I’ve been working on the shortest possible explanation of Critical Race Theory…because the full three paragraph explanation involving racial essentialism, postmodern epistemology, and otherwise unsustainable revisionist history seems to bore readers. So here goes:
CRT is an explanatory hammer (“Racism!”) and an axiomatic belief that even things that don’t seem to be nails, pointless things and squishy things and living breathing things who tell you they’re not nails, are really and truly nails.
Let me say this yet again, Jimmy. CRT is *not* history; it is a pseudo-intellectual rationale used to distort history in a predetermined way. What you’re talking about–teaching that racism has figured prominently in American history–is merely history. You don’t need any “theory” to justify it.
Yes, Dan, I think the teaching of American history *was* considerably whitewashed well into the 1960s, and there was a necessary, gradual corrective starting roughly six decades ago. But at a certain point in every corrective, you reach full correction; if you keep correcting beyond that, you begin to skew in a different direction. Another way to think about CRT is as a rationale to keep skewing, regardless of the logical absurdities or the lack of objective evidentiary trail.
As for whether CRT is taught in (K-12) schools, the answer is yes, but indirectly. Every school that teaches the 1619 Project, for example, is implicitly teaching CRT…since the 1619 Project requires the elevation of “lived experience” over objective measures of historical accuracy in order to promote crackpot race-obsessed revisionism. So, yes, it’s being taught in schools.
Jerry, let me repeat this because it just doesn’t seem to be sinking in. CRT is not history; it is a rationale to skew history in a particular way. (It is, in that sense, similar to creationism.) Your position, insofar as I understand it, is that many instances of racial bias continue to go untaught in most K-12 American history curricula. That may or may not be true. But the process of uncovering those instances and arguing for their place in curricula does not require a theory, much less a theory as intellectually nihilistic as CRT. All it requires is traditional historical methodologies.
You see that girl with dark skin in the foreground? She and everyone who has skin like her think the same way about all things–or else they are not authentic members of the historically marginalized group to which they imagine they belong. They are also perpetual victims whose differing cognitive abilities render them incapable of meeting the same intellectual and moral standards as others. Oh, and that incident caught on camera? It only happened as long as a majority of us believe it happened. If in the future a majority believes the angry white mob is angry because the dark-skinned girl has rebuffed their attempts to befriend her, then that will become the truth of what happened because there is no objective truth.
That is Critical Race Theory.
The fact that Critical Race Theory, Critical Legal Theory, and Critical Theory are all inextricably bound to a particular ideology does not in itself tell you the degree of intellectual validity to be found in them. Their elevation of “lived experience” to the same plane as verifiable evidence and logical analysis, and their rejection of the possibility or desirability of objective truth, are what ultimately discredit them.
Yes, Niquie, I do believe that if you buy into CRT, black people can never be wrong, at least when black people level the charge of racism…and remember that according to the most basic of all CRT tenets, racism is implicated in every structure and every aspect of American society–including, as others here naturally prefer to focus on (since it is the most benign element of CRT) history. But if CRT were merely revisionist history, supported by objective evidence and logical methodologies, it would simply be…history. That won’t work however; objective evidence and logical methodologies reveal no such thing; many things have happened in American history in which racism played little or no part, which is why you need to slather the analytical process with postmodern lubricant, free associate with texts here, elevate “lived experience” there, and then you can make the case.
Occasionally, however, someone let’s the proverbial cat out of the bag, and it becomes clear that CRT is much more radical than revisionist history. Thus, you have the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian notoriously arguing that the expectation that black people arrive on time for appointments or come up with the one correct answer on math problems is racist because that expectation imposes norms of white culture on black people. Black people are wired differently; they have different cognitive capacities…and (to circle back to your question) the fact that they speak truths that are often invisible to white people does not make their truths any less true. (Again, you should hear the postmodern elements in play here.)
The obvious objection that not all black people think alike or agree with one another is solved by CRT by borrowing the concept of “authenticity”–it comes largely from Heidegger, though filtered through the postmodernist Michel Foucault. Those who believe they are perpetually victimized, and who are able to detect systemic racism at work in every unfavorable or unpleasant experience, are *authentically* black. Those who cannot (like Larry Elder, John McWhorter, or any black conservative) are not. So, no, according to CRT, an authentically black black person who levels the charge of racism cannot be wrong; the charge is (literally) logically irrefutable. How would it be refuted? By objective evidence and if-then logic? Those are the tools of white culture.
I’m sorry to say this, Ralph–genuinely. But you simply do not know what you’re talking about. If CRT were merely, as you suggest, uncovering historical events in which racism played a part, events that have been underreported or forgotten, then CRT would be history–revisionist history, yes, but true history. In other words, it wouldn’t be a theory. CRT does often involve revisionist history. But it also posits that racial oppression is inherent in every incident and aspect of American history and culture. If you define “racial oppression” broadly enough so that the term becomes nearly meaningless, you can make a case for that. But even then, you’re missing the other critical elements of CRT. CRT also entails racial essentialism (the belief that that way you think is inevitably connected to your distant ancestry–it is carried, in effect, in your DNA–and that thinking in other ways renders you racially inauthentic) and postmodern epistemology (the belief that reality does not exist independently from our thoughts and feelings about it, and that truth is not a correspondence with reality but a power struggle rooted in language). Those last two elements are the radical ones.
Roger, that is somewhat closer to the mark, and your last paragraph suggests a genuinely humane approach to the thing. But that’s still not CRT. If you teach history honestly, you are going to find some historical events that have nothing whatsoever to do with racial oppression. To take the most famous example, the colonies did not declare their independence from England because they feared the King or Parliament was about to outlaw slavery; we know what the colonial leaders were thinking from their statements, their correspondence, and their memoirs–and even if you distrusted those, there are still irresolvable logical problems with the idea that abolition was primary, secondary, or even tertiary on their checklist of concerns. The radical (and nonsensical) turn in CRT, rather, is that teaching history honestly must reveal that racial oppression is implicated in everything. If you do not find it there, that’s because either 1) you’re not looking hard enough; or 2) you don’t want to find it; or 3) your racial identity renders it invisible to you, but if you consult those descended from its victims, they will shine a light.
Let me say this, yet again, as commendable as I find much of what you just copied and pasted: That is not Critical Race Theory. CRT posits that black people, because they are black people, have different natural cognitive modes than other people; they are more attuned to relations, less to abstraction, less concerned with exactitude, more communal and less individualistic…and thus to hold them to expectations like getting the correct answer to a math problem, or arriving on time for an appointment is forcing them to adapt to models of human behavior rooted in white supremacy. This is pure racial essentialism, and it’s hogwash. It can only be justified through the postmodern methodology of “deconstruction”–which, through a form of verbal sleight of hand, seems to render all thought meaningless, all theories invalid, and thus relativizes truth. (In fact, it’s really just jargon ex nihilo, verbal masturbation.) Which is the reason postmodernism is the third leg of the CRT stool.
Segregating students by race makes perfect sense under Critical Race Theory. It fosters a heightened sense of collective identity among black students and it lets teachers formulate curricula that cater to the way black minds work–with less emphasis on punctuality, exactitude, and “correctness,” and more emphasis on storytelling and feelings.
If you like the idea of CRT, then here is your praxis.
Uncritical Race Theory: the idea that the main obstacle to black people realizing their full intellectual, moral, and socioeconomic potentials is the attribution of their individual failures to systemic racism.
Why URT? Because black lives matter…and you don’t want to lose the next several generations of black lives to academic hogwash like racial essentialism and postmodern epistemology.
As I’ve said, specifically to you, Niquie, no serious person believes that the US is a “racism-free” place. We can debate whether it is found more often on the political left or the political right (the answer will turn on the definition of “racism”), but either way it’s there.
CRT is not–repeat *not*–the exercise of discerning the residual (note: “residual”) effects of institutionalized white supremacy from our founding to the end of legalized segregation. That’s a perfectly respectable intellectual pursuit, though prisming every aspect of American culture through that lens will make those who do it sound like fools more often than not.
But that prisming is one of three–count ’em three–elements inextricably bound together in CRT. The second is racial essentialism. The third is postmodern epistemology. It takes a bit of study, and a willingness to apply if-then logic rigorously, to recognize those last two elements. Thus, the realization remains beyond the reach of the vast majority of CRT apologists. That can’t be helped. The best the rest of us can do is continue to ridicule it, because it is ridiculous, in order to minimize its impact.
Niquie, in order to examine claims for their biases, you have to accept that reality exists apart from our perceptions of it…or else you are simply testing one set of biases against another: if there is no reality-check, then all you have are biases. Postmodernism posits that “reality” is a linguistic construct, and that discourse communities are engaged in a continuous power struggle over whose propositions (or “texts”) are taken as true. But at no point do postmodernists stipulate (or even accept) that propositions can be measured against an independently existing reality to determine their correspondence with that reality.
“Other broad themes common to critical race theory include the view that racism is endemic to, rather than a deviation from, American norms. This developing literature reflects a common skepticism toward dominant claims of meritocracy, neutrality, objectivity, and color blindness. Critical race theory embraces contextualized historical analysis of racial hierarchy as part of its challenge to the presumptive legitimacy of societal institutions. The work manifests an appreciation of the role of the lived experiences of people of color in constructing knowledge about race, law, and social change.
“Critical race theory draws upon several traditions, including poststructuralism, postmodernism, Marxism, feminism, literary criticism, liberalism, and neopragmatism and discourses of self-determination such as Black nationalism and radical pluralism. The work is thus aggressively interdisciplinary in an effort to understand more fully how race is constructed, rationalized, and experienced in American society. Critical race theory goes beyond liberal understandings of race and racism by exploring those of its manifestations that support patriarchy, heterosexism, and class stratification. The normative stance of critical race theory is that massive social transformation is a necessary precondition of racial justice.” –Kimberle Crenshaw, 1990
On the contrary, “lived experience” has no role in a logically sound investigation of reality. Feelings about things don’t matter; facts matter. It doesn’t matter in any way that my personal contacts with police have been pleasant and professional; that particular lived experience carries no evidentiary weight in an objective analysis of police conduct or misconduct. It’s just one guy’s impression. You need to step away from it if you’re going to do an objective analysis.
Lived experience *must* be trumped by verifiable evidence, gathered by sound, reproducible methods, and analyzed for hidden biases…even if that lived experience is shared by the majority of a historically oppressed community. To put the matter as bluntly as possible: there are no magical negroes. Black people are as likely to be full of crap as anyone else, and if their opinions do not correspond with a reality that exists independently of opinions, then their opinions are simply wrong. They carry no extra weight because of the demographics and historical situation of those who hold them.
The only way out of this is to argue that some groups of people have a more valid lived experience than others–that they (magically) know things the rest of us don’t by virtue of who they are–and so if their lived experience doesn’t match up with objective analysis, the objective analysis must give way. That is the essence of CRT…and that’s why postmodernism is one of its tools.
Black people are better positioned to *observe* what goes on in their communities than people who don’t live in those communities–which is true of anyone, anywhere, regardless of their demographics. Everyone knows what’s happening on their own block. But black people are no better positioned to *analyze* what’s going on in their communities (for example, assign causes or effects) or draw inferences from what’s going on in their communities (for example, make comparisons) than those outside their communities. (Which, again, is true of anyone in any community.)
So if Keisha tells me that there have been three shootings on her block in the last month, I’m not going to argue with her. I’ll take her word for it. But if she tells me that the police are letting it happen, or if she tells me that the police would take the shootings more seriously if white people were being victimized, I have no reason to suppose that she knows what she’s talking about…unless she can produce some sort of objective, data-based comparative analysis to support her opinion.
CRT does not posit merely that Keisha’s observations are factual; it posits that her *opinions,* because they derive from “lived experience,” are instantly valid and constitute a critical counter-analysis to one that is derived logically from broader sets of objectively verifiable data.
Again, that’s where postmodernism comes in handy. If there is no reality-check for analyses–because there is no independently existing reality–then the demand for objective analysis does indeed become a tool of oppression. In that case, Keisha’s only wrong in her analysis because she doesn’t have the power to convince a sufficient number of people that she’s right. If she ever gets that power, *she will be right*.
Do you see the problem with that view?
I don’t think it’s anything that conspiratorial, Flavia. That implies its advocates are cynical–that they know that CRT is merely the latest iteration of an ongoing, gibberish-laden crypto-Marxist “struggle” rather than a breakthrough in understanding racism. On the contrary, the *sincerity* of its advocates is what indicts CRT supporters. They actually think they’re onto something original and important. The kindest thing you can say for CRT is that it’s a jobs program–a way for people with mediocre minds to cull a living out of the vast reservoir of white liberal guilt flowing through academia and corporate America at every level.
I can’t say this often enough, Judith: there are three main elements to CRT. You cannot segregate them out.
The first is revisionist history. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that–as long as the revisions are sustained by objectively verifiable evidence and logic.
The second is racial essentialism, the idea that people *properly* have different modes of cognition and belief, depending on their ancestry, and thus (for example) the failure of an individual black person to exemplify those modes undermines his or her authentic membership in a race.
The third element, and (counterintuitively) the most critical is a postmodern epistemology that defines truth not as a correspondence with an independently existing reality but as a linguistic construct (really, just another iteration of the coherence theory of truth) and thus relativizes and politicizes knowledge; it makes knowledge a function of political power. The reason this third element is so critical is that it makes even the loopiest, most unsubstantiated revisionist history unfalsifiable. If enough people feel that something is true–if the “discourse community” in which it coheres becomes large enough–it becomes true. Was the Revolutionary War fought by the colonists in order to preserve slavery? No, it demonstrably was not…if you are attempting to say something that corresponds with an independently existing reality. But a growing discourse community thinks so–they *feel* it in their bones–and introducing the 1619 Project in the schools will grow that discourse community even more. So eventually it will become “true” that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery.
Those are the three elements of CRT; CRT is like a three legged stool. Take away any one of the three, and the thing crumbles.
The core of Critical Race Theory is not the distorted, revisionist history or even the dumbed-down, Marxist ideology. The core is the crackpot epistemology. It is the elevation of strong emotion over logic, of “lived experience” over methodologically sound, verifiable evidence.
The outcome of that epistemology is the democratization of truth: if a majority of people believe something, it becomes true. There is no reality-check because reality does not exist independently of people’s perceptions; what is called “reality” is nothing more than a linguistic consensus negotiated through politics. You feel what you feel…and if what you feel happens to match the current consensus of other people’s feelings, then what you *feel* becomes what you *know*. Knowledge is no longer rationally justified true belief (since that sort of justification requires an independently existing reality); it is strictly a function of power.
The reason this epistemology is appealing, especially among those who have been historically disempowered, or who claim to speak for those who have been historically disempowered, is that once you accept it, you can never be proven wrong. Not about history. Not about current events. Not even about math or science. (When you hear CRT advocates scoff at the notion of “objectivity,” that’s what they’re getting at.) Your feelings may not match the current consensus, but if you work hard enough—if you yell loud enough, or protest vigorously enough, or make a sufficient number of people uncomfortable with the status quo—then maybe you can alter that consensus. Maybe you can make those feelings into knowledge.
“[Critical Race scholars] oppose apparently neutral rules, such as color-blindness, and one-person, one-vote, because they have helped to produce school systems, employment settings, mass media outlets, and housing arrangements that are racially segregated or vehicles for white domination of persons of color. Selection practices for highly sought after educational opportunities and jobs should include proportional representation, lotteries, and other methods that reject the pretense of merit and objectivity.” –explanation of CRT from Harvard
Michael, debates about epistemology are among the oldest in philosophy. There is a certain (unavoidable) amount of technical vocabulary involved in them–I was honestly trying to give as much background as I could in a short discussion post–but I do appreciate the fact that if the technical vocabulary is new to you, it may feel like blather.
My interest in, and distrust of (to put it mildly) CRT derives from my interest in and distrust of various fashionable but nihilistic, self-negating, and therefore both unfalsifiable and absurd offshoots of postmodernism. CRT is a particularly noxious one since it seeks to piggyback on historic racial grievances (some legit, some not), but there’s nothing in it that that is especially new. You start with Protagorus 2500 years ago, take a few wrong turns through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, then hang a hard left at Nietzsche and Foucault, losing a few IQ points with each iteration, and you wind up with Kendi.
Michael, no one is dismissing the shared experiences and feelings of anyone. Critics of CRT are merely insisting that those experiences and feelings be taken for what they are: experiences and feelings. Whatever conclusions are drawn from them must be measured against reality in order to establish their truth value, and it may be the case, and often is the case, that those conclusions are false.
What CRT advocates are arguing is that the truth value of propositions is affected by identity. Or in other words, that conclusions drawn from the shared experiences and feelings of certain historically marginalized or oppressed people are true simply because of the identity of the people whose experiences and feelings are under consideration. Is that what you believe? Does the identity of the speaker affect the truth value of a proposition he puts forward?
Michael, you and I have known one another for roughly 30 years…which is not quite as long I have been writing about and critiquing various strains of postmodernism. As I said above, CRT has very little that is unique in it; it is merely another variant of the intellectually nihilistic, empirically absurd, language-does-not-merely-affect-but-creates-reality school of thought. That belief system has already insinuated itself into feminism and gender studies. You’ll encounter much of the same academic vocabulary in a random lecture in those subjects as you encounter in CRT.
The fact that many black theorists (professional and amateur) have now adopted the same epistemological foolishness–where was it when Leonard Jeffries needed it?–does not make it one iota less foolish.
Our Rosmarins group discussion last night focused on Critical Race Theory, and toward the end it touched on an interesting distinction: noticing race versus caring about race. People obviously *notice* race (what they’re noticing is really ethnicity, but set that aside for another time); racial characteristics are an aspect of physical appearance. You notice race in the same way you notice height, though you’re obviously more likely to misjudge a person’s ancestry than to misjudge whether he’s tall, short, or roughly average. Noticing race, however, can affect your perception of a given situation.
For example, New Yorkers of every race know that if they are going to get mugged, the odds are overwhelmingly high that the mugger will be male. The odds are also disproportionately high that the mugger will be black. Crime statistics are unequivocal on both of those points, and people’s experience jibes with the statistics. There are, of course, socioeconomic reasons for that disproportion rooted in the most immoral aspects of American history. But that does nothing to offset the reality of the odds. Thus, if you are walking down a deserted street at night, it is natural—as Jesse Jackson once famously (and reluctantly) observed—to be more alarmed at the sight of a black guy approaching you than at the sight of a white guy or an Asian guy approaching you. You notice race, you cannot help but notice race, and the involuntary acts of noticing race, and of knowing the odds, affect your perception of danger. There are offsets, naturally. How the guy is dressed. How he is carrying himself. The angle and rapidity of his approach to you. But race factors into your perception of danger. There’s no sidestepping it. That is *noticing* race.
Noticing race, however, is different than *caring* about race. Caring about race is not involuntary; you have discretion over it. You can reason yourself out of it. Does it make a difference to you whether your mugger is black or white or Asian? Are you angrier at a black mugger than you would be at a white mugger or an Asian mugger? Are you more likely to blame the next random black person you encounter for the criminal act of a black mugger than you would be to blame the next random white person or Asian person for the criminal acts of muggers of their races?
Caring about race goes beyond noticing race. It goes to racism, properly conceived: refusing to see individuals as individuals but rather as representatives of collective identities—and assigning them characteristics, negative *or* positive, based on those collective identities.
To be fair to Mac, what he’s doing here—and it is his standard methodology—isn’t different from what many participants in FB discussions (and real life discussions, for that matter) do. He’s taking his inner demons and projecting them outward, assuming that the impulses with which he wrestles are found not only among his interlocutors but among the population at large. Mac’s ongoing recovery from racism is a case in point. My sense, and of course it’s just a sense since I don’t read minds, is that those who are most offended by reasoned, nuanced conversations about race—as opposed to the “Look at what we’ve done to them!”/”Look at what you’ve done to us!” conversations about race with which progressives seem perfectly comfortable—are those who have the most difficulty with their feelings about race. I’m sure, if you are a recovering racist, but you still feel the demon hood lurking in your soul, the suggestion that people should be judged first and last as individuals, not as members of a particular demographic, is (to use that awful word) triggering.
Judging people as individuals, however, does not mean that you cease *noticing* their membership in different demographics. (Ask college basketball recruiters!) Thus, to return to the topic of the post, the observation that human beings inevitably draw inferences not only from their own experience but also from large sets of independently compiled data, and that those inferences may lead to heightened alarm with respect to a black male passerby on a dark deserted street (note: not only black but *male* since that point seems to have gotten lost) screams racism to those who are triggered by conversations (less-than-cozy conversations) about race. It’s unfair to feel one way about a black man and another way about a white or Asian man in the same circumstances! Except that you *would* feel the same way about a white or Asian man in the same circumstances if your experience and large sets of independently compiled data suggested the white or Asian man posed a greater threat.
As I’ve said over and over, you either believe that black people have the same intellectual and moral capacities as everyone else, or you don’t. If you do believe it, then applying one set of standards is just. If you don’t believe it, then applying one set of standards is cruel—because they just don’t have what it takes to meet those standards. They’re childlike. We shouldn’t expect them to abide by the rules everyone else follows, and maybe the problem is the rules themselves. There’s a lot of that sort of they-just-can’t-help-themselves thinking on the left. It’s at the heart of Critical Race Theory.