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 Introduction, with 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.