Time for some genuinely critical race theory
June 9, 2021
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
The educational battle over Critical Race Theory (CRT) has come to Oklahoma. Governor Kevin Stitt was kicked off the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission after signing a new law widely described as “banning CRT” in the state’s schools. And the Norman Public Schools district has come under scrutiny for spending more than $20,000 on equity and inclusion consulting and professional development services that incorporate key ideas related to CRT.
Some of the educational ideas being promoted under the banner of CRT are good ones, and some are bad. Unfortunately, the hardest thing in the world right now is to have a genuinely “critical” discussion of CRT that would allow us to sort out the good ones from the bad ones. And that isn’t just because political passions are running hot—although that’s certainly not helping, either.
The deeper problem is that the phrase “critical race theory” has become much more a shibboleth for warring sociological tribes than a descriptor of a clearly defined body of ideas. If you ask any 10 people who either attack or defend CRT to define what CRT is, you’ll get approximately 50 answers. And of course we can’t think clearly if we don’t know what we’re thinking about.
It’s true that the concept of CRT has important historical roots in “critical legal theory,” a school of thought that legal academics have been debating since the 1960s. However, in recent years the public discourse about CRT has broadened dramatically. The phrase is no longer used consistently, at least in the general public debate, to refer to just that particular constellation of ideas. Trying to confine the discussion of CRT exclusively to what “CRT” meant 10 years ago is a hopeless proposition; the world has moved on.
We can see this problem clearly in the confusion about the law Gov. Stitt recently signed. Although it has been widely described as banning Oklahoma schools from teaching CRT, the text of the bill—which is very brief and easy to read, fortunately for those happy few who elect to read it before talking about it—does not even mention CRT. It prohibits schools from teaching that one race is inherently superior to others, that anyone ought to feel anguish or distress because of their own race, that anyone is inherently racist solely because of their race, that “meritocracy” as an idea is inherently racist, etc.
Now, it’s true that the ideas Oklahoma schools are prohibited to teach are core features of CRT as some important advocates of CRT define CRT. But the emphasis in that sentence is on “some.” Other advocates of CRT strenuously deny that CRT involves the view that white people should be ashamed to be white, or that all white people are racist, or that meritocracy is racist.
Rather than bicker about the definition of a term, why not step back and do some genuinely critical theorizing by asking which ideas are actually good and which are bad?
We need to acknowledge that our inherited social systems, including the knowledge traditions embodied in academic disciplines as well as our systems of public justice, are disfigured by historic injustices. Disciplines like “social studies” and “English,” and even “science,” don’t exist in a vacuum. They aren’t abstractions floating in the ether. They don’t grow on trees. They are traditions. They exist because our ancestors built them, through centuries of hard work, and handed them down to us. And to the extent that our ancestors had blind spots, the traditions they handed down to us will need to be corrected.
Here’s an example I’ve encountered in my own research—and since this example is from a subject that’s far afield from contemporary U.S. political debates, maybe it will allow us to consider the dynamic more dispassionately. Right now, historians are undergoing a huge reconsideration of the history of Christianity in the 4th century, because we are realizing that our inherited historical knowledge of that period has been distorted by centuries’ worth of scholars filtering the story through their racist assumptions about Africa. For example, a highly influential standard reference work on the subject, written in the 1950s, describes Africans as “primitive” and, as a direct result of that bias, portrays events in Africa in ways that we now know with certainty are completely false to the facts. Since a huge portion of the history of 4th-century Christianity took place in Africa, this is not just a blind spot, it’s a whole Seurat mural’s worth of blind spots. And since events in Europe and Africa were related in extensive and complex ways, a reassessment of what was going on in Africa entails a reassessment of what was going on in Europe as well. There is no predicting in advance just how dramatically our understanding of Christianity in the 4th century may ultimately need to be revised. It will probably take at least a generation for us to do the careful work necessary to sort this all out.
To some people, CRT just means recognizing that this kind of problem is relevant in all academic fields, and we ought to be proactive in discovering and correcting the race-related blind spots in our knowledge traditions. If that’s what we’re talking about, sign me up. In fact, you don’t need to sign me up, because I’m already working on it; my book on what Christians today can learn from the cultural struggles of Christianity in 4th-century Africa will be coming your way in a few years.
And there’s nothing in Oklahoma’s new law that gets in the way of that kind of reevaluation. On the contrary, the virtues of equality, charity, and hospitality embodied in that law are indispensable to any real reckoning with legacies of racial injustice. These virtues define a just social process within which it is possible to set aside our power struggles and focus on the question of what is actually true.
But that’s just the problem. Many important versions of CRT, especially the ones that have stayed close to their historic roots in critical legal theory, explicitly repudiate the goal of setting aside power struggles to find out what’s true. They think that there is no truth, only various competing narratives—stories we tell ourselves and others—each one backed up by its own systems of power.
For these versions of CRT, the goal is not to correct error and get to the truth. The goal is to replace one system of power with another system of power. That means replacing stories that serve the old system of power with stories that serve a new system of power these advocates wish to create, in which they will become the rulers rather than the ruled.
On this view, it doesn’t matter if the new stories are true; what is truth, anyway? This is why so many CRT-based discussions contain so much easily debunked nonsense, such as the claim that slave-catching patrols were the origin of modern policing. This is why the head of the 1619 Project, now being used in some K-12 classrooms, tells shameless lie after shameless lie about the content of the project, the critiques of the project by reputable historians, and even the changes that have been made to the content of the project.
The same is happening in the field I’m writing my book about. Many of the people leading the charge to reevaluate the history of early Christianity are doing so because they want to replace the flawed stories we’ve inherited, which were shaped by the agenda of traditional racism, with their own, equally flawed stories that serve their own, equally arbitrary agendas. After all, the flaws we’ve found in our knowledge traditions prove that all knowledge is socially constructed, so who cares about getting our facts right?
This means—necessarily, unavoidably—that there can be no common ground, no compromise and no reconciliation. There can only be endless war between power factions that have competing identity claims. On this view, we actually need to have an eternal war between factions competing for power, because the conflict between their identity claims is the only way we can know who we are. If there is no truth, our identities must depend on systems of power, and systems of power can’t be exercised without conflict.
As Orwell saw with such agonizing clarity, if there is no truth, the future is a boot stamping on a human face forever.
Oklahoma’s new law is a good one. That’s not because we don’t need to think critically about racial blind spots in the knowledge traditions that define what gets taught in our schools. It’s precisely because we do need to think critically—and genuinely critical thinking requires a commitment to equality, charity, and hospitality that makes it possible to set power struggles aside and get to truth.