A critique of Critical Race Theory

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Photo courtesy of counterforce.com

To commemorate this year’s Black History Month, the University of Dallas Cowan-Blakely Memorial Library set up an exhibit featuring significant figures of the civil rights movement as well as books discussing the topic of race. Several of these books deal–directly or indirectly–with critical race theory (CRT). 

This branch of critical theory challenges society for being dominated by racist power structures. CRT should be rejected as a destructive rather than constructive force in our society because it is simplistic, divides people, and silences the speech of opponents.

CRT views Western society as so thoroughly “white” that people of color do not realize how oppressed they are. According to CRT, racism is a systemic reality because white people have societal power in America and other Western nations. Laws, policies, institutions, etc. are systemically racist because they promote the interests of white people and oppress people of color.

CRT’s approach to racism as a systemic reality flips the traditional understanding of racism. Typically, people have understood racism to be an individual mindset viewing one race as superior to others, a mindset that leads to racist actions and policies such as segregation. 

CRT reverses this understanding: racist policies cause racist ideas. The people in power have created a racist system to serve their own interests, and this system fosters racist ideas among those under it. 

As Ibram X. Kendi argues in his book, How to Be an Antiracist, this understanding of racism creates a new binary into which people fall: racist or anti-racist. It is not enough to treat people of all races equally, for racism is a systemic reality. Either one is anti-racist―actively working to change the racist power structure and undo the racist policies that perpetuate that system―or one is racist. 

Even denying that the system is racist is a form of racism because it perpetuates the racist system. Thus, CRT subtly creates a new binary: there is no middle ground between racism and active anti-racism. 

However, blaming the entire system for injustice is too simplistic an approach. No real society ever embodies perfect justice, so condemning an entire society as unjust prevents constructive change. A better approach is to point out specific laws, policies, etc. that are unjust and then have a discussion about what can and should be done.

Another central idea of CRT is intersectionality, which holds that racial oppression can intersect with other forms of oppression, including oppression based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Power in society is wielded not only by whites to oppress people of color, it is also held by male, straight and cisgender people at the expense of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and gender-nonconforming people. 

CRT aims to liberate these oppressed people by waking them up to the reality of the system that oppresses them so that they may undo the existing power structure and policies. Those who oppose or do not go along with this reconstruction―even if they are members of the oppressed groups―are lumped in with the oppressors. 

In this way, CRT sets people into two opposed camps: those who are complicit in the oppressive system and those who are actively working to uproot it. Everyone is either sexist or anti-sexist, homophobic or anti-homophobic, transphobic or anti-transphobic and racist or anti-racist.

This new binary is destructive rather than constructive. It divides people by placing the blame for society’s ills on one group. Moreover, it silences that group because those termed racists, sexists, etc. cannot contribute anything to the discussion.

Instead, one should recognize that people can be opposed to injustice without thinking that the entire system must be undone. The greatest advances in forming a more just society will be achieved not by dividing people but by uniting them and allowing them to speak freely about issues of race, sex, etc.

The ideas of CRT have very apparent practical effects. As UD students are well aware, ideas have consequences. As British-American author Andrew Sullivan wrote in an article for New York magazine, “if elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large.” 

Society and culture, including business, education and journalism, are already experiencing the effects of CRT. Obvious examples include CRT’s influence on groups such as Black Lives Matter, which calls for policies as extreme as defunding the police, or on legislation such as California’s recent law requiring companies headquartered in the state to hire board members from underrepresented communities. 

A prime example of the effects of CRT is the phenomenon of “cancel culture.” Under CRT, anyone or anything that is not sufficiently anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, etc. must be “canceled.” 

Cancel culture is unpredictable and destructive: it only recognizes injustice, so today’s social justice heroes quickly become tomorrow’s targets through some previously unknown bias. 

CRT and its effects should be rejected because they promote division and destruction while stifling free discussion. Rather than a relentless pursuit and eradication of anything or anyone that directly, indirectly, consciously or unconsciously promotes injustice, our society should focus on fostering unity and open discussion about these sensitive topics. 

We should recommit to our institutions, in particular the freedom of speech and the press, which have carried us so far already in the pursuit of justice. Above all, as Christians, we ought to promote an awareness of the fundamental dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. Only by remaining firmly rooted in our intellectual and faith traditions can we build towards a future of greater peace and justice.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I’m glad to see engagement on this topic. I also think that we need to have thorough and thoughtful conversations about Critical Race Theory that are rooted in some of the foundations of the theory, its complementarity to Catholic Social Teaching, and some of its main voices before we reject it.

    Some thoughts as you continue to ponder this topic. First, I think it is important to note that Kendi is not a primary voice of CRT. That’s not to say he may not have been influenced by it, but I think it’s important to engage with some of the recognized scholars of CRT if we are going to define it or address it (start with Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Robert Bernasconi, Richard Delgado and a few others). I do not believe that _How to be an Antiracist_ means to embody or explain CRT. It is certainly not presented in this way. A significant part of its value is its accessibility to a general reader, but also its response to the idea that since no one claims to be racist we must not have a problem with racism.

    I think that the anti-racist/racist binary should be understood in its context as well. I understand the frustration a person might feel if they believe that either they are anti-racist (following a “Kendi agenda”) or a racist (who wants to be that?). But Kendi’s definition of racism is more expansive than the particularly narrow idea of racism as intention-driven race-based hatred. Taking racial injustice and inequity as realities, racism (following Kendi) works through language, action, and policy in a way that sustains and perpetuates that injustice. From that perspective, many of us (Kendi included – as by his own admission) are often racist. But it’s not to be understood as a continual state, it’s not static. Anti-racism is a goal to be pursued by fallible humans. You can disagree with that, but first recognize its meaning in context – it’s not just ‘one group’ here. Personally, I don’t think recognizing one’s racism need be the challenge it often seems to be.

    By all means, let’s reject what doesn’t work – but not before we thoroughly examine it as intellectual people. Before we throw CRT out, I think we owe it to ourselves and to our own scholarly goals to engage in it without fear and in a spirit of curiosity. I would highly recommend a piece my colleague Dr. Cynthia Nielsen wrote on this very topic. Disagreement is valuable and necessary. But fairness to a topic is paramount.

    http://www.udallasblogs.com/husc/positions/first-contribution-to-positions/?fbclid=IwAR1MVlVhyPaVQtjbzuFj7KzZ0iI-ijVdhzvvwyAslsQMcLCHkj77fI1EaT4

    Cheers,
    JE

  2. Wondering whether you read the book on critical race theory or whether you just heard the buzzwords and formed an opinion.
    Also pretty disappointed in this school for doing almost nothing for Black History Month when it actually happened, but two months later publishing yet another article complaining about the library for doing its job.

  3. Many thanks to Dr. Espericueta for mentioning Richard Delgado, who along with Jean Stefancic, published an introduction to critical race theory in 2017. Of the theory Delgado writes: “…critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” It should be noted that this stance is true for all of the names that Dr. Espericueta referenced including Kendi and Kimberlé Crenshaw who was one of the first to move away from Bell’s more materialist approach to CRT, embracing a more post-modern oriented formulation, which has become more popular in recent times. I agree with Dr. Nielsen that fairness to the topic is important, but fairness includes a very critical stance especially when the theory in question is really quite antithetical to the very mission of the university. I do not see how Mr. Hoonhout’s take here is contrary to this approach. There is much in CRT that requires critical reflection and perhaps ultimate rejection – especially since so much inherent in CRT is at odds not only with the ethos and mission of UD but also with liberal learning and the very notion of “topic fairness”. It is for this reason that more and more left-leaning liberals and progressives are starting to raise concerns about CRT as it is disdainful of many classically liberal positions. It should be noted that critical race theory would condemn us for privileging the Western Tradition, the spiritual over the physical or the teachings of the Catholic Church as all of these are seen ultimately as instruments of racial oppression. These things are rejected outright without regard to context or purpose. Many activists and scholars informed by CRT see the idea of “The Truth” as a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in racism and oppression and therefore suspect. By all means study what CRT is and how it informs popular opinions today. But this in no way requires that we privilege CRT over other ways of talking about race or exempt it from principled rejection. It is neither the only instrument in our theoretical tool kit nor is it the best. Many thanks to my colleagues for discussing these issues and to Mr. Hoonhout for thinking about them critically. – Dr. Eidt

    • Dr. Eidt, I have to admit to being very much in favor of questioning and critiquing those foundational elements of liberal order – particularly equality (insofar as we might fail to achieve it) and legal reasoning. On the latter I’m recalling Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

      Then again, most of what I have are questions. As far as answers go, perhaps they might be achieved over that bourbon.

      -J

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