A CRT Informed Understanding of “Systemic Racism”


Systemic racism” can be a difficult concept to grasp, largely because “racism” is commonly understood as an exclusively individual and intentional affair. Thus, most Americans begin with an idea of racism as personal prejudice toward those of different skin color and then are left imagining how this intentional prejudice can somehow become a property of systems, institutions, or social structures. In the end, many are left believing systemic racism is a grand conspiracy of racist individuals, or an ethos which pervades a society, or a set of explicit laws and basic assumptions hidden somewhere deep in the books.

Others, alternatively, tend think of systemic racism as any policy, whether state or private, which leads to or preserves racial disparity. This is a contender, to my lights, as the racial distribution of harm and/or advantage should certainly be recognized as a measure of a policy’s success. But is, for example, every fee hike or price increase a racist act?

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Is Critical Race Theory Racist?

John Carlos and Tommie Smith

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 race is capable of sharing in and participating in this racism:

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


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 1: “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory?


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.

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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

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