“Unlike traditional approaches to civil rights, which favor incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory calls into question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law.”
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction
Critical Race Theorists describe Critical Race Theory as a movement (which is strange for a theory of society) designed to reinvent the relationships between race, racism, and power in society. To do this, they begin with the assumption that race is socially constructed and racism is systemic. That race is “socially constructed” means that Critical Race Theorists view racial categories as social and political fictions that have been imposed by white people on people of color, especially blacks. That racism is “systemic” means that, for Critical Race Theorists, the “system” upon which all of society operates on every level unjustly produces “racist” outcomes that favor whites (and minority races that adhere to “whiteness”) at the expense of people of color, especially Latinos and, even more especially, blacks. Because racism is a property of the system—which includes everything from policy to behavioral norms to manners of speech to what we consider true—racism is said to persist even if no individual or institution acts in a racist way or holds any racist beliefs. It is the way society operates that is racist, as can be determined by the fact that there are statistical differences in average outcomes by racial category.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) proceeds upon a number of dubious assumptions and by means of a variety of questionable methods, including:
- Racism is ordinary: CRT holds that “racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society,” thus the question in CRT is not “did racism take place?” but “how did racism manifest in this situation?” Thus, racism is relevant to all interactions, and it is everyone’s duty to investigate, expose, and “disrupt” this racism once identified. CRT holds that only Critical Race Theorists have the correct ability to detect and address this society-permeating racism.
- Immanence of racism: As a corollary to the above, racism is believed to be immanent in society, which means hidden just below the surface and everywhere, always. Therefore, all acts of racism are not to be understood as isolated incidents by individuals or institutions but as specific manifestations of a pervasive system that defines society. (This is why justice is not achieved by finding a police officer guilty; the system must be remade instead.)
- Interest convergence: CRT holds that dominant racial groups (whites) will not help more oppressed racial groups (blacks, in particular) unless it is also in their own self-interest to do so. Therefore, racism does not go away but is just reproduced in new ways, usually ways that hide it more successfully and require more work to identify in the future (through CRT). Therefore, racism doesn’t get better and, in a sense, gets worse over time because it gets harder to identify and call out.
- Motivated ignorance: Dominant racial groups (whites) are positioned as benefiting from the system of racism CRT assumes pervades everything and therefore have little to no motivation to challenge or change it. Instead, they have motivation to intentionally ignore racism (“willful ignorance”), to maintain it (and their “white comfort” in it), and to rationalize it as justified (say, by claiming success is the result of merit). Refusal to “interrogate” one’s own “white complicity” in the racist system is often treated as a character flaw (e.g., “white fragility”) and a feature of white privilege. This trait, together with the above, gives racism a permanence, according to CRT.
- Structural determinism: CRT holds that the systems of oppression in society determine one’s outcomes in life. Therefore, people of color (especially blacks) are positioned by the allegedly white supremacist system to be kept down, and it is the deterministic power of those power structures (rather than individual traits like character or merit) that determine success or failure in life.
- Authentic racial experiences (engaging positionality): CRT holds that systemic racism creates identifiable racial experiences for members of all racial groups. Further, CRT deems itself the only social theory in existence that properly understands how one’s racial social position with respect to these power dynamics can be rightly understood. Therefore, members of each racial category are said to have an authentic racial experience (as determined by CRT) that describes their lived experience within an allegedly white supremacist and systemically racist system that is, especially, “anti-Black.” When these perspectives are put forth by a member of the relevant racial category, they cannot be questioned. When a contradictory perspective is put forth by a member of the relevant racial category, that person is said to have some form of false consciousness, such as “internalized racism” or a cynical desire to “act white” for personal gain.
- Unique voice of color: Corollary to the above, CRT holds that critically conscious (Woke / Critical Race Theorist) members of minority racial groups possess a unique voice of color that speaks to the lived experience of systemic oppression by race, as CRT defines it. This is another tool for asserting that Critical Race Theorists cannot be doubted in their declarations of their experience “as a” member of a particular race.
- Identity politics: CRT is unabashedly involved in identity politics in the sense of creating special interest groups and political coalitions out of racial identity groups (through demands for “solidarity”). This tends to take the form of a small number of CRT activists speaking for certain racial “communities,” using the points above as justification.
- Impact over intent: CRT holds that if a (“critically conscious”) member of a minoritized racial group has experienced racism in some word or deed, then that’s the correct explanation for what happened, and it cannot be questioned. This empowers hypersensitivity and a victimhood-seeking frame. Others are believed to have “false consciousness,” such as “internalized racism,” and are not considered authoritative voices about these issues.
- Anti-liberalism: As can be read in the quote at the top, CRT holds that the philosophy of liberalism is, in fact, a racist system because it creates conditions under which existing inequities (inequalities in outcomes) increase while misleading people to believe that things are more fair than they are.
- Narrative and counter-storytelling: CRT favors the telling of stories, especially stories that challenge prevailing wisdom or reject established knowledge (usually resting in lived experience and/or statistical exceptions and outliers) as a means of challenging and rejecting facts in favor of politically useful statements and beliefs. Narrative is considered superior to careful, rigorous methodologies, which are believed to have been established from within the “white racial frame,” for example, and that therefore uphold white supremacy, either intentionally or unintentionally.
- Revisionist history: Critical Race Theorists believe it is their obligation to rewrite history to tell it from the perspective of CRT (even if factually inaccurate—because of the reliance on narratives and counter-stories). Fact-based or official history are deemed to have been written from within the “white racial frame,” which is believed to uphold systemic racism and white supremacy, demanding “Critical” rewrites on their terms. This is the role of the 1619 Project.
- Intersectionality: All forms of oppression by all forms of identity are linked into one broad, pervasive “Matrix of Domination,” thus necessitating solidarity across all forms of oppression. Where it comes to race, this intersectional model takes a black/white dichotomy as something of a given (while also problematizing it and blaming whites for it), suggesting that whiteness is intrinsically “anti-blackness.” It then views most racial issues through this simplistic lens, assessing other racial and ethnic groups and individuals within them according to whether they show solidarity toward Blackness or position themselves more “adjacent” to whiteness.
For example, Asian-Americans of most ethnic backgrounds are, given their high rate of attainment and success in American society, often labeled as “white-adjacent,” while Latinos are judged vigorously according to how much whiteness they uphold (often based at least partially upon the fairness or brownness of their skin). Most troublingly, Jews tend to be classified as white rather than as ethnically Jewish. This goes so far as to reproduce the basic pattern of anti-Semitism by claiming that Jews (as whites) are the beneficiaries and even cultural trendsetters of “whiteness,” thus as having tremendous societal privilege that they often refuse to recognize by identifying instead as Jewish.
James Lindsay is the author of six books, including most recently How to Have Impossible Conversations and Cynical Theories. He is also the founder and president of New Discourses, from which this piece is excerpted.