A few months back, I began hearing about a new threat to Western civilization and America: critical race theory. Unfortunately, everybody who was saying this was near the bottom of the list of people I’d trust to explain academic theory to me, so I decided to go read material from actual critical race theorists. What I found was way different than the boogeyman that I see tossed around from time to time.
I shared my findings, and got mixed reactions. Some people found it interesting. Others rejected the idea that we should learn about critical race theory from actual critical race theorists, instead suggesting we should focus on it “as it’s used,” presumably by college undergrad activists and people who make big bucks whipping up culture wars. My problem with this response is that people who say “critical race theory is bad!” make absolutely no distinction between the works of theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and what an anonymous Maoist Twitter account has put out on the internet. Additionally, I have very little interest in frothing at the mouth about campus politics when I could be engaging with new and complex ideas. If you feel similarly, this essay is meant for you.
Here is a brief explanation of critical race theory, to the best of my current knowledge.
What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?
To understand critical race theory, you need to first understand a little bit about critical theory and legal realism.
Critical theory is a school of thought which aims to combine descriptive social analysis with a normative aim of increasing freedom and decreasing oppression and domination. In other words, critical theory aims to understand the world in a way that changes it for the better. It rejects separating out the normative and the descriptive, embracing them both simultaneously.
Bizarrely, critical theory is sometimes cast as morally and epistemically relativistic, saying that what’s good isn’t universally good and what’s true isn’t universally true, if there’s anything good or true at all. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Critical theory stands in strong ethical opposition to domination and oppression, and aims to find truth useful in ending it..
Legal realism rejects the idea that justices primarily engage in objective and impartial analysis of the law. To a legal realist, when a judge issues a ruling, they do not do it simply because that is what the law demands. The ruling is shot through with their own ideas and biases, and being part of society — and often part of the upper classes of society — these ideas and biases often resemble society’s dominant ideas and biases.
Critical Race Theory
Critical theory has found a home in legal theory, for fairly obvious reasons. The simultaneous pursuit of truth and freedom sits comfortably within the practice of law. In the 1980s, some American critical legal scholars became frustrated with the lack of attention critical theorists were giving to topics of race. So, they established a new, loose school of thought called critical race theory. Critical race theory argues that American society has a distinctly racist tint, and that this is reflected in the practice of law and elsewhere.
To an extent, critical race theory was a response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While critical race theorists acknowledged it as an improvement, the Civil Rights Act was only able to limit formal, explicit discrimination. The employers who put “BLACKS NEED NOT APPLY” signs in their stores and the school principles which fought against integration were still in positions of power, and they were still racist. And so were the judges. People were still racist, people in power were still racist, and society was still structured to the detriment of Black Americans. Critical race theorists diagnosed formal anti-discrimination laws as useful, but woefully insufficient to actually end racial domination and oppression.
Critical race theory originates from and is primarily applied to the United States, but it doesn’t take much to make it relevant to countries such as Canada or the United Kingdom. Additionally, while it originated as a legal theory, it has seen growth as a general sociological theory and as a theory of education.
Critical race theory is a very ill-defined school of thought. There is no canonical definition, or anything approaching one. However, most critical race theorists share a few themes in common: A viewpoint that racism is not an aberration, but is the typical way society works; the view that white people as a class benefit from racism, and so there is a major force disincentivizing them, the dominant racial class, from ending institutional racism; the view that race is a socially constructed series of relations, and not a natural biological fact; a focus on differential racialization, how races are differentiated from each other and from themselves over time; an interest in anti-essentialism and intersectionality; and the belief that, in general, racial minorities are more competent to speak about racism than white people, again in general. I will briefly explain each of these themes.
Major Themes in Critical Race Theory
Racism as the Norm
Sometimes, theories of various kinds model society as not being racist, and any instances of racism are how society is not supposed to work. Critical race theory, in contrast, holds that society is designed to work in a racist way, unjustly benefiting white people at the expense of people of color.
Racism as Benefiting White People
Critical race theory holds that since society’s systemic racism benefits white people as a class, white people as a class are disincentivized from ending it. This is one of the most controversial tenets of critical race theory, and there are three common responses to it. The first is that racism hurts everyone, even if the most obvious consequences are felt by Black people. This response typically focuses on material consequences. I would say that white people as a class also get psychological benefits from racism. It’s been demonstrated that when racial dogwhistles are brought into play, white people will more often vote against their own material interests just to keep Black people down. The second response is that you can’t treat white people as a class. This is a common misunderstanding, and part of why I wrote this essay. “Whiteness” and “Blackness,” among other racial and ethnic concepts, have a long history of being codified in American law. It is very easy to speak of a class when the law has specifically separated out types of people for different treatment, even if the class effects do not clearly apply to every single individual in the class. The last response is questioning how systemic racism could ever fall if the dominant group is more motivated to keep it than to scrap it. This is addressed by simply noting that this theory is not deterministic, but rather is describing the general functionality of society. Unexpected events can occur which may tip the balance of power towards something more egalitarian.
Race as Socially Constructed
Critical race theory rejects race as something natural and biological, instead regarding it as socially constructed, and as a series of relations — the relationship between white and Black, for example. Again, it’s very easy to see this perspective if you remain in the legal mindset. American law has a long history of patently made-up categorizations completely devoid of any true biological line in the sand. American culture, while often less explicit, hasn’t been a lot better.
Differential racialization refers to the observation of how races and ethnic groups are construed as different from each other, and how that changes over time. This plays closely with race as socially constructed, since you can track how and why conceptions of different races have changed over time. I’ve heard it claimed that critical race theory is only focused on Black people or Black liberation. This is an odd claim, given that critical race theory typically pays attention to multiple races and ethnic groups and how they are differentially racialized.
Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality
Critical race theory typically rejects the idea that there is some core definition that necessarily applies to every member of a group. It does so for various reasons, ranging from highly technical to more practical. Among the more practical are the concern that such definitions can be more oppressive than liberatory; if you demand that one person fits into box X with definition Y, that doesn’t seem very freedom-y. Similarly, critical race theory embraces intersectionality (a controversial idea in its own right which I might write about later). Intersectionality also originated as a legal theory and holds that when multiple social categories overlap in a person, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Think of a road intersection: the intersection is simply where two roads briefly overlap, and yet special rules govern it which are not reducible to the rules which govern the individual roads. Similarly, special circumstances arise when multiple social categories exist in a single person.
Competence to Speak About Racism
Lastly, critical race theory often prefers that people of color, rather than white people, speak about racism. This is based on the belief that lived experience has a general tendency to provide people of color with knowledge of racism that is generally more difficult for white people to gain.
Critical Race Theory and Liberalism
Critical race theory and liberalism do not have the best relationship. Critical race theorists have explicitly criticized liberalism for its focus on formal rules and procedures over actual outcomes, as well as its historical failure to secure freedom and equality for Black people. These are serious criticisms, not easy to hand-wave away.
However, the gap may not be so wide, and perhaps might just be bridgeable. As of late, critical race theorists have shifted their focus away from criticizing liberalism and towards fighting reactionaries, and contemporary liberals have begun taking up the challenge attending to informal bias under a liberal rubric. The most significant attempt to bridge this gap has been by Charles Wade Mills. Mills has undertaken a project of “black radical liberalism,” combining the liberal principles of thinkers like Immanuel Kant with critical race theory. It is a very interesting and very serious intellectual and practical attempt to combine critical race theory and liberalism, improving them both.
A Critical Look at Critical Race Theory
I am sympathetic to critical race theory. That’s not very surprising; I am a left-liberal and some of my favorite philosophers are critical theorists. That does not mean that I uncritically accept all of the previously mentioned themes.
While I noted that the psychological benefits of racism for white people should be recognized, I do think a belief or general focus on the idea that racism is good for white people is ultimately counter-productive and untrue. I genuinely believe that society-at-large is better in virtually every way when people aren’t bigoted. I hold that my liberation — everyone’s liberation — is bound up with each other, and that none of us are truly free until all of us are. I know I sound like a hippie. Sue me.
Additionally, I am very critical of attempts to avoid anti-essentialism by resorting to general group characteristics, like is done in talking about competency to speak about racism. While better than essentialism, I do not think it sufficiently avoids the risk of stereotyping.
And, of course, I am a liberal, and I’m not fond of the claims that liberalism is incapable of making practical moves towards a better world. I think we have seen the world improve in many ways under liberalism, and that we have not yet exhausted liberalism’s ability to build a better world.
Most of this essay comes from Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement edited by Crenshaw et al., Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on critical theory, and my preexisting knowledge of philosophy. If you want to read more about critical race theory, I’d suggest the book edited by Crenshaw et al., while if you want to learn more about critical theory, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article is very good.