Critical Race Theory (CRT) has come under withering attack lately from Republican politicians and their sycophants. It seems to me time for a bit of reality therapy on that subject for those who actually care about facts and truth. This piece is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject, but only a brief outline of the highlights of that field of academic study as I understand it, and why I think it is taking so much abuse from conservatives.
My first exposure to CRT was a public embarrassment more than thirty years ago when I was in Hungary. My team was considering an investment opportunity in telecommunications infrastructure in that country. At dinner one evening an advisor to our potential Hungarian telecom partners, a sociology professor, asked me how Americans felt about Derrick Bell and his Critical Race Theory studies. I had no idea who Derrick Bell was or what his studies were about.
That experience prompted me to investigate the person as well as the subject in some detail. At that time Critical Race Theory was one element of a series of fledgling, but old academic concepts referred to as “Critical Theory” (CT); it had been a little known or appreciated academic concept since the 1930s. CT was and is mostly a philosophy, focused on social and cultural influences on human power structures.
Today since my first encounter, CT has grown into both a fairly robust field of academic study as well as an ever expanding worldwide movement with many research offshoots and activist groups. Unfortunately, the Critical Race Theory element of CT specifically, has caught the attention of extremist politicians and conspiracy theorists in the United States as an effective way to divide Americans along racial lines.
In its simplest terms Critical Race Theory is a body of academic investigation exploring the drivers of the racial dynamics, social implications, and possible sources of inequality in American society. CRT researchers study the structure and functionality of American society with its make up of a dominant white majority race and a smaller minority black race; they look at whether/how that particular social and cultural construct breeds racial polarity and inequality. They attempt to define the character of such polarity, and consider possible structural changes to governance that might overcome inequality based on race within the electorate.
Through publication of major research initiatives CRT academics have generally concluded, and lay out the case that indicates racism remains a major drag on equal opportunity for the black community within the United States. They further argue that public institutions generally (legislative, executive, educational, legal and criminal justice) have not adequately addressed the residual systemic racism imbedded within the structure and processes of those organizations.
CRT publications recognize and document how strongly enforced US government initiatives have dramatically reduced overt racism in recent decades. They also posit that those efforts have not eliminated the white privilege and supremacy forces, but mostly driven them underground. That leads to continuing unequal treatment of minorities. They argue that we have only to look at economic inequality, relative educational opportunities and results, incarceration rates, infant mortality, and life expectancy to see that the “system” is still seriously stacked against people of color.
CRT identifies the judiciary as one unbalancing structural element of the continuing struggle for equal opportunity and treatment for black Americans. The limitation of American jurisprudence is that it focuses primarily on perpetrators of racial abuse and/or exclusion rather than the resulting impact on victims. It attempts to deal only with specific individual acts of current illegal racist behavior. It generally does not consider (except in very limited and declining circumstances) the current lived condition of members of the minority race either as a result of centuries of abuse or the continuing structural disadvantage in today’s competitive environment. That helps deny equal justice and perpetuate a permanent underclass with a few high profile exceptions who achieve academic, political, and/or celebrity recognition.
CRT scholars also have a lot to say about education for black citizens. They see that as one of the cornerstones of continuing division, inequality, and misunderstanding among the races. They take a wholistic attitude toward the subject. It is important to teach factual information, but equally important for promoting racial harmony is the social and cultural context of the fact based world we live in and are creating.
They promote the idea that equality must start with honest dialog about and teaching of American history, both the visionary creation of our Republic and its democratic form of government, but also the severe flaws the founders built into that system. To understand America today, they say we must recognize that most of our founding fathers were wealthy, owned other human beings, and even acknowledged that as a right for white people in drafting our own American Constitution. That catalytic event might have been 240 years ago they admit, but we are still living with the divisive electoral results today. It’s imperative that we focus our history, social, and economic education on the whole story, both the good and bad equally.
In teaching American history for example, CRT scholars stress that it is important, even critical, to recognize and teach that our government and its institutions have moved inexorably toward continuous improvement and ever more equal opportunity for all its citizens since its founding. However, at the same time we must also focus equally on the pain and suffering people of color endured to build the America we know today. And we can’t ignore the unequal treatment and lack of opportunity that accrues to people of color still today as a result of historic abuse and current racial prejudice.
I have probably read the large majority of credible academic papers published about Critical Race Theory. Are there irrational, hateful, extremist views expressed under the banner of CRT? Absolutely, just as there are in all social, economic, religious, political, and even scientific literature. But viewing the broad CRT body of academic work and its fundamental message as a whole, I think the research and analysis is sound, even if honest debate is warranted about some of its conclusions. Filtering out the extremists, the evidence of continuing institutional racism is hard to refute. It seems to me un-American that extremists politicians can promote their divisive racist dogma against CRT with impunity. If we care about truth and honesty we must approach the body of CRT work with open minds, wary of personal prejudice and political hate speech, and judge the evidence on its merit rather than adopt a tribal view.
From my study of the subject along with the tone and tenor of the politicians ragging about it I have concluded that there are only three classes of people who see CRT as a threat:
- First, there are the white supremacists. They are likely a small but growing element of our American society. By definition they are against racial equality. In today’s political climate they are coming out of the shadows, recruiting, and becoming more bold in their actions. CRT concepts are mostly irrelevant to them, except as promotional material for their hateful agenda and a useful recruiting tool.
- Then there are the politicians, usually identifying themselves as Republicans, the “saviors of freedom and democracy”. That group probably includes a small but likely significant proportion of closet racists and white supremacists. Politicians are the most dangerous group to our democratic society; they command the attention of the press and as a result can manipulate a substantial minority of the electorate. As a political party they likely don’t actually care or maybe even know much about CRT either. Their goal seems to be similar to the white supremacists; they just promote a more politically palatable message that they hope avoids appearing overtly racist. In most cases they probably honestly don’t even see themselves as racists. They are simply trying to advance their own political power and the Party has identified CRT as an issue they can exploit by misrepresentation.
- Finally there are the uninformed, but often ideologically rigid, members of the electorate. This group is vastly larger than either of the other two but is the audience that both the politicians and white supremacists are trying to appeal to and manipulate. The people in this group are mostly not independent political thinkers who engage in fact based political consideration and decision making. Their minds are already made up that the other political party is evil. They likely have never read an actual academic paper on CRT. For the most part they only listen to what the political leaders of their “tribe” tell them to believe about CRT and discount anything that does not comport with that worldview.
Most of the un-American ideas I have seen attributed to CRT are actually fictions created by Republican politicians. They are not endorsed even by the most extremists CRT literature I have read.
Looking at today’s American reality, as a nation we need to honestly consider how our public institutions interact with minority members of the electorate. We must first recognize where systemic racism is entrenched, then correct structural systems that limit the success of people of color. Much of the problem is probably unintentional, but simple ignorance on the part of white society is not a justifiable excuse for inaction or maintaining the status quo.
Unfortunately, in our current divisive tribal political environment the new reactionary dogma against CRT has found favor with most conservative politicians. They continue to refine the spread of disinformation about that subject to foster suspicion, confusion, and hate within and between members of the electorate. They are also using other historical terms (e.g. Woke) as pejoratives to demean racial minorities in further manipulation and division of the electorate. Sadly, for a large portion of the American people their strategy seems to be working.