What Is Critical Race Theory?
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., taken from Fire in the Streets (Salem Books, 2022). The documentation is included in the book and Kindle version.
In a nutshell, CRT developed from an earlier ideology called Critical Theory (CT), which was a form of neo-Marxism. Every aspect of society must be criticized and found wanting. Instead of dividing society into the two categories of the bourgeoise owners (the oppressors) and the proletariat workers (the oppressed), as in Marxism, CT taught that oppression is woven into the fabric of culture and must be exposed through cultural critique. Through this critique, the culturally and economically oppressed can throw off their “false consciousness” (socially induced deceptions about their plight) and embrace a philosophy of liberation.
CT morphed into CRT when legal scholars began to add race to the mix, seeing racism as systemic in American life and evident in the law. Thinkers like the late Derrick Bell, best known for his work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argue that white racism has been a permanent feature of American life and could only be countered by revolutionary change in cultural and political values. Those advancing rights for sexual minorities (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, the transgendered, etc.) found the social system to be rigged against them as well. For that reason, I will include gender matters under CRT in upcoming chapters. Today, this amalgamation plays out in the following ideas, advanced by thinkers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robin DiAngelo, and Ibram X. Kendi.
CRT claims that America is systemically racist and that the entire social system disadvantages POC—a term which includes all non-white people, but which usually refers to African Americans. Any discrepancy in the achievements between POC and white people is due primarily, or entirely, to this systemic racism. The claim of systemic racism is often accompanied by the idea that America has been racist from its beginning. The 1619 Project, a long-form journalism project of the New York Times that aims to reframe national history, claims that America was founded on racism when the first slaves were brought here in 1619. Any idea of “American exceptionalism” is therefore deemed racist, xenophobic, and so on.
All white people are racist, say CRT advocates. They grant that not all white people harbor explicit ill will toward POC, but since they are part of a racist system, they participate in racism simply by being white. They must be taught to realize this, which is the goal of the popular book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. White people, particularly heterosexual white males, are the oppressors in society. Let us consider some terms and phrases used in CRT.
“White privilege” refers to the condition of unearned and unjust benefits—economic, cultural, and emotional—that POC and sexual minorities do not experience.
“White supremacy” is the ideology that says white people will fight to keep their white privilege over POC, even if they do so unconsciously. This is a redefinition of the classic sense of the term, which held that white supremacy is “the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.”
“Racial essentialism” is a tricky term. On the one hand, CRT says that race is “constructed” socially and not inherent in people. In this sense, it is postmodern.12 On the other hand, race is what determines whether one is oppressed or an oppressor. How this conflict is resolved escapes me, but perhaps it can be claimed that racial conceptions are constructed by the oppressors in order to oppress. As such, they are real. But in terms of one’s objective being, they are false.
“Standpoint epistemology” is the belief that, unlike white people, POC and sexual minorities have a privileged perspective on matters of racial oppression. Their “lived experience” defines objective reality. If someone questions that perspective, he or she is assumed to be racist. Thus, CNN host Don Lemon often speaks of “his truth” of experiencing racism and homophobia as a gay black man, as do others seeking to advance this agenda.
“Intersectionality” is an idea Kimberlé Crenshaw developed, holding that those who occupy several oppressed categories—such as a black lesbian or a Hispanic transgender person—are particularly oppressed, and thus have a reliable vantage point to speak of the dynamics of oppression.
“Identity politics” is the norm amongst advocates of CRT. Instead of deeming individuals as “created equal” before God and the law, CRT understands individuals as members of a group who must be treated accordingly. Hence, the proliferation of hyphenated adjectives: African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and more.
“Microaggressions” are commonly perceived by CRT enthusiasts. Given the above points, white people often disrespect and disadvantage POC through subtly abusive figures of speech and gestures. Given standpoint epistemology, a microaggression identified by a POC or sexual minority cannot be questioned.
Free speech is not typically valued in CRT. Because of the points above, some speech is deemed as tainted at the source and, as such, does not have the right to be heard. This is evidenced by the numerous public officials and private citizens who have been deplatformed at public events or banned from social media. CRT deems the older American notion of an open “marketplace of ideas” to be a prop for white privilege.
As we address the fire in the streets and the fire in the mind in the pages ahead, we need to do far more than extinguish a malevolent and destructive blaze. We need to ignite a better fire—one that burns away the dross and gives us the warmth and energy we need to walk wisely, both with the living God and with our neighbor.
Groothuis, Douglas R.. Fire in the Streets: How You Can Confidently Respond to Incendiary Cultural Topics (pp. XX-XXIII). Salem Books. Kindle Edition.