Critical Race Theory: A New Racism

As many readers of Freedom and Reason know, I have been a college teacher for more than a quarter of a century. I teach critical race theory in my law and society classes. CRT is one of the major perspectives in legal studies. I agree that it is important students learn about it—in college. Mostly so they can crush it in debate. It is a deeply flawed standpoint. For this reason, CRT should not be taught in k-12 (Are Teachers Really all in on Critical Race Theory? Maegan Vazquez Defends Racially Divisive Curriculum). Immature minds (and a lot of mature minds, as well) have trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality. As rebellious as some children are, many more of them will believe what their teachers tell them.

In this post, I will explain what critical race theory is and identify its outstanding errors. I will show that it is fraught with major logical problems, manufactures false abstractions, presents with a quasi-religious character, and ultimately constitutes a racist standpoint. Critical race theory is ideology. Its goal is to keep alive race antagonism in post-racist society. If CRT has its way with America much longer, we won’t live in a post-racist society anymore. The corporate class and technocratic apparatus have embraced the standpoint because it is functional to these ends: the imperative of reproducing the political and ideological division necessary for disorganizing the proletariat and perpetuating bourgeois hegemony.

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On May 4, 2019, in Committing the Crime it Condemns, I penned the following:

“When I was in graduate school, I was seduced by Critical Race Theory, or CRT. CRT incorporates into its analysis of law critical theory, a set of ideas drawn from the social sciences, especially anthropology and sociology, and the humanities, in particular art and literary criticism. Critical theory is a product of the cultural turn in Marxist thought by [German] scholars associated with the Frankfurt School. However, critical theory was warped by the [French] postmodern turn in the academy, that is the social constructionism of structuralist and post-structuralist thinking devolving to a radical relativism denying the existence of a single reality. Postmodernism functions as a carnival mirror, warping Marxist insight by reducing ontology to the supposed collective consciousness or should-be consciousness of social position (actually the multiplicity of social positions intersecting in a person), thus rejecting the premise of a universal reality and fracturing the truth with the blunt ideology of epistemic relativism. At the same time, postmodernism asserts that knowledge exists in a matrix of power that allows some knowledge forms to dominate others. Thus the claim to a universal method of interpretation, i.e. science, is a reflection of the power asymmetries. Science [in this view] is dominant ideology. Truth claims can therefore have no real external verification for there is no common method with which to evaluate them—except the claim that all knowledge and thus our lives represent a projection of position and power.”

The outlines of what would become critical race theory could be detected in the mid-1970s in the writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founder of intersectional feminism, as well as those by Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, and other, mostly Afrocentric, legal scholars. The original goal was to identify structures that might explain why black Americans as-a-group continue to trail white Americans as-a-group in every significant social category of life chances. The explanation avoids attributing these problems to black folk (apart from the collaborators among them), placing the burden of racial inequality squarely on the shoulders of all white Americans, even the children, despite the fact that most whites do not control the forces that generate inequality generally (i.e., the capitalist economy) and no living American had a thing to do with slavery.

A major influence on this early work was critical legal studies (CLS), a leftwing legal movement emerging from legal realism, a tradition that criticized legal formalism and leaned on social science for argument and evidence. CLS was given voice by such legal scholars as Morton Horwitz, Duncan Kennedy, Karl Klare, and Roberto Unger. Kennedy and Klare write in a 1984 Yale Law Journal article that critical legal studies is “concerned with the relationship of legal scholarship and practice to the struggle to create a more humane, egalitarian, and democratic society.” It has been claimed, for example by Alan Hunt, writing in the pages of the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, that CLS is “the first movement in legal theory and legal scholarship in the United States to have espoused a committed Left political stance and perspective.” This is not true, however, as German exiles Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer had developed a Marxist critique of the law decades earlier, an important fact to note since CRT adapts CLS to generate an approach that is distinctly contrary to Marxian thought, contradicting assertions made by both conservatives and progressives that CRT is neo-Marxist. (For a good review of CLS, see Jonathan Turley’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to CLS, Unger, and Deep Thought,” published in a 1987 issue of the Northwestern University Law Review.)

By the end of the 1980s, after a decade of stewing in a pot of critical legal studies, postmodernism, and other ingredients, CRT coalesced into a movement that teaches that the system of justice that grew out of European-style jurisprudence—civil rights, due process, individual responsibility, legal innocence, rational adjudication of facts, the state’s burden—amounts to a “perpetrator’s perspective.” The perpetrator’s perspective reflects the ideology of white supremacy, an oppressive force disguised by a rhetoric of neutrality, or “colorblindness.” For this standpoint, the ethic of equal treatment is a stealth method for reproducing social inequality and perpetuating the racial status quo. Liberal notions of the law are racist because liberalism is a European ideology and thus a reflection of white culture, which is racist (for a counterpoint, see The Myth of White Culture). Justice rooted in racism is no justice at all; a system designed to secure a racist order is incapable of rooting out racism. So critical race theorists advocate displacing the perpetrator’s perspective with the “victim’s perspective,” an “antiracist” standpoint that represents racial disparities as prima facia evidence of systemic racism, that is a truth that need no adjudication. The system is responsible, and since this is true, any apparent progress within its parameters is merely a reconfiguring of things to preserve and deepen the system. This assumes that, objectively, all blacks have the same interests. They either identify with the struggle or they are traitors to it—or, charitably, they need to be made aware. Thus, those who speak for the black community do so by presumptive virtue of possessing awareness and the correct interpretation of things.

You might, as I do (see, e.g., Truth in the Face of the 1619 Project: The United States and the West Did Not Establish Slavery—They Abolished It), object that the United States abolished the slave trade, fought a war to end slavery, and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that ended legal discrimination against black people in public facilities and businesses of accommodation. You might furthermore point out that it was from the West that sentiments of equality, liberty, and rights spread across the world. The Enlightenment liberated humans from slavery the world over. From the CRT standpoint, none of that history matters in the final analysis. If over time there appears to be no evidence of white supremacy, it is only an appearance; in reality, white elites, aided by black collaborators, have plowed racism more deeply into social order. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Recenter history on the black experience, mark the start from 1619, and the “truth” follows: American history is a story about the oppression of blacks for the benefit of the white race. The system is racist sui generis. It follows that antiracism requires dismantling the system.

From the standpoint of science, the claim that racism is the cause of racial disparities requires evidence in support of the thesis. Antiracists remind us that modern methods of fact analysis are problematic on account of their origins in European civilization. Science is white supremacist. But antiracists still nonetheless feel the need to skirt empirical tests by redefining racial disparities, or more precisely inequities, as racism per se, misusing demographic differences to establish an apparent fact, the effect of which raises all blacks to the status of victims in need of restoration—and all whites as those party responsible for this state of affairs. This is the essence of social justice. CRT has other, more crude tricks. For example, if one argues that racial disparities have other causes, then that person is working from the perpetrator’s perspective and is, by definition, a racist. However vulgar, this trick has cowed a lot of people. But, as we can see in school board meetings and in state legislatures across the country, people (not a few of whom are black) have grown tired of being bullied.

Antiracist politics ask the public to disbelieve what it sees. Apologists for CRT say that it is an academic theory only taught in some law programs around the United States; it has nothing to do with what those parents are objecting to at their school board meetings (State Media Defends Critical Theory). The dishonesty of this argument is part of the character of the new racism that seeks to establish an entirely new subjectivity about race relations. The reality is that antiracism curriculum in public schools, diversity, equity, and inclusion training, workshops on microaggressions, and the like are based on the logic of CRT (see, e.g., The Origins and Purpose of Racial Diversity Training Programs). When CRT apologists tell you that what really lies behind the critique of CRT is a racist desire to prevent the teaching of “real history,” they are asking you to forget that our public schools have been teaching “real history” for decades. I’m 59 years old, grew up in the US South, and my history classes in the 1970s were frank accounts of history (see Lies Your Teachers Tell You). Nothing that was known was hidden from us. And what students didn’t learn in school they learned almost every day on TV, which, if not exactly an accurate accounting of history, was nonetheless a history that pushed what would become the CRT line. It’s as if 1977 ABC television miniseries Roots, a celebrated miniseries that won nine Emmy awards, as well as Golden Globe and Peabody awards, its finale remaining the second-most watched in US television history, never happened.

I call the phenomenon of strategic forgetting the “Zinn effect,” after radical historian Howard Zinn. It works like this: Write a book claiming to tell the real history and, if enough authorities get behind it, it becomes possible to make a proportion of the population, especially those who work from perceived grievances, believe they were denied the truth of the past. Alex Haley worked in this tradition, even taking time to reconstruct a genealogy to distort history (his first book The Autobiography of Malcolm X was likewise a confabulation). As for Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, widely used in high school social studies curriculum, Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg, one of the world’s premier researchers in the field of history education, puts it succinctly when he observes that Zinn’s crusade was built on “secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.” Zinn’s reclamation of our history is something akin to Charles Dawson’s Piltdown Man. Thus, one of the ways propaganda works is by making people forget what they already knew (see Orwell) or treat historical events and trends of which they are personally ignorant as something nobody knows. The propagandists tell them that a manufactured history is full of things elites don’t want them to know. The objective is to make the target of the propaganda feel historically and socially significant by being in the know and by serving justice as a change agent. The young person searching for meaning and purpose in life gets to have her civil rights moment. The strategy works all the better thanks to the rampant narcism that characterizes late capitalism (see Curtis Adam’s 2002 BBC series The Century of the Self).

Princeton’s Sean Wilentz succinctly captures the problem in a new critique of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Jake Silverstein’s 1619 Project with The New York Times Magazine. “By the time I had finished the entire thing,” he writes of of the 1619 Project initial offering, “the shape and purport of the project as shaped by its editors were clear. (If every essay did not espouse the same framework, all could be assimilated to it.) Instead of trying to instruct the public about the significance of the year 1619, and hence of the foundational importance of slavery and racism to American history, the project promoted a narrow, highly ideological view of the American past, according to which white supremacy has been the nation’s core principle and chief mission ever since its founding. Everything, supposedly, that has happened since to make the United States a distinctive country is rooted in slavery and the subsequent debasement of Blacks. America has not really struggled over the meaning of its egalitarian founding principles: those principles were false from the start, hollow sentiments meant to cloak the nation’s reliance on and commitment to the subjugation of Black people – principles claimed and vindicated, to the extent they have been, by Black Americans struggling pretty much on their own. And now, thanks to The 1619 Project, that suppressed history would at last, for the first time, come to light, with the esteemed imprimatur of the New York Times.” Elsewhere he describes the writing as “historical gibberish.” “The 1619 Project’s claims were based not on historical sources,” Wilentz writes, “but on imputation and inventive mindreading.” 

There are several flaws with CRT that should have fated it to obscurity long ago. And it would have if not for corporate state power exploiting the widespread problem of irrationalism in American society, a society unique in its degree of religiosity. One such flaw is the self-sealing character of the system. Antiracism cannot be wrong because it assumes as evidence the conclusion it asserts. One is either inside the charmed circle (and knows the formulas and slogans) or one is an apostate, heretic, of infidel, depending on whether he escaped the loop, denies the loop, or was never in the loop. It is a tribal philosophy. A related flaw is its Manichaeism, or black and white thinking. As Ibram X Kendi tells it, either you’re a racist or you’re an antiracist. Also, he tells us that past discrimination warrants present discrimination. Kendi argues that determining an individual’s fate on the basis of skin color is just and right because determining an individual’s fate on the basis of skin color is unjust and wrong. That’s what reparations is all about. It rests on the premise of blood guilt, that children of today, though they did nothing wrong, must pay for what their ancestors did (see For the Good of Your Soul: Tribal Stigma and the God of Reparations).

CRT’s idealism leads advocates to falsely attribute to all white people a racial privilege. A privilege is ordinarily defined as an exclusive or special right or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. If, as a white man, it can be guaranteed to me a public restaurant free of the presence of black people, then I enjoy an exclusive right. Special rights on the grounds of race were abolished more than a century ago, but CRT needs a problem in order to pursue its “solution,” which is seeking unjust reward on a racial basis, so its advocate redefine terms to manufacture the appearance of a cause that rationalizes the goal. This is how the rhetoric moved from that of “institutional racism” to “systemic racism” after the United States dismantled racist institutions more than half a century ago (an act carried out by white people). It’s a move not unlike shifting the God concept from an entity who walks upon the earth to one that moves in mysterious ways. It is the act of forever perfecting the nonfalsifiable proposition. This move makes critical race theory akin to religious ideology. This quasi-religious character is covered by a veneer of science (which is an admission of sorts) rooted in common fallacies. CRT treats individuals, materially concrete entities, flesh-and-blood human beings, members of the same species, as personifications of racial categories, as projections of ideas, an act of reification, i.e., making an idea out to be a real thing, while treating group-level disparities, i.e., statistical abstractions, as the actual circumstances of concrete persons. CRT thus commits two fallacies: (1) the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, i.e., treating abstractions as if they are real things, and (2) the ecological fallacy, i.e., drawing conclusions about individuals from group-level statistics. (See The Problem of Critical Race Theory in Epidemiology: An Illustration.)

But critical race theory is something else, too. The logic of racism operates in the same way. For the white supremacist, all black individuals are personifications of the black race. For example, since blacks are much more likely to be involved in violent criminal offending (and not because police are more likely to enforce the law with respect to black offenders), it must be in the nature of blacks to be violent criminal offenders. The white supremacist thus judges each and every black person based on a perception he has about blacks as a group. Stereotyping is the common word for something approximating the ecological fallacy. The fact is that most blacks don’t engage in violent criminal actions, so the attribution of crime to black individuals is an error. Moreover, most whites don’t engage in oppressive action directed against black people. Nor are they engaged in exploiting black labor for personal gain. Most whites are, therefore, not racist. But, like white supremacy, critical race theory is.

Conservatives tell us that critical race theory is a neo-Marxist standpoint, that it was invented to keep the Marxist project going under a different guise. Why did Marxists do this? Because the class argument failed to take hold popularly, the proletarian revolution never occurred, and so race and other identities have been substituted. A lot of progressives believe this, too. The dispute becomes ideological on the popular partisan political terrain. But both sides are wrong. CRT is not Marxist. It is Hegelian (for reference, see Historical Materialism and the Struggle For Freedom; A Humanist Take on Marx’s Irreligious Criticism; Awakening to the Problem of the Awokening: Unreasonableness and Quasi-religious Standards; Preaching What You Practice: Doing the Race Hustle in the Name of Marx). CRT is thus a form of idealism, treating abstractions as real things and concrete things as mere personifications of abstractions. The standpoint is profoundly unscientific. CRT presents its conceptual architecture as as a reality that subsumes under the power of its logic everything. Like Hegel, it gets things upside down.

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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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