Critical Race Theory And Its Conservative Critics

Monica Schipper | Getty Images

In 1989, a youngish black law professor named Kimberle Crenshaw introduced two terms into academic discourse—“critical race theory” and “intersectionality.” Of the two terms, “critical race theory” became a significant school of legal thought and is taught mostly in law schools while “intersectionality” has had a monumental impact on sociology, anthropology, history, and any field that deals with women, masculinity, race, ethnicity, disabilities, immigrants, colonialism, and the like. Indeed, intersectionality may be the single most influential conceptual innovation of the last 40 years. Coining critical race theory made Crenshaw important but intersectionality made her a legend. To give a sports analogy, it’s as if Simone Biles was not only the greatest gymnast of all time but a highly ranked tennis pro as well.

What is Critical Race Theory? Let’s start with some basics. Critical Race Theory is a legal literature that was developed by a multiracial set of Black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic lawyers and sought mostly to rethink the working of race in American legal doctrine. In the civil rights court decisions of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the prevailing assumption was that individuals, private business, and government were “color-blind,” and that racial discrimination should be thought of as a deviation from that standard. Under the color-blind standard, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was rightly found guilty for his murder of George Floyd, but he would have been considered in individual terms a “bad apple” motivated by overt racism rather than an example of a pattern. Traditional civil rights law would not have seen the Minneapolis Police Department as discriminatory or racist even though there were six previous complaints about Chauvin putting non-white men into chokeholds, an incident of Chauvin kneeling “on the back of a 14-year-old Black boy for 17 minutes” in 2017, and 18 complaints filed against Chauvin altogether. There would not have been any questions about the training of Minneapolis police officers, the rules governing police conduct, the ways in which rules were applied in encounters between white police and non-white populations, and the extent to which police violence against racial minorities was seen as a positive or normal thing by the white population. To the contrary, Critical Race Theorists believe that white supremacy is normalized in institutional hiring practices, training, salary scales, promotion decisions, and human relations practices and the term “systemic racism” became prominent during the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.

Critical Race Theory works like any critical methodology. It takes established points of view that are considered fair, just, or methodologically correct, and demonstrates that there are hierarchies, interests, or domination in the working of the system. Early Christianity was known for its deconstruction of the traditional Roman gods as myths, idols, or demons. Fifteen hundred years later, Karl Marx sought to show that far from involving a “rational distribution” of wealth as proponents claimed, the free exchange of the capitalist system resulted in class exploitation, crisis, and revolution. What Critical Race Theory uncovers is that white racial consciousness is an important element in an American legal system that’s officially dedicated to ideals of color-blind equality. From the Critical Race Theory perspective, Officer Chauvin would not have been a “bad apple” in an otherwise non-discriminatory police department so much as an example of the white racial antagonism among urban police, biased rules and procedures in the Minneapolis Police Department, and popular white support for harsh police treatment of minorities.  

In an early essay in the Critical Race Theory collection, Crenshaw identifies white race consciousness in this way:

My purpose here is to examine the deep-rooted problem of racist ideology—or white race consciousness—and to suggest how this form of consciousness legitimates prevailing injustices and constrains the development of new solutions that would benefit black Americans.

Critical Race Theory is also known for defining race as “socially constructed” rather than biological, relying on narrative story telling as an alternative to legal or social science analysis, and critical understanding of classic Supreme Court decisions like Brown v Board of Education as serving elite white liberal political interests as well as racial justice. One of the best articles in the Critical Race Theory literature is “Whiteness as Property” by UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris. Harris begins by discussing how her grandmother spent several years passing as “white” in order to hold a job at a high-end clothing outlet because such jobs were limited to whites. In this sense, whiteness was a form of property that made Harris’ grandmother eligible for certain kinds of employment or higher levels of income. I’m interested in that because my mother’s side of the family has gone through at least two rounds of mixed-race marriage, passing, and “re-whitening” after their arrival in 1640’s New Amsterdam.

“Whiteness as Property” is brilliant scholarship that is still vital 30 years later.

The same can’t be said for conservative critics of Critical Race Theory. The steep decline in conservative intellectual life doesn’t get much attention, but there’s been no monumentally important conservative work to match The 1619 Project or the long string of great books by Patricia Hill Collins, Catherine MacKinnon, Michel Foucault, the British historian E.P. Thompson, and others going back to WWII. Structural anthropology, feminism, the Frankfurt School, post-structuralism, post-modernism, black feminism, and the linguistic turn are all still influential, but conservatives made no effort to keep up, and in many ways, have lost contact with the mainstream of Western and Global intellectual life.

In this sense, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the white conservative campaign against Critical Race Theory has been so intellectually lazy and incompetent.

The primary white conservative critic of Critical Race Theory, Christofer Rufo, views Critical Race Theory as “little more than reformulated Marxism.” Likewise, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida says that  “Critical race theory is Marxist-inspired indoctrination.” However, Crenshaw and the critical race theorists have a critical analysis of whiteness and racial hierarchy—not capitalism and class hierarchy. They want reform, not revolution. They write about the legal system not the economic system. The Critical Race Theorists don’t have anything analogous to what Neo-Marxists concepts of hegemony or the culture industry either. In fact, Critical Race Theory is best understood as a successor to the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, is influenced mostly by Martin Luther King and the social movements influenced by civil rights thinking, especially black feminism, immigrant rights activism, LGBT rights campaigns, disability activism, and Native American politics. Given the crucial importance of civil rights for American politics and culture, Critical Race Theory is much better connected to the mainstream of American life than most forms of intellectual conservatism have been for decades.

Rufo claims that Critical Race Theorists don’t believe any progress has been made for black people, but Crenshaw and others given enormous credit to the Civil Rights movement for gaining rights and making progress for black Americans and cite that progress as part of their argument for rejecting Marxism. Their critique of civil rights law concerns the barriers that the Supreme Court has created to further progress on desegregation, racial discrimination, and police violence. By the way, Rufo read the same authors as I did but is neither skilled enough nor honest enough to acknowledge the distinction.

Other critics have expanded on Rufo to promote blatant lies about Critical Race Theory advocating many positions they clearly do not hold, i.e., —that “all whites are … inherently racist,” that white people are “should feel guilty because of their skin color,” that America is inherently evil,” etc. And Rufo is fine with this because his criticisms of Critical Race Theory were all about marketing: quoting “We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation… as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” And what has gone under the “Critical Race Theory Brand” and been removed from public school reading lists and libraries also includes the novels of Toni Morrison and white classics like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Not being honest about Critical Race Theory in the first place, critics of Critical Race Theory are now putting all kinds of anti-race materials and really, any kind of mainstream non-conservative history, under the Critical Race Theory label and trying to ban them from public education.

The Mainstream Cultural Revolution Of Our Time

Bret Stephens is typical for a conservative journalist—not much of a writing style, even less in the way of discernible ideas outside his distaste for Democrats, and no reason for his plum op-ed position at the New York Times other than the media’s white male affirmative action program and white conservative tokenism. Stephens couldn’t get fired at the New York Times any more than Jeffrey Toobin could get fired at CNN.

Responding to a New York Times assignment for a column about something he was wrong about, Stephens chose “Trump Voters” and began his argument by quoting that famous anti-elitist Peggy Noonan (sarcasm voice) on the distinction between people like Stephens himself (“The Protected”) and Trump voters (“The Unprotected”). Sticking close to the stereotypes, Stephens ignored the fact that the average 2016 Trump primary voter made $71k and Trump’s strongest 2020 constituency was the $100k and over category.

For what it’s worth, I grew up in rural and declining Upstate NY and have lived for the last 32 years in Bible Belt Eastern Kentucky where the poverty is industrial strength, regional economies have yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, and the best and brightest migrate to urban centers as soon as they’re out of high school or college. What I saw and what was confirmed in the searching articles on Trump voters was that working/middle class white men no longer inherited or maintained their inheritance in farms, factory jobs, small businesses or teaching positions but were unwilling to compete with women, black people, or immigrants. Pile that resentment on top of the racist explosion following the election of the first black president and traditional anti-abortion, pro-gun, and small government conservatism and that got Trump to a +60 margin in my Congressional district (KY-5).

But my focus is on the comments Stephens made on the Great American Cultural Revolution of our times.

Oh, and then came the great American cultural revolution of the 2010s, in which traditional practices and beliefs — regarding same-sex marriage, sex-segregated bathrooms, personal pronouns, meritocratic ideals, race-blind rules, reverence for patriotic symbols, the rules of romance, the presumption of innocence and the distinction between equality of opportunity and outcome — became, more and more, not just passé, but taboo.

Stephens is so intellectually lazy he can just list a bunch of stuff and call it a “cultural revolution.” But mainstream America has in fact gone through a cultural sea change which coalesced during the Obama years. IMHO, the outcome of the transformation was a multicultural, socially liberal culture which both became dominant during the Obama years and developed an orientation toward progressive economic reform since then. The relevant events were the election and defense of Obama as the first black president, the legalization of gay marriage, the campaigns against rape, and climate activism. In the course of these developments and others, a cultural consensus developed around “diversity” as a core common value and diversity became a guiding orientation in education, corporate advertising, pop culture, and internet discourse. The history of civil rights became the dominant sense of a common American history and intersectionality with its stress on identity politics gained ground on neo-neoliberalism as a pre-eminent intellectual framework. The political implication was that the U.S. was shedding its past as a patriarchal white Republic and making a transition to multiracial democracy.

Putting the Stephens list in context, a sense of disgust did develop for much that had been accepted in the post-feminist, post-civil rights conservatism of the 80’s and 90’s. As I moved around during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a sense that racism, homophobia, woman-hating, and other bigotries were “sort of okay” if they weren’t “too egregious.” When I started teaching at Morehead State during the early 1990’s, students in my government classes brought in new forms of such “soft bigotry” every semester. By 2015 or so, such expressions were under a severe bigotry taboo and using these expressions was presumptive evidence that people did not “share the values” needed for many areas of corporate employment, education, and government. “Color-blind ideology” became “color-blind racism;” date rape became rape, and wife-beating became criminal abuse. Contrary to Stephens’ thought on “meritocratic ideals,” the meritocracy was strengthened by diversity but as more corporate and government positions were now being filled by women, black people, Hispanics, and immigrants, the achievements of white men like Stephens were met with a more skeptical eye.

The coalescing of a multicultural, socially liberal mainstream culture is one of the most promising developments in the United States since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s, but has gone unnoticed as well as uncelebrated in cultural and political commentary. Such has not been the case for the revanchist right-wing counter-culture that’s developed simultaneously and could be seen early in Obama’s impolitic but wholly accurate statements about rural voters: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Given that the New York Times leads the nation in obsessive coverage of Trump and Trump voters, little can be expected from the “Gray Lady.” But somebody in the media needs to take up the cause of understanding the mainstream cultural revolution of our times as well as its recent history.

White Conservatives and Human Sacrifice

Wall painting in blues and reds showing a young nude woman being carried against her will by two women, while her father turns away and weeps
Sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulus by her father Agamemnon, Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. has always been multicultural with an E Pluribus Unum idea that the country forms one nation out of the multiplicity of ethnicities, races, cultures, and traditions. Of course, It never really worked. Even among the white population, the white South was separate from the national culture and the legacies of the Lost Cause, segregation, and white racial violence were ignored by those like Samuel Huntington who postulated a unitary culture.

However, the situation has changed dramatically since the earthquake of Obama’s election as the first black president in 2008 and the follow-up shock of Trump’s election eight years later. What’s happened in the U.S. is the onset of two “integrative” or common cultures that are both changing so rapidly that the country can be said to be undergoing SIMULTANEOUS cultural transformations while also at the same time developing into a dual national culture nation–“E Pluribus Duo” according to Garrison Keilor.

Sacrifice as Working Principle.

In response to the pandemic, white conservatives have made sacrifice into an important part of Trump-centric identity. What does this mean? The Covid pandemic entails the risk of catching the disease and dying for every part of the American population. Within the multicultural and socially liberal part of the population, the disposition has been to reduce the risk through masks, social distancing, and vaccination and support government efforts to mandate these practices. To the contrary, Trump-centric conservatism has made “refusal” to reduce Covid risk and “defiance” of public health efforts into principles of conservative identity and have been willing to see large numbers of people be infected and die from Covid rather than cooperate (or “obey” as conservatives say). And it’s not an abstract principle either. In practice, conservatives have been seriously ill themselves and still refused to cooperate with mitigation and vaccines, seen their friends and co-workers die and still refuse cooperation, and also seen their parents, spouses, and children die and still refuse cooperation. To Trump-concentric conservatives, the most important priority is maintaining the refusal to cooperate that they view as crucial to white conservative identity. If those closest to them die from Covid, that’s a sacrifice they are willing to make. In this sense, an acceptance of human sacrifice has become a working principle of Trump-centric conservatism in the U.S.

One example of the extent of the acceptance of human sacrifice can be seen below. Conservative Montana cartoonist Ben Garrison not only refused to be vaccinated but also refused to go to the hospital after coming down with Covid. The same was the case with his wife and two children. Garrison believes he and his family caught Covid while going out to dinner with another couple. Refusing to cooperate with public health, Garrison (and evidently his family) were unvaccinated while also engaging in no mitigation themselves and accompany at least one infected person. This is one of the realities of Covid. Once someone is infected, the disease is likely to knife through families because symptoms don’t emerge for a couple weeks. With CovidIn this sense, Garrison was willing to risk his family as well as himself in going out to a restaurant with a couple who probably weren’t either vaccinated or masked. Given that there have been 42.9 million cases and 688,000 Covid deaths in the United States, the risk was real but Garrison was willing to risk himself, his wife, and his two kids in the name of his conservative beliefs about Covid.

No One Debating Marjorie

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s major function in Congress is wasting everyone’s time with procedural motions. But yesterday Greene also tried to bully Rep. Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio by yelling at her about supporting Black Lives Matter and Antifa and especially about AOC’s refusal to debate her about the Green New Deal.

Greene’s problem goes beyond her support for QAnon and supporting calls to execute Nancy Pelosi. Since Trump’s election in 2016, leftie/liberal attitudes toward conservative have changed from “condescension” to “contempt” and people on the center-left are no longer willing to debate conservatives on economic policy, abortion rights, trans rights, or any other kind of political or cultural issue.

That represents an enormous shift among white Americans. Political debate used to form a common ground between liberals and conservatives.

But that common ground disappeared.