critical race theory: privilege and systemic racism

In my third post reflecting on Critical Race Theory: An Introduction I take a look at the second chapter of the book, “Hallmark Critical Race Theory Themes.” In the chapter, the authors summarize four important themes of CRT:

  1. Interest convergence, material determinism, and racial realism – Critical race theorists fall into two different camps. Idealists believe that racism is primarily a way of thinking. Idealists believe the best way to combat racism is by challenging assumptions and habituated ways of thinking. As a result, idealists tend to police words, images, and ideas for evidence of racist thinking. This takes place especially on college campuses and in the media. Realists, on the other hand, believe that racism is “much more than a collection of unfavorable impressions of members of other groups. For realists, racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status.” Realists hold that racial hierarchies and the privileged status and prejudices of certain racial groups create systems of injustice that keep minority groups oppressed. Even the civil rights movement displays racial privilege. According to thinkers like Derrick Bell, the civil rights movement served white privilege. White people only gave up power when it was beneficial for them to do so. The authors label this second group “economic determinists” which testifies to its Marxist roots and commitments.
  2. Revisionist history – History is retold and reimagined from the vantage point of oppressed minorities. “Revisionist history reexamines America’s historical record, replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations of events with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences.” Reform can only happen when traditional understandings of history are deconstructed. This is the foundational assumption of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. That it is a “project” is important. The purpose isn’t to do history. The purpose is to challenge people to re-imagine history in a liberating way.
  3. Critique of liberalism – Many people will be surprised to learn that CRT is not liberal, at least not in the traditional way of understanding that word. This is why there is an uneasy alliance in the contemporary Democratic Party between establishment liberals and woke progressives. For instance, liberalism would typically be aligned against programs like campus speech codes, cancelling speakers, or demanding the policing of Halloween costumes as happened at Yale in 2015. CRT, however, believes that since racism is so embedded in our thoughts, actions, and words, the only way to defeat racism is by limiting speech. Liberalism traditionally advocated for color blindness and judging people by the content of their character. Those aligned against Martin Luther King rejected color blindness. They would have rather judged people by the color of their skin. Somewhat ironically, CRT also rejects color blindness. As the authors point out, “If racism is embedded in our thought processes and social structures as deeply as many crits believe, then the ‘ordinary business’ of society–the routines, practices, and institutions that we rely on to do the world’s work–will keep minorities in subordinate positions. Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery.” As a final example, liberalism typically treats human rights as sacrosanct, but CRT is suspicious of the language of “rights.” Rights are ways that people in power maintain their power and privilege over marginalized groups. This is the type of thinking that would lead the student government at a prestigious institution like Princeton to label the Princeton President’s support of free speech “unacceptable.”
  4. Structural determinism – This is the idea that “our system, by reason of its structure and vocabulary, is ill equipped to redress certain types of wrong.” The authors give several examples to illustrate their points about structures of bias and racism especially in our legal system. The critical race theorist insists that racism is not only overt in individuals but is implicit in systems. Therefore, the task of fighting racism in societies must address systems as much as, if not more than, addressing individuals.

Evaluation

I’ve got to recognize that offering a fair evaluation of these themes is difficult for me. Principles like free speech, personal responsibility (as opposed to determinism), and judging the character rather than the color of a man are deeply ingrained in me. There are implications in the themes of CRT that I find deeply unsettling. When does revising history just become propaganda? When do speech codes become censorious? When does the sacrifice of rights lead to an abuse of power? When does an aversion to color blindness lead to a new segregation and entrenched tribalism? When does determinism put ideological shackles on a people and create a permanently aggrieved class? These are just some of the serious questions that I have, but I also acknowledge that there are some points that I can, at least in part, agree with.

  1. It’s not a bad thing to hear history from the perspective of those people who have been historically silenced, ignored, or abused. I would just prefer that this be done by actual historians who possess a commitment to telling the truth and not merely a commitment to ideology.
  2. In regards to color-blindness, I have some mixed feelings. As I said above, making judgments about a person based on the color of their skin feels incredibly wrong mostly because this is so often the basis of egregious racism, but recognizing color can also help us in some ways to recognize the unique story and culture of a person. For instance, wouldn’t it be weird to treat a Mexican person as if the fact that they are Mexican doesn’t matter or doesn’t even exist? I can see the argument made by critical race theorists that being color blind can make us blind to the ways that particular races continue to experience racism and injustice. As I said in a previous post, even scripture isn’t color blind while still recognizing that all people are made in God’s image. My problem with CRT is that color is not merely recognized; it is made to be the most important and most interesting thing about a person. CRT makes it so color is the first and perhaps the only thing that we see about a person. This is exactly what the overt racist does, which is why so many people intuitively resist this element of critical race theory. Treating a man cruelly just because he is black is an outrage, but treating a man well just because he is black is condescending and paternalistic. Both are dehumanizing. It seems to me that the best course is to somehow avoid being color blind and being blinded by color.
  3. It’s not a bad thing to recognize privilege. I think it would be helpful and healthy for all of us to acknowledge God’s blessings on our lives. (Yes, this used to be the way that we would talk about “privilege.”) In recognizing our privilege, we can also learn to recognize our responsibility. My concern, however, is that the goal of naming our privilege has become more about resentment than it is about responsibility. Privilege isn’t a blessing that keeps us humble. Instead it’s a social sin or an embarrassment which we must confess. The insistence that we name our privilege can turn us into religious moralists. Moralists tend to cope with their moral failure in one of two ways. They are either racked with constant guilt that they are never quite able to have absolved, or they make themselves feel better by choosing carefully who they compare themselves to. I see both tendencies when it comes to naming privilege. Some confess the “sin” of their white privilege loudly and publicly looking for an absolution that never seems to come. Others make themselves feel better by identifying a group that is more privileged than they are and sending hostility in their direction. This can shield us from taking responsibility for our own actions as we substitute resentment for others for personal virtue. In short, naming privilege without a robust understanding of mutual grace is a disaster. (I also struggle with the racial essentialism inherent in discussions about privilege, but I’ll save that for another post.)
  4. I believe in systemic racism because I believe in sin. Anyone who believes in sin shouldn’t find it surprising that sin leads to unjust systems. I agree with CRT that racism is not merely overt. Racism can and does exist, often implicitly, in industries, organizations, institutions, etc. Recognizing that systemic racism exists proves easier than identifying specific examples of systemic racism which are almost always subject to interpretation. Many people struggle with CRT not necessarily because they don’t believe in systemic racism but because CRT literally sees systemic racism everywhere it looks. Nevertheless, as a Christian I shouldn’t have too much trouble saying that injustice is more than merely personal. But, if I believe that, does that mean that I have to subscribe to every tenet of CRT? Does CRT own the market on systemic racism? No. If you believe in systemic racism, you are not required to accept all the premises of critical race theory. That would be a little like saying if you like hamburgers, you must like McDonald’s. I’m perfectly capable of both recognizing the presence of systemic racism and also recognizing that CRT might not have all the best or right answers for addressing it.

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