Yes, it’s time to take a look at Critical Race Theory. There are lots of rants out there if you want to waste time with them, but my purpose here is rather a seriously engaged analysis. That’s the only way we’ll ever get to justice.
Critical Race Theory (aka, CRT) is all the rage right now, something that is true in both senses of the phrase. It is certainly enjoying a moment in the public spotlight, far beyond what most other academic theories can usually aspire to, but it is also true that it generates a tremendous amount of rage whenever and wherever it rears its theoretical head. Its opponents claim that CRT does little more than spread racist hate and anti-American invective, while its supporters claim that all it does is show us a different perspective on America’s past and present that opens new pathways toward racial and social justice. It can be difficult to wade through the rhetorical minefields surrounding CRT to determine who is right or who is wrong, especially since both sides are equally stentorian in accusing one another of spreading malicious and mendacious misinformation.
Who, then, should we believe? Which side is telling the truth? The easiest thing to do in trying to answer these questions, and this is the tactic I’ve seen in pretty much everything I’ve read on CRT, is to pick one side and then champion it, either by showing the vaunted virtues of one’s chosen side or by denouncing the fetid philistinism of the other. Neither approach is particularly helpful, so it would be nice if there were another way to wade into the hyper-partisan maelstrom surrounding CRT, a way that pushes the discussion into a different and more constructive direction.
It turns out there actually is a way to do that, and it’s a way that comes in two simple steps. The first step is to shift the debate away from the simplistic and pointless approach of choosing one side. The second step is to then push the discussion toward the structure and content of CRT itself, something that leads us in the direction of two things that sound complicated but actually aren’t — namely, epistemology and pedagogy. Epistemology is a more concise way of saying how we know what we know, and pedagogy is a more concise way of saying how we convey what we know to others. The reason for pushing the discussion in this direction is because it allows us to examine CRT on its own terms and in its proper context.
If you are having trouble seeing why this shift is so important to opening up a more constructive discussion, I’ll offer an analogy. Let’s take the example of the upcoming trials of the other police officers involved in the death of George Floyd. If I ask the question of whether they are guilty or innocent, I’ll most likely get a shouting match — choose a side, polarize the issue, and then try to win the argument by turning the volume to eleven, or twelve, if the other side beat you to eleven. If I ask instead whether the main charge should be second-degree manslaughter or third-degree murder, we now have a very different type of discussion, one where logic and reason lead to a conclusion rather than one where acrimony and anger lead to the emergency room.
I’ll go through this step by step, but to keep the discussion focused right from the start, I’ll state my basic premise and then go through each of the reasons that have led me to this conclusion. In a nutshell, the real problem with CRT — and do pay very careful attention to the hyphen — is that as a theory it is woefully hypo-critical (hypo means low, as in hypoglycemia, which means low blood sugar). Note that I did not say hypocritical, a charge which always comes replete its own pejorative baggage. To say that CRT is hypo-critical is to say that it is insufficiently critical, or selectively critical, both of which ultimately undermine its status as a legitimate epistemological or pedagogical theory. If there is good news here, it is that none of CRT’s flaws is necessarily a fatal flaw. With a little work, CRT can be revised, revamped, and remodeled as a constructive and productive theoretical approach to social and racial justice.
1. What is CRT?
What we now call Critical Race Theory (CRT) emerged out of the remnants of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and sought to answer the question of why, in spite of all the efforts ot the Civil Rights Movement and all that came before it, racism was still so pervasive in the United States and showed no signs of abating. CRT came together as a field in the 1970s and was built up with the pioneering work of scholars such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado (among others) trying to establish an alternative interpretive framework to address this question about the obdurate persistence of racism in the United States.
In its original framework, CRT focused specifically on matters of law and did so for two reasons. The first is that the law is a text-based field, something that will make more sense when I delve into the deep historical roots of CRT below. But for now, understand that the interpretation (or re-interpretation) of words and language in legal texts becomes an essential tactic in the evolving theoretical arsenal of CRT.
The second reason that CRT focused on legal texts is that it allowed its architects to focus on one specific text in particular, namely — the US Constitution. Since the Constitution is considered one of the foundational institutions of American democracy, and since the early proponents of CRT identified the Constitution as an inherently racist document (due to things such as 3/5 compromise), then the conclusion that was derived from this line of scholarship was that racism in the United States was neither an aberration nor an anomaly but rather something “baked in” to the fount of American democracy right from the start. Since the Constitution was a cornerstone of the entire edifice of American democracy, the conclusion that was offered was that the United States was an inherently racist country. American democracy and the entire political system that supported it was institutionally and systemically racist. The only way to get racism out of the system, it seemed, was to destroy the system.
From here, CRT gradually evolved into a larger field of inquiry that expanded the original premise of the Constitution being inherently racist to the broader question of why the Constitution was written, intentionally as it were, as the inherently racist document that it allegedly was. What purpose did that serve? The answer that CRT came up with is that the Constitution was written in order to serve and protect the interests of the dominant group in the United States at its founding moment, and that dominant group was in essence White wealthy property owners. The Constitution was thus not, as its supporters claimed, a document that gifted these beautiful things called freedom and democracy to all American citizens, but rather a racist and elitist document designed with the singular intent to ensure that the dominant group would always remain dominant. In other words, it didn’t just bake in racism — it baked in White supremacist racism.
CRT thus had an answer for why racism was so difficult to battle and so difficult to remove — it was part of the very foundation of the United States. And to the extent that the Constitution was the source out of which all subsequent law and all legal institutions flowed, CRT focused in its early years on how the legal system furthered the work of the Constitution by insuring the dominance of White supremacy through the legal disempowerment of all non-dominant communities. Far beyond slavery and Jim Crow, now everything from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to what is sometimes referred to as the “prison industrial complex” or the “school-to-prison pipeline” (including the over-incarceration of Blacks) fell right into place in the CRT’s evolving narrative. All of them were designed to control and suppress non-dominant, non-White groups in order to keep power and control in the hands of White people, which White people supported of course due to their deeply internalized belief in their own racial superiority, aka White supremacy.
CRT’s initial focus on law and the legal system then began to expand into other academic fields as well. Ethnic Studies, for example, which began to spring up in many a university curriculum in the mid- to late-1970s, was largely predicated on the idea that the stories of non-dominant (non-White) groups in the United States had been suppressed, and not only did those stories need to be told but also they had to be told only by individuals from those groups. If White people told those stories, the CRT argument went, they would be distorted in ways that reflected the deeply embedded racist prejudice intrinsic in the dominant group. CRT thus set its sights on first dismantling, attacking, and undermining the dominant (White) narrative of the United States, responsible as it putatively is for the persistent propagation of racism in the United States, and then on enabling, liberating, and advocating the narratives of non-dominant groups which were presumably the healing salve to all the festering racist wounds that Whites had built into the system right from the start.
All of the ideas and phrases that are currently making the round in discussions of CRT stem from this general framework set in motion by the early pioneers of CRT. The idea that race is a social construct (constructed by Whites to create and defend a racial hierarchy) or the phenomenon of “White fragility” (the defensiveness of Whites when their complicity in the system of institutionalized racism is exposed), for example, are now considered idioms of the theoretical vernacular of CRT. The general claim of CRT that it offers a more inclusive and equitable analytical framework by looking beyond the dominant narrative and including non-dominant perspectives (which again must be told only by those within those perspectives, with the contradictory exception that non-Whites can speak for the White perspective) and by giving those non-dominant narratives full and equal credibility. This agenda is considered central to the larger mission of CRT. These non-dominant narratives are frequently cast as heroic voices of the oppressed (victims of White supremacy) against that of the oppressor (architects of White supremacy), which then leads directly to one of the more contentious claims of CRT — that all Whites oppress by mere virtue of their existence whether they are aware of it or not. In short, all Whites are complicit in White supremacy and all Whites benefit from White supremacy, the latter giving rise to the idea of “White privilege.”
I will go into the deep roots of CRT below, but for now, this should suffice as a basic introduction to the fundamental elements of CRT. In order to understand my argument as to why the central problem with CRT is that it is hypo-critical, we need first to understand what a theory is and what a theory is supposed to do.
2. What is a theory?
Developing a theory is often derided or dismissed as little more than creative conjecture — “everybody has a theory,” as the saying goes. When people refer to a theory this way, they are mistakenly conflating a theory with an opinion. Anyone can have an opinion, but not everyone can have a theory; an opinion is based primarily on subjective emotion, whereas a theory must be based on objective, verifiable information. A theory is not the same thing as a fact, but that does not mean a theory has no basis in factual reality. A theory is a way of linking together disparate elements into a causal and contingent narrative. What makes a theory more or less valid is (1) the expertise and knowledge — the credentials, as it were — of the person crafting the theory, and (2) the ability of others with similar skills and credentials to test each of the components of the theory, revising the theory accordingly when new information is produced that either confirms or challenges part or all of the existing theory.
With this definition, for example, we can clearly see the problem with what are called conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory looks like a theory — it produces what appears to be a credible narrative linking together disparate elements — but part or all of the theory cannot be tested, usually because the necessary information is permanently unattainable or because of an unbridgeable gap in the narrative itself, and thus the theory cannot be proven or disproven no matter how much new information emerges.
We can also see the misunderstanding of what a theory is when people argue that creationism should be taught alongside evolution because evolution is “just a theory.” When this claim is made, advocates are equating two things that cannot be equated. Evolution is certainly a theory, but it is a theory in the proper sense of the word (as defined above) which means it can be and must be continuously tested and revised as new information emerges. To date, nothing has emerged that can entirely discredit the existing theory of evolution, even though there are still gaps in the record where the information so far remains incomplete. This is different from creationism, which is certainly a coherent narrative but it is a narrative that cannot be properly tested in the same method and manner as evolution. Creationism is something a person can believe in, but a theory cannot be based exclusively on belief (this is what separates faith from science). Evolution persists not because people believe in it, but because new information produced by meticulous research either challenges or verifies specific elements of the theory. Please note that I am not trashing or dismissing creationism — I’m simply pointing out that creationism and evolution are really two very different things. Darwin did not assume a monkey in the same way that creationism assumes God.
In sum, a theory can be, indeed must be continuously tested and challenged one piece at a time. A theory requires continuous questioning to be considered a legitimate avenue of inquiry. A field of inquiry is therefore legitimate only in so far as it allows, encourages, and responds to any and all questions.
Yet here we catch a first glimpse of why CRT is hypo-critical and thus at least in part not a legitimate field of inquiry. CRT questions a dominant narrative for no other reason than the fact that it is dominant. Evolution and the big bang theory are also dominant theories, but there is no validity in dismissing them simply due to their dominance. More on that later. But note more importantly how proponents of CRT dismiss those who challenge CRT as inherently wrong. Since CRT claims to battle racism, to question CRT is to be racist, and to be racist is to be wrong. Thus the theory asserts its inherent correctness because anyone questioning it is racist and therefore wrong. In the world of testable theories, this is entirely an invalid approach. It confuses facts with value judgements. Again, more on this later.
3. An interlude: let’s get flattened
To show how CRT as theoretical field of inquiry is hypo-critical, I will offer a parallel example that works well as an analogy that explains why CRT is not something that can be properly situated in the array of testable theories. The parallel example I will use is the claim that the earth is flat, which, if you don’t know it yet, is actually a thing.
Let’s suppose for starters that a conference has been scheduled to explore the claim that the earth is flat. Presumably, anyone who registers for the conference can bring their evidence and their questions to engage in an open debate to test the theory that claims that the earth is indeed flat. That’s pretty much the whole point of what would be considered a legitimate theoretical inquiry.
But now let’s suppose that on the opening day of the conference, at the very first round of discussion, a person in the audience presents verifiable evidence that every other planet we are aware of is round or at least spherical in nature, and none of them is flat. Since earth is also a planet, it therefore stands to reason that it is also round, and we even have pictures taken from space that show that the earth is in fact spherical in structure.
At this point, however, the conference organizers reject the evidence that has been presented. First, they claim that all of the known planets, regardless of their similarity to earth, are simply not earth, and therefore should not be considered. Anything other than earth cannot be considered. Next they claim that even when it comes to earth, the round-earthers in the audience are oppressing the minority flat-earthers in attendance with their dominant, sphericonormative narratives. The flat-earth perspective must therefore be told and it can only be told by those who believe firmly in the flat-earth theory. Round-earthers must only sit, listen, and accept what is said.
When round-earthers respond defensively by saying they have plenty of evidence that shows that there are different ways of looking at earth, flat-earthers call them out for their defensiveness — “round-earther fragility” they call it. When the round-earthers persist with their questions, they are then sent to a separate room where they are required to undergo “planetary shape sensitivity training,” which they must repeatedly undergo until they finally accept that they have only three options: (1) admit they are wrong and the earth is flat; (2) admit as round-earthers they have no right to question what flat-earthers claim; or (3) limit their questions to questions that affirm the inherent correctness of flat-earther theory (for example, “could the earth be even flatter than we previously thought?”).
The flatphobic round-earthers are now put in an impossible position where the only acceptable role they can assume in a conference meant to debate the claim that the earth is flat is in fact to accept that claim no matter how much evidence exists to the contrary. All prevailing scientific theories and the evidence that support them are part of the dominant narrative, and to the extent that the dominant narrative is inherently oppressive, then the alternative flat-earth perspective must be liberated and seen as equally valid. To think otherwise is to continue to engage in scientific oppression. Indeed, round-earthers may not even be aware of how much they oppress flat-earthers, so deeply ingrained is their inherently oppressive perspective. Why is it, ask the flat-earthers, that the round-earthers are so afraid to have an honest discussion of just how flat the earth really is?
Clearly, the problem that we have here is that the entire conference has been set up to be inherently and unacceptably hypo-critical. Anyone with a different viewpoint cannot ask the questions they need to ask and cannot present the evidence they need to present. All inquiry is limited to information that endorses the theory that the earth is flat; any information to the contrary, no matter how compelling or verifiable, is rejected as dominant, oppressive, and distortive. We are thus left with only one possible conclusion: the sooner round-earthers admit the earth is flat, and the sooner they stop asking questions that challenge the flat-earth theory, the quicker we will arrive at scientific justice.
4. The deep roots of CRT
We now leave our discussion of flat-earth theory — or flatulence as flat-earthers like to call it — to return to our exploratory analysis of CRT.
There are two main theoretical schools of thought that underpin CRT in framing its approach: one is Marxism, and the other is Postmodernism. I will discuss both of these briefly to highlight which specific elements CRT draws from and the theoretical missteps CRT makes in crafting its interpretive lens. I should also point out that both of these schools of thought that inform CRT are derived directly from the work of DWM (Dead White Men), so if you are hard at work trying to abolish the influence of DWM, you should probably be hard at work trying to eliminate the influence of CRT as well.
Marxism is a complex and, for its detractors and even for many of its advocates, a widely misunderstood philosophy. This isn’t the place to launch a full-scale analysis of the entire corpus of Marxist philosophical literature, so I will instead focus on those specific elements that inform and influence CRT.
The first element to understand about Marxist theory is that the economic framework — what is termed the “mode of production” in Marxist language — is the key to understanding pretty much everything in any given society. Marxists refer to the economic framework of any sociocultural environment as the base and everything else that derives from it as the superstructure. Social relations, politics, culture, law and even religion all relate back to the economic framework (the base) and exist only to protect and serve the interests of those who control and benefit from the dominant mode of production. The only economic framework in Marxist thought where the end result is not exploitation by one dominant group is of course communism, because in communism the mode of production is owned equally by the workers themselves, thus eradicating the possibility of exploitation by preventing the formation of a dominant group.
CRT inherits its mistrust of the “dominant” narrative in America directly from Marxism. Because the United States is clearly not a communist system, then according to Marxism it must have a dominant group that controls the economic mode of production and also controls the entire superstructure apparatus generated by this mode of production to ensure that it serves the interests of that dominant group. CRT of course identifies this dominant group not just as capitalists but specifically as White capitalists. What we often refer to as American democracy was in fact designed, according to CRT’s Marxist-inspired interpretation, to serve the interests of the dominant group (White capitalists) and to ensure their perpetual dominance.
This is why the opponents of CRT claim that CRT teaches Americans to hate their country, because the much-vaunted system of American democracy, with its claims of freedom, liberty, human rights, and the American dream, is — at least according to the architects of CRT — really a political system designed by and for wealthy White people, or more specifically, wealthy White men, to protect and serve their interests and their interests alone. Since capitalism is seen as an inherently oppressive system, anyone in America who is not a part of the White dominant group is thus by definition oppressed.
Marxism of course is not just a philosophy that tries to explain the existence of hierarchies of oppression by linking them to a specific mode of production and the superstructure it generates. It is also a theory that proposes an antidote to all systems of economic and social exploitation, an antidote known as communism, and also offers a roadmap to show us how to get that endpoint, that final, non-oppressive utopia.
At its heart, Marxism is a theory of historical progression in which each successive stage of history reveals its contradictions in the form of one dominant class (the oppressors) that benefits from the system but can only maintain the system (and their dominance) as long as they can control those who are exploited by the system (the oppressed). As the oppressed become increasingly aware of their exploitation within the system, they begin to work together to find a way to smash and overthrow the system, resulting in their liberation and also creating the opportunity to build a new mode of production that is different from and presumably less exploitative than the last. The final stage of this historical process, quite literally the end of history, is communism, which again is the only mode of production that contains no contradictions and thus no dominant group and no exploitation.
Advocates of CRT argue that the American system of governance was created by White wealthy men to serve their interests and protect their dominance as White wealthy men. The inequality that we see in American society is therefore a byproduct of a system that can only exist, by design, through the ongoing exploitation of non-White, non-wealthy persons. CRT is thus designed to show how this works and also to build awareness (“consciousness” in Marxist lingo) among the oppressed (all non-White and non-wealthy people) about the extent to which the system of capitalist American democracy ensures and indeed is based on their exploitation and oppression. White wealthy men, or Whites in general, are thus the oppressors, and the oppressed need to mobilize in order to overthrow their oppressors and build a new system that takes power from the oppressor and uses it to serve the needs of oppressed (aka, anyone who is not White). If you’ve read or seen anything about “diversity sensitivity training” sessions that demand that White participants confess their privilege and dominance and vow to cede power to persons of color, that idea stems directly from this part of Marxism.
The initial focus of CRT on law should make better sense at this point because not only is law a central part of the superstructure generated by the base of White American capitalism but also it is a central instrument in maintaining its control over those who are most exploited by it. The American system, it is argued, may talk rights and liberties and the rule of law, but in actual practice it produces exploitation and oppression by applying the law in ways that disenfranchise and disempower any potential threat to the dominant group. Restricting immigration (of non-Whites), redrawing electoral districts (gerrymandering), revising voting guidelines (voter suppression), or revising and differentially applying criminal punishments (mass incarceration of minorities) are thus intentional tactics of the American system to prevent the oppressed from being able to fight the system that oppresses them.
Two final points about Marxism are directly relevant here. The first is that Marx was not a big supporter of mobilization by anything other than class consciousness, and primarily considered any emphasis on other aspects of identity — race, ethnicity, national identity, and so on — to be little more than distractions that undermined the central importance of class consciousness in the struggle against capitalist oppression. To the extent that CRT focuses on the Whiteness of oppression in America it betrays a considerably misinformed interpretation of Marxist philosophy. From a Marxist perspective, movements like Black Lives Matter actually undermine the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed by shifting emphasis to the factor of race, which Marx felt would only further serve the interests of the dominant class by preventing the full formation of the centrally important class consciousness. For Marx, the preferred approach would be All Lives Matter, or better still, All Working-class Lives Matter, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or color (and don’t get me started on Marx’s view of religion).
The second point to make here is that where Marx did discuss race, it is abundantly clear that he accepted the racial hierarchies of his time. If he was not an outright White supremacist, he certainly held a negative view toward most non-White racial groups, especially Blacks. If CRT demands that we reject those who hold or draw from racist perspectives, then we would need to reject CRT itself, complicit as it is in the racism of Marxism. And for those BLM activists who describe themselves as “trained Marxists,” well, knowing what I know about Marxism, my advice would be that they should probably get a refund from their trainers.
Postmodernism as a school of thought draws heavily on Marxism and shares its suspicion of dominant power. But it also pushes beyond classic Marxism and draws more widely from other philosophers ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Ferdinand de Saussure and beyond. In doing so Postmodernism shifts the focus away from historical modes of production and the base-superstructure analysis so prevalent in Marxism and toward a different method of inquiry about how dominant groups accumulate and maintain their power. Like Marxism, much of Postmodernism is designed to locate and reveal sources and methods of power accumulation in order to highlight the origins of exploitation and oppression, but the catalytic key to unlock the conceptual power of Postmodernism isn’t the economy but rather the text. A text in Postmoderism can certainly be a written document — a book, for instance, or the US Constitution — but it can also be so many other things ranging from symbols to entire institutions (such as the medical profession or an insane asylum).
The focus on texts is also accompanied with what might be called a critical method of reading those texts (CRT gets the Critical part of its name from Postmodernism). A critical reading of a text shifts the power away from the author of the text (often making pithy word games of this by pointing out the oppressive author-ity of the an author) and toward the reader, who through the practice of critical reading becomes empowered. The empowerment of the reader, normally a passive player in the consumption of a text turns the reading of a text into a power play between the author-itarian author and the newly empowered, active reader, now elevated to an equal owner (very Marxist idea) of the meaning of the text. The empowerment of the reader wrests control from the hitherto dominant author and in effect “destabilizes” the text, allowing for new interpretations to emerge from the reader of the text that are of equal validity to that of the author of the text.
I mentioned earlier that CRT got its start as a text-based field by focusing its early work on textual sources of law. The reason for this should now be clear: it is based primarily on the text-based methodology that is central to the Postmodern approach to analysis. Legal texts wield enormous power, and Postmodernism allowed that power to be put into the (non-White) hands of the readers of the texts rather than the dominant (White) authors.
Another central element of the project of Postmodernism is the inextricable linking of truth with power. In doing this, truth becomes an expression of power and thus potentially a form of oppression. A truth that is directly linked to an expression of power is something I like to call a truth-claim to disentangle it from the idea of truth proper. To say that sodium and chlorine adhere together with an ionic bond to form sodium chloride (NaCl, aka table salt) is a truth; to claim (as a medical professional might) that we should limit our salt intake to a specific range to remain healthy is a truth-claim because it relies upon our acceptance of the normative author-ity of medicine as a field (“trust your doctor” and obey the white lab-coat of power) and social constructions of beauty (wanting to “be healthy”).
Due to the fundamental importance of Postmodernism’s empowered way of reading texts (often called reading “against the grain”), there is a specialized vocabulary that is deployed that always gives away the presence and influence of Postmodernism. Whenever you see words such as “de-center” or “destabilize” or “unmask” or “unveil” or even “interrogate” (to give but a few examples) used in an analysis you can be sure that Postmodernism is being utilized partly or wholly as a method of inquiry.
The influence of Postmodernism on CRT is direct and considerable. To give what is perhaps the most obvious example, anything (or any text) that is utilized to construct or entrench a racial hierarchy such as White supremacy is clearly a truth-claim. What Postmodernism does is critically read such a text to determine what forms of power and author-ity are behind it, to what oppressive ends it has been used, and who accepts the truth-claim as a truth and why they do so. Just as Marxism works to reveal to the oppressed classes why and how the system of which they are a part oppresses them (meaning they are not initially aware of their oppression), so too does Postmodernism work to reveal how the texts of a particular system and the truth-claims they project empower some (the oppressors) at the expense of others (the oppressed). CRT endeavors to transform passive readers (who would accept such texts as truths) into active readers (who now see texts for the truth-claims they are); this is how they re-read and “unmask” a document such as the US Constitution as the racist and oppressive document they claim it to be. How Jefferson (for example) wrote it is far less important than how we read it.
There is, however, one egregious and fundamental error that CRT makes when using the analytical toolkit of Postmodernism, an error that helps account for why, as I am arguing here, CRT is a singularly hypo-critical method of inquiry. In essence, and I note that there is a considerable dose of irony here, CRT misreads Postmodernism. To be fair, this misreading by CRT draws upon a certain tradition of misreading Postmodernism that can be traced back to scholars such as Edward Saïd (specifically, his book Orientalism).
To understand what it means to misread Postmodernism, you need to understand how Postmodernism views the process of text-based politics. Unlike Marxism, which has a definite endpoint where contradictions are resolved and utopia is reached, Postmodernism has no similar endpoint or utopia. The truth-claims of the oppressor can be exposed, it is true, but if the oppressed want to overthrow those truth-claims, they do so not with truth but with truth-claims of their own. The truth-claims of the oppressor and the truth-claims of the oppressed are generated by an equally self-interested desire to accumulate power. Truth-claims are not qualitatively different in and of themselves; what differentiates them is which group uses them to gain power. To overthrow White supremacy, for example, is not to eliminate oppression but rather to relocate it to another group whose truth-claims now seek to become dominant. Again, this process has no endpoint. At no point do we push past the textual truth-claims and finally end up with nothing but the Truth. For CRT to succeed in this endeavor, we reach the contradictory conclusion that it must in essence imitate everything it denounces about White supremacy.
The misreading of Postmodernism by CRT tries to sidestep this contradictory conclusion through an invalid leap of Postmodern logic. CRT argues that the Big Lie of White supremacy can be exposed through the critical reading of the texts that support White supremacy and keep it in place (starting with the law). So far, so good. But the leap of logic occurs in trying to argue that whatever opposes a Big Lie must therefore be a Big Truth. That’s not how Postmodernism works. One bundle of truth-claims may constitute the Big Lie of White supremacy, but whatever battles against it is not the Big Truth but rather an Alternative Big Lie composed of a different set of truth-claims that benefit a different group. To the extent that CRT succeeds in getting its Alternative Big Lie accepted, it then becomes the new oppressor in town. The Lyin’ King is dead; long live the Lyin’ King.
I mentioned that this original misreading of Postmodernism traced itself back to the work of scholars such as Edward Saïd, and it is worth making one last point about this before I finally move on to the final section where I bring everything together. In his influential book Orientalism (1978), Saïd argued that European imperialism, through the truth-claim project of Orientalist representation (collectively read as a text), in essence created an Orientalist culture that reflected what the imperialists wanted to see and believe rather than what was actually there. Then, through the brutally oppressive power of imperialism, they forced the colonized peoples of the Middle East and Asia to mimic the Orientalist stereotypes of the imperialist fantasy. The colonized populations thus became something other than what they were supposed to be. Authenticity was lost and a colonized identity took its place.
Where Saïd misread the Postmodernism he drew upon for his analysis was in thinking (1) that there was an underlying authenticity to pre-imperial identities and (2) that it could somehow be recovered. European imperialism didn’t take a true authentic identity and render it false (colonized) because in the realm of Postmodernism all forms of identity are textual constructions, aka Big Lies. Pre-imperial identities were the residue of all the Big Lies that had circulated in the region until then, and European imperialism simply added another Big Lie on top of that. Yet so powerful is the idea that colonized identities are somehow real underneath the lies of European imperialism (and by extension White supremacy) that identity politics as it plays out under the influence of CRT still insists that things like authenticity (a True Identity) are real. This plays out for example in the insistence by CRT advocates that only people from an oppressed group can tell the story of their group (which we outside that group must accept not as a truth-claim but a truth, violating the methods of Postmodernism) or in the obsession with calling out group-outsiders for Cultural Appropriation (no one can borrow from any group identity other their own) and cancelling its perpetrators in perpetuity.
5. Putting it all together: what’s wrong with CRT?
It’s finally time to bring all of this together to see what it does for us in evaluating CRT as a theory of social and racial justice.
The first thing we need to return to is the understanding of what a theory needs to be in order to be considered a valid theory. First among everything is that a theory should not only allow but also encourage anyone and everyone to challenge it. That is, a theory must be testable; otherwise, it is not a theory. CRT, however, does not allow itself to be questioned, largely due to that invalid leap of logic I discussed earlier. Here once again is how that plays out with CRT.
Since CRT claims to question the dominant narrative, and since the dominant narrative is White and racist, to question CRT can only mean that one accepts the dominant narrative and endorses the racism of White supremacy. Moreover, the dominant narrative is based on the Big Lie of White supremacy, and whatever unmasks the Big Lie must therefore be the Big Truth (=CRT). As with our previous flat-earther example, we are thus cornered into a room with only two choices: either we accept CRT as a gospel Truth or we admit that we are racist.
In this moment we are left with is this: if we cannot question the theory, then it is not a theory. It is an ideology. Testing a theory is a legitimate exercise in free thought. Implementing an ideology, on the other hand, is indoctrination, and indoctrination has no place in education. In fact it has no place anywhere in a democracy.
Remember, Postmodern methodology is not a process of Truth versus Lies, Good versus Evil; it is one truth-claim versus another truth-claim. CRT is just another truth-claim, one that is differentiated from White supremacy only because it benefits a different group, not because it is inherently more truthful or just.
When a CRT advocate such as Ibram Kendi claims that antiracist racism is a legitimate strategy to smash systemic racism in the United States, what he is really saying is this: the current dominant racism does not benefit me, so I would like to replace that racism with a racism of my own that does benefit me. By calling the new racism “antiracist” it appears to validate the truth-claim by making it impossible to question (only a racist would reject what is antiracist). But at the end of the day all Ibram Kendi is doing is emulating his alleged oppressor. Antiracist racism is at the end of the day still racism, and to paraphrase Einstein on war, you cannot simultaneously abolish and entrench racism. To the extent that Ibram Kendi is a proponent of CRT, then with this type of argument, CRT gives us simply more racism, not less.
Ibram Kendi’s deceptive use of language is in fact one of the hallmarks of Postmodernism. A quick perusal of articles that support the use of CRT in schools and other institutions will show a similar tactical deployment of language that endeavors to preemptively extirpate any questioning of the ideas of CRT. Those who question CRT (and again, if CRT is a valid theory it must invite and encourage such questioning) are frequently dismissed as “conservatives bigots” or “fascists” or “far-right ideologues” or “fragile White supremacists” — language which is used to discredit those who even think of questioning CRT. CRT is thus placed beyond question: accept it, never question it, or else you are a racist.
In a similar vein, many an article endorsing CRT and lambasting its critics asks what appears to be an innocent question that goes something like this: “seriously, why are White people/racists/conservatives/etc. so afraid of an honest discussion of American history?” Yes, why are they “afraid of the truth?” Their discomfort shows that CRT must be true. The key word here is honest. By framing CRT as a theory that is already inherently honest and thus correct in all its claims, anyone not accepting CRT can only be dishonest. It’s a very popular truth-claim tactic, but at the end of the day we still have to recognize it as exactly that — a tactic to promote an ideology as Truth. By definition, once again, an ideology cannot be a theory.
Aside from the strategic deployment of tactical language in support of a specific truth-claim, CRT also reveals itself as hypo-critical by limiting its scope of inquiry and by limiting the questions that can be asked to challenge it. Just as with my earlier example about the flat-earther conference, which limited questions about the theory to questions that endorsed the theory (“is earth even flatter than we thought?”), CRT limits the questions we can ask (which no legitimate theory would do) to questions that endorse the theory (for example, “is White supremacy is even more widespread than we thought?”). Any field of inquiry that filters questions to allow only questions that validate the theory is not a theory; it is an agenda, or it is an ideology, but it is never a theory.
Aside from limiting questions asked of it, CRT also limits topics to which it applies itself, again supporting the claim that CRT is hypo-critical in its approach. Think for a moment on the last time you heard a CRT-based discussion on the topic of something like “Racism in the Chicanx Community: The Hidden Epidemic” (referring not to White racism against the Chicanx community but rather Chicanx racism against others). If you are having trouble thinking of a single instance, this is because CRT renders such a topic “insane” to consider — all sane people know, says CRT, that racism can only be White. Yet in my own research I have come across innumerable examples of racism in country after country (including the US), community after community, yet the victims of that racism get no justice from the toolkit of CRT because the racism of which they are victims isn’t White.
The sad irony of CRT covering up much of the world’s racism simply because that racism undermines or “destabilizes” its central claim — the best CRT will give us is the insupportable claim that non-White racism is an imitation of White racism induced by the oppression of White supremacy — leads us back once again to the reality that CRT is simply too hypo-critical to be considered an operative theory.
When CRT opens itself up to a full-fledged comparative examination of things like anti-Black racism in China or India or Colombia (it is widespread in all three places) and when it is willing to see that racism as being on the same terms as White racism, then we can begin to think of it as a legitimate field of inquiry, aka, a valid theory. But as long as all of these questions are censored in the ever-growing list of Questions That Cannot Be Asked of CRT, then CRT simply has no valid claim to be a theory that will help us dismantle systemic racism whether in the United States or anywhere in the world. If anything, CRT as it is currently structured enables more racism than it could ever hope to dismantle.
6. All lies matter
CRT endeavors to wrest control of the dominant narrative of American history from the White supremacists who created it and who control it — what is called the White-washing of American history — but as I hope I have made abundantly clear, White-washing American history is really no different than Woke-washing it. Replacing one set of lies with another set of lies won’t give us any kind of meaningful justice and will do little to dismantle the systemic racism that exists in the world, whether in America or elsewhere. As I have argued in my books on the topic of diversity, bad historical narratives give us bad diversity, and bad diversity gives us bad justice, or no justice at all.
In the end, however, rather than leave everything in shambles, I will suggest there is actually much of redeemable value in CRT that we can use to build a better approach to understanding and confronting racism. The crux of my argument here has been to show that CRT is simply too hypo-critical to be seen as a valid field of inquiry or a legitimate theoretical basis to analyze racism, but the fix to this is to a certain extent hiding in plain sight. If the problem with CRT is that it is hypo-critical, then the best way to fix it is to make it more critical, to the point where it becomes a valid theoretical framework.
What would this look like in practice? For starters, and perhaps most importantly, we would need to remove all the restrictions on our ability to question CRT. As I said right from the start, a legitimate theory by definition must invite and encourage all challenges against it — a theory is designed primarily to be tested. Rather than allow inquiry of only one dominant narrative — for example the narrative of White supremacy — we would need to investigate all dominant narratives that lead to the creation of racial hierarchies and systemic racism. White supremacy thus becomes one sinister ideology among many, and the many that it is among come from a diversity of different identity groups.
I will go over other examples of how we might improve our approach to the study of racism in later articles in this series, but for now I think my work is done. I’ve gone on long enough, but I hope at least this has offered a more constructive critique of the problems of CRT than what is available elsewhere. Dismantling systemic racism is a laudable and necessary goal and we should all want to see it finally consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. But to do so we need to be able to ask the right questions and plot the right solutions to make that happen. As I hope I have made clear, in its current state, CRT helps us do neither.
* This article was first published on Medium and forms part – #5 – of an ongoing series called “Woker than you”. It is republished with permission.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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