Why teachers and parents should be concerned about Critical Race Theory
The divisive American political theory that’s making its way to a school near you
First, a disclaimer. I am not going to describe Critical Race Theory (CRT) in a way that will satisfy a purist or an advocate. As we shall see, it would be impossible for me to do so. Instead, I am going to describe it as you are likely to encounter it in your local school and community and this will include some ideas that are not strictly canonical but that tend to be packaged together. This also means I will be tackling the activist form of CRT that is manifest on social media and that you are most likely to encounter. As you will see, I have little sympathy with this form of CRT, even if I find some of the earlier CRT writers lucid and measured.
This post is also necessarily quite long. I imagine you dipping in and out of it as you try to make sense of what is going on and as the more secure among you seek to figure out how to resist it.
Isn’t Critical Race Theory American?
Interestingly, the key proponents of CRT frame it in explicitly American terms but that has not stopped it being adopted pretty much wholesale across the English-speaking world. One reason is that applying CRT to some new context or issue makes for an easy PhD. Because of the kind of theory CRT is, there is no need to do all the grunt work of collecting data or running experiments.
So, in short, although the temperature is far lower in the UK or Australia, you won’t escape CRT. This recent UK documentary tracked the direct application of CRT to a school in London (CRT can be deployed directly and indirectly, as we will see) and this recent satirical video by the Australian group, The Chaser, is underpinned by the assumptions of CRT.
The trouble with defining Critical Race Theory
This is probably the most contentious section of what I will write, partly because contemporary advocates of CRT make extensive use of motte-and-bailey arguments. This is where they really want people to accept a pretty radical and indefensible proposition such as:
Individual white people born in, say, the 1980s should feel guilt and shame for something that unrelated white people did in the 1700s and as a result, should always defer to (the right kind of) non-white people.
However, when criticised, CRT advocates fall back on a much milder and more defensible argument:
Society is structured to give certain advantages to white people and white people should acknowledge that, that’s all.
The switch between the two often comes with a lot of intellectual posturing. The critic of CRT who attacks the first meaning - the real meaning that everyone understands is the real meaning - is portrayed as ignorant and told they need to do more reading, educate themselves and so on. If the critic persists and asks for an explanation as to why, the CRT advocate may even respond that they are tired from the emotional labour of having to explain these things to stupid people.
The example I have given is perhaps central to Critical Race Theory and the evidence for the first interpretation abounds. Individual white people are frequently judged harshly in cancelation events when they fail to show sufficient racial deference. So when, for instance, Young Adult (YA) author Jessica Cluess was cancelled for robustly challenging a founder of the CRT-inspired #DisruptTexts movement on Twitter, the disagreement quickly became racialised, with the CRT-sympathetic online magazine Jezebel reporting it as, “It’s the time of year when white YA writers like to engage in vitriolic Twitter wars that expose biases.”
Cluess was later dropped by her literary agent who inevitably and, as far as I can see, unjustifiably accused her of racism.
[Edit: Given the inevitable claim I have constructed a straw man here - this is how the motte-and-bailey argument works - it’s worth reading this piece from 2008 in full, a time when the first interpretation above was out in the open in the context of Barack Obama’s candidacy. It doesn’t prove anything about CRT today, of course, but anyone with eyes can see this is a key component of the online promotion of CRT]
With that in mind, what is Critical Race Theory?
Critical race theory grew out of a dissatisfaction with the progress being made by the civil rights movement in America. In fact, one of the beliefs of CRT advocates is that advances in civil rights were only achieved when and if they somehow benefited or aligned with the priorities of white people. It is hard to see the logic in such a claim, but it serves a necessary purpose in that it is one way of making CRT unfalsifiable (more later). If anyone points to hard evidence of gains made by the civil rights movement then this can be dismissed without challenging CRT.
This sets-up CRT implicitly in opposition to civil rights movement leaders such as Martin Luther King (and even the celebration of Martin Luther King day because it may let white people off the hook). And note that if civil rights gains are illusory, the only realistic alternative is some kind of revolution.
Perhaps the overriding belief of CRT is that (American) society is systemically/structurally racist. Americans are fish and the water they swim in is racism. Although there undoubtedly have been (and continue to be) systems and structures that perpetuate racism - such as segregation laws in the American South or racist organisational cultures that impose white norms - the CRT concept is much more expansive. In fact, it explains the first point. If we assume that racism is the operating system upon which the whole of society is running then anything that happens within that society, such as civil rights gains, must be consistent with racism. Again, this is an unfalsifiable concept and the logical conclusion is the need for political revolution.
‘Whiteness’ is almost a synonym for this all-pervading system of racism, but it adds a few specifics and a great deal of confusion. Some proponents of CRT try to highlight and call-out things that they identify with whiteness such as hard work or the scientific method. But when you flip that around, it looks like they are saying that it is against the culture of non-white people to work hard or do science and not only is that clearly false, it is old-fashioned straight-up racism.
It also leads to some tortured accommodations with empirical evidence. For instance, despite allegations of admissions bias against Asian American students, as a group, they perform extremely well in admission to top colleges in the US. To give an example, Asian Americans make up about 6% of the US population but 22% of the Harvard class of 2020. How does that work if America is swimming in whiteness? Well, here we can invoke another of those concepts that makes all possible outcomes align with CRT: ‘Whitening’. According to The Atlantic:
“[Whitening] refers to the way the white race has expanded over time to swallow up those previously considered non-whites, such as people of Irish, Italian, and Jewish heritage. In the next wave of whitening, some sociologists have theorised, Asians and Latinos could begin to vanish into whiteness, as some assimilate culturally into white norms and culture, and become treated and seen by whites as fellow whites.”
Are Asian students somehow becoming white and perhaps doing an even better job of it than white students? That seems like a racist way of describing Asian students, of dismissing their cultures and of diminishing their achievements.
Whiteness manifests itself in society as ‘white privilege’. This represents an inversion of the way we previously understood racial injustice. Before, when non-white people were disproportionately stopped by the police or followed around shops by anxious shopkeepers, we would have described this as discrimination against non-white people. CRT inverts this and claims that the absence of such discrimination is a privilege enjoyed by white people.
In a sense, there is little to argue with here because such discrimination exists, whatever name we give it. However, it does initially seem strange. What is the purpose of this reframing?
Proponents of CRT argue that while non-white people are constantly aware of their perceived race - they are ‘racialized’ - white people are not and tend to think of themselves just as people. This strikes me as a pretty accurate observation. The purpose of the framing of white privilege is therefore to make white people more conscious of their race and the associated advantages i.e. the lack of discrimination it affords them.
The goal of this seems to be to evoke the guilt-and-deference response mentioned earlier in a functionally similar way to the concept of original sin in Catholicism, and it certainly seems to have this effect on a lot of people on Twitter. However, we don’t know the long term effects of making white people more conscious of their race. I’m not convinced this is an advance and it could lead to the unintended consequence of a surge of interest in neo-nazi ideology.
And the potential harm does not end there. What is the point of starting a business or pursuing your education if you are non-white, given all of the structural disadvantages you face? So, CRT could become partly a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In a strange mirroring of some conservative thought, we already have evidence that CRT training can lead to a loss of empathy on the part of social liberals for poor white people who were seemingly gifted privilege they failed to capitalise upon. And this makes me question whether CRT, with its lack of interest in class, is actually a left-wing project at all.
Robin DiAngelo has taken white privilege further and developed the concept of ‘white fragility’ that explains away all possible objections that a white person may raise. In the original white fragility essay, DiAngelo lists the kinds of reactions she encounters when delivering expensive corporate diversity training:
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
So, if you are in one of DiAngelo’s sessions and you are white - or perhaps you are whitening - and you disagree, say nothing or leave, then you are demonstrating white fragility. Obviously, if you agree with DiAngelo and abase yourself in front of her then you are off the hook… for now.
And if you are non-white and you disagree with an advocate of CRT then that’s clearly because you have internalised racial oppression.
There is only one element of CRT that I see as particularly postmodern - an emphasis on storytelling as a form of evidence, an emphasis that seems to derive from the belief that non-white cultures value stories and whiteness has somehow displaced stories. The rest of CRT is an interlocking and absolute set of beliefs, including the belief in an all-pervading structure that determines people’s fates. This strikes me as the opposite of the ‘there are many truths’ relativism of postmodernism.
So what’s this unfalsifiable issue you keep mentioning?
You may have picked this up implicitly because I keep mentioning it, but a major problem with CRT is its unfalsifiability. Initially, this may seem like a strength and in a way, it is, explaining the popularity and resilience of the theory. So, let me illustrate the flaw.
You may be thinking along these lines: Experts in biology agree with the theory of evolution, experts in climate agree with the concept of human-caused climate change and experts in racial injustice agree with CRT. Therefore, CRT is a theory like evolution or climate change.
This is a false comparison. The key feature of scientific theories is that they are testable or ‘falsifiable’. This means we can imagine evidence that would refute the theory. If we look and test and probe and we keep failing to find such evidence, we have a good theory.
For instance, in evolution, we could potentially find evidence in the fossil record that biological changes do not slowly accumulate but come in punctuated bursts. For climate change, we might find evidence of a temperature peak or of the sea absorbing more carbon dioxide than we had predicted.
Given the above discussion, what evidence do you think advocates of CRT would accept that would convince them that some aspect of the theory is wrong? I can’t think of any and in fact, much CRT scholarship seems to be devoted to explaining away potentially contradictory evidence - white fragility, whitening, internalised racial oppression and so on.
Instead, CRT is a belief system. The reason it is popular in academia is that it works as a virus or meme that infects disciplines that lack strong methods for testing the truth of claims, disciplines such as those often found in university education faculties. And, as I mentioned above, it is intellectually easy work. Even when CRT is being applied to a completely new area, there is a big arrow painted on the ground, pointing to the conclusions to be drawn.
You are either racist or antiracist
Ibram X Kendi has become famous for claiming that there is no such thing as being ‘not racist’. An individual can be either racist or antiracist and by antiracist, Kendi means subscribing to a version of CRT.
This is an example of the false choice fallacy. It is like claiming you can either be a Baptist or a devil worshipper and no other possibilities are allowed. If anyone made such a claim, a Catholic may raise the objection that she is neither a Baptist nor a devil worshipper and further possibilities clearly exist. The entire cancellation phenomenon as it relates to race is about trying to force this false choice on people. Clearly, there is racism in the world and a lack of racial justice, but it is not enough to believe this. Unless you sign up to every tenet of CRT, including the silly ones, you are a racist, as Jessica Cluess found out.
This provides those of us sceptical of CRT with a dilemma. I don’t ever want to develop a thick skin to accusations of racism. However, the fact is that we now have two distinct forms of racism, real and imagined, and rhetorical accusations of imaginary racism are impossible to avoid if you are critical of CRT. Again, this devaluation of the charge of racism plays into the hands of the far right.
Essentially, the all-pervasive structural racism element of CRT is a conspiracy theory, similar to historic fears in Protestant England of Catholic conspiracies or antisemitic fever dreams about Jews controlling the world’s banks. In both cases, the antagonist is conceived as an all-powerful supervillain. And we know from history how such fever dreams end.
What does CRT look like in schools?
There are two ways that CRT is being pursued in schools. The first is through direct intervention, as in the UK documentary linked above. This involves importing the techniques of corporate diversity training and it is easily identified from its highly counterintuitive methods.
In the documentary, children are literally segregated into white and non-white ‘affinity groups’ to discuss their cultural backgrounds. The white kids struggle, as they are meant to, because they have no concept of ‘white’ culture. Clearly, they are not meant to start playing The Beatles or quoting Shakespeare because the identification of such things with a supposed white culture would be seen as racist. And so they struggle and become upset.
The less obvious way that CRT is used in schools is as a lens for interpreting history or literature or social studies. This is far harder to spot because it ostensibly looks like students are just studying a particular book or period of time. Presented in this way, the validity of CRT is assumed and students are left with the impression that rather than being a questionable theory, CRT is simply the truth.
What can be done?
The most important issue is to raise awareness of CRT, perhaps by sharing this post with people you can trust. Few people really understand what it is or even that it exists. Instead, people tend to assume its various manifestations are just about being opposed to racism.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been exceptional in this regard. Thousands of athletes have kneeled for a movement they understand little about, thinking that they are simply kneeling to oppose racist police treatment.
The time has come for us to resist CRT while continuing to recognise the problem of racism. If it is safe to do so, we should raise questions about this movement wherever it arises. Specifically, we should challenge its claim to be the only way of being antiracist. We should challenge teachers who seek to indoctrinate children into CRT and we should challenge the consultants seeking to make a buck from selling it to schools. A key question should always be: what evidence would convince you that you are wrong?
It would also help if we could build a new, empirically based analysis of racial injustice that was subject to the checks and balances of a scientific theory. Unfortunately, as we near the high water mark of CRT, the direction of travel seems to be the other way. Instead of proponents of CRT learning from scientists, CRT is poised to colonise and distort the sciences. If it succeeds, we will have destroyed science, one of our most successful human endeavours and its legacy of healing, comfort and discovery that belongs to all people of the world, regardless of race.
Even if we eventually lose, we cannot let this pass unchallenged.
Postscript: I predict this piece will be ignored by CRT advocates. If they do address it, I predict they will not address my arguments. Firstly, they will try to twist my words to imply I am racist. Secondly, they will accuse me of a lack of scholarship that results in me misunderstanding the field. However, they won’t explain what these misunderstandings are or why I am wrong.