All quotations, unless noted by a source character, come directly from the 3rd edition pictured above. Page numbers are provided for all quotations.
reasons Why CRT concerns me (continued)
4. The CRT "Unique Voice of Color" thesis endorses anecdotal reasoning and subjectivist epistemology in individual situations
“A final element concerns that notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with anti-essentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism. The “legal storytelling” movement urges black and brown writers to recount their experiences with racism and the legal system and to apply their own unique perspectives to assess law’s master narratives.” (pg. 11)
“Critical race theory is grounded in the particulars of a social reality that is defined by our experiences and the collective historical experience of our communities of origin. Critical race theorists embrace subjectivity of perspective and are avowedly political… Critical race theory cannot be understood as an abstract set of ideas or principles. Among its basic theoretical themes is that of privileging contextual and historical descriptions over transhistorical or purely abstract ones.” Μ
A problem with the “unique voice of color” thesis (I think hypothesis is a more accurate term) is one of statistical inference. Any individual’s subjective experience is a product of many factors: upbringing, socioeconomic class, age, sexual orientation, etc. It’s important to note that this critique of the “unique voice of color” thesis is about spotting racism in a particular situation, not about, for example, evaluating a black person’s macro-analysis and perception of racism in an institution, town, or place of work based on their accumulated life experience. If a Latina lesbian works at a toxic law firm for several months and reports experiences of sexism, racism, and homophobia, she is not basing her experience on a single anecdote; she is reporting a pattern of abusive behavior from multiple individuals. This is not the variant of “lived experience” that I’m critiquing here. Here’s one example of this latter, more general application where one CRT scholar leverages the “unique voice of color” thesis in a novel recommendation to reform the criminal justice system.
“Paul Butler, proposes that the values of hip-hop music and culture serve as a basis for reconstructing the criminal justice system so that it is more humane and responsive to the concerns of the black community.” (pg. 124)
Crits advocate using stories and narratives to illustrate a particular concept so I’ll take a stab at one. Let’s imagine that an Asian man and a black woman are waiting in line at the bank to speak to a lone bank teller. Both individuals have multi-syllable last names that (some) monolingual Americans have trouble pronouncing correctly on the first try. The bank is very busy and the line is long. As a result, the bank teller, a white male in his twenties, is a bit frazzled and visibly stressed out. We will also assume that the teller has no racial animus.
Let’s further suppose that the teller mispronounces both the Asian man’s last name and the black woman’s last name. The black woman is indifferent and does not detect any racial animus. However, the Asian man feels insulted that the teller butchered his name (he suspects the mispronunciation was intentional) and deduces that the teller may have an anti-Asian bias. He characterizes the teller’s conduct as a “microaggression.”
Human perception is imperfect and is a slave to many cognitive biases that are hardwired into our mental faculties. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is actually based on this psychological dynamic (I overcame chronic anxiety and depression thanks to CBT); the goal of the therapy is to recognize illogical thought patterns and then apply a logical analysis to neutralize the anxiety-producing, irrational thought. The idea is that thoughts lead to feelings, and feelings lead to behaviors. If an individual can control counterproductive thoughts, then they can control Below is a list of irrational thought types or “Cognitive Distortions” enumerated in Dr. David Burns’ “The Feeling Good Handbook,” a book that I found very helpful in my mental health journey. π
I do NOT show this list to imply that any, some, or all minorities who discuss their experiences of racism or discrimination are suffering from cognitive distortions. I absolutely do not believe that. I merely want to impress upon you that human memory and thoughts are prone to error and cognitive biases. Thus, we should be careful about automatically assuming that a particular individual’s perspective, opinion, or recollection of events is automatically more valid than another individual’s solely on the basis of skin color.
Both individuals in my made-up example experienced the same situation but perceived the interaction differently. This is the problem with granting minorities (or anyone else) a privileged epistemological status; ALL human beings’ perception of the world is not perfectly reliable. We are all slaves to our own biases, moods, cultural blind spots, and ideological allegiances; our perception of events and our evaluation of others’ intentions are affected by these variables. No human being is a mind-reader.
Just because a minority individual perceived racial animus does not prove that a racist act occurred. The “unique voice of color” thesis holds that a person of color’s perception of reality is always more truthful or more valid than a white person’s perception of the same event. While this is certainly the case in many situations, it is not always true (or automatically true).
Additionally, there are limits to what we can extrapolate, deduce, and infer from an individual’s subjective recounting of a single anecdote. Anecdotal reasoning is statistically unsound. There is a reason why we talk about sufficient sample sizes and sampling methods.
Let’s examine a case study regarding this point. Jenny McCarthy is famous for campaigning against vaccinations. She believes that a vaccine caused her son’s autism. When asked about the overwhelming scientific evidence against her claim, she stated “I have all the scientific evidence that I need; Evan is my scientific evidence.” Even if McCarthy’s son’s autism were caused by a vaccine, the scientific evidence indicates that the probability of a vaccine causing autism is asymptotically zero. Thus, McCarthy relies on her own “lived experience” and ignores the scientific consensus. Anecdotal reasoning is dangerous and unscientific.
Of great concern to me, some CRT activists advocate this form of relativistic epistemological privilege in the courtroom. In the following example, crits argue that minorities can accurately detect racial animus from simply hearing an account of a situation; they don’t have to experience it firsthand.
“Other critical race scholars urge jury nullification to combat the disproportionate incarceration of young black men. In this practice, the jury, which in most large cities will contain people of color, uses its judgment, sometimes ignoring instructions from the judge, on whether to convict a defendant who has committed a nonviolent offense, such as shoplifting or possession of a small amount of drugs. If the jury believes that the police system is racist or that the young man is of more use to the community free than behind bars, it will vote to acquit.” (pg. 122)
Here, crits argue that a jury should be able to ignore a preponderance of evidence indicating that an individual broke the law if the jury perceives the system to be racist. Once again, minority individuals, like everyone else, are not mind readers bestowed with magical powers. If a law is unjust (most drug laws are), then it should be changed. We cannot allow juries to nullify laws. This opens a Pandora’s Box of nightmare possibilities and literally circumvents the democratic rule of law.
5. CRT seeks to rewrite history through an ideological lens
“Critical race theorists tend to use a methodology grounded in the particulars of their social reality and experience. This method is consciously both historical and revisionist, attempting to know history from the bottom. From the fear and namelessness of the slave, from the broken treaties of the indigenous Americans, the desire to know history from the bottom has forced these scholars to sources often ignored: journals, poems, oral histories, and stories from their own experiences of life in a hierarchically arranged world. This methodology, which rejects presentist, androcentric, Eurocentric, and falsely universalist descriptions of social phenomena, offers a unique description of law. The description is realist, but not necessarily nihilist. It accepts the standard teaching of street wisdom: Law is essentially political.” Μ
“Derrick Bell’s analysis of Brown illustrates a signature CRT theme. Revisionist history re-examines America’s historical record, replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations of events with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences.” (pg. 25)
Revisionist history is a major goal of CRT. It is the second major theme (out of four) in “Ch. 2: Hallmark Critical Race Theory Themes.”
As mentioned previously, I’m all for changing public school history curricula to focus more on the periods of American history that involve the marginalization and harm of minorities. It’s essential that history programs include and highlight these events; whitewashing is dangerous and must be combatted. I’m also totally supportive of revising historical records if new evidence comes to light.
My concern is the revisionist interpretation of historical events through the lens of CRT. CRT assumes that ALL racial disparities are a result of systemic racism/white supremacy. This is not true in all cases. We can achieve nuanced historical education curricula without the utilization of rigid narratives. Historical events, just like present-day events, are multivariate in nature. If we ignore other variables and interpret history solely through the lens of race, our understanding of historical events will be flawed. One variable that CRT has been criticized for downplaying is class.
“A field on which ideological battles rage is the distribution of material benefits in society. This controversy shades off into the much-debated question of whether race or class is the dominant factor in the subjugation of people of color.” (pg. 115)“Critical race theory has yet to develop a comprehensive theory of class.” (pg. 115)“A general theory of race and economics remains elusive, at least for now.” (pg. 119)
6. (Some) CRT activists advocate racial/ethnic nationalism
“Critical race theory is interdisciplinary and eclectic. It borrows from several traditions, including liberalism, law and society, feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism, and nationalism.” Μ
There are two views of CRT scholars regarding how minority citizens should interact with the dominant, Eurocentric culture. “Nationalists” (also called “Separatists”) believe that minorities should actively resist the dominant culture and form tight-knit, exclusive communities of similar racial and/or cultural heritage. “Assimilators” believe minority individuals should retain their cultural identities but work to integrate into the larger culture and influence it from within.
“Debates about nationalism versus assimilation figure prominently in current discourse about race. One strand of CRT energetically backs the nationalist view, which is particularly prominent with the materialists. Derrick Bell, for example, urged his fellow African Americans to foreswear the struggle for school integration and aim for building the best possible black schools. Other CRT nationalists advocate gun ownership, on the grounds that historically the police in this country have not protected blacks against violence, indeed have often visited it upon them. Other nationalists urge the establishment of all-black inner-city schools, sometimes just for males, on the grounds that boys of color need strong role models and cannot easily find them in the public schools. Others back black- or Latino-run charter schools in big cities. Nationalists of all types question the majoritarian assumption that northern European culture is superior. Most support ethnic studies departments at the university level.” (pg. 68)
I tend to get nervous whenever I hear isolationist ethnonationalist or ethnoracial sentiments being voiced, regardless of the ethnicity or race. Few things are scarier to me than white nationalists. How many genocides, wars, and tragedies do we have to suffer through before we conclude that these types of tribal sectarianism lead to division and dehumanization? I believe segregation is harmful. Granted, due to historical injustices, we do have regions throughout America that are de facto segregated. Nevertheless, I view these areas as failures of policy and institutions – opportunities to improve, not positive developments.
“Latino nationalists also endorse preservation of the Spanish language and ties with Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean or other homelands. A few speak of restoring what is now the U.S. Southwest to something like its previous condition – the mythical land of Aztlán. Both Latino and black nationalists take a dim view of passing – the effort to deracinate oneself and present oneself as white. Latino nationalists usually reject the term “Hispanic” because of its association with Spain, the nation that oppressed their ancestors in Mexico and Central and South America. Nationalists honor ethnic studies and history as vital disciplines and look with skepticism on members of their groups who date, marry, or form close friendships with whites or seek employment in white-dominated workplaces of industries. Many Latino nationalists are sympathetic to Rodolfo Acuña’s notion that Latinos in this country are an internal colony and that they should exploit that colonial status to build solidarity and resistance. Nationalists are apt to describe themselves as a nation within a nation and to hold that the loyalty and identification of black people, for example, should lie with that community and only secondarily with the United States.” (pg. 69)
As a white man married to a black woman, I find these sentiments profoundly disheartening. These segregationist attitudes, in my view, are identical to those that Richard and Mildred Loving faced in 1967 when the Supreme Court overturned Virginia’s law that banned interracial marriage. I believe we can preserve cultures without devolving into factional isolationism. We cannot benefit from diversity when we only associate with people similar to us.
Please remember that these views are only held by CRT “Nationalists,” NOT CRT “Assimilators.” I do not know what the percentage breakdown of “Nationalists” and “Assimilators” is relative to all crits. Nevertheless, there are many crits that don’t share these views (and they may be a majority).
7. CRT's postmodern influences make it hostile to the concept of objectivity
“As Thomas Kuhn has shown, paradigms resist change. It should come as no surprise, then, that critical race theory, which seeks to change the reigning paradigm of civil rights thought, has sparked stubborn resistance. During the movement’s early years, the media treated critical race theory relatively gently. As it matured, however, critics felt freer to speak out. Some of the areas that drew critical attention are storytelling; the critique of merit, truth, and objectivity; and the matter of voice.” (pg. 102)“Critical race theory expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, color blindness, and meritocracy.” Μ
“…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.” (pg. 5)
I’m not interested in which narrative or story best aligns with CRT’s automatic diagnosis of systemic racism/white supremacy (or any other a priori assumption). I’m interested in what the evidence and data indicates (which often is racism, for the record). One only needs to briefly delve into CRT’s postmodern influences to understand how relativism, standpoint epistemology, and rhetorical trickery can easily threaten the integrity of scientific scholarship. CRT did not inherit postmodernists’ rejection of metanarratives (white supremacy is a metanarrative) but they did adopt postmodernists’ constructivist epistemology.
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.” (pg. 9)
“It [CRT] also draws from certain European philosophers and theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida…” (pg. 5)
Antonio Gramsci was a Marxist philosopher and political theorist who did pioneering work on “cultural hegemony”; his work is not relevant to this particular concern.
Philosopher Thomas Morrison, in an edition of the magazine Philosophy Now, examined French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault’s fundamental issue with the scientific method.
“Importantly, Foucault argues that a scientific discourse is not the simple product of an objective study of phenomena, as scientific realists (such as most scientists) like to believe, but is rather the product of systems of power relations struggling to create fields of knowledge within a society.” β
In this seminal debate, which has been referred to as "Justice v. Power," linguist and renowned left-wing cultural critic Noam Chomsky debates Michel Foucault. Their debate about human nature illustrates the different assumptions and perspectives of modernity and postmodernity.
To Foucault, the study of power dynamics was inherent to the study of anything. We can see Foucault’s influence in the crits’ claim that “the interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself.” Μ While the activist study of power differentials were (and are) intrinsic to critical theory, CRT’s intellectual grandparent, Foucault’s unique study and critique of hierarchies were hugely influential to founding CRT scholars.
Similar to Ibram X. Kendi’s binary argument of racism, which states that any individual is either a racist or anti-racist (Kendi denies the possibility of a neutral “not racist” category), Foucault argues that in all interactions, including scientific inquiry, humans are either acquiring power, losing power, or negotiating how to distribute power. Thus, scientific study cannot be viewed solely as the benign pursuit of truth; scholars are pursuing knowledge not only to enrich society but also to advance ideas that optimize their own power in a zero sum game.
There’s obviously truth to this. Heterodox scholars (Austrian and Marxian economists, for example) that make valid criticisms against the field’s establishment (in this example, neoclassical economics) are often dismissed or demonized – not because the “rogue” scholars’ arguments are bad or lack evidence, but because the mainstream scholars don’t want to give up their establishment power. Nevertheless, if we deny the possibility of objectivity, we deny ourselves the ability to adjudicate conflicting interpretations of reality. To determine whether vaccines cause autism, we must leverage the notion of objectivity.
“Stories can give them [racial minorities] a voice and reveal that other people have similar experiences. Stories can name a type of discrimination (e.g., microaggressions, unconscious discrimination, or structural racism); once named, it can be combated. If race is not real or objective but constructed, racism and prejudice should be capable of deconstruction; the pernicious beliefs and categories are, after all, our own.” (pg. 51)
Jacque Derrida, another French postmodernist, remains the world’s foremost deconstructionist. Interestingly, Michel Foucalt criticized deconstruction at one point. Foucalt’s research informed CRT’s conception of racial hierarchy, whereas Derrida’s technique of deconstruction provided a theoretical means to (as the name would suggest) dismantle the structure. Deconstructionism was hugely influential in critical legal studies, one of CRT’s intellectual parents. The New York Times’ obituary for Derrida aptly characterizes deconstructionism.
“Mr. Derrida was known as the father of deconstruction, the method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction, and that the author’s intent could not overcome the inherent contradictions of language itself, robbing texts — whether literature, history or philosophy — of truthfulness, absolute meaning and permanence. The concept was eventually applied to the whole gamut of arts and social sciences, including linguistics, anthropology, political science, even architecture.” γ
Here’s a more informative definition of deconstruction provided by Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Deconstruction, a form of philosophical and literary analysis, derived mainly from work begun in the 1960s by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, that questions the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or “oppositions,” in Western philosophy through a close examination of the language and logic of philosophical and literary texts. In the 1970s the term was applied to work by Derrida, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Barbara Johnson, among other scholars. In the 1980s it designated more loosely a range of radical theoretical enterprises in diverse areas of the humanities and social sciences, including—in addition to philosophy and literature—law, psychoanalysis, architecture, anthropology, theology, feminism, gay and lesbian studies, political theory, historiography, and film theory. In polemical discussions about intellectual trends of the late 20th-century, deconstruction was sometimes used pejoratively to suggest nihilism and frivolous skepticism. In popular usage the term has come to mean a critical dismantling of tradition and traditional modes of thought.” Ξ
Toward the end of his life, a journalist asked Derrida to define deconstructionism, he replied “It is impossible to respond. I can only do something which will leave me unsatisfied.” γ When one of Derrida’s intellectual allies was accused (an accusation backed up by damning evidence) of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies, Derrida vigorously defended his friend’s comments in the press by utilizing his own methods of deconstruction. The Guardian‘s Peter Lennon commented, “Borrowing Derrida’s logic one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that [Adolf Hitler] was in conflict with anti-Semitism.” γ
Deconstruction, like Foucault’s reductionist focus on power, poses a threat to scientific realism, the scientific method, and ultimately denies the possibility of objectivity itself. CRT has inherited both of these anti-empirical dynamics. If a scientific study refutes a claim central to CRT’s political agenda, critical race theorists may utilize Foucault’s and Derrida’s obscurest arguments to attack and discredit the study. Politics and science, like politics and religion, are better separate.
Here is an informative video by an advocate of Derrida's method of deconstruction. Do you think deconstruction poses a threat to the concept of objectivity?
β Morrison, Thomas. (2018). “Foucault’s Elephant.” Philosophy Now. Issue 127. https://philosophynow.org/issues/127/Foucaults_Elephant
γ Kandell, Jonathan. (2004). “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/obituaries/jacques-derrida-abstruse-theorist-dies-at-74.html
π Burns, David. (1999). “The Feeling Good Handbook.” New York: Plume.
Μ Matsuda et. al. (1993). “Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment.” Routledge. New York, NY.
Ξ The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2021). “Deconstruction.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/deconstruction