Updated: Apr 11
The debate over CRT in the U.S. has reached a fever pitch. There are probably very few people with their eyes open who haven't heard more or less about CRT and the potential impacts on the youth in our country. But what exactly are we talking about when we discuss CRT?
The debate often turns to questions of the accuracy of history lessons in the K-12 classroom and whether we should update our curricula to reflect different aspects of slavery and oppression of people of color. That's far from the actual purpose or operation of CRT, however. This is a fact that thought leaders on CRT, I'm confident, would agree with. Admittedly, I'm no expert on CRT. I've read handful of scholarly articles as well as CRT: The Key Writings That formed the Movement, Words that Wound and a well-known Harvard Law Review article titled Whiteness as Property. Armed with that knowledge, I feel informed enough to make, at least, an initial assessment or attempt to describe what it is that CRT proffers in contrast with what seem to be many misunderstandings about its application or proposed application within our school system and the corporate sphere.
Kimberle Crenshaw et al., in Words that Wound, try to lay out a definition of CRT. To be clear, the authors don't actually call it a definition. It's extremely difficult to get a critical race scholar to give a concise definition of CRT. Instead they rely on the following description: "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:". Sound a smidge non-committal? That seems to be the case. Whether by design, as a way to shield it from scrutiny (the irony), or whether it's simply that CRT is inherently difficult to define, it does seem to be quite mysterious. In any case, I don't think you have to be a CRT expert in order to read the guiding principles and make sense of them. With that being said, let's run down the six points outlined in Words that Wound to see if we can't uncover, to the best of our ability, what critical race theory actually is.
Do keep in mind that, unlike any normal definition, CRT requires an enumerated, page-long description. So we will cover the numbered elements in turn before moving on to whether the "definition" of CRT truly matches the hype machine which seemingly pushes it as "teaching accurate history". Additionally, while a key feature of any critical theory is deconstruction, we will be looking at the six point description from a plain meaning viewpoint. That is, we will rely on the common usage and plain meaning of the text to decipher the meaning of the elements as opposed to any CRT specific meaning that only the super-educated doctors of CRT could possibly understand. After all, if they indeed want this to become a mainstream thought process rather than feed a narrative they've derived from the application of CRT, then the meaning of words should be the common meaning and CRT should be an easy concept to understand as well as to explain. So without further ado....
1. 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.
Some of the principles are simpler than others. This seems to be the most straightforward of the bunch. While you may not agree with the premises of the inquiry right out of the gate (neither do I), we at least get a fairly clear understanding that the first thing we are to do in CRT is forget about ever "maintaining the integrity" of "federalism, privacy, traditional values or established property interests", no, those things aren't worth preserving when looking critically at something. Instead, we are going to forget that those things exist as we know them, and rather focus on how some of the most foundational elements of our country, the things just mentioned, are instead "vessels of racial subordination" as opposed to fundamental rights.
I actually don't personally need to go any further than this to recognize any conclusion derived from this point of view will be based outside the reality we all live in. That is, we do have private property rights. We do have privacy protections. We do have federalism. We do, at least many of us, live traditional values. These things exist as we know them and are available to everyone in America, regardless of race. But, that's the entire point of CRT. The idea is to forget momentarily our actual foundation as a country so that one can view issues through a different lens, the CRT lens. The problem is that critical race theorists never come back to reality, they stay stuck in the world where the things that are so valued, the things people fought and died to protect for future generations, are actually just racist vessels. They continually view things as what they aren't for the sole purpose of finding criticisms never to return to reality. The premises are false to begin with. Its defining feature is its fatal flaw.
2. 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.
Beginning with the first sentence we can see that they don't entirely reject objectivity, neutrality or meritocracy they simply "express skepticism toward" those things. Where is the value in looking at neutrality with skepticism? Neutrality is fairness, it's equality.
Objectivity is the state of being true to whatever degree of truth we, as humans, can come to. By not allowing emotions or personal experiences to cloud the validity of that truth and seeing the evidence and duplicative capability of a thing, we can come to some shared reality as free from anecdotes and subjectivity as possible. Similarly, meritocracy helps to create an even playing field.
That's really what all three of these issues are about. The combination of objectivity, meritocracy and neutrality makes for an environment where every person, regardless of race, has the same opportunity to succeed. Of course this was not always the case in America, most people acknowledge that openly, but it should be and is the goal of America. Only if the intention is to find a way to put one group identity, such as race, ahead of another would you leave the door open for side-stepping these three things in any analysis. There is more to come on this and we will take a look back at why they look at these things with skepticism in elements four, five and six.
3. 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.
Element number three seems to take all the mainstream credit for CRT as a whole. Talking points across all mainstream media outlets and in the cold, damp corners of social media that are the political debate groups, you'll hear the refrain time and time again "What's wrong with teaching [insert unflattering historical fact from America's history]". The answer, of course, is "nothing".
Absolutely nothing is wrong with teaching accurate history. Is it possible that our schools' curriculum was written by those who wanted to paint America in a good light? I'd say it's likely. That means some of the more brutal stories of our past may have been left out in the final cut of your eighth grade history book. I don't however, think this was necessarily a concerted effort by neo-Nazis to hide America's scarred history in order to oppress Black people in the country. That would be a massive leap. That doesn't really matter, though. History should be taught accurately. If people of color feel there are important historical events that are missing from the history books, we should hear them and add as much brutality as is necessary to paint an accurate picture of history. Granted, that's quite a difficult task when objectivity and neutrality are suspect (see element 2). Nonetheless, it is important to teach accurate history and this fact can't be overstated.
How we get from "we should teach accurate history" to "everything is racist" becomes clear as we advance through element three. Most readers will probably understand that when analyzing race in America, or when analyzing anything for that matter, confirmation bias is something to be avoided. We should always aim to keep an open mind about what the results of any analysis or study might be. To that end, we don't want to presume that what we believe to be true is true. Using circular logic to justify a position is also something, well, illogical.
So, when you read the words "as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes (emphasis added) that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage", that's a red flag...That's not good. When racism leading to a given outcome is presumed, it's pretty obvious that your conclusion will be that racism was the cause.
This is where we have to look back to element two (rejection of objectivity) and forward to element four (accepting anecdotal evidence) and the pieces begin to come together. If at any time we can simply reject an objective reality, something we all previously agreed on, a premise that was believed to be truth and which led us to some conclusion, and then claim it's not actually true, then we can start to unravel the ball of yarn. That takes us on to element four...
4. 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.
With CRT, we don't actually have to show that a thing is objectively true, we look at objectivity with skepticism. All that's required under the critical lens is a claim that someone's personal experience was that racism existed at some point and we must accept that narrative. It's what critical race theorists call "counter-storytelling". CRT "Insists on the recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color...". Put another way, anecdotal evidence becomes part of the analysis of whether something exists. This, as you can see from it being one of the six fundamental elements of CRT, is a foundational tenet of CRT. I'd argue it is the most relied on element of all.
We all know how quickly the police shooting, the racist Karen and the angry Trump supporter spread on social media. Most of us have heard "Breonna Taylor...Say her name". These stories paint a vivid picture. They are often emotional. They should be because any loss of innocent life is tragic and hardly anybody condones the use of racial slurs, no matter how intense an argument in the parking lot of Walmart gets. These stories, the ones that fly around the internet at warp speed and get everyone riled up, these are the counter-stories. These stories are suggested to represent white Americans as a whole. They aren't, however, backed by any data. There aren't any stats that support the idea that even a small minority of white Americans view people of color as inferior. There is no data that shows the police who shot the unarmed men had any racist intent. George Floyd is held out as the face of the BLM movement, statutes erected in his honor and yet there wasn't a single allegation in the trial for his murder of racism. Race was never mentioned. That doesn't matter under the critical lens. All that matters is that twenty unarmed black men were killed by police in a given year, whether justified or not. All that matters is Karen who, inexcusably, shouted a racial slur at a fellow shopper. Critical race theorists then use "story telling" to project onto all of America these relatively few incidents of actual racism or incidents spun as racism before being projected.
To wrap up element four: Reject statistics and other objective measures of racism ("look at objectivity with skepticism..."), or lack thereof, tell stories (counter-storytelling) about a few incidents of actual or presumed racism and then insist that these stories represent the whole of America ("Insist on the recognition of experiential knowledge" aka anecdotal evidence). Yes, we are getting there now.
5. 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.
There isn't a lot to say here. The method of dividing by group identity, smashing the machine and replacing it with something "equitable" is playing out for all of us to see. Patrice Cullors, BLM co-founder and critical race theory proponent, is admittedly a trained Marxist. She claims to have spent a year "reading, anything from Marx, to Lenin, to Mao, learning all types of global critical theory and about different campaigns across the world". We all know about the mostly peaceful protests which unfortunately ended in 1-2 billion in property damage, a couple dozen dead, and hundreds, if not thousands, injured. That's the smash part.
The replacement comes from CRT. This post isn't about Marxism but suffice to say that Marxist, Leninist and Maoist ideologies have often ended badly...very badly. Like 20-100 million dead and people selling their dead relatives to the neighbor for dinner, badly. Element five is more a rundown of where CRT is derived and Marxism is one. You can make of that what you will.
6. 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.
Element six reiterates the need to replace America's systems with something more equitable. The language used is (probably intentionally) vague and doesn't give any real substantive solutions on how to do this but you can quickly look back to element one where in order to eliminate or replace the hierarchies we will need to usurp the constitution and look past those unimportant things like property rights, federalism, privacy and traditional values.
Looking through the CRT lens, then, it's no problem to restructure. Everyone's land and homes are ripe for the taking because they don't own private property, everyone's private life is wide open for criticism from any angle, we no longer have the current government in the way and your nice family of four, mom, dad and your two boys...oh, that's not looked at as valuable any longer. After all, those things aren't worth preserving because they are just "vessels of racial oppression". Once you remove all the realities that exist in American society, we can look at ways to put the pieces back together the "right" way. Maybe we "Build Back Better", or something like that (Talking to you Biden Comrades). As you can probably see, CRT is a look through a, literally, unrealistic lens.
That's the entire goal. That's OK, actually. It's OK if you want to spend time considering what might have been if we had changed the entire country and it was no longer America but something completely different. It just doesn't do much good in the real world where we all actually live.
Not CRT, Conclusions of CRT.
Now that we have taken a good look at some of the key features of CRT, it's worth giving second thought to whether what we are being told is CRT is indeed CRT. From the full page description of CRT covered, we can see that history is a relatively small part of what CRT aims to change. Yes, changing the narrative around history is vital to CRT. Without "telling stories" about history, it would be difficult to frame all inequalities as a result of racial oppression, but there are much more troublesome ideas that CRT asks us to accept. Not to beat a dead horse but overlooking private property rights and guarantees of privacy are the first two that come to mind.
In any case, CRT can hardly be accurately framed as a re-accounting of history in America. Instead what is being done is an analysis by critical race theorists. They use the principles above to come to certain conclusions, namely that "racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage". recall the premise of this conclusion is the conclusion itself. It aims to prove what it presumes to be true, so of course that is the conclusion.
Again, the problem isn't the CRT lens itself, it is good to take alternative views of issues and consider what the result might be from any given perspective. Instead the problem is that the faulty and illogical conclusions that result from applying the CRT lens are then told as truths to one side of the political spectrum. The population who buys these "truths" wholesale are the ones who tend to feel passionate about helping people they perceive to be underserved, underrepresented, oppressed, or all of the these.
There's an even worse problem, however. Those adults who are willing to accept faulty conclusions derived from bad premises used for CRT analysis now insist that these conclusions are the truths worthy of teaching our children in school. There are two problems:
1. Clearly these CRT conclusions can only be truth in a world where the proper premises are applied in the analysis. Nearly none of the principles espoused by critical race theorists are grounded in the reality the rest of us live in. If those willing to accept the conclusions of CRT truly understood the illogical leaps and mental gymnastics it took to reach those conclusions they'd likely have the same issue as the rest of us, fingers crossed.
2. CRT rejects objectivity. Granted, they only reject it when convenient. But, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If critical race theorists can willy-nilly decide when to "look at objectivity...with skepticism" then isn't that same standard applicable to their own analysis? If so, then we each get to live in our own worlds where the objective truth is less important than the comfortable "truth". Ironically, that's the same argument critical race theorists are likely to make about the objective reality we actually live in today. This, once again, is the whole game for critical race theorists. Confuse reality and push a narrative full of cheerful euphemisms, warm fuzzies, that everyone can agree with while also refusing to accept proper analytical standards developed over thousands of years. These are the kind of standards that make it possible to create rockets to take us to the moon or allow us to talk face-to-face with a new acquaintance in China the very same minute we meet them. It's the kind of analysis that, oddly enough, paves the way for technologies that make us one of the wealthiest nations in the world and create an economy that keeps people of color across the globe risking their lives for a chance to be here (rant over).
The bottom line here is that CRT is not and will never be taught in k-12. It's far too complex a tool for children to use. It would ask a teenager or younger to change the reality they actually live in and swap it for an alternate universe in order to see how it's possible that everything that turns out badly for a person of color is racist. Then it would ask them to flip the switch and apply objective analytical standards which would inevitably lead to confusion. If it didn't lead to confusion and they were able to apply CRT, not only are they extremely gifted, they would also realize how absolutely insane it is to take an alternate reality and pretend that the outcomes from that reality apply in the real world. Rather, our local governments, school boards and our corporations are taking the ill-derived conclusions and creating curriculum around them. This switch in reality is being sold as a way to equity. That might be true, but it's a bad way to get there. Equity isn't a virtuous target anyhow. Equality always has been and always will be the virtue America should aim for.
To be fair, it's possible that these exercises in critical thinking can open up some gaps in our system, but only where the false premises applied to come to those realizations don't affect the outcome. In other words, it's possible that there are some practical uses for CRT, it's just that these uses will be few and far between because most are achieved through false premises. Even though I don't believe it will ever be taught and don't believe it's actually possible, if we are going to teach CRT in schools, let's teach CRT. I think it would open a lot of eyes to the absurdity. What we can't allow to happen is our schools to be overrun with the illogical and untrue conclusions being pushed by CRT radicals today because we are too lazy or it's too hard to actually teach the critical method. If we want to allow children to explore alternate realities for themselves and come to conclusions about which reality actually exists, however impractical (I'd argue impossible), that's better than allowing them to be spoon fed unscientific, illogical garbage.
Most importantly, if we want to teach kids to be compassionate, caring, loving, responsible citizens, it doesn't require a mention of race. We can, and should, do that anyway. I think most of us already do. A few among us want to divide us and undo the progress we have made as a country by pretending things exist that don't. They're preying on partisans and counting on them to take a hardline stance on the issue of CRT without even looking at it. They understand that nearly half of America will step in the CRT trap on party affiliation alone...and here we are. I encourage you to do the research, not the meme shared on Facebook, not the Instagram story from your friend in Delaware. Do the hard work and really understand what you are supporting before you suggest CRT, or worse the terribly illogical conclusions of CRT, is worth supporting.
A.G. Miller is a father, husband and community member who resides in Tulsa, OK. He is a Army combat veteran, former police officer, and business owner who graduated summa cum laude with B.S. in business management and currently attends University of Tulsa College of Law where he will graduate with a J.D. in 2022.
"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual." -Thomas Jefferson