A (Relatively) Brief Introduction to Critical Race Theory

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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.

1. Racial Reform and Retrenchment: Why?

Just over twenty years following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Acts, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the stated goals of these historic legislative packages seemed further and further out of reach. The measurable disparity between Black and White Americans in wealth, income, education, home-ownership, and nearly every other social and economic category had not only proven persistent, but many hard-fought gains appeared to be in retrenchment. Further, with the rise of the “New Right” to national power and prominence in the 1980s, the civil rights philosophy of the majority of Americans had become clear: the work was complete, discrimination was illegal, and equality had been achieved through Brown v Board of Education and the subsequent national Civil Rights Acts. For the legislature and courts to intervene any further, it was commonly presumed, would cause more harm than would the very few remaining vestiges of racism. In fact, whatever racial inequality that remained in the 1980s would soon be understood as simply the natural fall-out of legally equal people-groups acting unequally in an open and equal society. Thus, the vast society-wide social and economic disparities seen throughout the nation were by then rationalized as legitimate, natural, and even just.

How, just twenty years following the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, had America come to such ideological and existential reversals?

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Is Critical Race Theory Marxist?

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?

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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 group is capable of sharing in and participating in this racism, though certainly not in the same way or to the same degree:

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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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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What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading)

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Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell (C) walking w. a group of law students on campus after taking a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to protest the law school’s practice of not granting tenure to minority women professors. (Photo by Steve Liss//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

[This article is a revised and expanded edition of “In Short, What is Critical Race Theory?”]

In 1989, when I was a boy of eleven years—born into an all-White church, attending an all-White elementary school in all-White town, well on my way to believing that racism was in the past, that America had achieved equality, and that inferiority of racial circumstance simply reflected inferiority of racial “culture”—more than twenty legal scholars met in Madison, WI to discuss how we ended up here and what should be done about it. This “Workshop” was titled “New Developments in CRT,” the first formal use of the now oft maligned acronym.[1]

1. Civil Rights Retrenchment: Why?

Just over twenty years following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Acts, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the stated goals of this historic legislative package seemed further and further out of reach. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who spearheaded the first CRT Workshop along with Neil Gotanda and Stephanie Phillips, was sadly able to report in 1988 that,

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The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 8: the Harvard Story and the Birth of “Critical Race Theory”

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The eighth post in my series, The Christian and Critical Race Theory, is now up on The Front Porch!

We’ve discussed how Critical Race Theory was a “race intervention in a critical space”; we now turn to how CRT was a “critical intervention in a particular institutional contestation over race,” specifically the academy (p. 1288). “The eruption that served as a point of departure in CRT’s trajectory,” according to Kimberlé Crenshaw, “was the institutional struggle over race, pedagogy, and affirmative action at America’s elite law schools” (p. 1264).

Please take a look and let me know what you think!

Part 1: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the ‘Traditional Civil Rights Discourse’

Part 2: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment

Part 3: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 3: A Bridge: Dr. Derrick Bell”

Part 4: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 4: Alan Freeman and the Contribution of CLS

Part 5: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 5: A Misalignment of Frames: Integrationism

Part 6: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 6: A Misalignment of Frames: The ‘New Right’

Part 7: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 7: A Race Intervention Into Critical Legal Studies

Part 8: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 8: the Harvard Story and the Birth of ‘Critical Race Theory’

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

And if you want to go back to Critical Theory more broadly, please start here: “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt

More to come!

Follow @AlsoACarpenter

The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 7: A Race Intervention into Critical Legal Studies

Article 7 at TFP

The seventh post in my series, The Christian and Critical Race Theory, is now up on The Front Porch!

In short, the “race intervention in a critical space” that is Critical Race Theory was deeply and inescapably informed by the tension between the (literal) life and death commitment to traditional Civil Rights ideology and the postmodern critique inherited from Critical Legal Studies.

Please take a look and let me know what you think!

Part 1: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the ‘Traditional Civil Rights Discourse’

Part 2: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment

Part 3: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 3: A Bridge: Dr. Derrick Bell”

Part 4: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 4: Alan Freeman and the Contribution of CLS

Part 5: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 5: A Misalignment of Frames: Integrationism

Part 6: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 6: A Misalignment of Frames: The ‘New Right’

Part 7: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 7: A Race Intervention Into Critical Legal Studies

Part 8: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 8: the Harvard Story and the Birth of ‘Critical Race Theory’

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

And if you want to go back to Critical Theory more broadly, please start here: “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt

More to come!

Follow @AlsoACarpenter

Carl Trueman’s CRT, Conclusion: Why the Critiques Keep Missing the Mark

In our last post, I addressed Dr. Carl Trueman’s claim that Critical Race Theory (CRT) assumes the premise that “life is a zero-sum game.” I further critiqued his understanding of CRT and racial “power” dynamics, digging into the ideological history of “Black Power” vs. “Liberal Integrationsim.”

Today we move onto his sixth claim and conclude this series. (I will note again that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

And, last, (6) CRT claims to offer a “comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.”

To my lights, the most appropriate answer to Dr. Trueman’s final claim here is simply, “Where?” Where does any CRT scholar claim this? In what way does CRT ideology even suggest this to Trueman? I simply have no idea.

My best guess is that Trueman is conflating a totalizing interpretation of, for example, traditional Marxism, or maybe even the Frankfurt School, with Critical Race Theory. This would be consistent with the error of most of his other claims, so probably a good guess. As stated before, his critiques, though weak and fundamentally unargued, might be better suited for some figures in the European critical tradition, including some of their White American Left offspring. If you recall from Part 3, CRT scholar Robert Williams offered a critique of Critical Legal Studies’ (CLS’s) Eurocentric reading of “rights” discourse that proved similarly illuminating for understanding Dr. Trueman’s failed critiques of CRT. Again, we read,

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 5: CRT Portrays Life as a Zero-Sum Power Game?

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In our last post, we grappled with Carl Trueman’s claim that CRT is just Marxism with “class” replaced by “race.” I showed that CRT, following CLS, rejects this “vulgar Marxism” as both “essentialist” and “racialist.”

Today we move onto his fifth claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

(5) “Critical race theory rests on simple, therapeutic premises,” including that life is a “zero-sum game”: “Some people do not have power. They struggle and do not ­flourish. This happens because somebody else has seized power from them and oppresses them in an ongoing and unrelenting way.”

To begin with, no CRT scholar I’ve ever heard of “portrays life as a zero-sum game.” I think we could leave this at “citation needed,” were I that type of guy. But since Trueman believes Ibram X Kendi is somehow representative of CRT (he is not), he should actually read him on this. In this case, Kendi captures well the sentiment of most CRT scholars:

Racial reformers have customarily requested or demanded that Americans, particularly White Americans, sacrifice their own privileges for the betterment of Black people. And yet, this strategy is based on one of the oldest myths of the modern era, a myth continuously produced and reproduced by racists and antiracists alike: that racism materially benefits the majority of White people, that White people would lose and not gain in the reconstruction of an antiracist America. (Stamped From the Beginning, loc. 7980)

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 4: Is CRT the Same Marxist Horse Ridden by a Different Jockey?

In our last post, we considered Dr. Trueman’s claim that CRT “relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo,” concluding that CRT has taught much the opposite. We further suggested that Trueman might be succumbing to the same Eurocentric reading of the Civil Rights inspired critical tradition that led CLS to “trash” rights discourse. The unique voice of color, due to “double consciousness,” was suggested as remedy.

Today we move onto his fourth claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

(4) “Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare”; that is, CRT simply replaced the role of “class” in Marxism with “race” (as Trueman’s offensive Mao example is supposed to illustrate).

Carl Trueman’s claim here is all too familiar to CRT theorists. One of the first major critiques of CRT came from within the ranks of Critical Legal Studies (CLS), the movement from which CRT emerged in the late 1980s, and it was precisely this claim.

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