August 19, 2021   6 mins

The Karl Marx of critical race theory was a bespectacled, mild-mannered man with a slightly whimsical voice. Born a year after Martin Luther King Jr, Derrick Bell became the first black American to be a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. It should never have happened: neither of his parents attended college, and Bell himself had studied at the relatively undistinguished Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Today, his central argument, that racism is a permanent feature of American society, is now mainstream.

Critical race theory is now widely accepted by the liberal-Left media and much of academia. It’s not just the bad laws of the Jim Crow south. And it’s not just a few racist people here and there. Racism is not some bad apples; it is as American as apple pie.

For Martin Luther King and, later, Barack Obama, American racism was the consequence of a liberal and egalitarian country failing to live up to its principles; for supporters of critical race theory, by contrast, these principles were predicated on the subjugation of black people. The American Dream is rotten to the core.

In critical race theory, then, the key historical moment is not the abolition of slavery — or the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which brought an end to segregation in public places — but the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that “separate but equal” public schooling was unconstitutional. It violated the fourteenth amendment — which, after former slaves were granted citizenship, had assured all citizens “equal protection of the laws”. If black Americans have separate schooling, they can’t realise that equality: so concluded the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

This seems like a tremendous achievement. Indeed, in many standard textbooks on the history of the civil rights movement, Brown v. Board is seen as the first big crack in the edifice of Old Jim Crow. But the founding father of critical race theory was sceptical about its positive impact. In an article published in the Harvard Law Review in 1980, Bell argued that the decision was based on:

“value to whites, not simply those concerned about the immorality of racial inequality, but also those whites in policymaking positions able to see the economic and political advances at home and abroad that would follow abandonment of segregation.”

In other words, the decision was motivated not by principled idealism but cynical self-interest. Domestic legislation in the fifties was shadowed by the Cold War — and in the battle against communism, America wanted to be seen as a moral exemplar.

But Bell’s critique of Brown v. Board runs deeper than this. Bell considered himself a realist, and viewed those who celebrated Supreme Court victories with bemusement. A few laws don’t change 250 years of slavery followed by 100 years of segregation and terror. “My position”, he wrote in his 1992 Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “is that the legal rules regarding racial discrimination have become not only reified (that is, ascribing material existence and power to what are really just ideas) 
 but deified”. This is because “the worship of equality rules as having absolute power benefits whites by preserving a benevolent but fictional self-image, and such worship benefits blacks by preserving hope”.

Hope was the very emotion, however, that animated the politics of King and Obama. (The latter’s second book was entitled: The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.) But Bell is having none of this.

“I think,” he writes, “we’ve arrived at a place in history where the harms of such worship outweigh its benefit”. Those who persist in clinging on to the vision of the nation as a bastion of enlightened values are, according to him, at best naive.

This display of world-weariness, in contrast to doe-eyed idealism, is one shared by the most esteemed black American intellectual in the second term of Obama’s presidency: Ta-Nehisi Coates. No one writes much about Coates anymore. Perhaps because he left Twitter. The last memorable thing he did was base a villain in a comic book on Jordan Peterson. But six years ago, after the publication of his book Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, he was anointed by Toni Morrison as James Baldwin’s successor — the nation’s intellectual and moral conscience on matters of race.

Coates isn’t a theoretician like Bell; he is a polemicist. In his writing, the realist attitude central to Bell’s critical race theory is expressed with piquant force. Racism is a constitutive part of America’s identity, Coates argues, and anyone who deviates from this fact is deluded, naive or malevolent. “There is nothing”, Coates writes about racists, “uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy”.

Coates is known for his essays in The Atlantic, which are stylish, personal, historical and very long. The overall mood is one of disenchantment. The American Dream is not for black people. Between the World and Me is written as a letter to his son, and it contains no consoling words for the future: “I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals”. The view that the moral arc of history bends towards justice is an illusion. “America”, Coates writes, “understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men”. He is an atheist.

Bell was not; he was a Christian. And his detached pessimism was tempered by an aggressive moralism. In his book, Ethical Ambition, which mixes memoir and self-help, he emphasised that:

“humanity at its essence is both an ongoing readiness to recognize wrongs and try to make things better, and the desire to help those in need of assistance without expecting reward or public recognition”.

So there is a point in being human, and that point is to do good. The virtues that are most important to Bell are “passion, courage, faith, relationships, inspiration and humility”. He often reads less like a radical subversive than a hokey Grandpa, slipping you moral maxims rather than sweets. Which raises the question: how can someone with such piety end up conceiving an ideology characterised by doleful pessimism?

Bell is in truth an unlikely candidate for the godfather of critical race theory, an ideology sceptical about the positive impact of anti-racist legislation. When he was younger, he worked for the NAACP, the establishment anti-racism group that believed American society could be transformed through the legal system. He worked, in particular, as a civil rights lawyer in the fifties Deep South. But eventually the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights division asked him to stop being a member of the NAACP: they thought he couldn’t be objective. He quit his position in the department, but continued to work for the anti-racist organisation.

One plausible way to reconcile these two sides of Bell — the moralist and the pessimist — is to emphasise his Christianity. He believed in the permanence of racism just like any Christian believes in the inevitability of sin — nevertheless, the inevitability of sin does not mean we shouldn’t try to be better.

But perhaps a better way to account for this tension — a way that explains the similarities between Bell and non-Christians like Coates — is to view his conception of critical race theory as a case of thwarted idealism in the American Dream. America did not become a post-racial utopia after the civil rights revolution; therefore racism is a permanent feature of American society. Just like every passionate atheist is in some sense an inverted believer, people like Bell who are so antagonistic to American idealism belie their underlying attachment to it. This is true of critical race theory in general.

Although he is not a Christian, Coates is as profoundly American as Bell. His criticism of the nation is animated by his acceptance of American exceptionalism. “One cannot”, he writes, “at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error”. His proposal is this: “to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard”. In other words, he takes at face value the ideals of the American Dream (the very same American Dream that, he argues, is not for black people).

Meanwhile, the opponents of critical race theory see its ideas as hostile to — or at least inconsistent with — America (Fox News has mentioned it over 1,900 times in four months). In an exact inversion of critical race theory’s contention that racism is present in every aspect of American life, many on the Right — in this case, Christopher Rufo — now complain that critical race theory has “pervaded every aspect of the federal government” and poses “an existential threat to the United States”. Rufo and his ilk aren’t opposed to, say, teaching the history of slavery and segregation in American schools; what they oppose is schoolchildren acknowledging their whiteness. Rufo calls it state-sanctioned racism.

The irony is that critical race theory is not, as it sees itself, a realist’s ideology. And it is not, as its main opponents view it, fundamentally un-American. Like many on the conservative American Right, it espouses an idealised view of the nation’s self-professed values: if they truly believed these values were fundamentally corrupt, then what would be the point, as Bell and Coates do, of holding America to them? The truly realist position is one like Coleman Hughes’s: he has shown, with evidence and dispassionate argumentation, that black Americans have made material progress in recent decades.

Although Rufo may deny this of himself, many on the conservative Right do cling on to a form of American idealism that is insensitive to the existence of racism. But critical race theorists cling on to their own idealism by concluding that, because America is not yet a post-racial society, racism is an inexorable feature of the country. The vision of the shining city on a hill becomes the sole means by which to judge the nation — while the material realities of black people fade into the distance.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.