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March 3, 2021Culture

Pat Sawyer: What is CRT and Should We Be Concerned?

The first of three posts on Dr. Sawyer's thoughts and concerns about CRT.
Pat Sawyer: What is CRT and Should We Be Concerned?
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As a faculty member in the social sciences in a state institution, critical social theory (CST) is the water I swim in, the air I breathe. As an academic and conscientious Christian, justice concerns drive much of my scholarship and all of my praxis (activism). Consequently, critical race theory (CRT), a prominent critical social theory concerned about racial justice, has a place in my teaching, scholarship, and praxis. I say this to underscore that while this series will be net critical of CRT, that doesn’t mean that CRT has nothing to offer to social analysis and that some of its insights aren’t genuinely instructive when it comes to our racial history in the U.S and our current racial zeitgeist. Indeed, some aspects of CRT are notably discerning and percipient. It is an injustice to truth to deny this or act otherwise. Please keep this in mind as you move through my analysis.

In this article I want to give an overview of CRT and mention some of its unifying ideas. In the second article, I’ll offer five important cautions relative to how its claims can be received and embraced. In the final article, I’ll offer three more cautions, a salient concluding point, and a final exhortation.

Before I move into an overview of CRT, I want to make a final point by way of introduction. Where there is disagreement about CRT in the professed Church, we should make every effort to ensure there is no hateful speech, no ad hominem attacks, and no slander. The nuance and care needed with this topic should underscore the importance of sticking close to Christ’s commands regarding our speech and how we communicate with one another (Matt 12:36-37; Eph 4:15, 29-31; Col 4:6; 2Tim 2:24-25). In many respects, the Enemy of souls is wreaking havoc in this regard. May we resist invective, let go of any vitriol, and do everything we can to abruptly halt our Enemy’s efforts.

Overview of CRT

In a series of articles this size there is no way to do justice (see what I did there) to the history and heritage of CRT which began in the 1980s and gained its footing through the work of legal scholars Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Charles Lawrence III, Patricia Williams, and Mari Matsuda, among others. Concisely put, CRT challenges and interrogates the ways in which race, racism, and racial power (with particular emphasis on an expanded definition of white supremacy) are constructed and reified, specifically in legal culture, and more broadly, in society. CRT borrows insight from the Marxism of Antonio Gramsci, utilizes aspects of the Neo-Marxism of historic Critical Theory while challenging others, finds its most immediate roots in critical legal studies (CLS) but also departs and expands from it, and draws epistemological inspiration from historic luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.

CRT, like all contemporary manifestations of CST, is a hybrid of postmodernism and modernism. On one hand it is noticeably influenced by (but at points, resists) the postmodernism and poststructuralism (recognizing that some poststructuralists reject the postmodern label) of Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, among others and their interrogations of overarching metanarratives, their challenge to notions of neutrality, objectivity, and universal truth, and their emphasis on the inextricable relationship between language and power and the implications for society. Along these lines, CRT is skeptical of and critiques much of classical liberalism. On the other hand, CRT is a modernist enterprise in that it makes binding moral claims applicable to all people, everywhere. Its scholarship and popularized discourse are suffused with notions of what we should do, ought to do, indeed, must do. Consequently, it is praxis oriented, that is, it doesn’t merely want to describe, it wants to prescribe. It wants to make changes to society, to emancipate and liberate. It encompasses issues of epistemology (the nature of knowing), ontology (the nature of being), and phenomenology (the nature of day-to-day lived experience). Therefore, in its most robust applications, CRT can (and does) operate as a working metanarrative or functional worldview.

CRT has grown and evolved considerably since its inception. It is important to note that while CRT began as a movement in legal theory, it has spread to other fields and disciplines. Today, its expanded form gives considerable fuel to the critical social justice (CSJ) movement, which itself takes notable liberty with how it applies ideas from CRT in its discourse. This liberty is so significant that pronounced forms of CSJ (think DiAngelo, Kendi) have only minimal resemblance to early CRT.

It is crucial to keep in mind that while there are unifying themes/elements (early CRT), core principles/key features/key concepts/tenets (as CRT has aged) that give meaningful, accurate explication of CRT, CRT resists essentialism. That is, there is no static, fixed canon of doctrines or methodologies of CRT that every CRT scholar adheres to or in the same way. To some extent the knowledge area is a reflexive, fluid, and contested space. For instance, recently a colleague and I discussed Derrick Bell’s contention that “racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society” and that “racism lies at the center, not the periphery; in the permanent, not in the fleeting; in the real lives of black and white people, not in the sentimental caverns of the mind” (Faces at the Bottom of the Well, 1992, pp. ix and 198). My colleague and I have scholarship (both individually and jointly) where we have employed aspects of CRT. While we were in large agreement as to what we believe Bell to be saying, we have some divergence of opinion as to what Bell meant by “this society” and his locating of racism (in this instance) to individuals, to “real lives of black and white people”. My only point here is that we are two academics working with CRT, who both have legitimate perspectives to offer to discussions about race that at times genuinely draw from CRT, yet we are not fully aligned on how we understand CRT. One only has to attend academic conferences where CRT is a focus and go to lunch with fellow academics to see this dynamic loudly at work. Disagreements abound. In addition, part of the challenge of understanding CRT is that its definitions and descriptions have to be understood in their historical context and evolution and not in mere abstraction. Failure to understand this often has passionate but ill-informed advocates and adversaries of CRT talking (read yelling) past each other.

Unifying Ideas of CRT

Bearing in mind all I’ve said, I want to now articulate a number of ideas (also designated as themes, elements, key features, key concepts, core principles, and tenets, among other descriptors) that CRT scholarship identifies as unifying ideas and concepts that buoy the field. A serious literature review of CRT scholarship will uncover upwards of 20 ideas (from here on, tenets, for ease of discussion) comprehensively drawn and defined notwithstanding that individual critical race theorists may reduce the tenets to as little as five or six. When they do this, they are often combining aspects of multiple tenets or writing from a different place in the history of CRT. In my work I usually explicate CRT via 15 elaborated tenets that afford some combining of tenets but not too much so as to ensure fidelity to the evolution of the knowledge area.

I should note that CRT cannot be fully reduced to an abbreviated explication of its unifying ideas in a series of articles this size. CRT is a knowledge area of millions of words. Nevertheless, what follows are primary ideas permeating CRT that are having serious impact on the Church as well as society at large.

The primary and peer-reviewed sources I have provided collectively demonstrate the tenets I offer but understand the number of sources supporting these tenets and their attendant ideas could be multiplied. Space has its constraints. With that said, in abbreviated form the tenets are as follows:

1) CRT contends that race as a concept is a social construct and not rooted in human nature or biology (there is only one race – the Human race) and was created for the express purpose of disenfranchising people of color, especially Blacks.

2) CRT claims racism is endemic, permanent, pervasive, and often hard to recognize.

3) CRT contends that racism is much more than individual attitudes and actions; it is systemic to societal institutions, sectors, and systems, and is best understood as white supremacy (broadly redefined and not its narrow definition tied to white power and white nationalists hate groups)

4) CRT rejects a ‘colorblind’ society claiming it provides cover for less overt forms of racism and serves to erase important racial and ethnic distinctions that should be emphasized.

5) CRT elevates and prioritizes black ‘voice’, black ‘lived experience’, and the indispensability and authority of black experiential knowledge relative to the social analysis of law in particular and society in general. In this vein, it incorporates the notion of ‘naming one’s own reality.’

6) CRT recognizes interest convergence as a social reality, namely, that black interests will be served only to the extent that they serve white interests.

7) CRT challenges ahistoricism and offers revisionist history by replacing white majoritarian interpretations of events with ones that fit more readily with black and brown experience. In this vein, it incorporates the notion of ‘naming one’s own reality’.

8) CRT puts forth the notion of racial realism, that societal benefits map to a racial hierarchy in society where Whites are situated at the top. Adjacent to this recognition is the notion of hegemony, the dominance or power of Whites over Blacks maintained not by force but through the customs, ideas, norms, values, and traditions of Whites supported via the tacit consent of Blacks. The dominance of Whites in society has compelled Blacks to adopt a double consciousness, the ‘two-ness’ tension faced by Blacks to see themselves through Whites, white perspectives and the ‘white gaze’ AND to see themselves through their own individual, black perspectives.

9) CRT promotes the notion of intersectionality, which is, the claim that different facets of our identity interact in distinct and complex ways based upon the particular intersection of social categories we occupy, yielding a life and existence that can be generally characterized by either privilege, oppression, or both.

10) CRT critiques the system of meritocracy and argues that it often serves to reify white supremacy and the status quo.

11) CRT critiques egalitarianism and its protean character arguing that it is often weaponized to do the opposite of what it promises.

12) CRT puts forth the notion of interlocking systems of oppression which contends that various social categories (such as Black, female, gay, differently-abled) marked by oppression are interdependent and serve to reinforce, compliment, (and even complicate) one another and cannot be individually effectively liberated without liberating all.

13) CRT contends that whiteness is property. The claim that being White – in and of itself – yields substantial cultural capital in the form of privileges, benefits, and resources in society.

14) CRT problematizes certain (not all) hegemonic (dominant) understandings of objectivity and neutrality relative to accepted knowledge and knowledge production asserting they often serve to reify white supremacy and the status quo.

15) CRT is oppositional in nature and is consequently an emancipatory enterprise. That is, it is praxis-centric in its absolute commitment to the alleviation of racial oppression and injustice as well as other adjacent marginalizations.

Having given an overview of CRT and its unifying ideas, in the next article I will offer five of eight cautions regarding CRT.

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Pat Sawyer: What is CRT and Should We Be Concerned?