Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a lightning rod in Loudoun County and across the country. Unfortunately, as with many of our most controversial public debates, there is often more intensity than clarity. It might be helpful to outline some of the basic features and implications of CRT, so that we can discuss the matter in an intelligible way.
CRT has its roots in Critical Legal Studies (CLS) which insist that law and institutions are ultimately reducible to competing power structures. Power is the key, not justice. CRT and CLS have roots in Marxist thought. Marx, of course, argued that the whole of history could be understood as a perpetual class struggle manifesting itself today as a conflict between the capitalist owners and the workers without property. Once the workers recognize their power and unite, the capitalists will be overthrown, private property abolished, and a new communist era will unfold. Thus, for Marx, the class struggle brings about a revolutionary transformation of society.
Like CLS, CRT insists that power is the key to social relationships. Racist ideas, policies and structures have been put in place by the powerful to dominate the powerless. Where Marxists see the world through the prism of the class, and where CLS sees the world through the prism of law and institutions, CRT sees the world through the prism of race. Each approach is a totalizing ideology turned towards the revolution.
Like most political philosophies, CRT was formulated and developed in academic seminars and journals read only by academics. But compelling ideas – even the most imperfect – can eventually creep into public consciousness. Teachers teach students, who often soak up ideas without even realizing exactly what they are swallowing. Complex and obscure texts are followed by books and articles intended for a popular audience. So while most Americans have never heard of Richard Delgado or Kimberlé Crenshaw, millions of people have read Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Project 1619.
Kendi is the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. His bestselling book, How to be an anti-racist, is a key text for the popularization of CRT. Here are some of his main ideas:
· A non-racist person does not exist. Instead, one is either an anti-racist or a racist. Color blindness is, alas, a racist idea. “Anti-racism” has become a shortcut for a particular program. If you don’t agree with the anti-racist agenda, you will likely be labeled a racist. This type of bullying can be rhetorically effective, but it is intellectually dishonest.
· Kendi uses the terms “equity” and “inequality” rather than “equality” and “inequality”. We are now overwhelmed by the language of “fairness”, even though no one really knows what it means. For Kendi, racial inequalities are always the result of racist politics, and just as there is no such thing as a racially neutral person, there is, in Kendi’s narrative, no non-racist politics.
· According to Kendi, racial discrimination is not necessarily bad. The key is fairness. So, while discrimination helps promote fairness, it is anti-racist. If discrimination promotes inequity, it is racist. As Kendi says, “the only cure for racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination.”
· “It is a racial crime to be yourself if you are not white in America.”
· “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist. “
· Kendi’s success will come when “anti-racist power and politics dominate.” Where equality of opportunity and therefore result exist between equal groups. Equality of results must be the goal of all policies. “Equal opportunity”, where the results are left to individual initiative, desire, hard work and luck, is simply a racist idea that must be dismissed.
· Finally, “the United States is a racist nation because its decision-makers and policies have been racist from the start”. The American regime must be deconstructed and a new anti-racist replacement erected from the rubble. Of course, such a drastic conclusion is not always explicitly stated. But one need only listen to the activists in the streets to see how the ideas conceived in the rarefied air of the academy became the justification for burning the system.
To be sure, America has a shameful thread running through its history. Slavery and Jim Crow represent serious moral failures and are far from our best ideals. Martin Luther King, Jr. – whose conciliatory and racially transcendent view is rejected by supporters of the CRT – understood that America must keep its founding promise. He believed in America. He dreamed that one day his children “would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. He looked forward to “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” where men and women of all races would join hands and seek justice together.
Critical race theory has other purposes. Because he sees everyone in terms of racial identity and all human interaction in terms of power, he can never achieve true brotherhood or justice. It is necessarily contradictory and revolutionary. It does not have the noble and ennobling spirit that animated the civil rights movement and the racial bait trafficking, grievance research and perpetual attacks on our grassroots institutions. Because it’s all about power, it can never be about love, forgiveness or reconciliation. It does not have the moral and spiritual resources to unite and will only lead to division, acrimony and destruction. Critical race theory, by its very nature, cannot coexist with true justice, unity, or peace.
It might be tempting to assume that criticism of the CRT comes only from white conservatives. It’s wrong. Many black writers and activists – liberal and conservative – criticize the CRT. For more, check out Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Robert Woodson, Glenn Loury, Carol Swain, John McWhorter, Candace Owens, Jason Riley, and Coleman Hughes.
Mark T. Mitchell is Dean of Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry College where he teaches courses in political theory. He holds a doctorate. from Georgetown University and most recently authored Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage that Spawned Social Justice Warriors.