What is CRT? How to find out

June 8, 2021 • 12:45 pm

A lot of people ask me, “Jerry, what is Critical Race theory?” (Well, at least more than three people that I’ve seen in person.) My answer is aways to refer them to the Wikipedia article on CRT, though it’s too short to cover the major tenets of the theory, and leaves out some important stuff. Shortness is also a problem with the article on CRT at the New Discourses site of James Lindsay, who of course is an opponent of the “theory”—if it can be called a theory. (Some assertions of CRT are untestable and tautological, so I’m not sure what I’d call it.)

So if you want a short course on CRT, read the Wikipedia article but also the article below by Christopher Rufo, another opponent. To balance that, I’d recommend that you read—and you should do this for your own education—How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi. If you have the constitution, I’d also recommend White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Kendi’s book isn’t so much a coherent argument for CRT as it is his autobiography heavily larded with conclusions and assertions that partly reflect CRT.

I’m not going to summarize Rufo’s article except to show how it differs from other articles and to give a few of my reactions. Click on the screenshot to read:

It’s clear that CRT, while it might not be a theory in the empirical/scientific sense, is an ideology, a belief system that is not self-evidently true and that can be contested. Further, some of these contestable assertions cannot be refuted—not because there are data that can’t be brought to bear, but because the adherents of CRT, many of them mired in confirmation bias, will reject any disconfirming evidence. So, despite ample evidence that “implicit bias” tests are worthless, and that diversity training accomplishes little, these procedures continue to spread despite the evidence.

There’s also the CRT claim that racism has not lessened over the history of the U.S., a claim that I think is flatly wrong. Of course slavery is gone, and, more recently, the civil rights laws and the movement itself seems to me to have led to a reduction in racism, not, as Rufo says for CRT:

Critical race theorists believe that American institutions, such as the Constitution and legal system, preach freedom and equality, but are mere “camouflages” for naked racial domination. They believe that racism is a constant, universal condition: it simply becomes more subtle, sophisticated, and insidious over the course of history.

This, of course, is not only refutable but has been refuted. Black people can no longer be barred from public transportation or accommodation, are not required to cower before white people. They also have any number of legally enforceable rights they didn’t have 75 years ago. The same “can’t be refuted” quality holds for the claim that “all whites are racist, even if they don’t know it.” How can you rebut an assertion like that?

In general, Rufo’s article sets out the tenets of CRT as I’ve understood them, and emphasizes some that are neglected in other articles, tenets like “opposition to meritocracy”, “restriction of free speech”, and “neo-segregation” (e.g., “affinity housing” in college).  But some of these tenets are ones that puzzle me, like “abolition of whiteness”, meaning not just deep-sixing white social constructs, but actually “abolishing the white race”. If you think this kind of racism is nonexistent, Rufo provides quotes supporting each tenet, and at least one favors this kind of eliminativism.  The problem is that three or four selected quotes do not establish that a tenet of CRT is widespread. That also holds for “abolition of property.” But the use of quotes is a useful addition to Rufo’s piece.

Less useful is his section on semantics, which simply lists terms and mantras associated with CRT. There’s also a section of school fights about CRT, involving both schools mandating its teaching, often in offensive ways, and governments’ attempts (like Trump’s) to ban teaching CRT. I don’t favor government bans, as I’ve said before. What’s taught in schools should be determined by school boards.

So, read Kendi, Wikipedia, and Rufo to get a start in CRT. As this “theory” becomes more widely adopted, and becomes embedded in mainstream media, it behooves us to understand it so we can detect and understand how it appears.

48 thoughts on “What is CRT? How to find out

  1. I am currently reading “Cynical Theories – How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody” by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay and finding it very informative. Recommended as a good primer for understanding the origin story of certain terminally underdressed emperors.

    1. I also highly recommend Cynical Theories which I finished recently. It covers many other topics including Critical Fat Theory. It is more than a primer and includes a huge set of references.

    2. I agree that pluckrose and Lindsay is very informatice for a novice though a bit tedious for me in a few places where claims seem to be made that are not fully supported by scientific data, Still very much worth the read. I also strongly recommend a video from the manhatten institute called “critical race theory: on the new ideology of race” with 45 minutes of a john mcwhorter interview followed by another hour of an excellent panel discussion.

  2. As an academic and social scientist (my background is economic history among other areas) I struggle to fully understand what CRT is and is not, and what they are and are not saying. I might add that in terms of ontology and epistemology I part ways with the underlying views on these issues that are implicit and explicit in CRT. I share your reservations about their unwillingness to address issues about testability but I also emphasize that most research areas have background assumptions that aren’t easily testable. That said, starting with a Wikipedia article, aside from looking for suggestions as to where to start or some sources to reference doesn’t strike me as the path to understanding it. I cannot think of any area where I would recommend my students start with Wikipedia. Reading Kendi and DiAngelo might be a good start, but I’m not sure everyone who labels themselves as CRT would endorse them. If you want to understand it, why not start with Critical Theory in General https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/ , look at what Kimberle Crenshaw and others wrote about https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237264125_Critical_Race_Theory_The_Key_Writings_that_Formed_the_Movement and take a look at the American Bar Association article https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/ I’m not objecting to criticisms of CRT as I think I disagree with much of it. That said, I think critiques of CRT will get taken more seriously where there is engagement with the source material.

    1. starting with a Wikipedia article, aside from looking for suggestions as to where to start or some sources to reference doesn’t strike me as the path to understanding it.

      Which (bolded part, my emphasis) is exactly what I did. Great minds think alike I guess, and so do I. 😉 I went to the article on Derrick Bell, which had this useful list:

      His theories were based on the following propositions:

      First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational.
      Second, white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.
      Third, (“social construction” thesis) race and races are products of social thought and relations.
      Fourth, dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market.
      Fifth, (“intersectionality and anti-essentialism” thesis) each race has its own origins and ever-evolving history.
      Sixth, (“voice-of-color” thesis) because of different histories and experiences to those of white counterparts, matters that the white people are unlikely to know must be communicated to them by the racialized minorities.

      Not that it’s ever a great idea to equate a school of thought with a single definitive list of theses. But if I did, I’d take Bell’s list to be as representative as any, and certainly more so than one assembled by an opponent. It also resembles the list given in the American Bar Association article you cited. Thanks for the references.

  3. ‘[T]enets like “opposition to meritocracy” ‘ – indeed, although as I’ve pointed out below the line before, the word “meritocracy” was coined by Michael Young in his dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy and intended as a slur – he was astonished to see it taken up with none of the negative connotations that he had sought to convey. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rise_of_the_Meritocracy

  4. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.” – Ibram Kendi (How to be an Antiracist)

    What he calls “antiracist discrimination” is actually anti-white racist discrimination, so what he demands is methodical racial discrimination against white people.

    “Critical race theorists believe that society should work to ‘abolish the white race’.”

    Do they want to commit a racial genocide, or do they expect us whites to commit collective suicide?

    1. I think the larger quote is worth sharing:

      The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.

      It’s discrimination all the way down.

      1. Indeed. Taking anti-racism to the extremes that people like Kendi and DiAngelo seem to be heading towards, they are in danger of actually becoming anti-anti-racist, which would make them er….

  5. The discussion/debates about CRT remind me a bit of the discussions about evolution and “sophisticated theology.”
    Basically, some school or institution does something stupid under the guise of promoting racial equality. Apologists say “that isn’t *really* CRT and point to something in the scholarly literature that is inconsistent with the observed action.

    I think what most people are bothered by are the dumb actions made under the CRT “brand”; I doubt that few care about the actual scholarly aspects of CRT. (though, of course, some do)

  6. Has anyone heard of either feminists or gays making the argument that each one’s movement have changed little and that things are the same for women and gays as they were 40+ years ago?

    1. Yes, and the NYT and the Washington Post and liberal commenters also have “axes to grind,” too. If I try to do anything on this website, is it to discourage people from ignoring people whose ideological bias they don’t like. Please address the arguments instead of making ad hominem comments like “ignore this guy: he’s biased.”

      1. So I didn’t say “ignore this guy”. In fact, I even positively mentioned Rufo’s work in a comment to an earlier post when he was part of a podcast with McWhorter and someone else. On the podcast, he was very good at countering the claim that cancel culture is not something we should worry about.

        Everyone has an axe to grind. There’s nothing wrong with being motivated unless it goes too far. His tweet makes it sound like he’s making his life’s work out of destroying CRT. Like James Lindsay, another that has done good work against CRT, Rufo might have CRT Derangement Syndrome. As consumers of other’s opinions, we have to watch out for zealotry. That’s all I was saying.

  7. John McWhorter recently tweeted out a link to video where Ibram X Kendi is asked to define racism, and he struggled badly, and essentially provides a circular argument, amid awkward giggles and shuffling from the crowd.

    I know so many “skeptics” and “humanists” who have fallen for these New Age hucksters.

  8. For a relatively non-polemical account of critical social justice theory, see “Is everyone really equal: An introduction to key concepts of social justice education” by Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo (now in 2nd edition; original 2012, part of the Multicu;ltural Education Series.

  9. “So, read Kendi,”…

    I can’t.

    I just…can’t.

    I’ve seen him speak, my brain can’t take any more. I’ll have to cave in to my cowardly side and let others take the hit, reading his drivel, in a bid to give the other side their due.

      1. Coleman I can listen to, and I listen quite a lot. He’s amazing. I’ve seen his Kendi take downs.

  10. I‘ve read “Critical Race Theory — An Introduction” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001) and other works and papers years ago, discussed this also here, but few seemed to care.

    The intoduction says in its introduction, for instance:

    The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested 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, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces 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. — On Google Scholar, page 3

    In the following years, I wondered whether I was the only one who even read any of this, and was dazed for a while, how come that I — a European — have to get familiar with hardcore legalese of the US legal system to understand what American blue checkmark bullies, or Freethought Blog hate-monger even want from me? They certainly didn’t say. After I recovered, I tended to laugh about PZ Myers types who endorse “intersectionality” etcetera, and see it as mere entertainment when the woke themselves get a taste of the woke medicine, like Natalie Wynn or Linday Ellis, who got the “cancel” treatment as well. The woke’s primary achievement was to alientate non-Americans with their bewildering cultural imperialism.

    My conclusions are opposite of what James Lindsay and others suggest. None of this really matters. Until shown otherwise, I doubt strongly that even “activists” read, much less understood, what CRT actually says. I have even stronger doubts about Jordan Peterson, or James Lindsay’s boogeyman story of “cultural Marxists” who secretly undermine “the West”, like some red termites of a bygone McCarthy era. The primary concern seems to mention Karl Marx in every other sentence, or some mid-century German guy— that sounds spooky to American ears. Since Lindsay is affiliated with right wing or libertarian groups, it seems that message finds a receptive audience, rather than saying anything useful.

    How useful would it be to carp on about Plato, telling ominous stories how he taught Aristoteles, and more or less ignore what Aristoteles and following philosophers in his tradition actually say. That’s Lindsay and Peterson. From Marx or Frankfurt School to Critical Race Theory goes a long serpetine way, with many inversions and rejections (e.g. discarding class or income inequality altogether; also from Frankfurt School to now ignores the entirety of 1980s–1990s postmodern “theory”). Woke twitterati and journalists don’t even appear to have read a full sentence from Crenshaw, much less of Horkheimer.

    Finally, it takes no effort at all to show that this ideology is wholly compatible, and promoted by US institutions, the Democrat establishment, elite universities, corporations and even military contractors alike. And nearly every “blue” American blue checkmark on Twitter. Yet, despite their alleged leftism, they’ve all collectively worked overtime to prevent Bernie Sanders, and agree to the most consistent US bipartisan project — eternal warfare — together with the Republicans. That’s worth 760 BN, if I recall correctly. There is nothing even slightly social democratic in the cards, much less “left wing”.

    1. The best onspiracy theory that I’ve seen regarding Critical Theory in general is that the entire movement has been coopted by the alphabet soup of US and UK intelligence agencies who had long ago infiltrated Antifa and have already seized control of BLM for the purpose of instituting an old fashion CIA style operation against the US government. Thus, it should be no surprise that all major US institutions including the Southern Baptist Convention are falling in line with CR

  11. I thought theory encompasses, as an important part, observation of the natural world – let alone working in concert with experiment.

    As such, the word “theory” in “critical race theory” is doing the same work as it does in “music theory” – an impressive stand in for simply the means to talk and write about a subject – real or imaginary – but meaningless with regard to knowing what is true or false about the natural world.

  12. Rufo worked for the Discovery Institute. I think that says it all. But if you still need more, see #8 above.

    1. #8 above includes Jerry’s admonition against the ad hominem. You must have stopped reading too soon.

      1. It isn’t an ad hominem. It’s pointing out that he’s adapting the exact same strategy used to push creationism into schools to push conservative racial dogma in schools. Even if you somehow have some principled objection to the idea that racism in America has shaped systems in ways that cause racist consequences regardless of the intent of individual agents, why would you promote an admitted demagogue from a group you know operates in bad faith?

        This is a good resource in what critical race theory actually entails. It’s from a legal journal because that’s the field where the field of study originated, (and it doesn’t show up in K-12 curricula): https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/

        1. Some would argue that CRT is the equivalent of the Discovery Institute’s attempts at “teaching the controversy”.

          Difference is, CRT activists have succeeded in getting their ‘creationism’ into schools and workplaces.

          But yes, Rufo’s background makes me vigilant about him.

          1. It seems pertinent that the Disco. ‘tute is *actually* *promoting* anti-CRT through its creationist network. And that CRT isn’t taught in K-12 curricula. And that it isn’t creationism.

        2. American governments at all levels and private organizations of all stripes have been eliminating inequality in our systems of law and regulation since the Acts of the 1960’s. Unless you believe some sort of racist cabal is embedding racism deeper into the system to keep white power, it is hard to refute this fact. Of source there are remnants of the pre-civil rights system but, whenever they are found, they are expunged. From a complex systems perspective, the constant exaggeration about purported systemic racism or oppression makes actually solving related problems literally impossible. You can’t solve an exaggerated (or diminished) problem.

          1. “You can’t solve a…diminished problem” makes no sense.

            If we expunged every legacy of racism when it appeared, why would there still be statues honoring Confederates and public institutions named after them all over the place? And why would any effort to remove them face such extreme resistance, and in some cases new laws preventing the removal or renaming of these honors to racism?

            Our communities and schools are more segregated now than in the ‘60s. COVID is disproportionately killing people of color in large part because hospitals and other healthcare facilities are distributed in ways that track racial lines. New restrictions are being passed now to roll back voting rights in many states, a direct consequence of a relatively recent Supreme Court decision ending certain Civil Rights era protections. There are endless examples of other governmental and private institutional patterns and legacies of racism, including in policing, housing, education, voting, and employment, and efforts to reform those systems are never quick or easy. Explicitly racist choices about where highways and dumps and prisons and factories were built generations ago still destroy and poison communities of color today. The claim that these problems are exaggerated or instantly expunged is just obviously false.

            The CRT freakout that the creationist Disco. ‘tute is selling and Jerry is endorsing has resulted in laws making it harder to even teach about the history of racism you describe. To say we’re constantly expunging racism and its legacy, so therefore we shouldn’t talk about racism and its legacy, is factually and logically absurd.

            In some cases, yes, there are racist cabals (the US Senate Republican caucus, to name an example). In other cases, there are simply decisions to perpetuate systems that were established by racists. We don’t enforce racial housing covenants or redlining now, but those lines persist, and the economic harm they caused persists, making it harder for non-whites to buy homes in areas that were once redlined. That means racial disparities in schools persist, and translates to property taxes which translates to school funding, which affects educational outcomes for another generation. It doesn’t take a cabal to perpetuate that system, just people saying “we don’t want to give up our school funding,” “we don’t want to see our property values decline, and “not in my backyard.”

  13. Critical Social Justice, or Race, or Gender Theory is taken very, very seriously by its communicants because of that magic last word Theory. Just like the Cell Theory, the Germ Theory of Infectious Disease, the Theory of Evolution, the Kinetic Theory of Gases, Relativity Theory, etc, etc.—-and therefore, its communicants like to tell themselves, equally far-reaching.

    Similarly inflated claims for the power of other doctrines have been made before. In some quarters, the Class Struggle was once taken as The definitive explanation of everything in history—and Dialectical Materialism as the definitive explanation of EVERTHING period. Freudians once pretended to have all of human motivation/behavior essentially worked out. Islamists claim that Islam is “the answer to EVERYTHING”, and enthusiasts of other religions used to make similar claims for their doctrines.

    1. And then let’s not forget the “critical” part – sounds like “skepticism” or “critical thinking”. Somehow all it does for me is suggest the proponents hold their chins and furrow their brows at printed material and come up with counter arguments.

      We then have a nifty formula for cool sounding academic subjects :

      Critical Creation Theory
      Critical Music Theory
      Critical Astrological Theory
      Critical Goop Theory

    1. It ought to be referred to as Critical Racist Ideology, or CRI, since all they really do is cry and whine and complain about everything and everyone.

  14. I was assigned a CRT text for my last university course in education theory. I swear every other damn word was “critical”. Biggest waste of money I’ve ever spent. I learned nothing beyond how everything is “critical”. I’ve written more intelligent things on toilet paper with my backside.

    1. Didn’t the course publish it’s “required reading” list before you signed up for it. Or … would that have been a bit too “critical” for the course’s proponents to have handled?
      Nod head, rub blue woad-stained clay into your naval, and hope that on the relevant day, you rubbed it widdershins, not turnwise (you heretical barbarian)!

      1. That was 5 or maybe 6 years ago. I had never heard of CRT. There had been other issues in other classes, little clues and res flags but I was still blissfully ignorant. I had heard terms like bias and privilege bandied about but hadn’t grasped the full force of the cultural shift that was about to smack me upside my clueless little head. Unfortunately it was a required course, and I faked my fealty for the inflated grade. I did not finish the degree, to my eternal shame, but I lost interest in self-flagellation and frankly, I’m sick of education and want a different career, preferably one that doesn’t seek to shame me and accuse me of racism for simply choosing to do the job.

  15. As for the term “critical theory” (as we find it in “critical race theory”): It goes back to the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school. It’s not only the name of a sociological research program, but also of an ethical-political program. So “critical theorists” are essentially both theorists and activists (“scholar-activists” as Pluckrose&Lindsay call them).

    “[Critical theory] is not just a research hypothesis which shows its value in the ongoing business of men; it is an essential element in the historical effort to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of men. However extensive the interaction between the critical theory and the special sciences whose progress the theory must respect and on which it has for decades exercised a liberating and stimulating influence, the theory never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery.”

    (Horkheimer, Max. “Postscript to ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’.” 1937. In Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory: Selected Essays, 244-252. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell et al. New York: Continuum, 2002. pp. 245-6)

    1. Note here the emancipatory aim, following the enlightenment, and contrast this with CRT’s anti-enlightenment and anti-liberal approach, which they straight out print into their introduction book. See the quote in #13.

  16. “Of course slavery is gone”

    Modern wage slavery is doing the ownership very well, though. Coercion of labor from _all_ “races” should make proportionally more profit. The terms and conditions in all that fine print above the signature line are where the difference lies.

  17. How would CRT explain the success of Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Pedro Martinez, Serena and Venus Williams, Billie Jean King, and so on and so on – and why does this challenge pretty much make the person making it a racist according to CRT?

    The reason is CRT is a Just So Story written by academics for adults, instead of by Rudyard Kipling for children. Which, of course, is a racist claim according to CRT.

    Then the question is, where can we see the how the ideas of CRT compete with challenges from the modern era?

  18. What I find conspicuously absent from everything I have read about “Critical Race Theory” is any accounting for health conditions, particularly with regard to the origin of the relevant genes.

    Unequal outcomes – as it were – can in many cases be entirely explained by seriously adverse health as a result of genes – genes that, by definition, allow the broad categorization of individuals into “races” – to say nothing of environmental conditions.

    There are words for such a view of humanity. But, I plead ignorance on this point – perhaps “Critical Race Theory” has somewhere deep in its formulation, an entirely reasonable account of the relationship of genes and well being.

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