All quotations, unless noted by a source character, come directly from the 3rd edition pictured above. Page numbers are provided for all quotations.
I just finished “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” (3rd Edition) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic – two of the most prominent critical race theorists in the academy today. I highly recommend that anyone curious about the subject read this book. It’s candid, well-written, and, unlike many commentaries on critical race theory, it’s intended to inform rather than obscure.
While I’ve read various academic articles about critical race theory (CRT) and watched numerous debates on the subject, I wanted to ensure I had a robust understanding of the controversial school of thought. This primer offers a great overview of CRT, its intellectual history, and its academic offspring, which include sub-disciplines devoted to specific races and other demographic groups (Latino-critical movement, queer-crit studies, critical whiteness studies, etc).
What is crt and what do its adherents believe?
An army of talking heads across corporate media outlets have tried to obscure the definition of CRT. Many of these pundits claim that CRT is simply an attempt to tell the “true history” or “real history” of the United States. Others claim that CRT is simply the study of structural or systemic racism. Both of these characterizations are inaccurate and are meant to deflect attention away from CRT rather than explain its purpose and methods. I’ll provide the definition (and foundations) of CRT that critical race theorists themselves provide. Below are several lengthy quotes from the introductory chapter that provide a nuanced, comprehensive picture of CRT.
“The CRT movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, CRT questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” (pg. 3)
“CRT builds on the insights of two previous movements, critical legal studies and radical feminism, to both of which it owes a large debt.” (pg. 5)
“From critical legal studies, the group borrowed the idea of legal indeterminacy – the idea that not every legal case has one correct outcome. Instead, one can decide most cases either way, by emphasizing one line of authority over another or interpreting one fact differently from the way one’s adversary does. The group also incorporated skepticism of triumphalist history and the insight that favorable precedent, like Brown v. Board of Education, tends to erode over time, cut back by narrow lower-court interpretation, administrative foot dragging, and delay. The group also built on feminism’s insights into the relationship between power and the construction of social roles, as well as the unseen, largely invisible collection of patterns and habits that make up patriarchy and other types of domination. From conventional civil rights thought, the movement took a concern for redressing historical wrongs, as well as the insistence that legal and social theory lead to practical consequences. CRT also shared with it a sympathetic understanding of notions of community and group empowerment. From ethnic studies, it took notions such as cultural nationalism, group cohesion, and the need to develop ideas and texts centered around each group and its situation.” (pgs. 5-6)
“What do critical race theorists believe? Probably not every writer would subscribe to every tenet set out in this book, but many would agree on the following propositions. First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational – “normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group. The first feature, ordinariness, means that racism is difficult to address or cure because it is not acknowledged. Color-blind, or “formal,” conceptions of equality, expressed in rules that insist only on treatment that is the same across the board, can thus remedy only the most blatant forms of discrimination, such as mortgage redlining or an immigration dragnet in a food-processing plan that targets Latino workers or the refusal to hire a Black Ph.D. rather than a white college dropout, which stand out and attract our attention. The second feature, sometimes called “interest convergence” or material determinism, adds a further dimension. Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it. Consider, for example, Derrick Bell’s shocking proposal that Brown v. Board of Education – considered a great triumph of civil rights litigation – may have resulted more from the self-interest of elite whites than from a desire to help blacks. A third theme of CRT, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.” (pgs. 8-9)
After reading the book in question, I began reading one of CRT's landmark texts. In the introductory chapters of this other book, the authors provide more definitional elements of CRT, which I list below.
“1. Critical race theory recognizes racism is endemic to American life. Thus, the question for us is not so much whether or how racial discrimination can be eliminated while maintaining the integrity of other interests implicated in the status quo such as federalism, privacy, traditional values, or established property interests. Instead we ask how those traditional interests and values serve as vessels of racial subordination.
2. Critical race theory expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, color blindness, and meritocracy. These claims are central to an ideology of equal opportunity that presents race as an immutable characteristic devoid of social meaning and tells an ahistorical, abstracted story of racial inequality as a series of randomly occurring, intentional, and individualized acts.
3. Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law. Current inequalities and social/institutional practices are linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear. More important, as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service. Our history calls for this presumption.
4. Critical race theory insists on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color and our communities of origin in analyzing law and society. This knowledge is gained from critical reflection on the lived experience of racism and from critical reflection upon active political practice toward the elimination of racism.
5. Critical race theory is interdisciplinary and eclectic. It borrows from several traditions, including liberalism, law and society, feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism, critical legal theory, pragmatism, and nationalism. This eclecticism allows critical race theory to examine and incorporate those aspects of a methodology or theory that effectively enable our voices and advance the cause of racial justice even as we maintain a critical posture.
6. Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression. Racial oppression is experienced by many in tandem with oppression on grounds of gender, class, or sexual orientation. Critical race theory measures progress by a yardstick that looks to fundamental social transformation. The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself. The recognition of intersection forms of subordination requires multiple consciousness and political practices that address the varied ways in which people experience subordination.”
“Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment” by Mari J. Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw – Ch. 1, “What is Critical Race Theory?” Μ
CRT cONCERNS me but not for the reasons republicans propagate
For those familiar with my opining, it should come as no surprise that I have a myriad of concerns regarding CRT. Rather than promoting racial healing, reducing racial inequality, and increasing minority prosperity, I feel that a fundamentalist CRT approach will make nearly everything worse. Obviously, I’m an advocate of liberalism and my bias is skewed in that direction. In this series of three posts, I’ll enumerate and (very) briefly explain several different reasons for why I harbor this concern. In future posts, I’ll unpack these concerns in greater detail; it’s simply too much material to granularly discuss in three blog posts. Please note that this list is not comprehensive.
Nevertheless, I believe that most Republican-backed attacks are reactionary and most Republicans do not understand the analytical school of thought they are criticizing. The hyperpartisan nature of our political discourse means that if one political player (say Donald Trump) opposes an intellectual movement or ideology (say CRT), any citizen who identifies with or aligns with the political player must oppose the intellectual movement. I believe that Republican attempts to ban the teaching of CRT are actually helping the movement. I oppose these efforts. Conversely, many centrists, corporate Democrats, and leftists champion CRT simply because Trump opposed it.
Republicans are not good at avoiding (or recognizing) irony. They decry cancel culture, criticize federal and state government intervention in local educational affairs, and allegedly champion free speech… while simultaneously lobbying for legislation that would make it illegal to teach CRT in schools. They’re giving into an authoritarian impulse and betraying their “principles” to combat a school of thought they oppose. Banning and other forms of censorship are poor strategies for combatting “bad” ideas.
Useful contributions of CRT
Before I discuss my concerns with CRT, I wanted to examine several contributions of CRT analysis that are useful in certain contexts. Keep in mind that this list is not necessarily exhaustive.
- Interest Convergence
- Critique of Black-White Binary (BWB)
- Historical Focus on the Darker Elements of the American Experiment
Some critical race theorists (“crits,” for short), such as Derrick Bell, have challenged the notion that the landmark Civil Rights achievements of the 1960s were a result of sustained and systematic non-violent protests and activism. When analyzing this seminal period of history through Bell’s CRT lens, the Civil Rights protests of the sixties can be viewed as a “convergence” of interests between the poor, disadvantaged minority groups and the wealthy, privileged white elites. Bell and others posit that the probability of social change increases as more groups’ interests converge with respect to a particular social issue. If only a small number of people care about an issue, little is likely to be done about it. This seems reasonable.
The crits contend that the Civil Rights achievements were merely concessions of the white ruling class to optimize their grip on power given the constraints entailed by shifting public opinion on the topics of race and civil rights. In the crits’ view, white elites knew they had to do something in response to the Civil Rights Movement, so they calculated which concessions would yield the minimal power loss, and then offered those options as solutions to the Movement’s stated grievances. While you may disagree with this fairly cynical interpretation of history (I think there’s some truth to it), the concept of “interest convergence” has a large number of useful applications in law, sociology, political science, public policy and other academic disciplines.
Critique of Black-White Binary (BWB)
Another useful contribution of CRT is the opposition to the Black-White binary (BWB). Essentially, the BWB refers to the tendency to characterize all oppressor/oppressed dynamics in comparison to the relationship between whites and blacks. Crits, especially those that focus on the experience of Latinos/Latinas, LGBTQ+ individuals, Muslims, Asians, and other non-black minority groups, argue that the BWB simplifies the life experience of Latinos/Latinos, for example, by characterizing those individuals’ struggles only in ways that are similar to the struggles of black individuals. For example, black Americans generally do not face stereotypes that make people believe they’re more likely to be undocumented migrants than other racial groups, but many Hispanic Americans are negatively affected by those simplistic generalizations. Similarly, blacks generally are not assumed to be humorless, overly introverted, or robotically devoted to work or professional advancement, whereas many Asians have to contend with these racist stereotypes.
The CRT criticism of the BWB is a valid one. If we want to understand the dynamics of discrimination and racial inequality, it seems essential to control for all relevant variables to identify root causes. The elimination of the BWB is a useful step in achieving this end.
Intersectionality, which refers to the ways in which an individual’s overlapping identities (racial, ethnic, religious, gender, etc.) can lead to compounded and unique forms of discrimination and oppression, is one of the most prominent direct outgrowths of CRT. At this point, intersectionality is a ubiquitous term. While the utility of the concept of intersectionality has been exhausted (in my opinion), it was originally a useful lens through which to view discrimination. For example, the discrimination that a black woman faces when interviewing for a banking job can be qualitatively different that the discrimination that a black man faces.
Unfortunately, aside from this relatively self-evident observation, intersectionality, as an analytical framework, offers no way to adjudicate conflicts between two competing minorities. Additionally, because intersectionality advocates a standpoint view, where the degree and harm of discrimination are endogenously appraised by the victim instead of by some independent, objective standard, intersectional theory relies on an intrinsically subjective epistemology to make sense of the world.
Historical Focus on the Darker Elements of the American Experiment
While I strongly disagree with propagating incorrect revisionist interpretations of historical events, such as the New York Times‘ 1619 Project’s assertion that colonial revolutionaries wanted independence from Britain so they could continue the institution of slavery (which was vigorously refuted by colonial historians), I believe we must guard against whitewashing the American project. A jingoistic narrative of American history can fuel dangerous nationalism, reactionary populism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments. American students are largely ignorant of ALL historical periods. It’s imperative that students learn about ALL events in the saga of American racism, including redlining, the Tulsa (“Black Wall Street”) Massacre, Emmitt Till, the Tuskegee Experiment, the Republican “Southern” strategy, etc.
Critical race theorists have brought some of these repressed historical events to light. And that’s a good thing.
reasons Why CRT concerns me
1. CRT is diametrically opposed to liberalism & universal standards
“Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” (pg. 3)
Because this objection is ultimately my foundational concern, I’ll spend more time on this point. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines liberalism as a “political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics.” Liberalism is the product of the Enlightenment and it is largely responsible for the exponential gains in human well-being we have seen over the past two centuries. If you’re unfamiliar with the magnitude and scope of these gains, I recommend picking up a copy of Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.
Adam Smith. John Locke. Montesquieu. John Stuart Mill. James Madison. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglas. Martin Luther King, Jr.*
These are just a few of the titans that both shaped and were shaped by liberalism. One of the quintessential documents, which eloquently distills the political movement’s core assumptions, of liberalism is the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Critical race theorists are correct that, time and time again, America has failed to defend this ideal for all individuals residing in its borders – often via the dehumanization of minorities. This is a human failure – Americans failed to adopt the actions dictated by liberalism and their Constitution; these missteps are not failures of liberalism itself. Obviously, many seminal liberals, due to the natural limitations of living within a particular historical period, have advocated racist ideas and upheld racist institutions, including slavery. People are flawed.
However, the fact that a historical figure was flawed does not mean that all the ideas they espoused are invalid. MLK was a womanizer, and he has even been accused of rape by some individuals. ζ Even if that is true, I do not believe that MLK’s teachings are any less relevant or correct. Thomas Jefferson noted the immorality of slavery yet kept slaves and, famously, fathered multiple children with Sally Hemings, a person he literally enslaved. It’s a relationship and dynamic grotesque beyond belief but I don’t believe it mutes the profundity of the Declaration of Independence. All men and women are flawed. We’ve all sinned. We should judge ideas on the basis of their merits, not just on their originators and propagators.
Rather than focus on the flaws of imperfect humans, we should evaluate the principles of liberalism. For example, what is the liberal justification for slavery? There isn’t one – as slavery robs individuals of their agency and freedom. Liberals like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison failed to recognize (or at least act on their recognition) the equal humanity of blacks, but those imperfections were failures in the application and interpretation of liberal principles, not a failure of those principles.
So, what are these liberal principles? A comprehensive list is outside the scope of this post but I’ll list a few indispensable ones. Κ Λ
- The main concern of governments should be the protection of their citizens’ liberty/freedom.
- Adoption of social contract theory (which was developed by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant) and the “Fundamental Liberal Principle,” which holds that any restrictions on citizens’ liberty by the state must carefully justified (for example, drinking under the influence is illegal because there is a high probability of harming others).
- Promotion of tolerance and pluralism. Our society is made stronger by a diversity of cultures and viewpoints.
- Unwavering protection of the freedom of speech.
- Total deference to the democratic rule of law, where law is created by elected representatives.
- Belief that reason is the most valuable tool for societal and individual improvement.
- Belief that good institutions foster good citizens (and vice versa).
- Belief that everyone is equal under the law (and thus should be treated equally under the law) and is entitled to certain inalienable rights.
Fortunately, there were liberals that consistently advocated liberal principles in all contexts. Even in the 18th century, Adam Smith criticized slavery through two different prisms – economics and psychology. He argued that slavery was inefficient, and calculated that free enterprises were twelve times more productive than enterprises that relied on slave labor. η Smith, noting the presence of slavery in every single civilization known to man, also believed that humans, by nature, feel a desire to dominate their fellow neighbors, which helped drive the urge to hold slaves. While this psychological analysis is admittedly simplistic, it shows that even in 18th century Scotland, Smith recognized that slavery was a moral travesty, a symptom of humanity’s universal dark side. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill penned a number of abolitionist essays and condemned the slave trade as an evil system of exploitation. θ In the following essay, Mill is responding to the editor of Fraser Magazine and is applauding the uprising of anti-slavery sentiments and the courage of slave revolts in the Caribbean.
“But I must first set my anti-philanthropic opponent right on a matter of fact. He entirely misunderstands the great national revolt of the conscience of this country against slavery and the slave-trade if he supposes it to have been an affair of sentiment. It depended no more on humane feelings than any cause which so irresistibly appealed to them must necessarily do: Its first victories were gained while the lash yet ruled uncontested in the barrack-yard, and the rod in schools, and while men were still hanged by dozens for stealing to the value of forty shillings. It triumphed because it was the cause of justice; and, in the estimation of the great majority of its supporters, of religion. Its originators and leaders were persons of a stern sense of moral obligation, who, in the spirit of the religion of their time, seldom spoke much of benevolence and philanthropy, but often of duty, crime, and sin. For nearly two centuries had negroes, many thousands annually, been seized by force or treachery and carried off to the West Indies to be worked to death, literally to death; for it was the received maxim, the acknowledged dictate of good economy, to wear them out quickly and import more. In this fact every other possible cruelty, tyranny, and wanton oppression was by implication included. And the motive on the part of the slave-owners was the love of gold; or, to speak more truly, of vulgar and puerile ostentation. I have yet to learn that anything more detestable than this has been done by human beings towards human beings in any part of the earth. It is a mockery to talk of comparing it with Ireland. And this went on, not, like Irish beggary, because England had not the skill to prevent it, not merely by the sufferance, but by the laws of the English nation. At last, however, there were found men, in growing number, who determined not to rest until the iniquity was extirpated; who made the destruction of it as much the business and end of their lives, as ordinary men make their private interests ; who would not be content with softening its hideous features, and making it less intolerable to the sight, but would stop at nothing short of its utter and irrevocable extinction. I am so far from seeing anything contemptible in this resolution, that, in my sober opinion, the persons who formed and executed it deserve to be numbered among those, not numerous in any age, who have led noble lives according to their lights, and laid on mankind a debt of permanent gratitude.” Θ
– John Stuart Mill, “The Negro Question.” (1850)
CRT posits that, because America’s institutions are intractably racist, liberalism is a liability rather than an asset.
“Critical race scholars are discontented with liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems. Many liberals believe in color blindness and neutral principles of constitutional law. They believe in equality, especially equal treatment for all persons, regardless of their different histories or current situations.” (pg. 26)“But if racism is embedded in our thought processes and social structures as deeply as many crits believe, then the “ordinary business” of society – the routines, practices, and institutions that we rely on to do the world’s work – will keep minorities in subordinate positions. Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery. As an example of one such strategy, one critical race scholar proposed that society “look to the bottom” in judging new laws. If they would not relieve the distress of the poorest group – or, worse, if they compound it – we should reject them.” (pg. 27)“CRT takes liberalism to task for its cautious, incremental quality. When we are tackling a structure as deeply embedded as race, radical measures are in order – otherwise the system merely swallows up the small improvement one has made, and everything goes back to the way it was. Ignoring the problem of intersectionality, as liberalism often does, risks doing things by half measure and leaving major sectors of the population dissatisfied. Classical liberalism has also been criticized as overly caught up in the search for universals, such as admissions standards for universities or sentencing guidelines that are the same for all. The crits point out that this approach is apt to do injustice to individuals whose experience and situation differ from the norm. They call for individualized treatment – “context” – that pays attention to minorities’ lives. This deficiency is apt to be particularly glaring in the case of “double minorities,” such as black women, gay Latinos, or Muslim women wearing head scarves, whose lives are twice removed from the experience of mainstream Americans.” (pgs. 64-65).
Liberalism is a key foundation of modern democratic institutions and is notably the catalyst of the American experiment (religious liberty with the pilgrims and taxation without representation with the Colonies). CRT seeks to demolish this foundation and, from the ashes, construct a new foundation for an illiberal society. This is ill-advised and an example of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” CRT is concerned with improving the material well-being (as indicated by outcomes measures like income, life expectancy, infant mortality, percentage with health insurance, etc.) of particular demographic groups (racial, gender, etc.) – “the bottom,” for example, NOT with protecting the rights and freedoms of the individual. CRT’s recommended shift away from a liberal, individualistic focus towards an illiberal, collectivist orientation would put the individual liberties of ALL citizens in jeopardy.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today… I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.” α
Any course of action that involves applying different standards to different racial groups strikes me as fundamentally misguided. What makes MLK’s words so powerful was his appeal to a universal, shared humanity. Rather than arguing that individuals should be treated differently BECAUSE of their race, MLK argued that ALL individuals should be treated the same REGARDLESS of their race. I believe it is condescending to automatically apply a lower “contextual” academic standard to black students, for example, relative to other racial groups. Rather than simply lowering standards, we need to combat the structural barriers that are preventing black students from flourishing. I recognize that lowering standards is an easier (and immediate) solution, but that will not fix the root cause of the multi-factorial problem.
If standards are not equal for all citizens – based on universal principles, and are instead a function of situational context and color consciousness, than that imbalance in the application of standards can lead to violations of individual liberties, whether or not such liberties are protected by law, even if such violations are not intended. The quality (validity) of relativistic judgments, where an “impartial” assessor (or assessors) evaluates a situation and determines what the contextual standard should be (“equal treatment for all persons, regardless of their different histories or current situations” OR conditional treatment based on individuals’ histories and current situations), is entirely dependent on the capabilities of the assessor. By capabilities, I’m referring to an individual’s ability to synthesize mass quantities of data to make an informed decision that maximizes overall welfare. In our system, judges DO interpret laws in the context of specific situations; they do NOT decide what a standard should be in a specific situation. Laws are made by the legislature, which is elected by the public. In other words, judges and juries are constrained by precedent and existing law; they’re not creating new laws by deciding what standards should be employed in individual situations in real time.
The problem with moving away from universal standards is the fallibility of human knowledge and the limits of our managerial capacity; no one is all-knowing. If a leader or members of a bureaucracy were omniscient and omnipresent, then they might be able to achieve good outcomes by playing puppet master and manually applying different standards based on unique contexts and situations. My high school history teacher said that the best government is a benevolent dictator and the worst government is a tyrannical dictator. Marcus Aurelius and Augustus governed benevolently, while Nero and Caligula preferred chaos and terror. Universal standards codified in law help to limit the risk posed by tyrannical “assessors.”
Unfortunately, human leadership is prone to fallibility and the intent of a law or policy (such as “to relieve the distress of the poorest group”) has NOTHING to do with the outcomes and incentives generated by the law or policy. Laws fueled by good intentions have led to disaster (rent control, for example). Thus, the universal, equal standards of liberalism are preferable to CRT’s “color-conscious efforts to change the way things are…”
*Note: MLK’s theology and views towards race were grounded in the liberal tradition in that his framework of justice promoted the ideal of racial equality as opposed to the more novel concept of racial equity. Above everything else, MLK was a Christian and his conception of racial justice was grounded in the Christian notion of common humanity (“man made in the image of God” – divinity in ALL of God’s children) that transcended race, gender, and class. ε King’s vision of racial justice, while less radical (in terms of political orientation), is similar to Dr. Cornel West’s.
However, King was a nuanced thinker. Many of his economic views and policy proposals were illiberal (and sometimes socialist) in nature, and Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism resonated with Dr. King. He wrote to his wife early in their relationship that he was “more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits.” δ
King’s multi-dimensional economic philosophy made him an easy target for McCarthyites. The FBI launched erroneous investigations into King for alleged communist sympathies. δ In Michael Honey’s “To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice,” the author argues that King believed that racial justice and economic justice were inextricably linked together. ε
2. CRT does not value rights
One of the most disturbing casualties of a CRT-catalyzed rejection of liberalism is the concept of rights.
“Crits are suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights. Particularly some of the older, more radical CRT scholars with roots in racial realism and an economic view of history believe that moral and legal rights are apt to do the right holder much less good than we like to think. In our system, rights are almost always procedural (for example, to a fair process) rather than substantive (for example, to food, housing, or education). Think how the system applauds affording everyone equality of opportunity but resists programs that assure equality of results, such as affirmative action at an elite college or university or efforts to equalize public school funding among districts in a region.” (pg. 28)
“Moreover, rights are said to be alienating. They separate people from each other – “stay away, I’ve got my rights” – rather than encouraging them to form close, respectful communities.” (pg. 29)
The differentiation between positive rights (“You owe me this”) and negative rights (“You don’t have the right to do this to me”) is an important one. Examples of negative rights include the right to life, the right to not be subjected to violence, the right to a fair trial, and the right to free speech. Negative rights protect the individual against the state and other citizens. Crits, as a group, generally value positive rights over negative ones. This makes sense considering that most crits believe, as implied by the quotes above, that equality of outcomes (“equity”) is a more noble pursuit than equality of opportunity (the latter being one of the primary goals of liberalism).
For purposes of brevity (and scope), I’m going to sidestep some of the philosophical problems with positive rights (for example, if an individual is owed something due to a right, it means that someone else is obligated to provide something) and merely state that I believe rights are essential to a free and functioning society. I do not want to return to despotism, to a time when the state had no checks on its power.
The rights of millions of Black Americans have been violated by unjust police practices, for example. These instances are violations of negative rights, including the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. In my view, the solution is to develop systems and tactics to better uphold the rights of these citizens, to hold police officers accountable, and to bar law enforcement from violating the privacy of minority citizens (via unlawful wiretapping, surveillance, text message monitoring, etc.) not simply to jettison rights altogether.
Imagine a nightmare scenario: a right-wing populist (even) more deleterious to racial unity than Trump were elected President. Think Joe Arpaio or Roy Moore. Suppose this candidate built a brand on reducing crime and they are intent on exacerbating the prison industrial complex. The only things protecting vulnerable minority citizens from this sort of tyrant are our institutions and rights. Granted, many vulnerable minority citizens don’t have access to quality legal services to defend their rights. Once again, let’s work on solutions to reduce this deficit rather than simply concluding that rights are a waste of time.
While a somewhat separate point, this concern also illustrates CRT’s general skepticism about the merits of individualism. Crits view rights as a product of individualism that sacrifices group cohesion for individual protection. While I disagree with the criticism of rights, crits are certainly correct that individualistic cultures can breed selfishness, greed, and materialism. As with anything else, moderation is a good idea.
3. crt academics are activists
“Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It tries not only to understand our social situation but to change it, setting out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies but to transform it for the better.” (pg. 8)
As stated above, CRT begins with the assumption that racism is embedded in American institutions and social structures. CRT characterizes racism as the normal, everyday experience for minorities in America. CRT uses the terms racism and white supremacy interchangeably. Therefore, to a crit, any racial disparity is evidence of white supremacist-fueled systemic racism. While this may be true in certain situations, it may not be true in others. Hypotheses must be tested with data. It is anti-scientific to start with the conclusion and then interpret events and evidence through the lens of that conclusion. “Creation science” (an oxymoronic term) shares CRT’s anti-empirical tendency. “Creation scientists” start with the conclusion (the world was created 6,000 years ago in 7 literal days and evolution is a lie) and then cherry-pick data that align with their conclusion. That is anti-scientific. But it’s also the way that activists (left, right, and center) deal with evidence.
I have a strong bias against academic departments that self-identify as activist. Why? Because activists are not interested in the unmitigated production of knowledge; activists are interested in furthering a political agenda. Therefore, activists have a conflict of interest when it comes to producing scholarship. Truth and reality do not perfectly align with any political ideology. This why we need a diversity of intellectual and ideological perspectives in the academy. When an activist comes across a scientific study, fact, or statistic that contradicts their political ideology, they will either try to prevent it from entering the public discourse, or (worse) they will intimidate others from studying or discussing it. This dynamic is poisonous to the academy and functions as a political bottleneck to the production of knowledge.
α King, Jr., Martin Luther. (1963). “‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety
δ The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. (2021). “Communism.” Stanford University. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/communism
ε Parramore, Lynn. (2018). “Was Martin Luther King a socialist?” Institute for New Economic Thinking. https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/was-martin-luther-king-a-socialist-new-book-may-surprise-you
ζ Miller, Jason. (2019). “I’m an MLK scholar – and I’ll never be able to view King in the same light.” The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/im-an-mlk-scholar-and-ill-never-be-able-to-view-king-in-the-same-light-118015
η Weingast, Barry. (2015). “Adam Smith’s Theory of the Persistence of Slavery
And its Abolition in Western Europe.” Stanford University, Department of Political Science. https://web.stanford.edu/group/mcnollgast/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/asms-theory-of-sy.15.0725.print-version.pdf
θ Ebeling, Richard. (2020). “John Stuart Mill on Slavery and the American Civil War.” American Institute for Economic Research. https://www.aier.org/article/john-stuart-mill-on-slavery-and-the-american-civil-war/
Θ Mill, John Stuart. (1850). “The Negro Question.” https://cruel.org/econthought/texts/carlyle/millnegro.html
Κ Burris, Keith. (2018). “Keith C. Burris: To be a liberal: five principles.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. https://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2018/05/27/Keith-C-Burris-To-be-a-liberal-five-principles/stories/201805270088
Λ Courtland, Shane., Schmidtz, David. (2018). “Liberalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberalism/
Μ Matsuda et. al. (1993). “Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment.” Routledge. New York, NY.