Impact vs. Intent
No, not technically. But that’s the wrong question. What we should be asking is if its ideas are solid, coherent, and what are the fruits of its applications? Racism is the idea that someone’s race is superior to another race. Even though there is “color-consciousness” in Critical Race Theory, it does not explicitly hold any race to be superior unless power is a measure of superiority. But the structure of a Critical Theory requires this type of question because of something that makes Critical Theories unique in academia. They do not simply seek out knowledge or truth. They also tell us what to do with their perceived truth. So the answer depends on what you believe is more important: impact or intent?
Critical Race Theory, or CRT, has recently been at the center of many discussions on race in America. Its effects have spread from humanities classes in academia into the action we see in the public square and now in primary education. It reached the executive level when President Trump signed an executive order banning federal institutions from using CRT in any of the training outlined for their employees. (I wrote a bit about that and why here.) It was characterized as racist, divisive and anti-American. But is it? Well, let’s take a look not only at what it is but also what the effects of it have been. What is the impact and the intent?
CRT is a type of Critical Theory focused on race. Its creator, Kimberlé Crenshaw studying under Derrick Bell at Harvard Law, outlines important aspects of the concept in her pivotal essay Mapping the Margins, published in 1991. What Crenshaw outlines is the manner in which multiple identity groups based on ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation amongst others, intersect to create dynamics not properly addressed in a court of law. And she was absolutely correct. Our legal system is not set up to do so with respect to civil rights violations. The important point with respect to CRT and how its ideas are formulated comes from leaning in to these identity groups as opposed to moving away from using them as identifying features.
In the introduction Crenshaw states that “For all these groups, identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development.” This is a hugely important statement as it moves away from the ideas of the Civil Rights movement that utilized common humanity as the framework for equal rights. If you have ever seen the brilliant protest signs that state nothing more than “I am a man” carried by Civil Rights protestors, you have seen that concept in action. The concept at play there is the simple fact that a person’s humanity is all that needs to be recognized in order to be treated as equally deserving of dignity. What Crenshaw does is instead of moving away from those ethnic markers of difference, she believes that we should lean into them as a source of strength. Instead of seeking what we share, it seeks what is different and makes it concrete. This is part of the framework for the “Race” in CRT. But what does the “Critical” in CRT mean?
There are specific pillars of a theory that characterize it as “Critical.”
- Explanatory: it posits a problem with society and then proceeds to articulate how such a problem is intrinsically linked to the adoption of liberal, Enlightenment values.
- Practical: it produces a framework for political and social action aimed at correcting the problem.
- Moral: the explanation and its practical application result in the betterment of society, as defined by the theorists themselves.
What CRT does for looking at the idea of differences in race and how that affects our views on the structure of society is what excellent essays like this one (linked here) focus on. And that’s definitely something to critique and understand, which is what the explanatory aspect of the framework does. And this is what ideas are meant to be.
Academic ideas should provide a framework for understanding the world in which we live. And fair enough. We are not that far away from a time when race was paramount to a socially constructed class system and some of those old ideas still linger. I have newspaper clippings of my grandfather’s fight to live where he wished but could not because he was Chinese. (Yes I don’t look Chinese. He is my step-grandfather but raised both my mother, my brother, and I). But what is often skipped in the reasoning for CRT is the effect of not just the explanatory aspect of CRT, but the practical and moral aspects of what CRT enables.
Unlike most academic theories, CRT is defined in part by morality in that its explanation of society must be for the betterment of society. As to what defines a better society, that is up to the Critical Theorists themselves. This is somewhat unique to academic theories as it is generally expected that the purpose of the university system is the search for truth and the transmission of found truths. They should also educate students on the proper tools to find truth. Generally the scientific process along with the liberal tradition of open debate would apply to the manner in which those truths are established.
It would be as if Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution shaped our understanding of the world through establishing truth about our origins, also told us what the moral consequences of that knowledge were and what we should do with that knowledge. He did no such thing and scientists and/or academics should never do so. It is their job to search for and reveal truth, communicate it to the public, open it up for scrutiny, and when it survives critique, we add that truth to our body of knowledge.
Critical Theories by definition add an aspect beyond simply a critique of ideas. They stretch their critique beyond the identification of truths, seeking to spread their reach into morality and ethics by establishing perceived truths as morally actionable. Once the perceived framework based on their ideas is established morally, it becomes difficult to critique, as to do so would be to question the fundamental morality of those who adopt this view. We see this when we politely avoid questioning the religious beliefs of our friends and family members at the dinner table. And this is why questioning the tenants of CRT can be so contentious. Those who question CRT are often seen as morally corrupt. But this should not be the norm for academic ideas.
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The second portion of the framework not often addressed is the practical application of the results of this perceived truth formulated by CRT. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. What happens when, as Critical Theories dictate, they produce a framework for political and social action aimed at correcting the problem? It would be difficult to miss what that looks like as we are seemingly inundated with stories of those effects. Here are a few:
– Boston Public Schools suspend advanced placement courses for their students as the classes do not accurately represent the ethnic distribution of their citizens. Namely, they are heavily occupied by Asian and white students with low representation of students “of color.”
– The Arizona Department of Education has created an “equity” toolkit claiming that babies show the first signs of racism at three months old and that white children “remain strongly biased in favor of whiteness” by age five.
This barely scratches the surface. And if you’re curious as to the validity of the claims, I encourage you to follow the links provided and look through the source documents. The ideas are incredibly blatant and when people tell you what they believe, you should take them at their word.
— Wait a second. How do we know that these incidences are because of CRT?
That’s a fair question.
If CRT points out dynamics that are racial in nature and critical of liberal societies, and the second pillar of Critical Theories is to take that knowledge and correct the perceived problem, then it would naturally follow that any inequity that the theory points out would need to be corrected. And how do you correct those inequities? By critiquing the structure which created those inequities. In this case, “whiteness.”
The critique of our society in racial terms is framed as not just a critique of liberal society, but of the culture that created that society in racial terms. Since liberal ideas were born of Enlightenment values, and most Enlightenment thinkers were white men, then liberal values are necessarily white values. Or so goes the idea, as if good ideas have a color.
All of the incidences listed above are framed on an idea that the reason for inequities comes from an assumed power dynamic where white people create institutions and culture in order to maintain power over other ethnicities. Looking at the source documents for several of the stories listed above, you can see the fruits of those ideas and actions they deem necessary. The cancellation of gifted programs in education for children is a perfect example.
The idea is that if we stop uplifting Asian and white students who show a propensity for education, the disparity will be less. It’s a lazy way of fixing the problem, which would be better done by understanding why less children “of color” are in those classes and provide them the means to qualify by lifting them up as opposed to pulling others down. And this is why people sometimes say that CRT is racist. If people are not lifting children “of color” up in order to help them achieve, is it because those who pull down Asians and whites do not believe it is possible for children “of color” to achieve on that level? Understanding motivations are difficult and possibly impossible.
But let’s not presume that these are the consequences of CRT.
So then, where are these ideas coming from? Is there some other theory of understanding race and society that I am not aware of which has gained popularity and shapes curriculum in academia? If there is, I’d like to know it, but I have a feeling that there is not. It’s not likely that White Fragility and How to Be An Antiracist are hugely popular books but are not affecting our outlook on society, and both books and authors are steeped in CRT language and ideas. Or maybe it is a consequence of misapplying the ideas of CRT. And that should be explored.
A good point is brought up in an essay here which rightly frames CRT as simply an expression of “color-consciousness.” And that is for sure what CRT does, but it does not stop there. By definition, Critical Theories must be moral and practical. So once a person is “color-conscious,” they need to apply that consciousness to correcting the perceived problem. The author identifies what CRT can positively contribute to the conversation but leaves out what happens beyond that.
But if the incidents like the ones listed above are misapplications of CRT, then where are all of the CRT proponents, theorists and the famous authors in condemning these misapplications? Why are they not on the front lines assuring that their ideas are not misused? All I have heard with respect to these possible misapplications is silence from that whole contingent.
So, is Critical Race Theory racist? By the definition of racism, no, it is not. It does not blatantly assume the superiority of one race over the other.What it is would be correctly characterized as “color-conscious.” Whether or not that is a good thing is debatable. But even being “color-conscious” comes with the unavoidable problem of assigning value to the different colors. What’s the purpose in naming something unless it describes its value or utility as compared to something else?
Still, it’s tricky because it might be a good thing in that there are racial differences and cultural differences that help us to understand our societies. But those differences are not tied to our melanin. What’s missing from this question of whether or not CRT is racist, is wether or not the product of CRT is racism. Once its ideas are framed as moral and put to practical application, what is the result?
An apple seed is not an apple, but if you put it in the right soil at the right time and give it something to feed off of, it surely produces apples.
That’s what we are seeing with CRT. Its ideas would be just fine if they were a voice at the table pointing out some problems we may want to think about. Academics and their theories should not come with directions to individuals or society on how to apply those ideas. Charles Darwin brilliantly added to the base of knowledge in our society but it was not his place to tell us what to do with that knowledge. Ideas that come from CRT should be presented like any other idea and publicly debated before they are considered knowledge. Then, and only then, should we use what would be new knowledge to inform our public policy and private relationships.
Its intention may be innocent, but it’s impact has been problematic.