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):
Carl Trueman’s recent article, “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” purports to be about Critical Race Theory (CRT)—I think. He offers no definitions, no citations, and doesn’t even mention a single CRT scholar. He does, however, make a series of unargued claims which might constitute a characterization for our purposes. From what I can gather, Dr. Trueman believes the following:
(1) CRT contains a set of “basic claims,” among them are “racism is systemic” and “being non-racist is impossible.” (2) the “basic claims” of CRT are “self-certifying,” they are “axioms,” and are “not conclusions drawn from argument.” (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.” (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.” (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.” And, last, (6) CRT claims to offer a “comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.”
Presuming the article is supposed to be about CRT, I plan to take a look at each of these claims in turn over the next several days, rather than cram it all into one article. As someone said to me recently, it takes one paragraph to spread bad information and a dozen to correct it. And while I don’t think Trueman’s article merits these full responses, especially on CRT, I do think it useful to leverage its warm reception as an opportunity to answer some quite common, though quite misguided, claims. For a broader reaction to Truman’s article, I commend Valerie Hobbs‘s article, “Is Critical Race Theory a Religion? Responding to Carl Trueman.” I intend only to address his characterization of CRT in these posts, but will assuredly draw some more general conclusions in the end.
I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate negros or not; but I know we have a Christian church which is white and Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcom X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means I cannot afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian Church. I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me—that doesn’t matter, but I’m not in their unions. I don’t know if the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbies keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the text books they give my children to read, and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children, on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. (James Baldwin, on the Dick Cavett Show)
Racist Ideas, Racism, and Racists
My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas…as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group. (Ibram X Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, Kindle Locations 193-200)
We can say further that to believe and confess racist ideas is racism. But to then say that those who hold to one or more racist ideas are “racists,” without any qualification, is often a very slippery slope to irrelevancy; both you and I will be caught up in this dragnet when Jesus lays bare every secret thought of our hearts.