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Critical Race Theory: A Primer
Opposing CRT is one thing, but unless we understand its roots in critical theory, we won't be able to defeat it.
"The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the world from suicide."
-- T.S. Eliot, "Thoughts After Lambeth" (1930)
There is a movement among communications experts that in truth isn’t a very old tactic. In short, if the argument is too complicated then you simply dumb-down the public in order to get them to digest your ideas more readily.
Obscurantism is as old as not letting the public read Holy Scripture, hiding ancient knowledge from the hoi polloi, or masking truly deep or serious ideas in long esoteric papers so as to avoid public criticism. Or we create shortcuts:
Obamacare? Death panels.
TPA/TPP? Surrender of sovereignty.
Toughening up our immigration policy? Build a wall.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the ideas behind it are one such item. Proponents call it anti-racism; opponents call it cultural Marxism. Neither of these terms are correct, but they do get you as an information consumer to trigger your fight-or-flight response (your amygdala), which is how misinformation and disinformation works. After all, one can present all the facts, but it is nearly impossible to convince a person that their emotions upon hearing the world racism or Marxism wasn’t authentic — and if the feeling is authentic, ergo the conclusions must be authentic…
Such is the danger of propaganda, folks.
So what is CRT? What are its origins? What do proponents mean when they make their arguments and what are they asking for precisely? Is CRT really anti-racist as they claim or is it a false front?
My argument here is going to be pretty straightforward. CRT is informed by a set of beliefs linked to critical theory that approaches every institutional framework as inherently biased or prejudiced to those in power. For proponents of CRT, that means all of the institutions are inherently biased — specifically against people with certain racial or ethnic backgrounds — and ought to be brought down to their foundations and critically rethought.
The problem, of course, is that CRT implies a sort of biological determinism asserting that (1) definitions of excellence within the current paradigm are white ideas of excellence unrooted from any sort of ontological reality, that (2) these definitions impose limitations against specific minorities, and that (3) this inequity — not inequality, mind you — can only be resolved if those in power overcompensate for this deterministic lack.
What Is Critical Theory?
As a conservative, what are the odds that you could teach in a public school? Survive in the classroom against progressive professors? Or get a job in academia and survive? Or last long as a government employee? See conservative ideas in newsprint or on CNN? Watch a film that didn’t push leftist ideas?
If you’ve answered that the odds are low because the institutions are stacked against conservatives, then welcome to critical theory.
In fact, the very heart and soul of Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time For Choosing” is critical theory applied:
Most conservatives have never listened to this speech.
They have no idea and little interest in the rendezvous with destiny. They don’t particularly care anymore that those voices don’t speak for the rest of us. Or that no government ever voluntarily reduces its size. Or that the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.
If you hear in these lines a resistance to the paradigm of government that the political left in this country has imposed on the rest of us? You are listening to Ronald Reagan as a critical theorist.
Critical theory by definition is a means of examining the dispositions of any aggregation of power over other human beings. The method is entirely anti-totalitarian in its scope and purpose, which is why both conservatives and progressives have adopted its tactics over the last 50 years. It is critical because observes from the outside; it is theoretical because it seeks to reform.
The origins of critical theory go all the way back to Hegel. Marx would be the one to attempt to pull philosophy away from the theoretical and towards the practical. This has import for the rest of us, because it means that a practical approach ultimately demands a materialist response. So it’s not “cultural Marxism” insofar as it is cultural Hegelianism — which quite frankly, is worse.
Now there is a difference between critical theory (lowercase) and Critical Theory that most folks point towards as Marxism and ergo evil. Don’t be so easily swayed:
Horkheimer’s definition that a critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time.
While the social democrats fleeing Nazi Germany were indeed influenced by 20th century notions, they were overwhelmingly Jewish intellectuals. Though many were committed secularists, the Jewish influences that remained over thinkers such as Walter Benjamin are unmistakable; the opposition to totalitarianism is unmistakable as well.
Today’s problem is that most CRT proponents aren’t critical theorists at all. Critical theory is useful as a means, but it fails Horkheimer’s test up front: it is neither explanatory, nor practical, nor normative. CRT doesn’t grasp the world as it is; equity is entirely condescending and deterministic as an outcome; one cannot claim biological determinism and still claim you are anti-racist.
So If I Don’t Have To Be Afraid of Critical Theory, Why Be Afraid of Critical Race Theory?
Because CRT links three ideas together in a dangerous fashion.
FIRST, critical race theory argues in a rather complicated fashion that while distinctions of race are social constructs (which we would all agree), but that the institutions we have still recognize these distinctions and reward/punish based on demography and not individual achievement.
SECOND, critical race theory argues that narratives triumph over data, especially if facts and information support the legitimacy of the institutions. Narratives and anecdotes are powerful antidotes to the status quo. Ergo, statistics that show racism is at an all time low, or that police violence is a negligible statistic, or that learning outcomes have more to do with the breakdown of the family rather than systemic racism? That’s all undone by one narrative saying otherwise (see: George Floyd).
THIRD, critical race theory believes that those who defend the status quo uncritically are not merely part of the problem, but should be extirpated from the public square without mercy or hesitation. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, toleration and non-violence only assent to the injustices of the power elite.
Those who do not see this are merely sleeping; those who —once seeing it — refuse to accept this have made their choice; those who do see this paradigm and are willing to fight against it are woke.
The institutions are prejudiced and biased.
Just one example of injustice is enough to prove the substance of #1.
Those who defend this status quo can be destroyed using similarly violent means.
Now I happen to be of the opinion that this is a rather easy argument to debunk. So easy, in fact, that I have no problem allowing my kids the opportunity to destroy this nonsense in the public square.
Error can be tolerated so long as reason is left free to combat it; rights are held with respects to persons and not ideas.
Americans have it written into our constitutional framework to strive for a more perfect Union, not utopia.
This status quo is worth defending precisely because they reach for what is good, beautiful, and true — common to all human persons and obtained incrementally and over time.
This idea that error should be violently destroyed is perhaps the most pernicious part of Critical Race Theory. You see it in cancel culture; you read it in the works of Marcuse — but it’s not critical theory.
The notion of rights with respect to persons is worth mentioning. Society cannot have a justice; persons can. This basic dignity of the human person “requires that in the conduct of his life a man should act on his own judgment, with freedom, out of an inner sense of duty, under immunity from outside pressures or coercions.”
As a purely positive act for the CRT proponents, violence becomes a shortcut to thought. The danger — of course — is that as these modern-day Gramscians use coercion in the pursuit of goals by calling everyone who doesn’t support them racist, that some might be induced to respond as Gramscians of the right.
That’s the danger.
So How Dangerous Is Critical Race Theory?
On par with fascism and every other totalitarian impulse.
Allow me to give you some insight on what the CRT folks believe to be actual scholarship in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association:
Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which “white” people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target nonwhite peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate. Effective treatment consists of a combination of psychic and social-historical interventions. Such interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Whiteness’s infiltrated appetites—to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation. When remembered and represented, the ravages wreaked by the chronic condition can function either as warning (“never again”) or as temptation (“great again”). Memorialization alone, therefore, is no guarantee against regression. There is not yet a permanent cure.
If you would like to be permanently outraged? Just replace every mention of whiteness for something a bit more offensive:
Jewishness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which “Jewish” people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Jewishness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target non-Jewish peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate. Effective treatment consists of a combination of psychic and social-historical interventions. Such interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Jewishness’s infiltrated appetites—to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation. When remembered and represented, the ravages wreaked by the chronic condition can function either as warning (“never again”) or as temptation (“great again”). Memorialization alone, therefore, is no guarantee against regression. There is not yet a permanent cure.
If this looks like it could have been peeled from the pages of Der Sturmer then your antenna has been properly attuned to detect anti-Semitism in all its forms. Given the recent dalliance between BLM/Antifa and the recent spate of anti-Semitic pogroms in the West directed at Jews as Hamas fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians?
This isn’t a wild jump or leap of fancy to make.
Michael Harriot over at The Root goes into the problem with a bit more condescension than required, but I’ll contrast two paragraphs very quickly to show the disconnect.
First is his assessment of why the present-day power structures are indeed racist — even though CRT claims to be a colorblind movement:
Take something as simple as college admission, for instance. People who “don’t see color” insist that we should only use neutral, merit-based metrics such as SAT scores and grades. However, Critical Race Theory acknowledges that SAT scores are influenced by socioeconomic status, access to resources and school quality. It suggests that colleges can’t accurately judge a student’s ability to succeed unless they consider the effects of the racial wealth gap, redlining, and race-based school inequality. Without this kind of holistic approach, admissions assessments will always favor white people.
One would think that expanding opportunity would be the grand solution, right? By increasing the quality of education by allowing school choice, increasing resources by demanding the resources follow the student, or addressing the collapse of the family — opportunity would be the holistic approach they require, yes?
Unfortunately, we are dealing with Marxists.
For Marxism, there is only one solution — throw as much material at the problem as you can and destroy those in the way of history.
Remember all that stuff I said the “material needs of the dominant society?” Well, “dominant society” means “white people.” And when I talked about “racial hierarchies,” that meant “racism.” So, according to Critical Race Theory, not only is racism an ordinary social construct that benefits white people, but it is so ordinary that white people can easily pretend it doesn’t exist. Furthermore, white people who refuse to acknowledge and dismantle this unremarkable, racist status quo are complicit in racism because, again, they are the beneficiaries of racism.
See those themes I mentioned above? The system is prejudiced, just one example of prejudice indicts the whole, and we can destroy those complicit in the injustice by the mere virtue that they participate uncritically in the system that creates the injustice.
Except they aren’t really railing about injustice at all. What they are raging against is the “god that fails” and the Leviathan State’s inability to become a utopia.
The More The Planners Plan, The More The Planners Fail
Harriot takes aim at something as simple as the SAT, indicating that:
White people’s kids are more likely to get into college using a racist admissions system. But the system has been around so long that it has become ordinary. So ordinary, in fact, that we actually think SAT scores mean shit.
SAT scores do mean shit.
Of course, for Harriot the SAT is racist because minority students simply do not do well on the test. Harriot goes one step further: what the SAT measures isn’t something concrete, but rather something relative that disproportionately benefits the needs of the dominant society.
Who is the dominant society?
On this, progressives and conservatives may find agreement. Conservatives may point towards public education and see a system held in thrall to secular religions pushing their faith on our children — complete with priests, inquisitors, titles, secular sacraments and all. Progressives see a system that benefits white liberals, but certainly not people of color. While the solutions wildly differ — there are points of critique of the current system that neatly coincide.
Need an example? Pharell Williams pointed to the Virginia public education system in Norfolk as he kickstarted his own private school to help minority youths in his hometown. His critique?
“If the system is fixed and unfair, then it needs to be broken,” Williams said bluntly in the release. “We don’t want lockstep learning where so many kids fall behind; we want bespoke learning designed for each child, where the things that make a child different are the same things that will make a child rise up and take flight.”
Name me one conservative who would disagree?
The problem with Critical Race Theory is that it succumbs to a sort of rootless and hopeless despair, suggesting to children that the institutions themselves are unconquerable and ergo racism will always be with us.
Christians will bristle at this suggestion, precisely because our faith teaches us that partiality and racism are sins that not even the Holy Spirit can forgive (Matthew 5:43-48, Gal 3:28) precisely because such sins are rooted in obstinacy. In fact, this injunction against partiality and racism is one of precisely two positive commands of God. Love God totally and don’t be racist seems like a pretty good starting point for a just society.
How To Fight The Anti-Racists? Be Anti-Government.
There’s a temptation to call them what they are, of course. While that will make most of us feel better for five minutes, perhaps there’s a different answer we can give.
T.S. Eliot (pictured above) was no man of the left. What both conservatives and progressives are chafing under is this postmodern secular religion that seeks to replace the old mainline Protestant Christian character of this country. In Eliot’s speech Thoughts After Lambeth he exposed this secular effort as a failure, even though it was just in its initial stages.
The entire letter is worth reading in full, if for no other reason than it was written on the very cusp of the collapse of the old Protestant integralism as it began yielding to the new secular orthodoxy we find ourselves trapped by today:
One of the most deadening influences upon the Church in the past, ever since the eighteenth century, was its acceptance, by the upper, upper middle and aspiring classes, as a political necessity and as a requirement of respectability. . . . A new respectability has arisen to assume the burden; and those who would once have been considered intellectual vagrants are now pious pilgrims, cheerfully plodding the road from nowhere to nowhere, trolling their hymns, satisfied so long as they may be “on the march.”
One can now be a distinguished professor, and a professional moralist to boot, without understanding the devotional sense of the word vocation or the theological sense of the virtue humility; a virtue, indeed, not conspicuous among modern men of letters. We have as many, as solemn, and as splendidly-robed prophets today as in any decade of the last century; and it is now the fashion to rebuke the Christian in the name of some higher “religion”—or more often, in the name of something higher called “religion” plain.
This “civilized but non-Christian mentality” Eliot touched upon nearly 100 years ago has swamped our institutions for far too long.
Critical Race Theory is simply another manifestation of an old and worn out secular religion. We shouldn’t be afraid to fight against it in the name of sacred truths.
One thing to bear in mind as we reject the positive demands of CRT in the classroom is that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace their wider critique of leftist institutions.
Yes they are prejudiced; yes they are biased; yes they should be dismantled in favor of what Williams called “bespoke learning for each child” — and for those of us who are not afraid to call ourselves as such, we should not be afraid to tell people Who informs our values as Christians (or any other faith tradition). In effect, the secular paradigm and their failed values needs to yield to a paradigm that works.
Public education is a 19th century system using 20th century ideas that fails to provide a 21st century education. Rip up the old ways, fund students rather than systems, and let us get to work creating a society of opportunity rather than victims.
The problem isn’t racism but government.
If the government is imposing prejudiced and biased values, perhaps we need to go deeper into our criticisms, yes? Perhaps if we were all a bit more anti-government, these institutions wouldn’t be able to speak for the rest of us — much less institutionalize our kids.
Of course, banning or imposing CRT doesn’t resolve the wider question of a failing public education system writ large. CRT is a bright shiny object.
Is critical theory bad? No — most conservatives are critical theorists. Yet Critical Race Theory is a different animal altogether that ultimately fails the test of being a legitimate critical theory. Proponents of CRT implicitly know they are setting up a circular logic that will continuously feed what is — at root — a deterministic and racist paradigm that shares more in common with the rhetoric of the National Socialist Party.
Godwin’s Law (any comparison to fascism forfeits the argument) may be a thing — but Godwin’s Corollary (when they behave as fascists then they actually are fascists) is entirely in play.
The wider problem of a dumbed-down public continues to plague America in a way that it is not plaguing our rivals — namely China or Russia. In short, we are mindlessly entertaining ourselves to death or discovering that grifting is easier than accomplishment.
That’s a problem of the national character.
** If you need a quick and publishable takedown of CRT, this is a pretty decent PDF from Christopher Rufo courtesy of Hillsdale College. It’s a bit high gloss, but you can judge for yourself by clicking here.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.