Awakening to the Problem of the Awokening: Unreasonableness and Quasi-religious Standards

In this blog I show that critical race theory (CRT) advances anti-Enlightenment standards and explain why this would be a disaster for education and the law. In the process, I talk about moment in my awakening to the problems of what we might call the “Awokening.”

* * *

States have been moving to prohibit the inclusion of critical race theory (CRT), a quasi-religious doctrine smuggled in through, among other things, the revisionist “1619 project,” and, more broadly, antiracist politics, in public school curricula. (Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, South Dakota, and Texas have passed or are debating legislations restricting or banning the teaching of CRT and related ideas.

One of the latest state government to protect children from this malevolent ideology is my home state of Tennessee. The Tennessee State House voted to ban CRT from public schools. The legislation, which now moves to the Tennessee State Senate, prohibits public schools from promoting collective guilt and race essentialism.

These state actions come alongside action on the federal level. The national Republican Party is moving to limit the ability of the US Department of Education under former Vice-President Joe Biden to finance the promotion of the doctrine in public schools nationally (“Biden Administration Cites 1619 Project as Inspiration in History Grant Proposal”; “GOP Leader: Biden Grant Plan Referencing Anti-Racism, 1619 Project Is ‘Divisive Nonsense’”).

The founder of the “1619 project,” journalist Nikole Hannah Jones, decries resistance to CRT as an attack on freedom of thought. Her characterization of the resistance as anti-intellectualism is wrong. The resistance is about limiting the indoctrination of students in what Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo correctly identifies as state-sanctioned racism (see Rufo’s piece in The New York Post, adapted from his article in City Journal).

I have written extensively on the subject of antiracism on Freedom and Reason. Here are just some of my blogs on the woke assault on public education: “Truth in the Face of the 1619 Project”; “CNN’s Maegan Vazquez Defends Racially Divisive Curriculum”; “California Moves Ahead with Divisive Antiracism Curriculum”; “Progressivism—an Excerpt from The 1776 Report.

In this blog, I show that critical race theory (CRT) advances anti-Enlightenment standards and explain why this would be a disaster for education and the law. In the process, I talk about moment in my awakening to the problems of the Awokening that I alluded to on my previous blog entry.

* * *

As I have noted in previous blogs, there was a period in my life in which I found critical race theory compelling. I was a graduate student in the 1990s, and I became interested in the possibility of a synthesis of historical materialism and critical race theory in which the latter would be articulated in language indicating the ontological status of the former.

As I was preparing the proposal for my dissertation, I began increasingly frustrated with description of racism as largely ideological (see the work of Barbara Fields) and endeavored instead to conceptualize racism as a material relation in the manner of social class. I used the model in my dissertation, which I successfully defended in the summer of 2000, a two-volume 800-plus page study of America’s history of class, race, and criminal justice.

I had intended to publish my dissertation as my first book after tenure (which I earned in 2005). I knew a project that large would require a lot of work to make digestible for the market, so I focused on other things. However, I began to have my doubts about the model I was using over the decade following graduate school. There were for several reasons behind my hesitation, but I will share here one moment I believe illustrates the process of waking up.

* * *

In spring 2010, I taught Law and Society (I have taught the course several times over the last twenty years). I included on the syllabus as required reading An Introduction to Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic. This was an undergraduate class and I felt that the book was pitched at a level that was understandable to the mostly young people who enroll in the course.

I had in senior seminar on critical legal studies included more complex writings from law journals and found that students, even though they were sympathetic to the idea of critical race theory, struggled to understand the argument. I felt that what was lacking was a basic understanding of the CRT approach. So I was going to prepare my juniors with Delgado and Stefanic.

As I was explaining the logic of CRT, I kept mentally putting the book’s claims in the critical framework I use in my Foundations of Social Research class, where students are taught the major problems with human inquiry, such as illegitimate teleology, mystification, reification, selective observation, and tautology, as well as strategies to use for detecting bullshit masquerading as rational argument and scientific knowledge.

I soon found it impossible to discuss any part of Delgado and Stefanic’s book without it evolving (devolving, I’m sure progressive students felt) into a demonstration of my debunking approach. I was compelled by conscience to apologize to students for having assigned the book, as it was not only substantially wrong on the facts of history and in its sociology, but because it was assigned to the wrong class; it would serve better as an illustration of fallacious thinking in a logic and critical thinking course.

As I remember it, the apology occurred in stages. I told them that we would not be engaging in exercises appearing at the end of some chapters that were designed to humiliate the white students in the class (which may have been all of the students in the class that semester). The book’s purpose in a legal studies class, I clarified, was to review an area of theory supposed by many to be a legitimate approach to the understanding and practice of the law, not to make white people feel complicit in racism.

We soldiered on, and I really tried to make it work, but it became increasingly clear that the book, in addition to its embarrassing errors in basic logic, was pushing an ideology that denigrated the Enlightenment principles of law, reason, and science upon which the United States and the West was founded. I expressed chagrin over having selected reading material that was more akin to religious ideology than legal theory.

I never used Delgado and Stefanic’s book again for Law and Society or any other course. If I ever use that book again, it will be in the context of a topics course deconstructing racist propaganda.

* * *

What do I mean by racist propaganda? I have written elsewhere about this, but let me explain here as concisely as possible. I wish it were necessary to do this, but since CRT is worming its way into everything, we must educate people about it.

Critical race theory describes two models of justice. The first, CRT calls the “perpetrator’s perspective,” which embodies the enlightenment principles of reason and evidence in the adjudication of guilt and responsibility of individuals, in which there is a presumption of innocence in any accusation of wrongdoing with the accuser shouldering the burden to prove, either with a preponderance of evidence or beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is culpable and acted intentionally (with varying degrees of responsibility and intentionality based on fact and principles).

Critical race theory advocates substituting for this model an alternative they call the “victim’s perspective,” which shifts the burden of proof and implicates an abstract and largely arbitrary aggregate, organized as a demographic category, as a priori guilty and responsible, what we might call the “perpetrator collective,” whereas all members of the abstract and, again, largely arbitrary demographic category as the “victim.” The formula yields the conclusion that all whites are perpetrators and all blacks victims.

The “evidence” presented in adjudicating the charge is aggregate statistical averages showing inequality, or inequity, as they would have it, between the abstract groupings, which is taken not only as prima facia evidence of injustice, reckless enough in itself, but is taken as the thing itself, i.e., the very perpetration of racism. With this move, racial disparities need not explanation. If one tries to explain disparities outside the framework of critical theory, then those who suffer from fragility (white people who cannot deal with their racism) are engaging in blaming the victim, both of which (fragility and victim blaming) are yet more expressions of racism.

Defending liberal justice by emphasizing the colorblind procedure of the perpetrator’s perspective, founded as it is on individual responsibility, presumption of innocence, rational adjudication of fact, and forth, is said to be a trick, where racist patterns are maintained by denial and the pretense of equality before the law and rational procedure and process.

Thus, white people, an organic entity assumed to be an actual thing with agency, have constructed an institutional framework that, despite having largely purged thought of race prejudice, illegalized discrimination, and dismantled racist institutions, systems, and structures, remains profoundly racist and always will until its foundations are entirely replaced by a new formal system with mechanisms based on the reification of racial groups as actual things, with an official history, thus reestablishing racism systemically but with a new name: antiracism.

Today, according to CRT, America is a racist country without racists, marked by institutional racism without racist institutions, systemically racist without racist systems, structurally racist without racist structures. Racism is woven so deeply into into the warp and woof of American (and Western) society that it is an unseen part of the material only to be discovered by unraveling the fabric. In this view, whites not only bear their guilt collectively, but carry it intergenerationally—just as blacks inherit race trauma and victimization from their ancestors.

By subsuming individuals into abstractions and supposing mythic relations between abstractions, abstractions assumed to exist in asymmetrical trans-temporal power relations that “explain” statistical outcomes, CRT wipes away variation within demographic categories, committing the ecological fallacy, while also committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, that is treating imaginaries as actual things, mystifying the cultural and social factors that actually explain the aggregate patterns.

These errors lead to all sorts of weirdness, such as giving up on closing the gap in scholastic achievement by declaring academic standards—including even math and science—as white supremacist and demanding that institutions hold black children to a different standard, which is regarded as valid based on a postmodernist notion that ontology is reducible to epistemic frames differentiated by worldviews determined by, among other things, race essentialism. 

Thus objective knowledge is upended by the epistemic privilege of race, with the race enjoying that privilege the race that has tautologically determined collective disadvantage due to systemic oppression. Critical race theory is a mess.

* * *

I was able to save the unit by going beyond the book itself to the deeper philosophical underpinnings of anti-reason, of which CRT is a species. Here, the distinction between the materialist conception of history (Marxism) and neo-Marxist critical theory, with its postmodernist corruption, came to the fore. Since I had already covered Marxian and Hegelian conceptions of law, I was able to make the critique meaningful. Let me share a bit of this with the reader, as well.

Contrary to what liberals tell us, Karl Marx remains in the Enlightenment tradition of scientific reasoning, indeed embracing both deductive and inductive procedures in the synthesis of dialectal method. For Marx, the dialect was a scientific method for explaining and understanding facts by working the concrete into abstraction via induction and then confirming the emergent concepts and their theoretical relations by using them to explain how dynamic forces of historical development produced and distorted law and consciousness. It isn’t very often put this way, but Marx was an anthropologist looking for the principles of social history in the same way Darwin studied organisms and ecosystems looking for the principles of natural history.

What differentiates Marx from Hegel is that Marx saw individual human beings as both natural and social beings, that is beings determined by natural forces and social relations, who, whatever the variability of human beings across time and space, shared a species-being. There is no spirit realm. What was supposed as the transcendent is estranged consciousness emerging from alienated social relations. In other words, because most men do not control production they are controlled by it.

Marx worked with the assumption that there was ultimately one reality even if social relations organized people into classes that came with different and conflicting interests, interests of which they may be falsely consciousness. The philosophical and political right bristles at the concept of false consciousness, but the idea that a man may be wrong about the world around him is hardly a controversial observation from the standpoint of science. Indeed, the purpose of science is to align consciousness with reality. For Marx, science is, among other things, a means for determining one’s interests vis-a-vis the social system and bring individual consciousness in phase with one’s actual position in the class structure.

German idealist Georg Hegel

Hegel, in contrast, saw individuals as personifications and instruments of the absolute idea working itself out in history. A man studies history to discover the transcendent mind grasping itself. Thus, for Hegel, the natural and social world were concrete determinations of an a priori abstract being reflecting on itself. The absolute idea in Hegel is essentially the spirit realm rejected by Marx’s atheism. Marx held that Hegel had it backwards. In truth, man makes the world. Ideas matter, to be sure, but they do not make anything without action. Moreover, Hegel conflates epistemology and ontology. Hegelian philosophy is essentially a religious doctrine, even if Hegel was an atheist.

Critical theory under the influence of postmodernism and the New Left, Hegelian in their idealism, but claiming to be Marxist in some fashion, and accused of Marxism by the political right, managed to lose both threads. Like Hegel, CRT supposes that the epistemic determines ontology. Knowledge is power. It is about how we talk about the world that makes it what it is. The word made flesh through reflection. And history is the living dead. Where it departs from Hegel is in the postmodernist notion that ontology is plural, that the variability of interests and consciousness are correlates of multiple realities with multiple logics, each determined by the imagined character or essentialism of an identity and the relative power of that identity. But it is not only imagining the world this way. We are not to be so lucky. Power is amplified by action organized around consciousness of that identity.

One becomes estranged, then, not when one fails to grasp the one albeit differentiated reality through scientific inquiry (science is merely one narrative among many and is, in the end, like all the rest of them, the expression of power), but when one breaks with doctrine revealed by grasping the essence of the group. This is why a black man who rejects CRT, who instead is searching for the terms of the common reality, a reality that exists independent of race, is a heretic worthy excommunication from the church of blackness—and all whites are perpetrators of racism. Glenn Lowry or Thomas Sowell are Galileos in the Church of Wokeness.

For critical race theory, blacks and whites cannot share the same interests and either one view dominates the other or the two build their own worlds, the latter an expression of race-nationalism. So it is that white supremacists and critical race theories can posit the same world—at least if you assume an objective standpoint.

* * *

The consequence for law if CRT is taken seriously is profound. In liberal tradition of law, based on the Enlightenment principles, reasonableness lies at the basis of everything. There is the reasonable person standard, an abstraction to which concrete individuals are compared in judging the reasonableness of their actions. We ask the jury to consider what a reasonable person would do. There is reasonableness in the realm of doubt. Juries are asked to be rational persons who, sharing the same nature, find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard presumes there is unreasonable doubt. If doubt is unreasonable, we should not obey it. Marx did not reject any of this, so it is incorrect, as liberal and conservative critics of critical theory often do, to saddle Marx with the irrationalism and ultimate authoritarianism of critical race theory.

We can differentiate individual or liberal style justice, with its norms and values of civil rights, equality before the law, presumption of innocence, and rational adjudication of fact, from the style supposed by critical race theory, which emphasizes group rights organized around race, equity in outcome (members of different groups should be held to different standards), presumption of guilt (members of one group are by definition “perpetrators,” while another are by definition “victims”), and treating disparities in outcomes as prima facia evidence of injustice (dispensing with cause and effect). As one can see, the latter commits numerous fallacies—ecological, reification, and self-confirming.

When a woke black jurist convicts a white cop not on the basis of the facts concerning the suspect’s death but on the basis of black lives matter and whites are racist oppressors, this is not, from the standpoint of critical race theory, unreasonable. What is reasonable is not a universal standard but rather is relative to one’s identity. This is racial tribalism. It’s racism.

* * *

My experience in Law and Society that semester reminded me of the importance of deliberately thinking about the difference between education and indoctrination in course design and execution. The former involves cultivating in individuals the capacity for differentiating between, on the one hand, claims that are logically valid and empirically sound and, on the other, those that are fallacious and unsupported by fact. The latter is aimed at persuading by irrational means—biased frames, formal and informal fallacies, false or selected facts, reification, etc.—acceptance of the alleged truth claims of ideological doctrine.

Education endeavors to question received beliefs in order to produce and refine knowledge, i.e., verified belief, which, whether pursued as a Lockean liberal or a Marxian socialist, remains firmly rooted in the Enlightenment, whereas indoctrination endeavors to compel individuals to receive beliefs from authority and to do so without question.

Eduction concerns empowering individuals by elaborating their capacity for reason. Indoctrination concerns overpowering individuals in a misuse of authority. It is not that knowledge cannot include a call to action. It is rather than distorting knowledge for the sake of an agenda founded on group-based doctrine is dangerous. Calling Enlightenment philosophy or liberal law racism of the white man does not justify the imposition of antiracism. The question is whether the “racism” of the “white man” are really such. And they really aren’t. We know this because the reasonable standard supposed by it is universal and unchanging. Human nature is not determined by ideology.

An indoctrinator is a person who, consciously or unconsciously, includes or excludes information and frames ideas in a (misleading) way serving political-ideological ends. Universities and colleges, from the classroom to the administrative office, are presently engaged in the production and dissemination of racist ideology. If education and indoctrination are to be kept distinct (and I hope it is obvious that they should and why), then nonscientific theories of history and social relations should not be taught as knowledge, and certainly not as doctrine. No doctrine should be taught to children. More than this, when such theories are demonstrably false, whether on logical or empirical grounds, they should not be taught at all.

This is not an attack on free thought. A teacher or administrator is free to believe whatever doctrine he or she wishes. Most public school teachers are Christians of one sort or another. At the same time, all teachers are forbidden to preach the Christian gospels in public schools. A teacher is not only not allowed to indoctrinate students with Christian doctrine, he or she is not allowed to use Christianity as a valid method for explaining or understanding the world. At least not in front of student. This does not preclude teaching Christianity—or Judaism or Islam—as mythology in a class where mythology is a legitimate subject of study (and there are many classes where this relevance may be had including science classes). It means religion cannot be taught as authoritative. And it should be taught as wrong, as all nonfalsifiable doctrines should be presumed.

* * *

Consider that individuals designated white by contemporary demographic schemes are an aggregate. One may identify statistical averages across numerous categories associated with an aggregate—income, occupation, family structure, and so forth. One can make predictions based on means and variations about them. But such statistics remain abstractions. They do not describe actual persons. The abstract white person has no biography. The concrete white person is not automatically a member of a political or ideological group. The white demographic has no politically active or ideologically conscious constituency. There are no elected leaders. No organizational or institutional structure. No charter, written rules and regulations, or whatever. There is no content to whiteness.

All this might strike the reader as a remarkable thing considering how many books have been written on the subject of whiteness. Just remember that library shelves are filled with books about magical nonexistent things. Fairies. Elves. Angels. Devils. Blood guilt. Original sin. Like these, critical race theory is neither logically valid nor empirically sound. If one can step outside the bubble of progressive and identitarian commitments, that this is an ideology with a quasi-religious character becomes obvious. Its claims are mythic and its structure irrational in a religious sense.

The color of my skin differentiates nothing but skin color. It doesn’t tell you anything about me, who I am, what I believe, or what I do. Any white person who presumes to speak for the white community presumes to speak for me, and he or she can only presume to do this. He wrongly does so. That there is a white community to speak for is only a presumption conjured by the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is no less true for blacks.

The fallacy of misplaced concreteness, or reification, is the ideological practice of substituting aggregates conceptually organized by, in this case, subjectivist and largely arbitrary accounts of race differences for individuals, then imputing motive and agency to passive demographic categories. But motive and agency can only really be present in individuals and consciously organized groups. Aggregates of people no more possess intentionality than do aggregates of stars. And people don’t exert a significant gravitational pull on one another. Put another way, CRT treats the passive constituents of aggregates and imagined communities as if they are the active constituents of organized political, religious, and social groups. This is an utterly false equation.

Critical race theory is built upon myths about history and social relations. Teaching critical race theory in public schools in social studies is therefore an analog to teaching intelligent design in a science class as a valid and sound alternative to natural history as organized by the principles of natural selection. Biology enjoys the status of knowledge because it is validated belief, verified by the scientific enterprise, the only rational way of adjudicating truth claims. Claims that deny basic biological reality are at best unverified and cannot substitute for verified belief (of course scientists welcome challenges to scientific consensus).

If a teacher wishes to teach such ideologies as intelligent design or critical race theory as examples of errors in thinking and the problematic character of ideological expressions that lie outside scientific norms, this is of course appropriate, as these ideologies are things in the world that continue to distort knowledge and retard progress. If education is anything it is teaching our youth bullshit detection. But we cannot allow bullshit to be taught as a viable method for explaining and understanding the world.

Of the two false worldviews I am citing as analogs, namely intelligent design and critical race theory, critical race theory is by far the worst. Beyond describing the world in a false way, it demonizes white children, associating them with an imagined community, blaming them for alleged wrongdoings they did not merely did not commit but couldn’t under any reasonable understanding of the operation of the real world commit.

Critical race theory is a racist doctrine in that it sorts individuals into racial groups and elevates the status of some individuals while degrades the statue of other individuals based on those groupings. For this reason, it should not appear in any institution or organization in America any more than nineteenth century racism should. One is free to believe blacks constitute a race that is inferior to whites, or that whites are a race responsible for black suffering. One cannot, however, be allowed to impose these racist doctrines on others. That we would allow this to happen in our public schools is unconscionable.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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