What is critical race theory (CRT)?
To attempt a rough, one-sentence summary: CRT is an approach to racial scholarship born in law schools in the 1980s that operates from the premises of pervasive racial inequality and a social constructionist (i.e. anti-essentialist) conception of race; challenges the idea that the superficially colorblind nature of the law means the law is race-neutral; and seeks to explain how landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s failed to deliver on its promises of equality for the racial minorities it was supposed to uplift.
As my professor Charles Mills explains in the epilogue of his 2017 book, Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism, critical race theorists take up two tasks. The first is descriptive: “to recognize and theorize the centrality of race and white supremacy to the making of the modern world”; and the second is prescriptive: “[to recognize and theorize] the implications for normative theory and an expanded vision of what needs to be subjected to liberatory critique to achieve social justice.”
It is important to note here that Mills is using white supremacy to denote the political system of racial domination of whites over non-whites, not the ideology of white supremacist groups like the KKK; the term is ambiguous, and it is the former definition that is relevant for our purposes.
If you’re looking to dive deep into the scholarship on CRT, the papers compiled here will be helpful. Before addressing James Lindsay’s farcical claims about CRT, the debunking of which is the main purpose of the present essay, let’s set the table with a more detailed definition proposed in the 1993 book, Words That Wound, co-authored by Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlè Crenshaw:
In a search for a tentative expository answer to the question “What is critical race theory?” critical race scholars have identified the following defining elements:
Critical race theory recognizes that racism is endemic to American life. Thus, the question for us is not so much whether or how racial discrimination can be eliminated while maintaining the integrity of other interests implicated in the status quo such as federalism, privacy, traditional values, or established property interests. Instead we ask how these traditional interests and values serve as vessels of racial subordination.
Rather than seeing racism as aberrational, CRT scholars see it as a normal feature of American society. After all, the legacy of centuries of race-based slavery and second-class citizenship doesn’t fade away overnight.
Critical race theory expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, color blindness, and meritocracy. These claims are central to an ideology of equal opportunity that presents race as an immutable characteristic devoid of social meaning and tells an ahistorical, abstracted story of racial inequality as a series of randomly occurring, intentional, and individualized acts.
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” as Howard Zinn famously put it. CRT is well aware of this, and it contends that our inquiry would benefit from a recognition that there is no view from nowhere; we all speak from some perspective, one that is not immune to the influences of racialization. Further, the pervasive racial inequality we see in the United States is not produced merely by individual acts of discrimination. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1967, “Negroes have become aware of the deeper causes for the crudity and cruelty that governed white society's responses to their needs. They discovered that their plight was not a consequence of superficial prejudice but was systemic” (emphasis mine).
Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/ historical analysis of the law. Current inequalities and social/institutional practices are linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear. More important, as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service. Our history calls for this presumption.
At first glance, this may look a failure to recognize that correlation does not entail causation. But what the authors are claiming is not the naive thesis that every racial disparity is attributable to racism. The claim is that, given the history of the United States’ treatment of racial minorities—coupled with the commitment to social constructionism about race—we can safely make a defeasible assumption that a complete causal analysis of any particular (dis)advantage along racial lines will include some racist policy or practice.
Critical race theory insists on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color and our communities of origin in analyzing law and society. This knowledge is gained from critical reflection on the lived experience of racism and from critical reflection upon active political practice toward the elimination of racism.
This claim may seem more controversial, but it can be interpreted in a weaker or a stronger sense. I draw here on a useful distinction made by Georgetown philosophy professor Olúfémi O. Táíwò in his excellent essay “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference.” According to the weaker reading, this passage articulates standpoint epistemology, which amounts to three claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated; (2) Marginalized people have some positional advantages in gaining some forms of knowledge; (3) Research programs ought to reflect these facts.
Indeed, it is hard to see how this could be wrong. Táíwò draws on the work of London School of Economics philosophy professor Liam Kofi Bright, who
argues persuasively that these contentions are derivable from a combination of 1) basic empiricist commitments, and 2) a minimally plausible account of how the social world affects what knowledge groups of people are likely to seek and find.
This is precisely the sort of theoretical framework Mills employs in his work on the epistemology of ignorance.
If we read the passage in a stronger sense, however, the claim can be interpreted as much more dangerous. It might be taken to suggest, contrary to CRT’s own commitments, an essentialist account of racial identity, one where only people of color are capable of working toward the elimination of racism; whites must simply defer to the voices of their non-white peers. This is the sort of pernicious mindset Táíwò calls deference epistemology, an approach to knowledge that is not only philosophically objectionable but politically self-destructive. In keeping with the principle of charity and the fact that I have never encountered CRT scholarship that supports deference epistemology, I read the authors’ claim in its weaker sense.
Critical race theory is interdisciplinary and eclectic. It borrows from several traditions, including liberalism, law and society, feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism, critical legal theory, pragmatism, and nationalism. This eclecticism allows critical race theory to examine and incorporate those aspects of a methodology or theory that effectively enable our voice and advance the cause of racial justice even as we maintain a critical posture.
I discuss the ways in which CRT is both critical of and deeply committed to tenets of liberalism later in this essay. And finally,
Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression. Racial oppression is experienced by many in tandem with oppression on grounds of gender, class, or sexual orientation. Critical race theory measures progress by a yardstick that looks to fundamental social transformation. The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself. This recognition of intersecting forms of subordination requires multiple consciousness and political practices that address the varied ways in which people experience subordination.
This is a concise statement of the idea of intersectionality.
Now, it may be surprising to learn that the GOP and its propagandists are spending so much time discussing this late-twentieth-century academic movement. Today, I’ll be looking specifically at James Lindsay’s idea of CRT, since he and many of his friends seem to unanimously regard him as the world’s leading expert on the subject. In fact, when he testified in support of New Hampshire’s House Bill 544, he had produced these fantastic clips, which are still remarkably slept on, despite getting a fair amount of attention over the past few weeks:
So, what is James’ official opinion on CRT? Let’s start with his recent PragerU video.
Right off the bat, we get this:
Critical Race Theory holds that the most important thing about you is your race. The color of your skin. That's who you are. Not your behavior. Not your values. Not your environment. Your race.
I have actually never seen Lindsay go this far with his analysis of CRT until this clip. Of course, there are no citations in this video, so we can’t know for sure where he got it—perhaps from Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton:
Next up, Lindsay tries to show that CRT is, as he says of “Critical Social Justice” elsewhere, “ethno-communist”:
In Critical Race Theory, if you are a member of a "minoritized" racial group—their term, not mine—you are a victim of a system that is rigged against you, a system that doesn't want you to succeed. On the other hand, if your race is "privileged," you're an exploiter—whether you intend to be or not.
An “exploiter,” huh? I’ve never seen a critical race theorist make this argument. You could argue that Robin DiAngelo is committed to something like this conception of whiteness, but DiAngelo is not a critical race theorist; her PhD is in Multicultural Education and she describes herself as a scholar of “Whiteness Studies and Critical Discourse Analysis.”
Critical Race Theory begins from the assumption that racism occurs in all interactions. To see how this works, consider this thought experiment: Imagine you own a shop, and two customers enter at the same time—one white and one black. Who do you help first? If you help the black person first, Critical Race Theory would say you did so because you don't trust black people to be left alone in your store. That's racist. If you helped the white person first instead, Critical Race Theory would say you did so because you think blacks are second-class citizens. That's racist, too. That's Critical Race Theory. It can find racism in anything, even if it has to read your mind to do it.
This is the most absurd strawperson argument I’ve ever seen. It’s also quite clever. I expose it in the following tweets:
Thus Lindsay arrives at his next claim:
Critical Race Theory proponents assume racism is present everywhere and always, and they look for it "critically" until they find it. And they always find it. It has to be there because that's how the imperial European powers, and then America, set things up.
The rest of the video is recycled from other content he has, so let’s switch over to his New Discourses blog post, “Eight Big Reasons Critical Race Theory is Terrible for Dealing with Racism.” There’s enough content to occupy us for the rest of this piece.
1) Critical Race Theory believes racism is present in every aspect of life, every relationship, and every interaction.
This is the strawperson argument I just addressed. Lindsay does this by quoting from Delgado and Stefancic: “racism is ordinary, not aberrational—‘normal science,’ the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.” This is then, somehow, supposed to entail the claim that CRT “begins from the assumption that racism is an ordinary part of every aspect of life in our societies.” I don’t know whether Lindsay’s fans simply miss this inductive leap or don’t think much of it due to confirmation bias, but it’s remarkable there aren’t more of them pointing this basic error out.
2) “Interest convergence”: White people only give black people opportunities and freedoms when it is also in their own interests.
It is rather obvious that Lindsay simply hasn’t read Bell here. In “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” Bell introduces his principle of interest convergence:
The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites. However, the fourteenth amendment, standing alone, will not authorize a judicial remedy providing effective racial equality for blacks where the remedy sought threatens the superior societal status of middle and upper class whites.
According to Lindsay: “It isn’t hard to see how paranoid and cynical this idea is, but it’s also horrible when you pause to consider some of its implications.” First of all, there is nothing paranoid about it or cynical about it; it follows straightforwardly from basic principles of representative government in a racially stratified society like the United States. Second, Bell’s hypothesis was confirmed thanks to historical analysis conducted a decade later by Mary Dudziak.
Let’s consider the “horrible” implications James infers from Bell’s principle.
If someone with “racial privilege” (including white, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Indian, and lighter-skinned black people) decides to become an anti-racist in accordance with this request, the Interest-Convergence Thesis would say they only did so to make themselves look good, protect themselves from criticism, or to avoid confronting their own racism.
In no way does this follow from anything Bell writes in the essay. Lindsay has interpreted the interest convergence principle as if it were an extreme form of Hobbesian psychological egoism. He continues:
The Interest-Convergence Thesis makes it literally impossible for anyone with any racial privilege (again, as outlined by Critical Race Theory) to do anything right because anything they do right must also have been self-interested… By giving people no way out, Critical Race Theory becomes deeply manipulative and unable to be satisfied in its lists of demands.
In fact, Bell does just the opposite, explicitly making room for white elites motivated not by mere self-interest but by recognition of the injustice of racial segregation.
[In Brown], as in the abolition of slavery, there were whites for whom recognition of the racial equality principle was sufficient motivation. But, as with abolition, the number who would act on morality alone was insufficient to bring about the desired racial reform.
For Lindsay, then, this panic about Bell’s interest convergence thesis is based on a fundamental misreading — if not a deliberate distortion — of the work in question.
3) Critical Race Theory is against free societies.
Now that is a hell of an accusation. Hardly anyone thinks freedom is a bad thing. What’s Lindsay’s evidence? First, he quotes Delgado and Stefancic, who state that “critical race scholars are discontent with liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems. Many liberals believe in color blindness and neutral principles of constitutional law.” Another Delgado and Stefancic quote he invokes elsewhere, one which is commonly produced as a “gotcha” in discussions about CRT I’ve participated in on Twitter (especially by that oven bread person):
Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.
I really wish Delgado and Stefancic had taken a second to clarify what exactly they meant by this. It is often taken in a completely uncharitable direction; because CRT is said to “question the foundations of the liberal order,” it is assumed that they reject liberalism wholesale. Still, in no way does the fact that the critique of liberalism is an important aspect of CRT entail Lindsay’s conclusion — that CRT is anti-liberal and “against the idea of freedom to its core.”
There are several CRT scholars who go out of their way to emphasize the importance of liberalism to achieving genuine racial equality. In his essay, “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?” Derrick Bell describes commitment to freedom of speech for all citizens as compatible with skepticism about the possibility of neutral principles of constitutional law:
“I am committed equally to allowing free speech for the KKK and 2LiveCrew” is a non-neutral value judgment, one that asserts that the freedom to say hateful things is more important than the freedom to be free from the victimization, stigma, and humiliation that hate speech entails.
In “The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction,” critical race scholar Angela Harris elucidates her conception of the entanglement of postmodernism and modernism, the critique of liberalism and the commitment to liberalism, as central to her approach:
CRT inherits from traditional civil rights scholarship a commitment to a vision of liberation from racism through right reason. Despite the difficulty of separating legal reasoning and institutions from their racist roots, CRT's ultimate vision is redemptive, not deconstructive. Justice remains possible, and it is the property of whites and nonwhites alike. In its "modernist narratives," CRT seems confident that crafting the correct theory of race and racism can help lead to enlightenment, empowerment, and finally to emancipation: that, indeed, the truth shall set you free… Even while it exposes racism within seemingly neutral concepts and institutions, however, CRT has not abandoned the fundamental political goal of traditional civil rights scholarship: the liberation of people of color from racial subordination.
That’s right: enlightenment; emancipation; liberation; the truth shall set you free. I’d love for Lindsay to square this with his claims of CRT’s total condemnation of the value of freedom. According to Harris, critical race theorists “are part of a global movement… not to abandon the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and liberal democracy, but to make good on their promises.”
This is precisely the project taken up by Mills—the most influential figure in introducing CRT to mainstream academic philosophy—in Black Rights/White Wrongs. As he argues in the first chapter, “Occupy Liberalism,”
The historic domination of conservative exclusionary liberalisms is the result of group interests, group power, and successful group political projects. Apparent internal conceptual/normative barriers to an emancipatory liberalism can be successfully negotiated by drawing on the conceptual/normative resources of liberalism itself, in conjunction with a revisionist socio-historical picture of modernity.
Thus Mills calls for the theorization of a liberalism “radicalized by taking seriously… the shaping of the modern world by white supremacy.” He refers to this variety of liberal political theory as “black radical liberalism,” which he is working on fleshing out in greater detail for his next book The White Leviathan: Nonwhite Bodies in the White Body Politic, for Oxford University Press.
Finally, one more example to drive the point home. In her article, “Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction,” CRT scholar Mari Matsuda justifies her antisubordination principle by appealing to “the ideas of property, equality, and due process that are our constitutional legacy,” part of our nation’s history inspired by “the Enlightenment ideals of liberalism.” There are several other critical race theorists who emphasize their commitment to liberal principles, but my point has been established, so we can move forward. It’s only going to get worse.
4) Critical Race Theory only treats race issues as “socially constructed groups,” so there are no individuals in Critical Race Theory.
I’ve heard this absolutely nonsensical take before, probably from Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro babbling to their fans about intersectionality. Here is how Lindsay sets out to establish this:
Critical Race Theory isn’t just against free societies and the individualism that enables them, but it also doesn’t even believe individuals meaningfully exist at all! In Critical Race Theory, every person has to be understood in terms of the social groups they are said to inhabit, and these are determined by their identity, including race. “A third theme of critical race theory, the ‘social construction’ thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient” (p. 7), write Delgado and Stefancic.
Thus far, all Lindsay has done is restate the claim that individuals don’t exist, followed by a total non-sequitur. We’ll have to be patient.
Under Critical Race Theory, races are categories that society invents and that we impose entirely through social assumptions (mostly stereotypes), and people are members of those racial categories whether they want to be or not. Moreover, they argue that society is “socially stratified,” which means that different social groups (like these racial groups) have differentiated access to the opportunities and resources of society. While this bears some truth on average, it ignores individual variations that are obvious when considering examples of powerful, rich, and famous black people like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Kanye West. Critical Race Theory forces people into these averages, though, and considers them primarily in terms of their group identity rather than their individual identity. This is part of why they use the word “folks” instead of “people”—it designates a social group.
More non-sequiturs, fantastic. How would one even go about defending this thesis, anyway?
Thus, in Critical Race Theory, the goal of ideally treating every person as an individual who is equal before the law and meant to be judged upon the contents of their character and merits of their work is considered a myth that keeps racial minorities down. Instead, it sees people according to their racial groups only. This is why it is so common that progressive racial programs end up hurting the people they’re written to help most.
Interesting take, but still utterly unjustified; Lindsay gave zero evidence of CRT scholars claiming anything remotely similar to the thesis he put forward.
5) Critical Race Theory believes science, reason, and evidence are a “white” way of knowing and that storytelling and lived experience are a “black” alternative.
Good lord, Lindsay is going for blatant defamation. Let’s see what he’s got.
Remember above, where Delgado and Stefancic said that “normal science” is a part of the everyday, ordinary racism of our societies?
No, they said that racism is a part of the “normal science” of society, but go on.
That’s because Critical Race Theory is not particularly friendly to science, residing somewhere between generally disinterested in science and openly hostile to it (often depending upon the circumstances). This is because Critical Race Theory, using that “social construction” thesis, believes that the power and politics of cultural groups make their way intrinsically into everything that culture produces. Thus, science is just politics by other means to Critical Race Theory.
Since modern science was predominantly produced by white, Western men, Critical Race Theory therefore views science as a white and Western “way of knowing.” Critical Race Theory therefore maintains that science encodes and perpetuates “white dominance” and thus isn’t really fitting for black people who inhabit a (political) culture of Blackness.
For the record, Lindsay has produced a grand total of zero pieces of evidence in support of any of the claims made in these two paragraphs. That doesn’t seem to matter much to him or his fans.
This is obviously a horrible sentiment, and it is one that goes against one of the very first pillars of science: universality. Universality in science says that it doesn’t matter who does an experiment; the result will always be the same. This is because science believes in objectivity, which Critical Race Theory also calls an oppressive myth.
No, no it does not. Here’s Harris in the same article cited above: “In its commitment to the liberation of people of color, CRT work demonstrates a deep commitment to concepts of reason and truth, transcendental subjects, and ‘really-out-there’ objects.”
When Lindsay finally decides to give an example, he doesn’t cite a critical race theorist; he cites Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy, who write, “An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible.” Lindsay then distorts a quote from Delgado and Stefancic to mean, in his words, “storytelling about their ‘lived experience’ is the primary mode by which black people and Critical Race Theory produce and advance knowledge,” a claim which he rightly denounces as racist. But it’s not Delgado and Stefancic who are promoting racist drivel here — it’s Lindsay. This is obvious when we compare his racist caricature to what the scholars actually write:
Critical race theorists have built on everyday experiences with perspective, viewpoint, and the power of stories and persuasion to come to a better understanding of how Americans see race. They have written parables, autobiography, and “counterstories,” and have investigated the factual background and personalities, frequently ignored in the casebooks, of well-known cases.
6) Critical Race Theory rejects all potential alternatives, like colorblindness, as forms of racism.
Once again, Lindsay gives no evidence of this claim, citing no sources aside from Sensoy and DiAngelo, who aren’t CRT scholars. The funny thing is, there are plenty of quotes he could have cherrypicked to support his case, but even that must have seemed like too much effort.
7) Critical Race Theory acts like anyone who disagrees with it must do so for racist and white supremacist reasons, even if those people are black.
Lindsay’s support for this comes through examples from popular culture:
The black superstar musician Kanye West famously donned a “Make America Great Again” hat and said he thinks for himself. In response, the poet laureate of Critical Race Theory, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote a widely read article suggesting that West is no longer really black. The black musician Daryl Davis, who is most famous for talking hundreds of real white supremacists out of their Ku Klux Klan hoods, once tried to invite a conversation of this sort in 2019, and members of the nominally “antifascist” group “Antifa” called him a “white supremacist” for being willing to associate with (rather than fight or kill) the people he invited to have a conversation.
Thank you, James, very cool, but none of these people are critical race theorists.
8) Critical Race Theory cannot be satisfied.
We have already seen how Critical Race Theory cannot be disagreed with, even by black people. We have also seen how it rejects all alternatives and how it believes any success that it has comes down to “interest convergence.” Because it rejects science, it cannot be falsified or proven wrong by evidence, and because it assumes racism is present and relevant to all situations and interactions, even the acceptance of Critical Race Theory must somehow also contain racism. Therefore, Critical Race Theory cannot be satisfied. It is, in this way, like a black hole. No matter how much you give to it, it cannot be filled and only gets stronger—and it will tear apart anything that gets too close to it.
A few days ago, James all-but-name-dropped “Cultural Marxism” as he tied CRT to “a 100-year-long spear to push Neo-Marxist ideology into America and the rest of Western Civilization.” This is straight up neo-Nazi conspiracy theorizing.
Washington Examiner @dcexaminerICYMI: @GovRonDeSantis calls the assertion that America is a "systemically racist country" a "bunch of horse manure." “It’s a very harmful ideology, and I would say really a race-based version of a Marxist-type ideology.” https://t.co/E9kD7x8EeD
Max Eden of City Journal cites Cynical Theories, which Lindsay co-authored with Helen Pluckrose, as his go-to source for “identity politics and critical race theory.” Articles in Spiked, The Heritage Foundation, The Economist, The Spectator, and Quillette all describe the book as an important resource for anyone who wants to understand what’s going on in our universities.
But James Lindsay doesn’t know jack shit about CRT; let’s not pretend otherwise.