What, exactly, is critical race theory?

September 30, 2021 • 12:45 pm

All of us bandy about the term “critical race theory”, or use its initials, CRT. But how many of us really know what it is? And IS there really a widely-accepted canon of thought called CRT? If you were to ask me, I’d say CRT is the view that all life is a fight for power and hegemony of socially-constructed “races” that have no biological reality, that all politics is to be viewed through the lens of race, that the “oppressors” are, by and large, all biased against minorities and fight endlessly to keep them powerless, with many of the oppressors not even knowing their bias, and that different kinds of minority status can be combined into an “intersectionality” so that someone can be oppressed on several axes at once (for example, a Hispanic lesbian).

But not everybody agrees with that, and in fact there are widely different versions of CRT depending on the exponent (Ibram Kendi is perhaps the most extreme in his pronouncements), and also on the country. In the article below at Counterweight, Helen Pluckrose, co-author with James Lindsay of the good book Cynical Theories, tries to parse a meaning of CRT from all the diverse construals.

It turns out that because there are so many versions of CRT, perhaps (in my view) it’s best to stop using the term at all.

Click on the screenshot to read:

There’s Materialist CRT, Postmodernist CRT, the British Educational Association’s CRT, Critical Social Justice Anti-Racism, and even a version for higher education confected by Payne Hiraldo (a professor of the University of Vermont).  I won’t give them all here, and of course there’s considerable overlap. Here’s what Helen says are the tenets from the book Critical Race Theory: An Introductionwith her interpolations.  Her words are indented, and the tenets are doubly indented and put in bold:

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction describes it as a departure from liberal Civil Rights approaches:

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.

and sets out four key tenets:

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.

This is a claim that racism is everywhere. All the time. It’s just the water we swim in. It’s also claimed that most people of colour agree with this.  In reality, people of colour differ on this although a greater percentage of black people believe it to be true than white people.

Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.

This means that this system, which has just been asserted to exist everywhere, is valued by white people both psychologically and in practical terms. Many white people would disagree that they regard racism positively.

A third theme of critical race theory, 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.

This argues that races are social constructs rather than biological realities which is true – “populations” are the biological categories and don’t map neatly onto how we understand race – and that society has categorised and recategorised races according to custom, which is also true.  [JAC: I’d take issue with the claim that there is no biological “reality” at all to populations, races, or whatever you call ethnic groups. The classical definition of “race” is incorrect, but the view that races have no biological differences and are thus completely socially constructed, is also wrong.]

A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, 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.

There is much evidence that there is no unique voice of colour, and although there is good reason to think that people who have experienced racism may well have more perspective on it, they tend to have different perspectives. CRTs are more likely to regard those who agree with them as authoritative than those who disagree – i.e  “Yes” to Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshsaw but “No” to Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele.

After you work your way through Helen’s long piece, you realize that you simply cannot use “Critical Race Theory” unless you specify exactly what version you’re talking about. In fact, I’d say it’s best to ditch the phrase altogether and just discuss the claims.  I believe that’s Helen’s conclusion as well:

If it helps to call the current anti-racist theories “contemporary critical theories of race” rather than “Critical Race Theory”, do so, but for goodness’ sake, let’s stop the endless quibbling about terminology and talk about the ideas that have deeply infiltrated universities, employment, education, mainstream media, social media and general culture.

This is vitally important for two reasons.  Firstly, we need to be able address racism in society ethically and effectively. Secondly and relatedly, individuals need to be allowed to have their own views about how racism works and their own ethical frameworks for opposing it. They need to be able to discuss and compare them. This will help with achieving the first goal.

When it comes to discussing contemporary critical theories of race, we need to be able to talk about what the current theories actually say and advocate for and whether they are ethical and effective. Many people from a wide range of political, cultural, racial, religious and philosophical backgrounds would say “No” they are not, and they should be able to make their case for alternative approaches.

It is also vitally important that we are able to talk about how much influence these theories already have and how much they should have on society in general and on government, employment, mainstream media, social media and education in particular, and whether this influence is largely positive or negative. From my time listening to clients of Counterweight, I would respond, “Way too much” and “Largely negative” to these questions.

She ends with what are perhaps the most important questions, and can’t resist injecting her own opinion. Others may differ, but she says she has an open mind:

Most importantly, we need to be able to measure and discuss what effects these theories have on reducing racism, increasing social cohesion and furthering the goals of social justice. Are they achieving that or are they increasing racial tensions, decreasing social cohesion and being the driving force for many injustices in society while creating a culture of fear, pigeonholing people of racial minority into political stereotypes, and silencing the voices of those who dissent? I strongly believe, based on the reports coming into Counterweight, that it is the latter. However, I am willing to be persuaded to think differently, so let’s talk.

In the end, the theory is important only if we can get data supporting or contradicting it.

36 thoughts on “What, exactly, is critical race theory?

  1. I sense a new college course immerging from CRT, if they don’t exist already. That said, I’m about 2/3 of the way into Ibram Kendi’s book “Stamped From The Beginning.” I’ve been learning a lot from it – events and attitudes that I wasn’t even aware of – and it’s heartbreaking. I’ve never understood this human trait where one group has to be superior or be in control. That’s a mental illness right there (in my non-expert opinion).

  2. … you realize that you simply cannot use “Critical Race Theory” unless you specify exactly what version you’re talking about.

    I’m not convinced, it’s like saying that, because there are many versions of communism, one should not use the term without specifying whether you mean Neo-Gramscian Marxism or some other version. Terms for bundles of closely-related ideas are useful and necessary, even if there is some imprecision in their use.

    In fact, I’d say it’s best to ditch the phrase altogether and just discuss the claims.

    We need some name for the bundle of ideas that amount to woke ideology on race.

    1. I mostly agree. Every subject has its complexities but avoiding the use of a single overarching term hobbles discourse unnecessarily. The details can be dealt with in discussion. Quite often it makes sense to split a group into two or more subgroups, each to be given its own name, but that doesn’t seem like the case with CRT. CRT advocates already take too much power for themselves by refusing to engage in multilateral debate. Declaring their subject nameless just because not all of them agree on its precise definition takes away all the other avenues of criticism.

  3. Once again, I can’t help but notice that the one group not mentioned in the literature she draws from, in spite of the vast amounts of antisemitism that have pervaded and continue to exist all over the world. Jews are, apparently, the only minority that the author of that book doesn’t consider to have ever suffered from or currently suffer from racism, and therefore has no unique perspective nor right to give one (under the author’s rules).

    Also, I’d like to touch on The Enlightenment. It frustrates me to no end that The Enlightenment is seen as some racist endeavor that has produced nothing but misery for everyone but white people, and must be upended. The Enlightenment is what gave us the principles of equality, liberty, and security. It may have taken a long time for its philosophy to be applied to all people, but it was Enlightenment values that ended slavery, gave all races equality under the law, made exploitative colonialism an evil, and on and on.

    1. More importantly, the Enlightenment is not a uniform set of ideas and while there are clearly political/social ramifications to Enlightenment approaches, they are not just about politics either. Some individuals in the Enlightenment were quite critical of social heirarchies and quite vocal about equality of both race and gender. I think these people reify the Enlihgtenment and take a very reductive view of it.

    2. +1

      And Asian-Americans are also apparently not really POC. Indian Americans are the most successful ethnic group in the USA (including white people).

      So, CRT typically lumps them in with white people. (WTF)
      Not brown enough for you? What?

      And, same with Jews, as you note.

      1. But note that they do include “Asian[s]…” They always do, unless it’s inconvenient (talking about higher education acceptance rates or economics).

        And yes, just about every group from East Asia and India is more economically successful than white people (and Jews). Considering all of this, I can only conclude that Jews are left out because there is a serious strain of antisemitism on the far-Left/in social justice circles, where it’s often tacitly accepted and sometimes even completely allowed. As usual, Jews are hated on the both ends of the political spectrum. Louis Farrakhan is just as much of an antisemite as David Duke (hell, he may have said more antisemitic things over the course of his life than Duke). But plenty of social justice types have been allowed to promote and revere him. Three of the four leaders of the Women’s March openly supported him. I’ve seen books that openly promote antisemitism and conspiracy theories about Jews, like the fictitious Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, in Left-wing bookstores. I even saw Henry Ford’s The International Jew once.

        1. True, but a few Asian groups, like folks from Bangladesh, have lower median incomes that “whites.”
          Most Asian American groups do have significantly better median incomes and levels of education than whites. That is why lumping people as simply Asians, and thus including groups that have no genetic, geographic, cultural, historical, or economic affinities, is pointless and misleading, although not quite as silly (racist?) as lumping everyone in the world without 100% recent European ancestry as “people of color.”

          And who is or is not “white” anyway? Are Greeks white? How about their neighbors, the Turks? If you include the Greeks but not the Turks, is race really a substitute for majority religion? How about the Iraqis?

  4. “Are they achieving that or are they increasing racial tensions…” I’m pretty sure that supporters of anti-racism would say it is much too early to tell. Before you can claim failure, you have to give it a real chance to succeed, which takes more than just a couple of years of DEI programs.

    I doubt there will be much resistance to dropping CRT as a title, though. It doesn’t seem to me to be used explicitly by the anti-racists anyway.

  5. Any understanding of history must entail an explanation of how and why events unfold. A full understanding is difficult to impossible to achieve because of the complexity of human interactions. One approach, among many, is to view history as the competition for power between groups. For CRT advocates the most salient competition is between whites who want to retain power by oppressing minorities and that latter that want power (or at least a fair share of it). From a historical perspective this analysis is correct, but incomplete. That is, group competition has been manifested in many different ways in addition to race. They include religion, ethnicity, economic status, nationalism, political affiliation, gender identity, and even loyalty to a sports team. It is safe to say that all these group identifications are examples of tribalism.

    Tribalism can be found in just about any geographical area in any time of history. An economic analysis of this phenomenon explains little. Rather, it is the human need for a sense of self-esteem and self-worth. These traits are enhanced in people by comparing themselves to other people deemed in some way inferior to them. By identifying with a group or tribe, people are surrounded by others that validate their need for self-esteem and self-worth. They can now feel superior to people in other groups. It is irrelevant as to whether this feeling of superiority has any merit. Anti-Semitism is a classic example of how people, many of whom accomplished little in life, have their self-worth validated.

    Hence, CRT has emerged as a tool for Blacks to combat their perceived racial oppression. Many whites concede that racism and oppression existed in the past, but is currently greatly diminished. They resent the accusations because they go to the heart of their self-worth, which would be deflated if they acknowledged that they had any racist tendencies. All this makes the CRT debate unremarkable in world history, although it is important. It is but another example of the human quest to have meaningful lives. I cannot predict how this particular group conflict will end, but regardless of its resolution, it will be replaced by another one.

  6. Yes, words and phrases change meaning over time. There is no need for the public to carry along the obscure academic baggage. I happen to think that CRT is a lousy name, but it is in common use, and not just for those four tenets.

  7. I can’t pretend to understand everything that is written here and so I don’t want to say to what extent I accept or deny the claims. However, I was struck by the following quote:

    “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.”

    In what way does “traditional civil rights discourse” deny the claims laid out for CRT? This is not explained in the text of this post and I have not seen this explained anywhere else. It seems to me that one could accept all of them without this denying traditional civil rights discourse. If so, then the opposition of CRT with traditional civil rights discourse is not one based on competing claims about how society is organized but rather about something else. So, what is this “something else”?

  8. I shared a picture of the very page in the introduction book with the quotation “critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, …” about half a decade ago. Also linked it here in comments, probably several times. To no avail. I started reading the book, along with Crenshaw’s papers on intersectionality in the first place back then because American atheists on the internet had been very aggressive that everybody must understand this.

    I tried, and was genuinely suprised by that passage, or by the fairly dry legal arguments of Crenshaw. Do the aggressive bullies in US atheist comment sections really read this, I wondered out loud. I did not recognise that book-intersectionality with that on the internet at all. They couldn’t and wouldn’t explain their own ideas aside of a few slogans and intense bullying, and when you went looking into an intro book, you found their own books are very different from what they say with vehemence online.

    When you then present them with the material you’ve found, they shut down, as they did all the time when they couldn’t dominate and abuse. That’s for virtually every single advocate I ever came across in almost a decade, whether on atheist blogs or RationalWiki.

    My conclusion is, and was, that nobody read it, and that the majority of the apologists, the Mehta’s and the Dillahunty’s and the Myers’ — the clown car of American secularism — have not the faintest idea about any of this. I suspect that the intense, ultra hostile bullying from its advocates led to “overnight conversions” into this new hegemonial majority subculture in the US American liberal bubble. As a result, no discernible public reasoning ever took place. But since this is a climate of fear, even attempting to discuss anything (much less “skeptically”) was discouraged. And so PZ Myers et al never did, despite their platforms.

    I bring this up, because I think Helen Pluckrose is very wrong here. She is just chafing herself from running in circles, as I and many others did before. The ten-year old definition of “ sjw” was true; the first impression captured in the oldest memes of “Social Justice Sally” were apt. There is seriously nothing behind it. Everyone is running around trying to even name the phenomenon, but even that simple task is subverted instantly. Is it the Elect? Successor ideology? Social justice warriors? Regressive leftists? The Woke? In the end it’s just “Very Online American Morally Superior Exceptionalists”.

    Now you think you got something. Some ideas — there is an introduction book — something to finally grapple with this “activism”, but it falls apart yet again. Nobody cares. Now that the term CRT is used more often, we are yet again on the same circle track for yet another lap. Now can’t know which version is meant. It will go on like this forever.

  9. I haven’t heard any CRT aficionados mention the fact that blacks in majority-white countries/societies are better off than blacks in majority-black countries/societies.

    1. And the 40,000+ black and brown people who, every year (>100 per day, on average), risk their life’s savings and their lives to cross the USA’s southern border to enter this hell-hole of racism and white supremacy in order to, “make a better life for themselves and their family” as I heard from one Mexican undocumented immigrant state on NPR today.

      Poor sods, insufficiently educated in Critical Theory I guess!

  10. I’m not a proponent of CRT in any form, not even close. What bothers me though about some of the critiques of CRT is the tacit or sometimes even explicit argument that discussion of structure is inherently misplaced. The other issue is that the idea of “social construction of reality”, which is not a concept without its flaws to be sure, on both sides (pro and con) doesn’t ever really seem to connect with the original SCR literature. The term just gets thrown around. IF CRT proponents take ideas about structure, privilege etc. too an untenable extreme, that does not mean those valid or invalid ideas. Nor is Classical Liberalism the only alternative to CRT and Classical Liberalism has its shortcomings as well.

  11. There’s a metaphor that goes, “The map is not the territory.” People experience the territory and describe it with the map to varying degrees of success. I think CRT is trying to get the map to more accurately reflect the territory. Good luck to all with your efforts.

  12. Most importantly, we need to be able to measure and discuss what effects these theories have on reducing racism, increasing social cohesion and furthering the goals of social justice.

    I’m all for that, but the difficulty is radically compounded by the variable definitions of the “racism” that we’re trying to reduce and the “goals of social justice” that we’re trying to promote.

  13. I still don’t understand what advantage oppressing a bunch of people is supposed to convey to someone like me.
    Perhaps in some past eras, but in today’s world I just don’t see any incentive.
    If nothing else, a permanent underclass dependent on government housing and handouts is a fairly expensive thing to maintain. Leaving those same people with no opportunities for success other than turning to crime holds no great advantages, either.
    Additionally, oppressing some group requires a certain amount of effort that would be better spent on providing for one’s family or pursuing productive interests.

    Beyond that, society is not a zero-sum game. Nobody has to suffer for me to provide a comfortable life for my family. If anything, my life is better when everyone is productive and happy.

      1. Are there really genetic differences between people doing the oppressing and people being oppressed?

        I seem to recall that many white people in America are descended from immigrants who fled their country because they were being oppressed.

        If you want a better life, you often have to uproot yourself and make a new home in a new country, where you have the opportunity to build a better life.

        Hence America remains a magnet for minorities around the world.

        1. I would hardly call that “remote ancestors” in an evolutionary sense. Evolution has a rather longer time frame than that.

          The point is that there is an evolutionary advantage to giving preferential treatment to others with similar features to ourselves. As far as I know that is a pretty well supported theory within biology.

          The point is that asking “what advantage does it give us?” is the wrong question when talking about something that might have been part of our genetic makeup even before we were human.

          It seems to be blank slatism to rule out that racism might be part of the genetic makeup of all humans of any racial background.

  14. The problem is that quite a lot gets labelled as “Critical Race Theory” by opponents when the authors of the material don’t claim that it is CRT.

    I have always tried to avoid the term and instead to look at the various propositions on their own merit.

    Again I don’t understand the contrary position, the “anti CRT” position. Do they say that there was never structural racism? Or do they say that we have evolved as a species so that we are no longer racist?

    Does it seem completely unlikely to the people here that human beings might tend to have more favorable attitudes to people who are genetically closer to them and that this might, in the past, have had a survival advantage?

  15. Don’t back off your definition, Prof. It’s comprehensive (indeed, I would fault it only because it’s a little too long), plus it’s in accordance with both my understanding and, I believe, the common understanding.

  16. If you see a person on twitter screaming at the keyboard with all caps on saying “BURN IT ALL DOWN!!!” or “TEAR IT ALL DOWN!!!”, you pretty much have a critical race person. The problem with the decontructionist POMO people is all they can do is tear down, they cannot build anything. They can defund the police and replace it with nothing but hyperbole and space hippy bong-talk.

  17. There are persistent issues in society that somehow never get solved, such as women getting less pay for the same job. People would like to have a theory as to why that is the case. And because the United States has a long history of structural racism, and racism is still alive and kicking, the easy answer is that structural racism is the cause of the plight of blacks. Well, if it is that easy, the problem would probably have been fixed by now.

  18. JAC: I’d take issue with the claim that there is no biological “reality” at all to populations, races, or whatever you call ethnic groups. The classical definition of “race” is incorrect, but the view that races have no biological differences and are thus completely socially constructed, is also wrong.

    The Left deny science.

    You can’t have a Critical Race Theory which works if your worldview denies the science behind racial differences.

    If you deny science, your conclusions will be wrong.

    And your ‘remedies’ will make things worse.

      1. Feel free to tell me the names of people on the Left who claim race is a biological reality. Just 3 names will do.

        1. I suspect that most of the commenters, myself included, agree with our host’s statement about race so I’ll consider your request satisfied. You can ask their names.

  19. I just finished reading the underlying article by Pluckrose. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what CRT (or whatever you want to call it) is in practice. The article is about 4 orders of magnitude more user-friendly than her book Cynical Theories.

    1. Thank you jay for continuing the dialogue into this morning. I just did not have the energy yesterday afternoon and evening to read through this weit entry though the crt issue is very important to me, particularly in how it is handled in K12 education. I have read the pluckrose and lindsay cynical theories book and based on your comment, i look forward to reading the pluckrose article in this post this morning.

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