness and reinvested in it. White privilege validated, and was validated by, racism. Many scholars of whiteness have used Du Bois’s concept of the psychological wage as their analytic starting point, including David Roediger, whose Wages of Whiteness was, along with [Alexander] Saxton’s The Rise and Fall [of the White Republic], the first in a virtual explosion of works on the topic of whiteness. Saxton’s and Roediger’s works, published within a few months of each other in 1990, marked the beginning of a new genre of scholarship.
Let’s unpack this quotation line-by-line.
W.E.B. Du Bois began the academic efforts to understand “whiteness” as a social, political, and legal phenomenon. (For an introduction to the topic of “whiteness,” see this post). This is one of the topics of Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. But it is also an extension, not the start, of Du Bois’s previous discussions of “whiteness” in essays such as “The Souls of White Folks” (1920). There, for example, Du Bois writes: “‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’” Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” Here Du Bois conveys the imperial nature of “whiteness” in self-identified white nations such as the United States and Britain. The rest of the essay is must read.
After Du Bois authors ranging from James Baldwin, Winthrop Jordan, and Peggie McIntosh evaluated U.S. whiteness. Baldwin details psychological states that correlate with being racialized white in essays like “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” and short-stories like “Going to Meet the Man.” Jordan details the role of whiteness in establishing U.S. political forms of white supremacy. And McIntosh considered forms of racial privilege she had as a white women in the U.S.
The previous works inform but predate the birth of the academic field “whiteness studies.” As Hartman notes, this field came into its own in the early 1990s through the works of historians such as David Roediger and Alexander Saxton. Matthew Frye Jacobson, an historian working in whiteness studies, discusses the “explosion” of literature Hartman mentions when discussing text’s that immediately preceded his book Whiteness of Different Color.
I began the intellectual work that would become this book in 1987; I began the actual writing in 1994. In the course of those years many books on various aspects of whiteness appeared—David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness, Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale, Ted Allen’s Invention of the White Race, Alexander Saxton’s Rise and Fall of the White Republic, Ruth Frankberg’s White Women, Race Matters, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, Ian Haney-Lopez’s [sic] White by Law, Michael Rogin’s Black Face, White Noise, and at least eight or ten volumes, it seems, by Sander Gilman. Frankly, this steady stream of related publications was at times an irritation. But though they may have robbed it of its initial novelty, this book is far better for having been developed in dialogue with these writers. They represent my most devoutly wished—if toughest—audience.
Apart from López, none of the authors Jacobson mentions are CRT scholars. And in personal correspondence with me, López confirmed that his book is a work of CRT—not whiteness studies—that whiteness studies scholars cite and engage when considering the U.S.’s white racial pre-requisite clauses for naturalization from 1790-1952.
These points about López’s work are important, for as Jun Mian Chen writes, “Whiteness studies and critical race theory are sometimes conflated as being the same.” They’re not. They have different genealogies, canons, methods, questions, and scholarly communities. Authors such as Dawn Burton, Richard Delgado, and Jean Stefancic have also noted these differences. Indeed, Delgado and Stefancic note these differences even when inaccurately claiming that CRT “spawned” critical whiteness studies. (Again: apart from López’s, the texts Jacobson mentioned developed apart from CRT). Working in whiteness studies therefore does not make someone a CRT scholar. Consequently, DiAngelo’s working in whiteness studies does not make her a CRT scholar.
Bradly: Thanks for sketching this longer answer, brother. Most helpful.
It’s striking that DiAngelo herself has a similar take on whiteness studies. In Is Everyone Really Equal?, she and Özlem Sensoy write:
People of Color, among them W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, wrote about Whiteness as early as 1900. These writers urged White people to stop studying racial Others and turn their attention onto themselves to explore what it means to be White in a society that is so divided by race. Finally, by the 1990s, White scholars began to rise to this challenge. These scholars examine the cultural, historical, and sociological aspects of being White and how they are tied to power and privilege. (p. 143)
DiAngelo says much the same in White Fragility:
People of color, including W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, have been writing about whiteness for decades, if not centuries. These writers urged white people to turn their attention onto themselves to explore what it means to be white in a society that is so divided by race. For example, in 1946, a French reporter asked expatriate writer Richard Wright his thoughts on the “Negro problem” in the United States. Wright replied, “There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem.” (p. 25)
Prominent scholars and public intellectuals have been writing and speaking about “whiteness” for decades. As you and DiAngelo note, modern whiteness studies draws up and extends this legacy.
Nathan: Exactly. And because CRT and whiteness studies are distinct, someone’s contributing to whiteness studies or being a whiteness studies scholar does not necessitate their being a CRT scholar. Hence, DiAngelo’s being a practitioner in whiteness studies does not make her a CRT scholar.
2. Is DiAngelo a CRT scholar?
Bradly: So, you have answered the question of entailment: Does being a whiteness studies scholar make one a CRT scholar? It’s clear that and DiAngelo herself answer “no.” But those tracking with us so far may still be asking an additional question: Is DiAngelo, nevertheless, a CRT scholar who works in whiteness studies?
Nathan: Exactamente. For it is possible that DiAngelo is a whiteness studies scholar and a CRT scholar. Recognizing this possibility, I’ll be direct: DiAngelo is not a CRT scholar.
Bradly: I agree. And, not surprisingly, again, so does DiAngelo.
In a recent interview with John Blake, DiAngelo said that she is not a Critical Race Theorist. Here’s her comment in context.
[Blake:] Are you surprised that so many White politicians and school leaders are upset about critical race theory?
[DiAngelo:] In some ways, I am surprised that it’s gone as far as actual legislation making illegal to talk about systemic racism. That’s incredible. But we are in a moment where both sides are amplified. So the progress that the Black Lives Matter movement has made has definitely geared up the resistance to that progress.
Now true critical race comes out of legal scholarship. And by that definition, I’m not a critical race theorist. It’s a very refined academic field. It’s used though by the right or those who want to silence these conversations as a stand-in for systemic racism, as a way to not acknowledge the existence of systemic racism.
Nathan: Like Kendi, DiAngelo is trying to set the record straight about the kind of anti-racist work she does.
Note, hermano Mason, that DiAngelo’s rejection of being a CRT scholar tracks two points we’ve made in our chop sessions. First, she links CRT proper to legal scholarship. Second, she notes the cultural-wars sense of CRT that folks like Rufo have promulgated. Sure, she doesn’t use our terms, but it’s clear she’s making similar points.
Bradly: Yep. The timing of her and Kendi’s statements has given us direct conformation of our claims that neither is a CRT scholar. And it is also becoming a clear refrain among scholars distinguishing their work from CRT—while nevertheless noting they appreciate CRT—to recognize the locus of CRT in legal theory, just as we have argued.
Nathan: Sí. Pero, some won’t find Kendi’s nor DiAngelo’s statements persuasive. I can hear the critics: “Of course they deny being CRT scholars. That’s exactly what I’d expect them to do despite being CRT scholars.” We’ve responded to this argument regarding Kendi, digging into the textual details of his work to show how it confirms that he isn’t a CRTer. Let’s similarly take up DiAngelo’s work.
Bradly: Sounds good.
Nathan: I’ll begin with DiAngelo’s most well-known book, White Fragility.
It’s worth noting that White Fragility’s “Resources for Continuing Education” section doesn’t list a single CRT proper nor derivative text. It does list Kendi’s Stamped from The Beginning (p. 156), but we addressed why that’s not a CRT text in our previous chop session.
DiAngelo mentions two CRT proper scholars in White Fragility: Kimberlé Crenshaw and Cheryl Harris. Crenshaw’s appearance is remarkably brief. Here’s it is in context.
Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy, and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. While she is given attention, the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed. As Stacey Patton, an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, states in her critique of white women’s tears, “then comes the waiting for us to comfort and reassure them that they’re not bad people.” Antiracism strategist and facilitator Reagen Price paraphrases an analogy based on the work of critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. Price says, “Imagine first responders at the scene of an accident rushing to comfort the person whose car struck a pedestrian, while the pedestrian lies bleeding on the street.” In a common but particularly subversive move, racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimization. (p. 134)
DiAngelo does not mention nor engage any of Crenshaw’s work. Instead, DiAngelo name-drops Crenshaw on the way to discussing a quotation by activist Reagen Price—who’s not a CRT scholar.
Those familiar with Crenshaw’s work will recognize that the supposed “paraphrase” doesn’t stick with the original traffic analogy Crenshaw used. Here’s what Crenshaw wrote in 1989.
The point is that Black women can experience discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradiction arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional. Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. (“Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” p. 149)
Crenshaw talks about cars, not pedestrians. Crenshaw says nothing about first responders, let alone the order in which they treated people at an accident. And Crenshaw talks about an intersection; DiAngelo and Price do not. That’s not the point of DiAngelo’s and Price’s comments. Indeed, they aren’t that interested in Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality; they’re interested in white women’s tears—something Crenshaw never discuss in her ground-breaking essays on intersectionality.
Bradly: Wow, brother. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t catch that until now.
Nathan: Hermano Mason, you’ve noted a similar distorting use of a CRT scholar in DiAngelo’s engagement with Harris’s “Whiteness as Property.” Could you share about that?
Bradly: Sure. In “Whiteness as Property,” Harris argued that US Law has treated whiteness as a property right. To defend this claim, Harris painstakingly walks through the components of property law and various theories of property to demonstrate that whiteness satisfies these requirements, and that US law has protected it as a property right. Her purpose in making this argument is to craft specific legal remedies to this white supremacist problem; here she focuses on how affirmative action could be such a remedy. Her claim runs something like this: If Whiteness is a legally protected property right, then mere formal equality and equal treatment do nothing to upend the legally entrenched “structural disadvantage” of non-Whites. Here’s Harris’s conclusion:
Whiteness as property has carried and produced a heavy legacy. It is a ghost that has haunted the political and legal domains in which claims for justice have been inadequately addressed for far too long. Only rarely declaring its presence, it has warped efforts to remediate racial exploitation. It has blinded society to the systems of domination that work against so many by retaining an unvarying focus on vestiges of systemic racialized privilege that subordinates those perceived as a particularized few – the “others.” It has thwarted not only conceptions of racial justice but also conceptions of property that embrace more equitable possibilities. In protecting the property interest in whiteness, property is assumed to be no more than the right to prohibit infringement on settled expectations, ignoring countervailing equitable claims that are predicated on a right to inclusion. It is long past time to put the property interest in whiteness to rest. Affirmative action can assist in that task. Affirmative action, if properly conceived and implemented, is not only consistent with norms of equality, but is essential to shedding the legacy of oppression. (p. 1791)
Now, let’s consider what DiAngelo does with Harris’ argument. DiAngelo writes:
Harris’s analysis is useful because it shows how identity and perceptions of identity can grant or deny resources. These resources include self-worth, visibility, positive expectations, psychological freedom from the tether of race, freedom of movement, the sense of belonging, and a sense of entitlement to all the above.
We might think of whiteness as all the aspects of being white—aspects that go beyond mere physical differences and are related to the meaning and resultant material advantage of being defined as white in society: what is granted and how it is granted based on that meaning. Instead of the typical focus on how racism hurts people of color, to examine whiteness is to focus on how racism elevates white people.
Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone. White people find it very difficult to think about whiteness as a specific state of being that could have an impact on one’s life and perceptions. (White Fragility, pp. 24 – 25)
DiAngelo references Harris’ thesis, but then employs it more as a metaphor of property, rather than a literal property right, in order to make a different point and call for a different remedy. Whereas Harris’ thesis centers the structural disadvantage of non-White racialized minorities, DiAngelo’s metaphorical use centers the self-identity, feelings, and ideas of White people. Further, whereas Harris’ thesis is designed to suggest and justify specific structural legal remedies—like affirmative action, DiAngelo’s metaphorical use seems designed to suggest overcoming the individual effects of socialization into Whiteness. Here too, then, we find multiple distortions of CRT scholarship. And DiAngelo only engages one Harris quotation!
Nathan: I know, hermano. It’s bad. Real bad. At least DiAngelo’s treatment of Zeus Leonardo, a CRT in Education scholar, is better. Here’s an extended quotation of her engagement with Leonardo.
Critical race scholar Zeus Leonardo critiques the concept of white privilege as something white people receive unwittingly. He says that this concept is analogous to suggesting that a person could walk through life with other people stuffing money into his or her pockets without any awareness or consent on the walker’s part. Leonardo challenges this conceptualization, which positions white privilege as innocence, by arguing that “for white racial hegemony to saturate everyday life, it has to be secured by a process of domination, or those acts, decisions, and policies that white subjects perpetuate on people of color.” Viewing privilege as something that white people are just handed obscures the systematic dimensions of racism that must be actively and passively, consciously and unconsciously, maintained. (White Fragility, p.64)
Unlike Crenshaw’s and Harris’s work, Leonardo’s takes DiAngelo to her target. She aims to have this portion of White Fragility confront accounts that position “white privilege as innocence.” Hence her accurately quoting Leonardo’s claim about white racial hegemony.
And that, hermano Mason, exhausts DiAngelo’s engagement with CRT authors and scholarship in White Fragility. One misleading name-dropping of Crenshaw; one distorted employment of Harris; and one accurate quoting of Leonardo. That’s it; nada mas. Hardly the stuff of CRT scholarship, no?
Bradly: As you said, the textual evidence supports DiAngelo’s claim that she isn’t a CRT scholar.
Before we turn to our final section, I want to make one more contrast between DiAngelo’s writing and CRT proper.
Nathan: You thinking about DiAngelo’s claims about who’s a racist?
Bradly: You got it.
In “Developing Social Justice Literacy an Open Letter to Our Faculty Colleagues,” Sensoy and DiAngelo employ the following definition and description of racism:
Racism is a specific form of oppression. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between whites and people of color (Hilliard 1992). Racism is white racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported intentionally or unintentionally by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of whites and the disadvantage of people of color. The critical element that differentiates racism from race prejudice and discrimination is the prop of institutional power and authority that supports the prejudice and enforces discriminatory behaviors in systemic ways with far-reaching effects. People of color may hold prejudices toward whites but do not have the social and institutional power backing their prejudice that transforms it into racism; the impact of their prejudice on whites is isolated, temporary, and contextual. From a critical social justice perspective, when we say only whites can be racist, we mean only whites have social and institutional power and privilege. (p. 350)
DiAngelo has repeatedly endorsed this definition and description. Consider also this passage from Is Everyone Really Equal?:
“People of Color are just as racist as we are. In fact, now there is reverse racism and White people can’t get into college or get good jobs.”
If you define racism as racial prejudice, then yes, anyone across any race can have just as much racial prejudice as anyone else. But racism is not merely racial prejudice. Racism is racial prejudice backed by institutional power. Only Whites have the power to infuse and enforce their prejudices throughout the culture and transform it into racism. (p. 149)
While I believe they are getting at an important asymmetry between dominant group racism and subordinate group racism, it’s not my sense that this is consistent with CRT scholars’ definition of racism.
Nathan: It isn’t. CRTers including Charles Lawrence III, Robert A. Williams (Lumbee), Gary Peller, and Imani Perry explicitly reject the claim that only white people can be racist. So do CRT in education scholars such as Daniel Solórzano and Lindsay Pérez Huber.
Bradly: Exactly. I’m thinking of Lawrence’s famous passage from “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection.”
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. (p. 322)
Over and over throughout Lawrence’s article, he refers to racism as ideas, beliefs, and policies which convey a “message of racial inferiority” (e.g., p. 370), calling it the “the myth of racial inferiority” (p. 374), all perfectly consistent with Dr. King’s own assertion that “racism” is “the myth of inferior peoples” (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 73).
Further, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic give the following definition in their Introduction to Critical Race Theory:
RACISM: Any program or practice of discrimination, segregation, persecution, or mistreatment based on membership in a race or ethnic group. (p. 182)
These descriptions and definitions of racism—and particularly the claim that “we are all racists”—contradict a basic element of DiAngelo’s program.
Nathan: Yep. And you won’t find CRT scholars accepting the claim that “only whites have social and institutional power and privilege.” That’s embarrassingly simplistic. As if Derrick Bell had no institutional power nor privilege when he was a dean at Oregon Law School. Or Crenshaw has no institutional power nor privilege at UCLA. Indeed, Crenshaw develops her understanding of intersectionality to account for the various institutional powers and privileges that Blacks males may have over Black women. Similarly, Tommy Curry has used his institutional power and privilege at Edinburgh’s Institute for Black Male Studies—an institute Curry founded—to critique Crenshaw’s account. In summary, CRTer’s offer a multilayered rejection of DiAngelo’s view about who can be racist.
Bradly: As an aside, even Ibram X. Kendi acknowledges that any racial group can be racist.
Black people can be racist toward White people. (How to Be an Antiracist, p. 128)
Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited. (p. 141)
Kendi further notes that this recognition, contra DiAngelo, has extremely important application:
To color police racism as White on the pretext that only White people can be racist is to ignore the non-White officer’s history of profiling and killing “them n[*****]s.” It is to ignore that the police killer in 2012 of Brooklyn’s Shantel Davis was Black, that three of the six officers involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray were Black, that the police killer in 2016 of Charlotte’s Keith Lamont Scott was Black, and that one of the police killers in 2018 of Sacramento’s Stephon Clark was Black. How can the White officers involved in the deaths of Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland, Walter L. Scott, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and Decynthia Clements be racist but their Black counterparts be antiracist? (p. 147)
To be clear, Kendi and DiAngelo can’t be co-authorities/co-founders in any antiracist field, for they don’t even agree with each other on major, foundational points—including the nature of racism itself.
3. What about the claim that we’re failing to account for how CRT became Critical Social Justice?
Nathan: Hermano, let’s conclude by considering the challenge that we’re failing to account for how CRT supposedly became something DiAngelo frequently discusses: “Critical Social Justice.”
Didn’t you recently have a Twitter exchange with Helen Pluckrose, co-author with James Lindsay of Cynical Theories, about this point?
Bradly: I did. A couple weeks ago, I posted a screenshot of a “DiAngelo” search in a CRT proper book next to the same search in one of my anti-CRT books, both published in the last couple years:
The difference is stark and consistent throughout my catalog. Helen Pluckrose read my tweet and offered an extended reply.
The essence of her charitable response is that what you and I–and DiAngelo for that matter!—are calling “CRT proper” is akin to ancient history, a relic of the past. What people now mean by CRT is “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ) applied to the topic of race.
Nathan: I’ve seen several people making arguments like Pluckrose’s. Granted, that was before DiAngelo, a co-founder of CSJ, denied being a CRT scholar.
Bradly: Exactly. What I find strange—as well as perfect for this post—is that CRT critics seem to have settled on the descriptor “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ) for what they oppose. And as you alluded to, DiAngelo and her co-author Özlem Sensoy’s invented CSJ in early work together, popularizing it in their book Is Everyone Really Equal? (2011). Even Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories co-author, James Lindsay, likewise states that Sensoy and DiAngelo “introduced this concept to the world” (“Naming the Enemy: Critical Social Justice”). And for tactical reasons, he has argued that it is best to “name the enemy” CSJ.
Nathan: To repeat: We agree with Lindsay on the origins of CSJ.
Bradly: Our sessions are full of surprises!
Nathan: Es verdad.
Bradly: So, to clarify, there seem to be two claims at play in the current culture-war discourse Pluckrose’s positions represents: (1) CRT proper is an old, outdated CRT; and (2) modern CRT is just a subspecies of CSJ.
Nathan: I’m tracking.
Bradly: The first claim is odd to me. Maybe it is a generational thing, but I was in high school in the 90’s and I don’t think I’m that old.
Nathan: Well hermano, you do have a little snow on the roof…
Bradly: Ha! Fair enough.
My hair aside, it’s important to remember that most of the founding generation of CRTers are still teaching, writing, and are the center of the field. If you look at UCLA’s Critical Race Theory program, for example, you’ll see Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work are central.
Nathan: Claro. And second-generation CRTers such as Devon Carbado and Laura E. Gómez continue to cite, quote, and extend the CRT canon.
Bradly: Let me put what you said in perspective. One of the great legal symposiums on CRT was published by The Connecticut Law Review in 2011, the same year as Sensoy and DiAngelo’s work. And the lead article was by Crenshaw, subtitled “Looking Back to Look Forward,” including a discussion of CRT’s continuing work in a supposedly post-racial society. Devon Carbado contributed to that symposium, discussing how CRT traveled and how it should be understood today.
Nathan: We quoted Carbado’s essay in our first chop session. It’s great.
Bradly: Yes it is. And, to bring this home, first-generation CRTers such as Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Robert Williams, and Ian Hany López are still publishing books and essays that advance CRT proper.
And it’s funny: None of these authors cite Kendi or DiAngelo in their CRT work.
Nathan: I hear you.
Bradly: As for the second claim, CRT isn’t subsumable under CSJ. Sensoy and DiAngelo explain what they mean by “Critical Social Justice” in Is Everyone Really Equal?:
While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we prefer the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints. A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this. (pp. xx)
Thus, Sensoy and DiAngelo envision their work as social justice done from the “critical” perspective—a “specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified” with inequity “deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural).” Likewise, when they go on to explain the critical tradition they are working in, viz. Critical Theory (CT), they make no mention of CRT.
Our analysis of social justice is based on a school of thought known as Critical Theory. Critical Theory refers to a body of scholarship that examines how society works, and is a tradition that emerged in the early part of the 20th century from a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany…. These theorists offered an examination and critique of society and engaged with questions about social change. Their work was guided by the belief that society should work toward the ideals of equality and social betterment.
DiAngelo and Sensoy situate their work within the specifically European traditions of CT and Postmodernism:
… Efforts among scholars to understand how society works weren’t limited to the Frankfurt School; French philosophers (notably Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Lacan) were also grappling with similar questions (this broader European development of Critical Theory is sometimes called “the continental school” or “continental philosophy”).
As such, they see many such critical endeavors working in conjunction with theirs, all broadly within the same critical tradition:
… Critical Theory’s analysis of how society works continues to expand and deepen as theorists from indigenous, postcolonial, racialized, and other marginalized perspectives add layers to our collective understanding. Thus, to engage in a study of society from a critical perspective, one must move beyond common sense–based opinions and begin to grapple with all the layers that these various, complex, and sometimes divergent traditions offer. (pp. 25-27)
It should be clear that Sensoy and DiAngelo simply made up a phrase to capture their own work, which happens to incorporate ideas from many different critical traditions, but is distinguishable from many other critical traditions as well.
Summing up, CRT is not CSJ, and CSJ is not an overarching system that contains CRT. Sensoy and DiAngelo never present it as such, not here nor elsewhere. And in these definitions, Sensoy and DiAngelo don’t claim to be doing CRT. In fact, I’ve searched through DiAngelo’s many scholarly articles listed on her site and I didn’t find a single mention of “Critical Race Theory,” in either her own essays, nor in her work with Sensoy.
Nathan: Solid work, hermano Mason. Solid work.
Well, let’s wrap this session up by reminding our readers that DiAngelo has explicitly denied being a CRT scholar; her work confirms that she isn’t one; and culture-war arguments that continue to maintain DiAngelo is a CRT scholar despite her words and work can’t ultimately find support in efforts like Pluckrose’s to maintain a tight link between DiAngelo and CRT. Good chatting with you, hermano.
Bradly: Likewise brother! Looking forward to the next one.
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.