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):
Allow us to take stock. The original topic proposed by Dr. Shenvi was, “Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism?” Shenvi attempted to present the “yes” position by offering the “core tenets of contemporary critical theory” (“fourfold construction”), arguing that these are contradicted by Scripture (“threat” in principle) and are held by some evangelicals (“threat” as “currently negatively impacting”), offering four quotes to demonstrate the latter.
I responded by noting that,
If one is going to attribute CT to an evangelical’s beliefs in order to claim dangerous influence, one is required to attribute that which is distinctive to the tradition, not simply that which is included, though common to other and much earlier traditions….
Since the topic is now Shenvi’s fourfold construction, clarification is first in order:
T1: I don’t think anyone’s position is that, a priori, societies are divided into oppressor/oppressed, or that, a priori, “white” or “male” are dominant classes. The argument is that given a society structured to distribute advantages/disadvantages according to socially constructed group membership, dominant groups are in a structurally oppressive relation to subordinate groups, by virtue of said distribution. No one can doubt this was true of “white” and “male” throughout American history; and all should recognize that this is not true of societies structured along different lines. Whether one lives in such a society is an empirical, a posteriori, question, not a subject of armchair theorizing nor biblical exegesis.
First, Dr. Shenvi asks how I’ve been mischaracterized. I count three in his latest post:
I’ll state for the third time that there are many critical theories which have developed since the origin of Critical Theory in the Frankfurt School, which is what Brad’s sources are characterizing.
Again, this is false. From my very first post, I pointed to Sensoy/DiAngelo and Delgado/Stefancic to define Shenvi’s own suggested titles for his fourfold construction, and added Levinson and multiple other sources in my last post. Must we do this again? I’m willing.
I’m honestly disappointed to be mischaracterized so soon into this discussion. I simply did not criticize Dr. Shenvi’s supposed “core tenets” of CT by means of Horkheimer’s 80 y/o definition. I cited Sensoy and DiAngelo’s 2017 “Brief Overview of Critical Theory,” which contains no mention of Shenvi’s fourfold construction, but rather focuses on the socialization of knowledge, social constructivism, and social critique motivated by “the ideals of equality” (pp. 25-27). I cited Delgado and Stefancic’s 2017 answer to, “What is Critical Race Theory?,” noting again no mention of the fourfold construction, but instead the ordinariness of racialization, interest convergence, the social construction of race, differential racialization, intersection of identities and anti-essentialism, and the “unique voice of color.” And since Shenvi also suggested “Critical Social Justice” as a name which might represent his own construction, I cited Sensoy/DiAngelo’s 2017 definition, which, again, does not mention his fourfold construction.
I was reticent to agree to this topic since I’ve likewise argued that Critical Theory (CT), as a total system of belief and practice, is anti-Christian. But given the constant claim that those actively confronting racism in the Church are “driven by,” “steeped in,” or “following” CT rather than the Bible, while simultaneously never presenting an accurate description of CT, I’m motivated to engage.
Dr. Shenvi rightly anticipated this response but seems to underestimate its import. If one is going to attribute CT to an evangelical’s beliefs in order to claim dangerous influence, one is required to attribute that which is distinctive to the tradition, not simply that which is included, though common to other and much earlier traditions (see, e.g., the entire history of the Civil Rights movement).