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.

Intersectionality, Recognition

(Here’s the presentation draft of my paper on Intersectionality for the Kentucky Political Science Association. It’s still pretty rough but the argument has a shape to it)

Kimberle Crenshaw, Ted Blog

Originally developed within black feminism, the concept of intersectionality addressed the issue of black women being discriminated against for both being black and being women. Intersectional ideas begin appearing in black feminism as early as the 19th century, but a black feminist literature featuring concepts of intersectionality coalesced in the 1980’s awith the writing of Angela Davis, the late bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Patricia Hill Collins. This paper examines intersectionality in relation to the work of John Locke, argues that the original black feminist literature entailed an imperative to recognize the full humanity of traditionally marginalized populations, and discusses Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility as an example of radical self-reflection.

John Locke (1630-1704),

In Locke, “men” were obligated to recognize other men both as having the same original freedom in the state of nature and as also being created equal to them, “there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank … should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.” Locke expresses the strongest version of this obligation through a lengthy quote from theologian Richard Hooker:

“my desire therefore to be loved of my equals in nature as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to them-ward fully the like affection; from which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn, for direction of life, no man is ignorant.” (Locke, Vol. 1, section 11)

The power of Locke’s concept of obligation should not be underestimated. Those who fail in that obligation can be seenas a kind of ontological failure, analogized to predators like lions, tigers, and wolves, and thus as legitimately punished up to the penalty of death. The combination of men’s obligation to recognize others as equal beings and the right to punish those who refuse animates the rest of Locke’s analysis and is one of the cornerstones of the Second Treatise. The idea of humanity being anchored in freedom and equality was taken up by the Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and others with black writers framing their advocacy for those principles in relation to the racial tyranny exercised by whites. King wrote in particular that civil rights demonstrators were “bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Of course, there are stark differences between Locke and concepts of intersectionality. Black feminists assume that society exists before individuals and portray people in terms of social positions and structures. For any category of people, their “position” is defined in terms of the “intersections” created by a confluence of structures. In the example from Crenshaw, black women are subject both to a racial hierarchy in which they are subordinate to whites as black people and a gender hierarchy in which black women are subordinate to black men as women. The situation of black women is analogous to a traffic intersection in which white supremacy intersects with patriarchy to doubly disadvantage black women. In this simplified model, black women would have a position at the intersection of race and gender hierarchies.

Where Locke’s theory attributes a universality to individuality, the universality would be about “positions” in intersectionality. According to Collins:

 ”Intersections draw attention to both the position and the positioning of individuals – position refers to the multiple categories with which one is identified and positioning refers to drawing on multiple identities to construct oneself and engage with others. This construction occurs in the context of the matrix of domination which has few “pure” victims or oppressors (Collins, 2000).”

The early writing on intersectionality was motivated by the concerns for social justice that came out of the black Civil Rights movement and Second Wave Feminism. In relation to a Civil Rights Movement and antiracist politics that had prioritized black men over black women, Crenshaw’s ideal was for black women to be fully recognized by black men as black people.

In the context of antiracism, recognizing the ways in which the intersectional experiences of women of color are marginalized in prevailing conceptions of identity politics does not require that we give up attempts to organize as communities of color. Rather, intersectionality provides a basis for reconceptualizing race as a coalition between men and women of color.

In advocating that race being reconceptualized as a “coalition between men and women of color,” Crenshaw’s idea is for the position of black women to be recognized equally with black men. Within the black feminist literature, patriarchy and gender hierarchy are addressed more broadly by bell hooks who viewed patriarchy as a powerful mode of domination within the overall system of “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy.”

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

hooks relates a story of her father beating her severely to put her in her place after she insisted on competing with her brother against her father’s orders. In patriarchy, men are defined as having authority, power, and rights, and women are seen as subordinate and not fully human. In Beauvoir’s Second Sex, (patriarchal) concepts of sex were portrayed in terms of identifying men as the human and women as the “other” against which men are defined. if women are assumed to be equal, the logic of Locke’s argument would define all this abusive conduct not only as a crime against individual women but also an attack on humanity as a whole that would obligate the rest of humanity to intervene. But intersectionality implies more than just stopping the abuse. Indeed, men would be obligated to give up the orientation toward domination cited by hooks and internalize values of equality instead. Indeed, men would need to give up the sense of male identity based on opposing masculinity as the self, the normal, or the human to women as “the other,” and articulate a sense of masculine selfhood oriented toward equality. In other words, men would be under an obligation to dramatically recast male identity if they were to treat women as naturally free and equal beings.

These kinds of imperatives require thinking about male identity in a way that’s quite different from Locke. Where Locke viewed freedom, equality, and the rational capacity to recognize those qualities in others, the ability of males to routinely think and treat women as equal would require a process of reflection in which patriarchal ideas of gender and their derivatives are identified and rejected and egalitarian ideas adapted and internalized. Given the historical depth of patriarchy, the obligation to be egalitarian would involve a radical change in masculine identity.    

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Robin DiAngelo (pittsburgh lectures cultural

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility illustrates the demands for self-recognition implicit in concepts of intersectionality. Though not necessarily an intersectional work, White Fragility’s encompassing approach to whiteness illustrates what intersectionality requires in the way of recognizing one’s own position and the implications of that recognition. Thus, White Fragility is a searching example of what such reflection would be, in her own words an example of “challenging the work that is uniquely ours, challenging our complicity with and investment in racism.” (33)

Like black feminists, DiAngelo implicitly adapts Lockian “freedom” and “equality” as her standard for racial attitudes and behavior of the white progressives encountered. As the title indicates, DiAngelo’s issue is the racial fragility of whites. White progressives are consistently resistant to diversity training, engage in predictable patterns of denial and excuses, and routinely become get upset over the idea that they might need the training. White progressives view racism in terms of a moral opposition between “good people” and “bad people” where good people like themselves would not think of being racist and the open racists engage in racist behavior because they are bad or evil. (2-3) Because office progressives think of racism in these kinds of terms, they are also obsessively worried about being perceived as racist “bad people. Such worries also create a toxic environment for black colleagues. This brings DiAngelo to her first attempt to prod white self-recognition and reflection. She views white fragility as so toxic that it’s “white progressives [who] cause the most daily damage to people of color” (emphasis in text)instead of open racists. DiAngelo wants white progressives to recognize themselves in the harm they do.

For DiAngelo, the ability of white liberals and progressives to understand their own racial fragility entails an understanding of both the social structures of American society and the dominant ideology of individualism. In her remarks about society, DiAngelo emphasizes the economic and political dominance of whites. When DiAngelo wrote White Fragility in 2018, the major institutions of government, the corporate world, and culture were all controlled by white people at a time when wealth and power were increasingly concentrated at the top levels. Within this context, the primary locus of white privilege is viewing whiteness as “the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation.” DiAngelo believes that whites can’t see black people as fully human beings as long as “we” refuse to see ourselves as white. “Thus, reflecting on our racial frames is particularly challenging for many white people, because we are taught that to have a racial viewpoint is to be biased.” (11)  

With white dominance being pervasive, American institutions are characterized by what Joe Feagin calls a “white racial frame” (34) in which white dominance is taken for granted, white achievement continually communicated, and “negative stereotypes and images of racial others” constantly in circulation.  DiAngelo also stresses the implication of middle-class white progressives in the everyday stereotyping of black people and highlights the extent to which office progressives live and work in in environments with a continual stream of racist jokes and stereotypes (65-66). Many white progressives thus combine a strong belief that they can’t be racist with participation in settings where open racism is routine.  (58)

The other phenomenon through which progressive, middle-class whites are located is the ideology of individualism. For DiAngelo, white fragility is all about exempting the speakers as unique individuals from issues of race and racism in the workplace. However, DiAngelo viewed such responses as the farthest thing from unique individuality. As a diversity trainer, DiAngelo found white responses “so predictable that I sometimes feel as though we are all reciting lines from a shared script.” Thus, she wants office progressives to recognize that ideological individualism leads to a monotonous sameness that was sapping the distinctive individuality of the white people.

DiAngelo also presses white readers to recognize the ways in which the ideology of individualism functions to conceal racial hierarchy.

We might think of conscious racial awareness as the tip of an iceberg, our intensions (always good) and what we are supposed to acknowledge (seeing nothing). Meanwhile, under the surface is the massive depth of racist socialization, messages, beliefs, associations, internalized superiority and entitlement, perceptions and emotions. (42)

In writing on White Fragility, DiAngelo is calling on white progressives to recognize the extent of racism in their own behavior while simultaneously recognizing the ways in which their individualism provides support for racial hierarchy. While individualism has roots in the philosophy of Locke, it is employed to extend a system of racial hierarchy which is anathema within the logic of Locke’s argument as soon as black people are recognized as born free and equal with a full set of human rights.

Check Your Privilege

Many of my students at Morehead State in KY were in situations as dire or almost as dire as those recounted by “Birgit Umaigha RN MEd”–students struggling to find computers or internet hook ups for online work, working two or three jobs to pay for school, caring for siblings because of addicted parents, going through one death in the family after another, fighting off crushing anxieties. Everything became worse after 2014, but most students continued to do very good to excellent work even as my basic mantra was reduced to “do your best.”

I’m thinking about “check your privilege” as part of the intersectional perspectives that became prominent in the late 80’s and early 90’s. “Intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to express the way that black women were subject to both racism and sexism. Neither Crenshaw, Angela Davis, bell hooks, or Patricia Hill Collins believed that black women were the only group suffering from multiple, intersecting oppressions and ideas of intersectionality were quickly applied to economic class, immigrant status, disability, sexual orientation, and other hierarchies as well. Within intersectional perspectives, there developed a sense of being obligated to recognize both the fullness of the many ways in which a sector of the population could be oppressed and also the ways in which people could be “privileged” by advantageous positions in the social hierarchy. In this sense, intersectionality has always been associated with an obligation to recognize the full humanity of others.

At the same time, intersectionality has become associated with an ethics of self-recognition that is summed up with “check your privilege.” One element of checking your privilege is to be aware of one’s privilege which with intersectionality means being aware of the full range of social locations that give a person advantageous positions in the hierarchy. In my case, I would have race, gender, cis, educational, class, and ability privilege but would soon be coming up against the disadvantages of extreme age now that I’m almost 68. Within intersectional thinking, all of these privileged locations are identities in the sense of being social facts of my existence and also in defining my ways of perceiving the world, modes of action, etc. The idea of “checking your privilege” undermines the hegemonic white ideology of individualism which views individual attributes (“will,” “hard work,” “intelligence,” “talent,” etc.) as the only relevant source of one’s advantages and disadvantages in life. Consistent with the intersectional obligation to recognize the fullness of other persons, “check your privilege” pushes people, especially people in privileged locations, to engage in a full self-reflection on the nature of their own social locations.

“Check your privilege” also obligates those who are privileged to think, act, and speak on the combination of their reflections on the advantages conferred by various kinds of privilege and how their privileges oppressively affect other people. To “check your privilege” means that people in positions of privilege stop interacting with the world in terms of the social instincts, modes of perception, and cultural norms associated with their advantageous positions. In the case of many wealthy white persons for example, that would mean refraining from acting on their views of themselves as “well off” instead of rich, distinctions between their cultivated taste and middle-brow taste, and assumptions of various kinds of racial hierarchies. In this sense, “check their privilege” involves a critical self-reflection that puts a person outside the culture into which they have been socialized but does not put them into an alternative web of cultural assumptions. There is what Victor Turner called a “liminality” to the obligations involved in checking your privilege. For Turner, “liminality” was primarily a matter of cultural transition in which a person would leave one status prescribed within a culture without having yet adapted another status. “Liminality, in terms of social structure and time, is an intermediate state of being “in between” in which individuals are stripped from their usual identity and their constituting social differences while being on the verge of personal or social transformation.” In the case of “check your privilege,” the obligation is to suspend the cultural modes associated with privileged locations without having another set of cultural modes to adapt. The obligation of people to check their privilege entails a long-term state of liminality.