A discussion developed online the other day surrounding Neil Shenvi’s blog post, “Does ‘Systemic Racism’ Exist?” I don’t intend to directly address the piece as I don’t think it fruitfully interacts with the subject matter. But the discussion did point up the need for clarification on the history of the concept, its definition(s), and its current presence, or lack thereof, in Critical Race Theory (CRT) scholarship. I intend to be brief, but will be sharing many quotes.
Systemic “Race Prejudice” in Traditional Abolitionist and Civil Rights Discourse
To begin with, I think it’s clear that racism, or “race prejudice” as it was called prior to the 1940s, was understood to be intimately related to systems for as long as there have been abolitionists and civil rights activists. This is primarily because racism has always been understood by activists to be a symptom of social, political, and economic exploitation. Frederick Douglass spelled this out 140 years ago (1881):
As many folks continue to conflate Critical Race Theory (CRT)with Critical Theory (CT) proper, though they are quite different, I thought it might be helpful to gather some of my old writing on CT in one place to help distinguish.
Further, there may be some overall added benefit to understanding the “critical” in CRT, at least as it appears broadly in various traditions. As we’ve defined elsewhere, “CRT is, at bottom, the radical civil rights tradition critically transformed to address a post-Civil Rights legal era rooted in the liberal ideology of ‘color-blindness’ and ‘equal treatment,’ which have together preserved and legitimated the continuation of racially subordinated circumstances.” Given that CRT has inherited this “critical” edge from Critical Legal Studies (CLS), and CLS inherited it from Critical Theory proper, it might be helpful to better understand the latter in order to better understand the former, despite the many transformations the Critical has undergone.
My Lutheran brother Keith Haney was kind enough to invite me back on the show, and we had a great discussion on CRT. As before, he asks the questions and poses the objections that are in the forefront of many people’s minds regarding CRT, and I do my level best to answer!
In case you haven’t already seen it, I had the pleasure to return to Southside Rabbi along with CRT scholar Dr. Nathan Cartagena. In this episode, we each define CRT, discuss where our definitions differ on emphasis, together respond to the culture war on CRT and antiracism, and discuss the impact of colonialism on the Church. Also, are Kendi and DiAngelo CRT scholars? Such a good time!
Please have a listen and let me know what you think!