Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a lightning rod in Loudoun County and around the nation. Unfortunately, as with so many of our most contentious public debates, there is often more intensity than clarity. It might be helpful to lay out some of the basic features and implications of CRT, so we can discuss the matter intelligibly.
CRT has roots in Critical Legal Studies (CLS) which insists that law and institutions are ultimately reducible to competing power structures. Power is the key, not justice. Both CRT and CLS have roots in Marxist thought. Marx, of course, argued that all of history could be understood as a perpetual class struggle manifested today as conflict between capitalist property-owners and property-less workers. Once the workers recognize their power and unite, the capitalists will be overthrown, private property abolished, and a new communist era will unfold. Thus, for Marx, the class struggle brings about a revolutionary transformation of society.
Like CLS, CRT insists that power is the key to social relationships. Racist ideas, policies, and structures have been put in place by the powerful to dominate the powerless. Where the Marxists see the world through the lens of class, and where CLS sees the world through the lens of law and institutions, CRT sees the world through the lens of race. Each approach is a totalizing ideology bent on revolution.
Like most political philosophies, CRT was formulated and developed in academic seminars and journals read only by academics. But compelling ideas — even badly flawed ones — can eventually seep into public consciousness. Professors teach students, who imbibe ideas often without even realizing exactly what they are swallowing. Complex and obscure texts are followed by books and articles aimed at a popular audience. Thus, while most Americans have never heard of Richard Delgado or Kimberlé Crenshaw, millions have read Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and the 1619 Project.
Kendi is the director of The Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. His bestselling book, How to be an Antiracist, is a key text for the popularization of CRT. Here are a few of his main ideas:
· There is no such thing as a non-racist person. Instead, one is either an antiracist or a racist. Colorblind is, alas, a racist idea. “Antiracism” has become shorthand for a particular agenda. If you disagree with the antiracist agenda, you will likely be called a racist. This kind of bullying can be rhetorically effective, but it is intellectually dishonest.
· Kendi employs the terms “equity” and “inequity” rather than “equality” and “inequality.” We are today awash in the language of “equity,” though no one is quite sure what it means. For Kendi, racial inequities are always the result of racist politics, and just as there is no such thing as a race-neutral person, there is, in Kendi’s account, no such thing as a nonracist policy.
· According to Kendi, racial discrimination is not necessarily bad. The key is equity. Thus, if discrimination helps promote equity, it is antiracist. If discrimination promotes inequity, it is racist. As Kendi puts it, “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”
· “It is a racial crime to be yourself if you are not White in America.”
· “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist.”
· Success for Kendi will occur when “antiracist power and policy dominate. Where equal opportunities and thus outcome exist between the equal groups.” Equal outcomes must be the aim of all policies. “Equal opportunity,” where outcomes are left to individual initiative, desire, hard work, and luck is simply a racist idea that must be discarded.
· Finally, “the United States is a racist nation because its policymakers and policies have been racist from the beginning.” The American regime must be deconstructed and a new, antiracist replacement erected on the rubble. Of course, such a radical conclusion is not always explicitly stated. But one need only listen to the activists in the streets to see how ideas conceived in the rarified air of the academy have become the justification for burning the system down.
To be sure, America has a shameful thread running through its history. Slavery and Jim Crow represent grievous moral failings and fall far short of the best of our ideals. Martin Luther King, Jr. — whose conciliatory and race-transcending vision is rejected by the advocates of CRT — understood that America needed to make good on its founding promise. He believed in America. He had a dream that one day his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He looked forward to “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” where men and women of all races would join hands and together pursue justice.
Critical Race Theory has other aims. Because it sees all people in terms of racial identity and all human interaction in terms of power, it can never achieve true brotherhood or justice. It is necessarily adversarial and revolutionary. It lacks the noble and ennobling spirit that animated the civil rights movement and traffics in race baiting, grievance-hunting, and perpetual attacks on our basic institutions. Because it is all about power, it can never be about love, forgiveness, or reconciliation. It lacks the moral and spiritual resources to unite and will only lead to division, acrimony, and destruction. Critical Race Theory, by its very nature, cannot coexist with true justice, unity, or peace.
It might be tempting to assume that criticism of CRT comes only from white conservatives. That is false. There are many black writers and activists — liberals and conservatives — who are critical of CRT. To learn more, check out Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Robert Woodson, Glenn Loury, Carol Swain, John McWhorter, Candace Owens, Jason Riley, and Coleman Hughes.
Mark T. Mitchell is Dean of Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry College where he teaches courses on political theory. He holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and is the author, most recently, of Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage that Spawned America’s Social Justice Warriors.