NPR touts CRT, and CRT embraces MLK

September 14, 2022 • 9:45 am

If you follow National Public Radio (NPR), partly funded by American taxpayers, you’ll know that it’s gone pretty woke. The latest example was called to my attention by a reader who noted a 7-minute interview between NPR host A. Martinez and Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the big doyens and architects of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Krenshaw was in fact the person who introduced the concept of “intersectionality” into CRT.

There were three things about the interview—you can either read it or listen below—that bothered the reader. First, CRT was presented as a done deal without any issues or criticism, due largely to softball questions by the interviewer. Second, the interview sounded scripted, as if the whole “discussion” had been written down and was being read. (This is a no-no in journalism, but I’m not as bothered by it as by the other two issues.) Finally, Crenshaw tries to fold Martin Luther King into CRT, presenting his views as an early version of CRT when they were nothing of the sort.

But let’s back up. Here’s what the reader sent me:

Thought you might be interested in this. I had on Morning Edition this morning and my jaw just about dropped as I washed my face and heard this. It’s like they did an infomercial for Critical Race Theory. CRT is presented as if it’s a physics formula, an absolute given that it’s 100% correct and nothing controversial, but it’s been hijacked by crazy right-wingers.

It’s mostly an interview with Kimberle Crenshaw, but this “interview” sounds as if it’s literally pre-arranged to make sure she gets to say exactly what she wants. And I do mean “literally.” Do you know how the NPR presenters will often a back-and-forth conversation with one of their correspondents, rather than having the correspondent just report their story? When they do that, it’s very irritating because it’s clear they’re following a script but pretending to have a spontaneous conversation. And that is exactly what this sounded like. I seriously think they had a pre-arranged script with Crenshaw.

I already stopped supporting NPR, so I can’t do it again unfortunately.

The reader added this caveat:

If I’m wrong and this interview was not scripted, that’s almost as bad—because the reporter did nothing but back up Crenshaw and ask leading questions to let her continue giving an infomercial for CRT, rather than asking her any of the many valid questions about the real problems with CRT. He didn’t even try the “some people say this, what do you say to them?” approach. And since Crenshaw is one of the creators of modern CRT, that is bizarre journalism.

Click to read or listen, and note that the title is a simple declarative statement of truth, which is not true when applied to Martin Luther King.

Listen for yourself.  The distortion that upset me most was the attempt of Crenshaw, as I said, to pretend that Martin Luther King, Jr. was actually a critical race theorist. Here’s the telling exchange:

MARTINEZ: You wrote an article – an op-ed actually – in the LA Times in January, and the headline is “Martin Luther King Was A Critical Race Theorist Before There Was A Name For It.” [JAC: it’s here but it’s paywalled, and I haven’t read it.] In what way, Professor?

CRENSHAW: Well, in several ways. No. 1, he was a critic of the contradiction between what America says it is, what its deepest aspirations are and what its material reality is. You know, a lot of people like to quote his March on Washington speech, particularly the part where he talks about how our aspiration is to be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin. That was his sort of aspirational moment. The rest of the speech was a trenchant critique of the idea that America had given African Americans a rubber check. Basically, the promises of the 13th and the 14th Amendment came back marked insufficient funds. So his entire point of that speech was to make good on the Democratic promises.

Well, I urge you to read the entire “I have a dream” speech (transcript here), paying attention to the “rest of the speech” touted by Crenshaw as expressing CRT.  As you might know, there’s been considerable agitation concerning King’s famous statement in this speech that I’ve put in bold below: his aspiration to have all people judged not by their skin color but by the content of their character. That implies that we should stop dividing, judging, and treating people differently based on race; rather, we should judge people by who they are as individuals. He’s calling for universal brotherhood.

That, of course, explicitly contravenes CRT, which makes race and racism the central organizing principle of American society, and insists that people’s views be judged taking race into account as well as  being treated differently based on their race.  King’s views have discomfited advocates of CRT, and now, as Crenshaw is doing here, they are starting to paint King (and his famous aspiration) as really being an early advocate of CRT. That’s about as wrong as you can get.

First, although the components of CRT, an academic theory, vary among analysts, we need to know its main contentions. I could have used the book Cynical Theories by Pluckrose and Lindsay, which did a very good job laying out the tenets of the theory. Although both authors are opposed to CRT, I thought their presentation of it was quite good, and presented my summary of its tenets here. (Note that the idea of race as a social construct, but one that gives members of a group a unique voice, were not embraced by King.) However, I’ll use the Wikipedia “common themes” of CRT as I suspect they’ve been vetted by advocates of the theory, so we can take them as more or less a definitive summary. Here’s the list (quotes are taken from the article).

  1. Critique of liberalism. “First and foremost to CRT legal scholars in 1993 was their ‘discontent’ with the way in which liberalism addressed race issues in the U.S. They critiqued ‘liberal jurisprudence’, including affirmative action, color-blindness, role modeling, and the merit principle. Specifically, they claimed that the liberal concept of value-neutral law contributed to maintenance of the U.S.’s racially unjust social order.”
  2. Storytelling/counterstorytelling and “naming one’s own reality”. “The use of narrative (storytelling) to illuminate and explore lived experiences of racial oppression.”
  3. Standpoint epistemology. “The view that a members of racial minority groups have a unique authority and ability to speak about racism. This is seen as undermining dominant narratives relating to racial inequality, such as legal neutrality and personal responsibility or bootstrapping, through valuable first-hand accounts of the experience of racism.”
  4. Intersectional theory. “The examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their intersections play out in various settings, such as how the needs of a Latina are different from those of a Black male, and whose needs are promoted.”
  5. The discussion of essentialism vs. anti-essentialism. “Scholars who write about these issues are concerned with the appropriate unit for analysis: Is the black community one, or many, communities? Do middle- and working-class African-Americans have different interests and needs? Do all oppressed peoples have something in common? This is a look at the ways that oppressed groups may share in their oppression but also have different needs and values that need to be analyzed differently. It is a question of how groups can be essentialized or are unable to be essentialized.”
  6. Structural determinism and race, class, sex, and their intersections.  “Exploration of how ‘the structure of legal thought or culture influences its content’ in a way that determines social outcomes.”
  7. The debate over cultural nationalism/separatism. “The exploration of more radical views that argue for separation and reparations as a form of foreign aid (including black nationalism).”
  8. Legal institutions, critical pedagogy, and minorities in the bar. “. . . differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society by race. Institutionalized racism is normative, sometimes legalized and often manifests as inherited disadvantage. It is structural, having been absorbed into our institutions of custom, practice, and law, so there need not be an identifiable offender. Indeed, institutionalized racism is often evident as inaction in the face of need, manifesting itself both in material conditions and in access to power.”
  9. Black/white binary. “The black-white binary is a paradigm identified by legal scholars through which racial issues and histories are typically articulated within a racial binary between Black and white Americans. The binary largely governs how race has been portrayed and addressed throughout U.S. history.”

Now read King’s speech from the 1963 March On Washington, delivered August 28 at the Lincoln Memorial. I’ve put below not only the words following his famous quote, but do read what goes before as well. It’s these statements that Crenshaw say make Martin Luther King an early advocate of CRT. Emphasis is mine:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,  From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

Those are of course stirring words, but, either before or after the quote in bold, I find very little that corresponds to CRT. Crenshaw tries mightily to drag King into the CRT corral, but what his entire speech consists of is a passionate advocacy of equality—combined with the palpable fact that the founding fathers and people like Abraham Lincoln declared all “men” equal, but that this promise had not been met. There is nothing about intersectionality, standpoint theory, “lived experience,” a critique of liberalism, and so on. What we see is the delineation of a persistent, vicious, and hurtful racism that violates America’s own principles, and a call for brotherhood: for equality, not for separation. And, of course, his famous line underscores that.

If you want to say that those sentiments make King a CRT advocate, then you’re really throwing overboard the tenets of CRT and just asserting that it’s about racism per se and a striving for brotherhood and equality. But that’s not what CRT is about. Other King writings I’ve read and speeches I’ve heard (see a famous example here) don’t materially differ in what they call for, nor bring King closer in philosophy to modern CRT. The only similarity between King and, say, Ibram Kendi, is their emphasis on racism and how to rectify it. But how they portray racism, and the methods they espouse for eliminating it, are completely different. I won’t dwell on this: if you know your Kendi or DiAngelo, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Antiracists, disturbed by King’s words and especially the bold line above—which in fact accurately expresses his views—have either ignored the disparity with CRT, or, lately, tried to pretend that King and Kendi are two peas in a pod. But over the years I’ve also seen mentions of King diminish, though I expected the opposite during the “racial reckoning.” That’s because his views don’t really jibe with modern ones based on CRT. My correspondent also noticed this:

Yes, the whole thing of claiming MLK was espousing CRT started this past year, and there were at least a couple of very good articles explaining how completely wrong, and knowingly wrong, that is. I didn’t bookmark them or anything but I’m sure you can find by googling if you want to. Before, CRT was trying to play down or erase MLK, and this is their attempt to instead claim he’s one of them. But I was just reading that the California ethnic studies curriculum—I believe it was California—literally doesn’t include him, since until recently, it was easier to ignore him since MLK completely conflicts with CRT. Note no pushback from the interviewer even though this was a well known issue only a little earlier this year.

I found just one of those articles, by Coleman Hughes, and a discussion article here. I also looked at the latest draft of the California ethnic studies curriculum and found a handful of mentions of King as well as of CRT. (Update: there’s more on his relative neglect here, and here.) But King is perhaps the most eloquent and effective African-American of our time with respect to civil rights—a man whose powers helped bring the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts into being. He deserves a much bigger portion of the curriculum. Oh, and he wasn’t an early exponent of CRT.

As for NPR, well, let’s just say that once again their programming is ideologically slanted, and this time in a misleading way.


I’ll finish with a quote from the Coleman Hughes piece (it was written when he was an undergraduate):

With regard to the role that racial identity should play in politics, King was unequivocal: First and foremost we are human beings, not members of races. The verbal tic of modern racial-justice activists—“As a black man . . .”—would sound foreign on his lips. Even when fighting explicitly racist policies, he deployed universal principles rather than a tribal grievance narrative.

“The problem is not a purely racial one, with Negroes set against whites,” King writes of the civil-rights movement in his 1958 essay “Three Ways of Meeting Oppression.” He adds that “nonviolent resistance is not aimed against oppressors but against oppression. Under its banner consciences, not racial groups, are enlisted.”

. . . If we use the adjective “radical” to describe King, then we should follow it with the right nouns. King was a radical Christian, as demonstrated by his commitment to loving his enemies no matter how much they hated him. He was a radical truth-teller, whether that meant telling white moderates that blacks wouldn’t wait any longer to be granted full rights, or telling blacks not to make oppression an excuse for failure. Most important, he was a radical advocate, not on behalf of any subdivision of our species, but on behalf of humanity as a whole.

27 thoughts on “NPR touts CRT, and CRT embraces MLK

  1. Prof. Coyne, you’ve discussed NPR many times. I don’t listen to NPR. I do, or did, watch a lot of PBS. PBS is nearly as bad these days which is a real shame considering it was once the gold standard for great TV.

    1. Used to watch the Newshour nearly every day. I was amazed when they interviewed McWhorter about his book, but then that was only as a culture/arts segment. Evidently that was the best they could manage WRT heterodox views. Just barely acknowledging their existence. I stopped watching not long after that.

  2. The Hughes excerpt is very clear.

    I know our host PCC(E)’s official rank – but I can’t help but point out the sound of “In what way, Professor?” – this most certainly outrages one audience, but elicits an obeisance in another.

    I’m not criticizing a rank, or profession, I’m pointing out the music of the spoken word in this “interview” and possible effects. For instance, we cannot say the same of Coleman Hughes – but his expression and reasoning is very clear.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. But his question has no affect at all except that of “tell us why he was an advocate of CRT?” It’s a straightforward question meant to elicit a possibly scripted answer.

      1. I thought that wouldn’t be clear.

        The sound on the radio spoken out loud – it sounds more impressive, more convincing, than not using “professor”. I am imagining two audiences and their reactions.

        Coleman could not get an assist like “professor”…

        I think the Monty Python skit does that – the one with Cleese as the professor with a theory which is his?

  3. Is it not undeniably true (albeit perhaps not to fanatics and “woke-ishly” moralizing zealots) that MLK’s famous words are unequivocal about the judging of others by the “content of their character” and that the essence of CRT is that others be judged by the “color of their skin”?

    1. No, the claim about “the essence of CRT” is very deniable. Re-read the 9 common themes quoted. And please notice that most of them are about the way things are and have been, not about the way they should be. There are certainly tactical differences between King and Crenshaw et. al. regarding whether one can “use fire to fight fire” without always making things worse.

    2. MLK said a lot of other things, too. His early death allowed turning him into a secular saint, a family-friendly example unlike more radical and long-lived civil rights leaders who got embroiled in too many controversies.

      One demand of MLK was that America should pay reparations to descendants of slaves, and for no less than the duration of slavery.

  4. The essential element of Critical Race Theory is the one it shares with postmodernist theory, critical gender theory, transgender theory, queer theory, and the rest of these constructs so fashionable with NPR. It is the word THEORY, thus a pretense to the same academic status as the theory of evolution through natural selection, the cell theory, the germ theory of disease, the atomic theory, the kinetic theory of gases, etc. etc. The status accorded these intellectual systems is akin to the regalia worn by priests and other guardians of sacred mysteries.

    The sacred mysteries of this particular NPR exercise are guarded by a contemporary priestly caste wearing special academic robes. Here is an example, from an account of two members of this clerisy: “Branden D. Elmore is a postdoctoral associate at the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education at the University of Maryland. Dwayne K. Wright is an assistant professor of higher education administration and director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.

    1. This fetishization of “theory” has struck me as a sort of STEM envy.

      But the CRT/pomo/pomo/etc manifestation of the envy has more in common with cargo-cult science than real science. The goal is to dress up your reasoning in as much jargon and complexity as possible, to make it seem grand and profound — when often, there’s little there more than limp statements of the obvious. IMHO, this is quite the opposite of effective scientific communication.

    2. “It is the word THEORY, thus a pretense to the same academic status as the theory of evolution …”

      That’s why I think asking the questions with “professor” gives that speaker and the “theory” an assist which they most certainly will use.

      1. meaning the way the question is worded – “In what way, Professor?”. It also literally sounds good, which is is a requirement of radio – it has to _sound_ good, or people turn it off. Modulo, of course, podcasts, or YouTube-ized audio, etc.

  5. I was listening when they played that interview and was pretty appalled. First, there is no theory here. There is no hypothesis, or prediction. Just an assertion of a world view. Second, it is pretty ridiculous. She says this (I could not believe I heard it correctly but I read the transcript and copied it):

    “Critical race theory is something that people practice every day. If you yourself put your hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o’clock position when you see those lights in the rearview mirror, you are practicing critical race theory.”

    How can this be practicing critical race theory?
    I am white, but when I see a policeman I put my hands at the 10 and 2 o’clock position. I do it because I don’t want a ticket. It is not fear of racism.

    1. Yes, I agree. This is what you do when a cop stops you, whether you be black or white. (Of course, data show that blacks get stopped more often than whites.) Still, this is sensible advice for everyone and has NOTHING to do with CRT.

      1. The 10 and 2 comment likely refers to the notion that white people are more likely to think that they are safe so long as they place hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel to avoid problems with the officer. However, a lot of black folks feel that they have to go even further to avoid having their actions misperceived. This includes trying to avoid things like reaching for the handle to roll down the window by rolling it down beforehand, reaching for ins/reg in a glove box or closed console by keeping them in an open container or on the dashboard, reaching for their wallet in their pocket by keeping it in an open place in the car, etc. Some folks even feel that they are safer by rolling down the window and putting their hands outside the car. Whether this kind of discussion is more prevalent in the black community or not is a good question, but anecdotally it seems so.

    2. It’s not CRT that’s for sure. Just as with the nonsense about perverting MLK’s words, the speaker is trying to shoe horn into CRT a sadly common fact of American life. It should be obvious that the comment is referring to the justifiable fear that black people have when they are pulled over by the cops; put your hands where they can see them or they may shoot you. Of course, all too often one of the reasons they were pulled over in the first place is because they were DWB (Driving While Black) which is, to too many cops, suspect behavior. I think the comment meant to imply that both of these things (the fear and the DWB violations) are explained by CRT. Like with the MLK effort, it stretches the definition to meaninglessness.

    3. “Critical race theory is something that people practice every day.”

      I thought of one for Professor Crenshaw :

      When you get a pre-recorded telephone menu and it says to press 2 for Spanish. – you just got CRTed!

  6. “Standpoint epistemology.” That alone, it seems to me, marks CRT/Wokeness as an enemy of science and enlightenment values.

  7. 1. Can someone explain or give by example an experiment that would prove a null hypothesis for CRT. 2. What data is available to demonstrate that the basic tenants of CRT, if implemented, would bring about racial harmony, a condition advocated by MLK.

      1. Lets use the following definition taken from Wikipedia, The 2021 Encyclopaedia Britannica described CRT as an “intellectual and social movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour.”

        Possible null hypothesis – race is a social construct with no biological basis.
        Alternative hypothesis – race has a biological basis.

        Enter forensic anthropologist – Can you tell me the race of skeletalized remains?

        1. That definition is a masterwork, is it not?

          The forensic question would be productive, I think. I’m not sure “race” would be precisely scientific.

    1. I have seen this sign hanging up on a pole or structure on the Lasell University campus (by photos, not in person). :

      “Race – Your thoughts – 6 words – we all have a story”

      The 8-1/2″ X 11″ sign (so, U.S. printer paper) invites the subject to literally write six words on the sign, or add an extra sheet, so they collect words over time.

      What am I saying … the sign promotes the notion is that race is a story.

      That was a new one to me. Marketing, is what I’m thinking explains it.

  8. ” 9. Black/white binary. “The black-white binary is a paradigm identified by legal scholars through which racial issues and histories are typically articulated within a racial binary between Black and white Americans. The binary largely governs how race has been portrayed and addressed throughout U.S. history.” ”

    What is Obama?

    I suppose we all settle on Black, but we know he is of “mixed race” birth. This would seem to support the paradigm in [9] above.

    But if race is “binary” what is a child of parents of two races? How is it decided which of the two races the child is? If it is mixed – an admixture of genes from two parents – the child cannot be either one or the other and cannot be “binary” – even though the language sounds impressive and reads impressively.

    Perhaps “ambiracial” would be more precise, but again, this ignores the genetic lineage beyond the parents.

  9. When I read through each of the 9 points in the summary of CRT I first try to think of examples which make sense, seem true, give insight. Then I try to think of examples of those principles which do none of those. Both approaches work. In fact, they seem to work for most social theories.

    I’m therefore tempted to dismiss maybe half of the disagreement as each side misinterpreting the other. The rest, is probably the actual dispute.

  10. The black/white binary rule has led to the virtually automatic labelling of mixed-race people (like Obama, or Kamala Harris) as Black, with a capital B. So, this means that politically correct, “anti-racist” opinion now accepts the “one drop of blood” rule that was introduced originally by the racist proponents of slavery and then Jim Crow. In much the same way, campus Diversicrats are now busy organizing racially segregated
    “affinity groups”/ caucuses, while also pushing for racial quotas in some admissions and employment procedures. Thinking back to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, one wonders when we can expect a non-aggression treaty between the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and the American Nazi Party.

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