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.

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?

Base Superstructure

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

Derrick A. Jr. Bell
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 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!

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 3: False Consciousness or Double Consciousness?

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In our last post, we assessed Trueman’s claim that the “basic claims” of CRT are self-certifying, unargued axioms, concluding that he either is misconstruing the nature of social theory or lacks familiarity with CRT’s many thousands of pages of peer reviewed argumentation. Today we move onto his third 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.)

3. 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.”

Here I presume Dr. Carl Trueman is referring to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony,” as taken up by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is “the social, cultural, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group over other groups.”

This influence stems from the perception of legitimacy afforded the dominant group by the subordinate groups. Hegemony is an active process whereby legitimacy is sought and maintained by the dominant group through the balancing of consent (that is, tacit support for the dominant group) and coercion (that is, the threat or use of forms of force). (Beyond Critique, pp. 52-53; emphasis mine)

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In Short, What is Critical Race Theory?

[Though my attention is fixed on my series on The Front Porch, “The Christian and Critical Race Theory,” I thought it might be helpful to offer a brief answer to “What is Critical Race Theory?” in the meantime, especially given the immense attention the topic has received of late. Now, of course, “brief” and “in short” are relative terms. This is not a quick one, but it is about as condensed as I could imagine while still being faithful to the content. (A revised and extended version is also available HERE.) Last, I don’t intend to offer any appraisal of these ideas, Biblical or otherwise, but will leave that for later in my series on The Front Porch. I pray this is of service!]

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 formal equality, and that inferiority of racial circumstance simply reflected inferiority of racial “culture”—more than twenty legal scholars met in Madison, WI on July 8, 1989 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]

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

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

The civil rights ideologies of both the “New Right”—”developed in the neoconservative ‘think tanks’ during the 1970’s”—and the “New Left”—”presented in the work of scholars associated with the Conference on Critical Legal Studies (‘CLS’)”—alike rejected the “steady and inevitable progress” view of a continuing civil rights movement, with the Right arguing that the work of civil rights had been completed with the reforms of the late 1960’s and the Left arguing that the work of civil rights had been faulty from the start, having been built on the legal canard of “rights” (p. 1337). But, as with the integrationist ideology of the CRE traditionalists, so the civil rights ideologies of both the Left and the Right likewise presented additional points of misalignment for those young legal scholars who would soon form the first conference on Critical Race Theory. In this post, we will focus on the New Right.

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 5: A Misalignment of Frames: Integrationism

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

Like every other ideology—as I hope we are coming to see in this series—the ideology of integrationism was forged in the furnace of history, not found in the pages of the Bible, the imprint of nature, conscience, common sense, or what have you. It needn’t have been so; there were other analytics available. No, the ideology of integrationism, which had become the standard view of proper “race relations” in America by the mid 1970’s, was an historically contingent product of two powerful convergences: (1) the mainstream absorption of the CRM discourse into the prevailing ideology of abstract liberalism and (2) an unstated compromise between White progressives and the Black middle class to reject the discourse of “Black Power” and the Black nationalist movement.

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

Follow @AlsoACarpenter

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

Alan Freeman

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

… [A]s the law has outlawed racial discrimination, it has affirmed that Black Americans can be without jobs, have their children in all black, poorly funded schools, have no opportunities for decent housing, and have very little political power, without any violation of antidiscrimination law. …

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

Follow @AlsoACarpenter

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

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

… Bell’s work signaled a return to the more ‘radical’ elements of W.E.B. Du Bois, Oliver C. Cox, Stokely Carmichael, and even Dr. King, with a renewed emphasis on race-consciousness, power dynamics, economic explanations, and substantive equality over symbolic equality …

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

Follow @AlsoACarpenter