What is Critical Race Theory?2
It is virtually impossible to log onto any news website without seeing something said about Critical Race Theory. There is considerable debate about this subject that gives no signs of diminishing anytime soon. So, what is CRT? I’ve read numerous articles and explanations, but none better than the one by Greg Koukl that he posted on his website on July 1, 2021. The title to the article is, Critical Race Theory: Civil Rights Upside Down. You can read the whole thing here. But it is somewhat lengthy, so I’ve drawn from it his summary analysis of the most important elements in CRT. Here they are.
[Note: I’ve deleted the footnotes to the many quotations in the article. If you want to see the references, go to the original article at the site noted above.]
First, some concerns. Critical race theory is a complex, controversial subject covering a variety of overlapping disciplines with plenty of variety in the ranks. Thus, any treatment of it—especially a general one—can easily be misunderstood or characterized as an oversimplification or a misrepresentation, so please note these two qualifiers.
One, there is a difference between CRT as an explanatory paradigm (remember, the “T” stands for “Theory”) and racism as a reality. Classically understood, racism is a kind of group bigotry. CRT, by contrast, looks at power structures in cultures to explain why that bigotry and the inequity it causes exist and how they operate within social structures.
It may be that CRT fails as a theory when closely examined. That does not mean racism doesn’t exist, though, but only that CRT does not describe the dynamic of racial oppression well.
An illustration might help. Marxism characterized economic exploitation as a class struggle between the working-class proletariat and the capitalistic bourgeoisie. Marx believed it would inevitably lead to revolution, with workers taking over the means of economic production. This, of course, never happened as Marx envisioned, and most consider Marxism a failed project. This does not mean, though, that worker exploitation didn’t exist during Marx’s time. It did, in abundance.
In the same way, CRT may fail to describe the dynamic of racism in our midst or offer a sound antidote to it. That does not mean racism doesn’t exist in America. It does, but it’s a separate issue and must be assessed on separate grounds.
Two, this piece is not so much a critique of CRT as it is a clarification of its basic elements, a comparison between it and the ethics of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, and a caution regarding its totalitarian tendencies.
Totalitarianism, as the word implies, is total. It’s an ideology, Rod Dreher writes, that “seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions…bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality” (emphasis added).
CRT, I am convinced, is like that, offering a comprehensive understanding of reality and giving no quarter to the opposition. It is also rooted in relativism, holding that “objective knowledge—that which is true for everyone, regardless of their identity—is unobtainable, because knowledge is always bound up with cultural values.” I have argued that human lives will be ruled by one of two fundamental forces: truth or power. When objective truth is denied (i.e., relativism), then power alone remains and tyranny follows.
Now to the bare bones.
Critical race theory starts with an assumption. CRT assumes “racism is normal and permanent, and the problem is primarily that people—particularly white people—are failing to see, acknowledge, and address it…. We are to assume that racism is always taking place and our job is to examine situations for evidence of it” (emphasis added).
Author Carl Trueman agrees. CRT, he writes,
is self-certifying. Its basic claims, for example, that racism is systemic or that being non-racist is impossible, are not conclusions drawn from arguments. They are axioms, and they cannot be challenged by those who do not agree with them. Those who ¬dissent or offer criticism are, by definition, part of the problem.
The assumption in CRT that racism is basic to culture is a bedrock assumption—obvious, self-evident, and indisputable. Differ, and you’re “part of the problem.” Four central elements of contemporary critical race theory rest on that foundation.
The Social Binary—Humankind is divided broadly into two groups, the oppressed and the oppressors. Dominant groups in power subjugate groups along lines of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, etc. The power abusers in the West have been white, male, heterosexual, and cisgendered—and Christians, I might add, when believers stand for classical Christian morality.
Oppressor guilt or victim status is assigned not on the basis of individual conduct or experience, but on group identity (thus the rise of “identity politics”). A white, heterosexual male, then, is an oppressor by definition, while a black, lesbian college professor is oppressed—again, by definition. However, members of oppressor groups who get “woke”—awakened, enlightened, and sympathetic to CRT’s take on racial injustice—get a pass as allies. Minorities who side with the oppressors, though, are condemned along with them.
Oppression through Ideology—Classically, oppressors were characterized by behavior that was cruel, coercive, and abusive. In CRT, oppressor groups maintain privilege and dominance because they have the power to impose their ideology on subordinate groups. Appeals to “objective,” “universal,” and “commonsense” beliefs and values—even when unwittingly accepted by the subjugated group—are nothing more than power plays conveyed through cultural structures weighted in favor of oppressors. Since these patterns of power and domination are built into cultural systems, racial oppression is said to be “systemic.”
Lived Experience—According to this concept, the distinctive experiences of oppressed people give them privileged access to truths about their oppression. Oppressor groups, on the other hand, do not see their abuses accurately because their privilege blinds them.
Only those abused by the system know the truth about the system’s abuses. Thus, the experience of the “oppressed” is superior to others’ claims of “objective truth” arrived at through “rational thought”—both phrases part of the so-called “language of oppression.” Simply put, “oppressors” don’t have a place at the table.
“Lived experience” is another example of relativism. The truth of one’s own interpretation of his experience is the only truth that matters. Feeling oppressed is proof of oppression. Since such knowledge is personal and private, it’s not open to challenge, effectively insulating CRT from outside assessment or criticism.
Social Justice—For CRT, liberating oppressed groups by eliminating intolerance and all forms of oppression is the antidote for the wrongs of racism. The goal, of course, is honorable as far as it goes, and many noble Christians are drawn to CRT because of this emphasis. However, “social justice” is not what they think. It’s a term of art dictating the transfer of power based on group identity:
Whereas the Civil Rights Movements worked so well because they used a universalist approach—everybody should have equal rights—that appealed to human intuitions of fairness and empathy, Social Justice uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups—white people are racist, men are sexist, and straight people are homophobic. This explicitly goes against the established liberal value of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality….
Clearly, CRT’s “justice” is not the same as biblical justice, which forbids judging according to group status: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not show partiality to the poor nor give preference to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15).
Further, since social justice is the greatest good, social justice warriors justify acts of violence as a legitimate means to end oppression. “Those who resist social justice,” Rod Dreher observes, “are practicing ‘hate,’ and cannot be reasoned with or in any way tolerated, only conquered.”
Civil Rights Upside Down
In an odd way, CRT has turned the sensibilities of the civil rights movement of the ’60s on its head. Racism is no longer a vice of individuals but rather a corporate abuse of power. Since racism equals prejudice plus power, those lacking power cannot be racist, regardless of their character.
I stumbled on this comment from hip-hop artist Sister Souljah cited in one of my own books over two decades ago:
You can’t call me or any black person anywhere in the world racist. We don’t have the power to do to white people what white people have done to us. And if we did, we don’t have that low-down dirty nature.
Note two things. One, racism is impossible for people who aren’t party to power. Two, by describing whites as having a “low-down dirty nature,” Sister Souljah attributes nefarious characteristics to a group based on their skin color—precisely the view of Aryan racists of the last century.
Are you beginning to see the turn? This kind of judgment is clearly an act of individual bigotry. On a group level (e.g., CRT), it’s racism in the classical sense—judging one ethnicity morally inferior to another. It’s a prejudice since individuals (whites, in this case) are prejudged based on skin color. Discrimination against individuals in the inferior group is then justified as well as segregation to give preferential treatment to members of the previously oppressed group.
So, CRT starts with bigotry and ends with segregation—the same cascade of evils the ’60s civil rights movement fought against. Those who oppose it are denigrated, belittled, shamed, and silenced—discriminated against simply because they’re white or side with those who are. The oppressed become the oppressors—evidence of our universal moral brokenness. This is the face of the new civil rights movement.
Racism remains an intolerable evil. What, though, is that evil, precisely? What makes racism wrong? Racism judges people unjustly—not on their character, but on the color of their skin. It treats valuable human beings made in the image of God in an inhumane, unjust, and oppressive manner.
That is the evil of racism, and it is evil no matter who practices it. The injustice of racism must be addressed, but you cannot fight injustice with injustice. Bigotry by any other name is still bigotry. It is still evil. It is still sin. And no Christian should participate in it, condone it, or champion organizations that do.
There is only one basis for our common unity: our common humanity. There is only one foundation for universal respect and justice: the intrinsic value of each human being made in the image of God. There is nothing else adequate to unite us, and there is nothing else adequate to protect us.