Critical race theory has been a central focus of news reports, op-eds and social media punditry ever since the Trump administration’s release of a memo condemning the federal funding of any training based on it.
In his debate with Joe Biden, Donald Trump claimed that critical race theory is racist and teaches people that America is a horrible place to which Biden responded weakly by claiming that Trump was the racist. Trump’s previous attacks on critical race theory produced a mass of conflicting claims about what critical race theory is, what precisely has been proscribed by the administration and what its motivations were for doing so.
The memo stated: “[A]ll agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on “critical race theory”, “white privilege” or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
The memo also says that “employees across the Executive Branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all White people contribute to racism’ or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism'”. The memo describes critical race theory as “propaganda” five times, “divisive” five times, “unAmerican” twice, and “anti-American” once. Critical race theory is declared to be “contrary to all we stand for as Americans.”
This is an odd claim, since racial inequality and attempts to remedy it have been a constant in American history. Consequently, there have been two centuries of scholarship and activism by African-Americans and others in the realm of American race relations.
The president has also declared that he is raising funds to educate people as to the “real history of the country — the real history, not the fake”. This is concerning to those who are not convinced the president is a reliable judge of what is and isn’t fake news, historical or current. It was similarly alarming when Mr Trump said that he would sign an executive order to create “patriotic education” that will teach young people “to love America with all of their heart and all of their souls”. The implication is that Trump wants to promote an entirely prideworthy version of American history. If so, it is unclear how the enslavement of African Americans would be taught.
Prominent critical race theorists responded to the memo angrily. To Kimberlé Crenshaw, it was “McCarthyism 101” while to Ibram X Kendi it amounted to a claim that to be American was to be racist. “There is danger here” said M.E Hart, provider of federal diversity trainings. “We have to see each other as human beings, and we have to do whatever it takes to, including whatever classes make that possible.”
So, what is critical race theory? Is it divisive propaganda that claims America and white people to be racist and evil? Or is it simply the recognition of all people as human beings?
The theory traces its roots back to the writings and activism of freed slaves including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, who argued strongly for the recognition of African-Americans as full human beings. However, the theory as we know it today could best be understood to have its founding father in the sociologist, W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois argued that the idea of race was created to provide a biological justification for the enslavement, mistreatment and exploitation of African-Americans. He was right.
Du Bois, however, was inclined to believe that African-Americans needed to raise themselves out of their subordinated position by showing white Americans how wrong they were to devalue black Americans in this way. During the Civil Rights Movement, a more activist stance developed which required white Americans to take more responsibility for their own racist assumptions and help to reorder society more fairly.
Following the legal success of the Civil Rights Movement the movement stalled. Legal victories had been won but racist attitudes remained. Thus, what was needed was a “critical” approach. The word “critical” refers to a practice of critiquing institutions and broader society with a view to revolutionary political change. This was in contradiction to the liberal approach of reforming existing structures so that everybody had equal access to them.
As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic wrote in the introduction of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction: “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.”
The founding father of critical race theory was Derrick Bell, professor at Harvard Law School. Bell argued that racism has not improved and is, in fact permanent, and that whites simply find less obvious and legal ways to maintain their dominance. Bell developed his theory of “Interest convergence” which argued that whites only extend rights to blacks when it is in their own material interest. This cynical and pessimistic materialist approach tends to present empirical evidence of disparities and then claim racism as the sole cause of them, while ignoring progress.
Materialism held sway in critical race theory in the 1970s and 80s but gave way to postmodern ideas from the 1990s. In 1991, Kimberlé Crenshaw defined intersectionality as a “provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory.” She critiqued liberalism for its universalism which held that all people should have access to everything regardless of their identity and argued instead for an identity-based approach.
This critique marked a shift from liberalism to identity politics with added postmodernism. The postmodern approach to critical race theory focused less on material aspects of society and more on concepts of power, knowledge and language.
This owes much to the thought of the French theorist Michel Foucault, who argued that oppressive systems of power are maintained by ways of talking about things — discourses. Powerful forces in society get to decide which ways of talking about things are legitimate and they do so to maintain their own privileged positions.
Having legitimised certain discourses, the general population then accepts them as common sense and speaks as though they are true, thus upholding power structures such as white supremacy without realising what they are doing. Critical theorists exist to explain these systems and how they work so people can see them and dismantle them.
This is how critical race theory developed within the academy. However, since around 2010, it has moved into the mainstream. The ideas we are most likely to hear are those of Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. Kendi’s How to be an AntiRacist (2019) and DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018) were New York Times bestsellers for months and sold out again following the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests.
The work of Ibram X Kendi seems to draw most of its spirit from the materialist approach, presenting us with two intertwined false dichotomies. Firstly, one can only be racist or anti-racist. Secondly, one can either support the existence of disparities between races as right and natural or one can attribute them to racist power structures and policies in society and oppose them.
That is, either one accepts that all disparities are the result of racist structures in society and devotes oneself to opposing these as such, or one is a racist. Kendi does not claim that all white people are racist but maintains that all people can behave in ways that are racist or anti-racist according to his definitions.
He writes: “One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist… . The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism… . The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.”
Robin DiAngelo takes a thoroughly postmodern approach. Her belief is that white people are unavoidably racist because of the ways in which they have been socialised in white supremacist countries. DiAngelo identifies America as just such a country but also much of Europe, including the UK.
For DiAngelo, “whiteness” is a system that whites perpetuate with everything they do. In White Fragility, she describes whiteness as a “constellation of processes and practices” consisting of “basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people”. For DiAngelo these processes are “dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels”.
Elsewhere, she sets out a tenet of anti-racism, stating that “The question is not ‘Did racism occur?’ but ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?'” There is no possibility of not being racist and DiAngelo’s training aims to get white people to accept that they are racist — as the Trump memo claims.
So, is the Trump administration right? Does critical race theory claim that America is racist? Yes. Does it claim that white people are racist? If the training is based on DiAngelo, yes. If it draws more on Kendi, a racist is anyone not entirely convinced that all disparities are due to racism. Interestingly, 43% of black Americans are not convinced of this and believe an unwillingness to work hard is a major cause compared to only 30% of whites who believe so. This doesn’t mean they are correct and the perception being higher in black Americans could well be better explained by a tendency to conservatism related to their greater, often Protestant, religiosity as a group.
Is Hart correct that critical race theory and anti-racism training simply want all people to be recognised as equally human? No, this universal humanist approach is explicitly criticised in critical race theory as the failed liberal approach. Critical race theory works by foregrounding identity, not our shared humanity. Is the Trump administration thus correct to call it “divisive”? Absolutely.
Defenders of critical race theory training often miscategorise it as a standard form of essential workplace training, but training people in critical race theory is not like training them in protocols of data protection where compliance with the law can reasonably be required. It is more like training them in a belief system like Christianity and denying employees the right to be openly Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or atheist. Nobody should be required to pretend to believe themselves to be racist or to believe in invisible systems of whiteness if they don’t.
Critical race theory and particularly the anti-racism of Robin DiAngelo require people to reject individual agency and the individual’s knowledge of and control over their own mind, and to accept that they must believe precisely what one set of American theorists insist they do. While believers in critical race theory often insist that only white people reject its ideas, studies show that progressives who hold these kinds of views are much more likely to be white. Black Americans are even split in believing that race relations will improve by focusing on commonalities (liberal universalism) as on differences (identity politics).
By banning training rooted in critical race theory for federal employees, President Trump has defended freedom of belief and taken a stand against coerced speech. Yet there is cause to be concerned. The rhetoric about “patriotic education” and “anti-American propaganda” indicates that Trump could intend to replace one biased and ideological narrative with another and thus deny American children a rigorous education about the racial history of America.
Following the release of his memo, he tweeted, “This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!”
And rather ominiously, at Tuesday’s debate the president also responded to requests to condemn white supremacy by telling the far-Right street fighters Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
While American liberals might share the president’s wish for critical race theory to cease and desist, they must retain their principles of freedom of belief and be on their guard lest this language presages authoritarian censorship.
Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — And Why this Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay is published by Swift Press