What Is Critical Race Theory? And Does It Fulfill the Civil Rights Movement or Betray It?

CRT adherents often claim that their theory is just an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. But is it?

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is one of the most hot-button issues in America today. What makes it even more divisive is the fact that no-one can agree on what it means.

Supporters say it's simply understanding and combating racism. Detractors contend that it's unAmerican, divisive, and racist. The conversation is becoming a flash point in school districts across the US and in school board races, and some state legislatures have even moved to ban the teaching of CRT.

So who's right?

Is Critical Race Theory just about accurately teaching the (often messy and complicated) racial history of the US, or is it something deeper? In this article we'll go beyond the partisan talking points to explore:

  • What CRT actually is
  • Why defenders claim it's necessary
  • Criticisms of CRT's methodology
  • Does CRT actually reduce racism?
  • Is CRT an extension of the Civil Rights Movement?

What Is Critical Race Theory?

Defenders say that CRT is about identifying and addressing systemic racism. That is, it's about exploring how laws and systems can have racist effects today, even if they were made (or repealed) decades ago.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor who teaches at UCLA and Columbia University, and one of the founders of the theory, describes it this way: "Critical race theory is a practice. It's an approach to grappling with a history of White supremacy that rejects the belief that what's in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it."

In this sense, CRT is about legal scholars identifying the disparate impact our legal systems can have on members of different racial groups.

Important to the idea of systemic racism is that these laws can have a racial impact even if that wasn't their intention. That is, when it comes to racism, impact isn't always based on intent.

As Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii and one of the earliest developers of Critical Race Theory,puts it: “The problem is not bad people. The problem is a system that reproduces bad outcomes.”

A second and highly related tenant of CRT is that the United States isn't colorblind, and we shouldn't pretend that we are. An explainer in the New York Times notes, "Critical race theorists reject the philosophy of '‘colorblindness.’” They acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions."

The idea is that if we insist that we're colorblind, then it blinds us to the racism that still exists in the United States. We cannot fix a problem we're unable or unwilling to see.

A third component of Critical Race Theory is intersectionality, the idea that someone with multiple disadvantages might have an experience that's not captured by the sum of those disadvantages. Crenshaw herself coined the term when she saw a lawsuit in which black women claimed that they were victims of discrimination at General Motors. General Motors could show that they hired lots of white women and lots of black men, but they hired almost no black women. Black women thus faced a type of discrimination not felt by either women generally or black people generally.

Now, if all CRT did was identify historic and present discrimination and make sure we see the marginalized folks who sometimes fall through America's cracks, few people would object to it.

Criticisms of Critical Race Theory's Methodologies

The biggest issue with CRT is that it's not methodologically equipped to solve the problems it tries to solve. Racism is complex, and it has deep roots in our psychology. On some level at least, we're all wired for tribalism. When you're trying to fix a problem like that, you need a very effective tool in order to make any progress without accidentally making things worse.

Unfortunately, Critical Race Theory is a subset of Critical Theory, a branch of academia that explicitly rejects objectivity, the scientific method, and critical thinking in general. Instead it prioritizes activism, and practitioners wade into complicated situations believing they already know the answer. Crippled by these methodological errors, CRT isn't much good at finding the truth…which is an essential first step to making things better.

Rejecting Science

Stephen Sawchuk, Associate Editor of Education Week, explains CRT's methodological weaknesses (though he doesn't call them that) pretty honestly in an article praising CRT:

"Critical race theory emerged out of postmodernist thought, which tends to be skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism."

Critical Theorists also openly admit to rejecting critical thinking, objectivity, and the entire scientific method.

In a paper for the feminist philosophy giant Hypatia, Alison Bailey (Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University and director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program) describes how and why Critical Theory rejects the idea of critical thinking:

" …the tools of the critical-thinking tradition (for example, validity, soundness, conceptual clarity) cannot dismantle the master’s house: they can temporarily beat the master at his own game, but they can never bring about any enduring structural change (Lorde 1984, 112). They fail because the critical thinker’s toolkit is commonly invoked in particular settings, at particular times to reassert power: those adept with the tools often use them to restore an order that assures their comfort."

That is: critical thinking is bad because people at the top will use it to maintain their power.

The field similarly rejects the idea of objectivity (the idea that 2+2 equals 4 regardless of who's doing the counting), which underlies the entire scientific tradition.

Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy lay this out in their book Is Everyone Really Equal?:

"[Critical theory] scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal. An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible." (emphasis in original)

To put it another way: 2+2 might equal 4, or it might not. It depends on who's counting.

DiAngelo and Ozlem go even further, taking issue with the very idea of the scientific method: "Critical Theory developed in part as a response to this presumed superiority and infallibility of the scientific method…."

The scientific method is the core of how we as humans learn about the world. We take an idea, and we test it against reality. The fact that leading CRT scholars like DiAngelo take issue with this should be concerning to anyone who wants to fix the racial problems in the United States. You cannot fix a problem if you jettison the tools required to diagnose it.

Activism More Than Truth-Seeking

The second methodological criticism of Critical Theorists is that they see themselves as activists rather than as dispassionate scholars.

Bailey puts it directly: "Here, the critical learner is someone who is empowered and motivated to seek justice and emancipation." Two other scholars echo her, claiming that their field should, "prioritize a fusion of activism and scholarship."

This matters, because activism and truth-seeking are like oil and water. True scholarship seeks to understand the world without bias. It looks for truth rather than only seeking support for favored ideas. Some of the best scholarship comes from people who ran an experiment and expected a different conclusion, but were willing to follow the data where it led.

By contrast, activism assumes you already understand the world sufficiently. Activists don't try to test their ideas by seeking with an open mind evidence for or against those ideas. Instead, activists try to take their ideas and impose them on the world.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with activism. It's how political change is made. But it's not truth-seeking and shouldn't be confused with it.

Unfalsifiable Claims

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the field is full of activists who reject critical thinking and the scientific method, Critical Race Theory leads with unfalsifiable claims about racism. That is, it assumes the conclusion it's supposed to be trying to prove.

Scholar-activists Heather Bruce, Robin DiAngelo, Gyda Swaney (Salish) and Amie Thurber developed several core tenets of anti-racism at the National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University. These are some of the core tenets of how CRT is actually applied, designed by some of its leading practitioners.

One tenet is particularly revealing: "The question is not Did racism take place? but rather How did racism manifest in that situation?"

The idea that racism takes place in every single interaction is thus treated as axiomatic. It's not an assumption to be tested, but a belief to be acted upon.

The problem with this is that human interactions are inherently messy and subjective. We treat each other all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons. In this type of environment, if you look for a phenomenon in an interaction you will find evidence for it; even if the phenomenon doesn't actually exist in that interaction.

For example, consider a white man in an otherwise empty elevator. A black man walks onto the elevator, and the white man stares at him. Is that evidence of the latter's racism? Maybe. But maybe his wife just left him, or his father just died; and he'd glare a hole through the Pope if the man entered the elevator with him. A scholar will look at complicated interactions and will weigh the evidence in search of the truth. An activist will dig for anything that supports their pre-existing dogma.

The Grievance Studies Scandal

The combination of activism and deliberately unscientific methodology might explain why the standards of Critical Theory peer-reviewed journals are so low that three non-experts were able to get bizarre and sometimes nonsensical papers accepted by these journals.

In 2017, Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose spent 10 months writing 20 hoax papers that they intended to submit to the very best journals in subdomains of academia rooted in Critical Theory. The premise was that Critical Theory's epistemological problems would make it easy to publish nonsense in their most prestigious academic journals.

None of the three had an official background in anything related to Critical Theory. Pluckrose had a master's degree in early modern studies. Lindsay had a PhD in mathematics. Boghossian was a full-time faculty member in the Department of Philosophy at Portland State University.

So what were the results? Of the 20 hoax papers the trio wrote, 7 were accepted by peer-reviewed journals. One was even honored by the journal that published it as part of the journal's 25th anniversary celebration. The authors received 4 offers to be peer-reviewers based on the supposed quality of their papers.

What makes the scandal even more damning is that the papers were designed to be terrible.

One paper advocated putting white students in chains during class as a form of "experiential reparations." That paper was submitted to Hypatia, who responded with a "Revise and Resubmit" request (which is a journal's way of saying that an article is good, and will probably be published, but isn't quite there yet). Peer-reviewers praised the piece.

A feminist version of a section of Mein Kampf was accepted by the journal Affilia.

A poem about feminism called "Moon Meetings and the Meaning of Sisterhood: A Poetic Portrayal of Lived Feminist Spirituality" was accepted by the Journal of Poetry Therapy. How did the authors describe the poem? They call it, "A rambling poetic monologue of a bitter, divorced feminist, much of which was produced by a teenage angst poetry generator before being edited into something slightly more “realistic” which is then interspersed with self-indulgent autoethnographical reflections on female sexuality and spirituality written entirely in slightly under six hours."

That is: a poem written mostly by AI that was designed to replicate an angsty teen was accepted by one of the leading journals of feminist social work.

This should make us skeptical of any scholarship that comes out of the Critical Theory tradition (including Critical Race Theory). While the practitioners' intentions may be good, Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose have shown that the leading journals will accept and publish nonsense under the guise of "scholarship."

Does Critical Race Theory Reduce Racism?

Given CRT's deep methodological flaws, we should be skeptical that it will move society in the direction that its advocates desire. But let's test that hypothesis. When CRT is actually taught, does it reduce divisions between people of different skin colors?

Unfortunately, evidence suggests the answer is generally "no." There are three big reasons why:

1) Intersectionality

In The Coddling of the American Mind, renowned sociologist Jonathan Haidt and former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Greg Lukianoff examine the ways in which intersectionality is actually taught in many college campuses. They explore whether intersectionality increases or decreases tribalism, which is essentially a measure of how much we as humans prefer our in-group over the out-group. Racism is a common subset of tribalism: for instance, a KKK member would be said to be high in tribalism because they clearly prioritize their in-group (other white people) over the out-group (non-white people).

Haidt and Lukianoff's takeaway? "The human mind is prepared for tribalism, and these interpretations of intersectionality have the potential to turn tribalism way up."

They give the example of Kathryn Pauly Morgan, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. When she's teaching intersectionality, she argues that people exist on 14 axes of privilege and oppression (including: from heterosexual to gay/lesbian, from male to female, from white to non-white, from cisgender to transgender, etc). That is: being heterosexual and male and white is an intersection of three types of privilege, being a black lesbian woman is an intersection of three types of oppression, etc.

She phrases it like this: "Privilege involves the power to dominate in systematic ways…oppression involves the lived, systematic experience of being dominated by virtue of one's position on various particular axes."

What's the problem with this style of teaching? Haidt and Lukianoff explain: "These interpretations of intersectionality teach people to see bipolar dimensions of privilege and oppression as ubiquitous in social interactions."

"More generally, what will happen to the thinking of students who are trained to see everything in terms of intersecting bipolar axes where one end of each axis is marked ‘privilege’ and the other is ‘oppression’? Since ‘privilege’ is defined as the ‘power to dominate’ and to cause ‘oppression,’ these axes are inherently moral dimensions. The people on top are bad, and the people below the line are good."

Instead of highlighting our shared humanity, this teaching of intersectionality highlights our differences. This may make it harder for some students to build strong connections with people who look different from them; after all, do you really want to be friends with an "oppressor?"

2) The Interest-Convergence Thesis

The second component of Critical Race Theory that seems designed to ramp up tribalism is the Interest-Convergence Thesis. Harvard Law School scholar Derrick Bell, a founder of Critical Race Theory, coined the term to describe the idea that white people only advanced civil rights when it was in their interest to do so; that is, when their interests converged with the interests of the black people who pushed for civil rights legislation.

In his paper, "A Furious Kinship: Critical Race Theory and the Hip-Hop Nation" published in the University of Louisville Law Review, André Douglas Pond Cummings describes CRT as resting on several pillars. The third is this: "An interest convergence critique posits that white elites will tolerate or encourage racial advances for blacks only when such advances also promote white self-interest."

Ibram Kendi puts it even more bluntly in his bestselling book How to Be An Antiracist: "Racist power started civil-rights legislation out of self-interest. Racist power stopped out of self-interest when enough African and Asian and Latin nations were inside the American sphere of influence, when a rebranded Jim Crow no longer adversely affected American foreign policy, when Black people started demanding and gaining what power rarely gives up: power."

It's true that the Civil Rights Movement put pressure on white businesses and white politicians to enact change (the bus boycotts being the most famous example), and to a certain extent legislators supported the Civil Rights Movement for selfish reasons.

But this claim goes further: it says that people simply cannot empathize with the intense pain of someone with a different skin color. Instead, it's all about power, and different races are cast in an endless power struggle with each other.

This is a monstrous theory, many would argue, and it's also self-evidently untrue. If you saw children being beaten and sprayed with fire hoses (as children were in the Civil Rights Movement) would you really check the color of their skin before deciding whether or not that was a bad thing?

By claiming that support for the Civil Rights Movement was all about white self-interest, and denying the empathy white folks experienced for people who didn't look like them, the Interest-Convergence Thesis draws clear lines between members of different races that cannot be crossed. And those lines foster division.

3) Skin Color First

One of the most troubling aspects of CRT is that some scholars embrace a worldview where differences in skin color matter more than our shared humanity.

This was thrown into sharp light when Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose wrote a paper called, "The Progressive Stack: An Intersectional Feminist Approach to Pedagogy." It is an objectively insane paper, so I'll let the authors describe it.

"Thesis: That educators should discriminate by identity and calculate their students’ status in terms of privilege, favor the least privileged with more time, attention and positive feedback and penalize the most privileged by declining to hear their contributions, deriding their input, intentionally speaking over them, and making them sit on the floor in chains—framed as educational opportunities we termed 'experiential reparations.'"

The paper, which was alluded to in an earlier section, was submitted to Hypatia, one of the leading academic journals in the Critical Theory tradition. As described above, it received a "Reject and Resubmit" response, meaning that Hypatia liked it but wanted a couple of revisions. As the authors note, none of the proposed revisions took issue with the idea that white people should be physically chained while in class.

Even more disturbing is the glowing response from peer reviewers. As one put it, "This is a solid essay that, with revision, will make a strong contribution to the growing literature on addressing epistemic injustice in the classroom."

Reasonable people can disagree about whether equality of treatment will lead to equality of outcomes. For example, respectable scholars have a wide range of opinions about affirmative action, which essentially (in some cases) offers preferential treatment to minorities in order to redress historic and/or ongoing discrimination.

But let's be clear. Putting people of a certain skin color in chains because of the sins of people hundreds of years ago who looked like them is a recipe for enhancing racial divisions, not for solving them.

CRT and the Civil Rights Movement

CRT adherents often claim that their theory is just an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. A CNN Explainer put it this way: "the idea behind it [CRT] goes back much further, to the work of civil rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer and Pauli Murray."

Kimberlé Crenshaw, speaking as one of the founders of CRT, agrees. After the Civil Rights Movement, she says, she and others "took up the task of exploring the role that law played in establishing the very practices of exclusion and disadvantage."

But there's at least one big difference between the Civil Rights Movement and CRT.

Common-Humanity vs Common-Enemy 

The Civil Rights Movement focused on what Haidt and Lukianoff call "common-humanity identity politics." As they describe it: "He (Martin Luther King Jr.) spoke often of the need for love and forgiveness, hearkening back to the words of Jesus and echoing ancient wisdom from many cultures: 'Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.'"

King wasn't the only Civil Rights activist to focus on healing our racial divides by reducing tribalism. Pauli Murray, a queer, black civil rights activist and Episcopal priest, said in 1945, "I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods…When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. When they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind."

The Civil Rights Movement was ultimately a politics of inclusivity. At that time, white America was its own tribe. Rather than creating a separate tribe of black America, heroes like King and Murray pushed for a single unified tribe: all Americans, whatever their skin color, united by values and equal under the law.

That was a vision worth fighting for.

Unfortunately, Critical Race Theorists often go the opposite direction. Many activists push for what Haidt and Lukianoff call, "Common-enemy identity politics." Common-enemy identity politics essentially mobilize one tribe by pitting them against another tribe: white Americans against black Americans, queer folks against cis folks, etc. Common-enemy identity politics focuses not on creating one large tribe, but on creating lots of smaller tribes and sharpening the perceived differences between these tribes.

The paper advocating for putting white students in chains and preventing them from speaking in class is an example of common-enemy politics. So are the examples of intersectionality that Haidt and Lukianoff explore, which place people on inherently moral dimensions based on immutable characteristics like the color of their skin. So is the Interest-Convergence Thesis, which provides a philosophical underpinning for common-enemy identity politics by positing that people of different races lack empathy for each others' suffering.

The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most noble pursuits in human history, and we should all keep fighting to make Dr. King's vision a reality. We should all fight for a world where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

CRT: Good Intentions, Bad Ideas

There's no denying that CRT practitioners have good intentions. Kimberlé Crenshaw and her fellow travelers seem sincere in their efforts to build a more racially just world, which is something we should all be working towards.

But the devil is in the details, and good intentions don't magically translate to good outcomes.

CRT's own activists admit that they throw the tools of good scholarship out the window. The ideology often flirts with racial essentialism (the idea that your skin color is the most important thing about you), and renowned sociologists like Jonathan Haidt point out that it might exacerbate rather than resolve racial tensions. If we want to fulfill the promise of the Civil Rights Movement, we should look to King's message of common-humanity identity politics rather than CRT's modern-day tribalism.

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