I’m an amateur writer, a mediocre historian, a bothersome pundit, a lousy podcaster, and a tenured, periodically effective high school history teacher who works neither in Florida nor Texas. Does anyone else like this exist?
If not, there might not be anyone who’s as barely qualified, considerably eager, and hopefully free to tackle the reputationally dangerous topic of Critical Race Theory.
As always, I think it’s best to split up a big topic, as I generally live and will one day die by the principle that anything that can be explained in 800 words by a good writer probably needs ten times that many for a bad one. Here’s what I have in mind:
- Part I: What IS Critical Race Theory?
- Part II: What do some people seem to think CRT is, and why do they resist it?
- Part III: Should CRT be taught at college? High school? K-8? (And how does CRT make its way into my classroom?)
I bet Part III looks most interesting (and controversial!) to you, but there’s a chance it won’t make much sense without reading 1 and 2. Frankly, knowing PPFA, it might not make sense even after reading 1 and 2, but at least give yourselves a fighting chance.
Part I: What IS Critical Race Theory?
It’s essential to separately answer our first two questions — what actually is Critical Race Theory and what do many opponents seem to think it is. Voltaire (the 22nd most influential figure of Western history) once established an essential first step toward any productive debate: “define your terms.” Much of the puffed up controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory could be punctured by that simple starting point. For that reason, our first question will identify what CRT actually is; the second question will consider mistaken interpretations in addition to reasonable, good-faith resistance to it; and the third will ask whether CRT belongs in the classroom.
Before we get into CRT’s history, it’s worth knowing a bit about its prehistory. “Critical theory” is a long-established approach of philosophy and academics. Kant was doing it in the eighteenth century, and, frankly, many good philosophers were doing it before him, if not as sharply. A good philosopher is a skeptic; they challenge preconceived assumptions in a search of a new truth. A critical theorist is a kind of skeptic now found in postmodern thought as someone who criticizes political, economic, social, and cultural patterns that support the powerful and oppress the powerless. They further believe that long-assumed truths about what’s virtuous and valid are not objectively virtuous and valid, but part of the oppression itself.
In our own modern Western society, these values are Enlightenment ideas like liberalism, rationalism, individualism, and limited government. (Every time critical theorists come after my man John Locke, the fourth most influential figure in Western history, I feel attacked.) Nearly every segment of our society, from our teachers to our employers to our political leaders, raise us to think those Enlightened qualities are Good.
A critical theorist says, “Maybe. Maybe not.” They wonder whether an entire culture has been built around propping up a “dominant group” that benefits from us believing these virtues, and once it’s a part of our culture, we voluntarily perpetuate these so-called truths.
How does this theoretical gobbledygook (the technical philosophical term) look in the real world? Think about Karl Marx, a high profile critical theorist (and the ninth most influential figure in Western history). The thesis of the Communist Manifesto proposes that, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” He argued that all of history should be re-examined though a new lens — that there’s always been a landed class (the bourgeoisie) controlling the means of production in order to maximize their profit while taking advantage of the working class (proletariat) that actually creates the wealth. With the supposed virtues of capitalism and consumerism so useful to the landed class, all dominant parts of society — including political, economic, religious, and cultural institutions — rally to sustain them. With all these institutions saying the same thing, the result was the perception that surely what they’re saying must be the truth, as we have no other frame of reference by which to compare it. In concert, our powerful institutions distract us from a truer reality: that they need us more than we need them. We could essentially call this Critical Economics Theory.
You can recognize critical theory in the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the rise of feminism, each working to upend norms that benefitted from centuries-old inertia. The Civil Rights movement worked to defeat Jim Crow, Occupy Wall Street the disproportionate power of the 1%, and feminism the ancient patriarchy. Each of these efforts had plenty of opponents because either these opponents benefitted from the prevailing system, or they trusted powerful people in politics, religion, and media telling them these new ideas were annoying, counterproductive, or wrong. Importantly, says a critical theorist (including a Critical Race theorist, as we shall see), one does not need to know they are partaking in a bad system to be a part of it. Most of us are just pawns running interference for the back row.
You might have noticed that each of the above were liberal movements. That makes sense, because critical theorists challenge the status quo. Conservatives, meanwhile, appreciate the value of consistency, order, and time-honored practices, so they’re more skeptical toward economic, social, and cultural agitations.
To conservatives unconvinced of critical theory’s merit, it may be helpful to consider what we can call “Critical Media Theory.” Liberals these days tend to trust establishment figures, mainstream media, fact checkers, the scientific community, leading thinkers in universities, and the stars who work on movie sets and in recording studios. All of these groups appear in our traditional and social media to say similar things — whether about politics, Covid, climate change, or whatever else — and they often reference each other as evidence of what they’re saying is the truth. Liberal consumers of these groups’ opinions are therefore inundated with comparable information, so much so that it’s no longer seen as opinion. It’s fact.
Critical Media Theory would challenge this interconnected apparatus, showing how they all benefit from playing the game. They keep their prominence and well-paying jobs, and we keep getting blue-pilled into thinking what we’re being told is the truth. To conservatives who have been saying this for a long time, with Trump’s “fake news” just the latest evolution of it, all of a sudden critical theory might feel legitimate.
Put another way: if you’re a Democrat nodding along with critical theory or a Republican resistant to it, I want you to think of Tucker Carlson as a pretty talented critical theorist, and see if that helps re-evaluate your position. He excels at asking a ton of questions about the so-called truths Americans are told by the media, political establishment, and Hollywood. What’s more, a recent New York Times piece noted a pervasive pattern in his rhetorical style: he frames so much of his content around “you” and “them.” You are the common, honest person just trying to make a living. They are the elites trying to take advantage of us to enhance their own power. Tucker Carlson, I regret to inform all you ideologues, sounds a lot like Karl Marx (not insofar as they share an economic ideology but more in that they’re both suuuuper annoying).
In sum, Critical “X” Theory, in general, A) identifies a way in which powerful parts of society work together to convince us “X” should not be questioned, then B) asks us to critically re-evaluate “X” by asking many questions.
Context behind us, let’s narrow our focus to the critical theory of our time: Critical Race Theory. Like all critical theory, it works to show us how powerful parts of society work together to perpetuate a system that disproportionately harms a specific segment of that society. In this case, the system is racism, the society is the United States, and the people that suffer from it are black.
Although the disputes surrounding Critical Race Theory are new, CRT itself is not. If CRT has a father, it’s Derrick Bell, a Harvard Law School professor in the 1970s. His study of desegregation in the years after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Movement determined that these breakthroughs didn’t help all that much. Instead, although slavery was a century in the past and Jim Crow had finally been vanquished, the effects of each were ongoing.
We can say CRT is a convergence of Critical Legal Theory — schema from the 1970s which evaluated the ostensible neutrality of the judicial system — and the ongoing movement for desegregation and civil rights. It’s a theoretical framework to see how race impacts American society, positing that it’s more impactful than a majority of Americans realize.
Importantly, CRT worries less about individual racists and more about systemic racism in our institutions. If the latter is indeed a part of American society, then it’s not the individual racist to blame, but all our citizens, whether we’re actively racist or not. Although Jim Crow and slavery are behind us, CRT not only wonders if we’re still living with the consequences, but that perhaps the consequences are actually sustained by fundamental political and legal practices that claim to be colorblind. If true, CRT then asks what we should do about it.
Critical Race theorists have a number of supporting examples for the prevalence of racism in American society and law. Many focus on economic inequality, criminal justice patterns, housing practices, and de facto segregation. Here’s an inexhaustive list.
- Economic disparity: According to a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve, a white household’s median net worth (which all but eliminates potentially skewed averages by the super-wealthy) is about $188,000. For a black household, it’s about $24,000, or less than 13%. This margin goes back a long way.
- The Economic Policy Institute found there’s a 22% wage gap between white men and black men, even when controlling for “the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence.”
- The Quarterly Journal of Economics discovered black boys have more limited upward mobility than white boys, even when coming from families of comparable incomes.
- Even though African Americans make up one-eighth of the population, they’re a quarter of the bottom quintile of Americans as measure by wealth — and just 3% of the top quintile.
- Incarceration rates and sentencing: whereas the incarceration rates for white men is only 1 in 106, the rate for black men is 1 in 15. Open Society Foundations reports that even when controlling for similar cases and non-racial backgrounds, African Americans are more likely to face harsher sentencing than white Americans.
- Capital punishment: despite whites making up about five times more of the US population than blacks, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund found that the two races are within one percentage point of each other (42% to 41%) as a share of death row. A study in Washington state showed that jurors are about three times more likely to recommend a death sentence to a convicted black defendant compared to a white one in a similar case. Other states found that cases where the victim were white led to capital punishment being applied at a rate several times higher than if the victim were black.
- Housing practices are paramount, as it’s often through real estate and home equity where one is able to achieve upward mobility across generations. CRT points out the discriminatory housing practices in our country. For example…
- Redlining: Beginning in the 1930s, government officials working with the private sector drew lines around neighborhoods in 239 cities to help identify which areas were most secure for real estate investments. Four different colors were used:
- green for affluent suburban areas ripe for investment;
- blue areas weren’t as ideal but “still desirable”;
- yellow areas were “Declining,”
- and then there were the red-lined areas that were generally too risky for investment. It is in these areas where most urban blacks lived, including in majority-minority neighborhoods. Banks were much less likely to offer mortgages and other loans to people and businesses in those areas; those that did practiced reverse redlining, which offered loans at high rates, a product of not only the increased risk but also having little competition for customers in those redlined districts. Redlining depressed the value of properties in these areas, holding back the families in those neighborhoods from breaking the poverty cycle inherited from slavery and segregation. The effects of redlining are still felt.
- Single-family zoning: Single-family zoning denies the building of affordable housing in advantaged and always majority-white neighborhoods. A New York Times study found that 75% of the land in America’s major cities is exclusively single-family zoning (a classic example of white liberals’ NIMBYism). Since multi-family dwellings, like duplexes, are more affordable, it keeps out poorer people, and poorer people, as established above, are disproportionately African American. The result foils the kind of desegregation we claim to support but is a classic CRT example of race-neutral laws on the page not being all that race-neutral in practice.
- Housing values: A Brookings Institute report found that “Homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with similar amenities are worth 23 percent less ($48,000 per home on average, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses) in majority Black neighborhoods, compared to those with very few or no Black residents.”
- Mortgage practices: Data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act reports that lenders deny mortgages at a rate 80% higher for blacks than whites. Home improvement loans faced similar discrimination, as did refinancing. These can be traced back to worse credit scores for African Americans, but a Critical Race theorist would point to the above systemic problems as the cause of those credit scores.
- Segregated schools: Poverty, crime, and housing are linked to education, or a lack thereof, and schools are still broadly segregated. Whereas de jure segregation was outlawed with Brown v. Board, schools still suffer from de facto segregation. In the years after Brown, for example, private segregation academies were founded across the south so that parents could still send their kids to segregated schools. Even after another Supreme Court Case, 1976’s Runyan v. McCrary, outlawed those too, many academies remained open but with low minority representation moving forward.
- Furthermore, the Economic Policy Institute found that even public schools remain much more segregated than you might believe. Since the races have sorted themselves, partly due to white flight, their neighborhood schools have been sorted by race and therefore income. The EPI determined that “Black children are five times as likely as white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity” . . . “Black children are more than twice as likely as white children to attend high-poverty schools” . . . and that “Black children are highly likely to be in high-poverty schools with a high share of students of color, but white children are not.”
Controversially, Derrick Bell and other CRTists argue the causes of these disparities are endemic, as they go back to before Jim Crow, redlining, and slavery’s abolition — all the way back to our country’s founding. Our Declaration of Independence told us all men were created equal, but it was signed by a few dozen slaveowners; it therefore was simultaneously an enshrinement of a cherished American value that we all hold dear and a deeply hypocritical moment that situated the enslaved person as not a person at all. In other words, Americans were distracted by so-called fundamental truths while atrocity occurred all around them — fertile ground for critical theorists.
A decade after the Declaration, says Bell, our Constitutional framers were motivated more by protecting property than humanizing the people they called property. Critical Race theorists argue that we’re still living with the ramifications of our founders’ authorizing slavery.
Let’s just look at the ramifications on economic inequality. Even after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, freed African Americans had to start from scratch. They had no connections, legacies, reputations, and inheritance. They also had to integrate into a society that resisted that integration, culminating in the failure of Reconstruction by 1877.
A century of Jim Crow and de jure segregation followed. By the time that was finally overturned with Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans had existed as second-class Americans for centuries. The period from colonial slavery through the 1960s was a long time, creating a lot of momentum to reverse in the much shorter period of time between the 1960s and today. It’s not as if we could flip the racism switch to the off position.
African Americans’ late start to a fair shot helped create the ongoing economic variance between the races. It’s interesting to note that household “income” between the races isn’t as dramatically different as the household “net worth” statistics from earlier. The last US Census found that the median white household has an income of about $75,000 whereas for the median black household it’s about $46,000, or 61% as high. That’s not as dire as the statistic that revealed black families’ median net worth as just 13% of the median white families’ net worth. In a single year, the numbers aren’t ideal but at least more comparable.
However, as the Peter G. Peterson Foundation describes, the long-term economic consequences of these divergent numbers can really add up. “Income measures the flow of money and assets during a given period of time, whereas wealth measures the stock of money and assets that have been accumulated as of a certain point in time.” In other words, that family who makes 75k can more easily save money, invest money, afford college, and more, allowing that family to gradually pull away from the median black family, whether in one generation or multiple. The foundation notes that even a difference of only $5000 annually could lead to a wide divergence over time.
CRT argues that all of these systemic problems — economic disparity, criminal sentencing disparity, discriminatory housing practices, segregated schools, and more — are sustained by ongoing problems with our laws, judicial system, and private sector. We’re told the law is colorblind, but so many of these problems were created and/or are sustained by our political and economic decision-makers.
Critical Race Theory doesn’t say that these discriminatory outcomes are necessarily on purpose. True enough, no laws mandate that we and our schools must segregate, or that African Americans must make less money, or jurists must disproportionally punish black defendants, or that lenders must accept mortgage applications from blacks at a lower rate than whites. A Critical Race theorist acknowledges de jure segregation is dead, and so if that’s a central part of one’s counterargument to CRT, it’s clear they aren’t listening.
Nevertheless, CRT argues that even if all this discrimination is in advertent, it nevertheless needs attention. Critical Race Theory cares more about actual outcomes than the intensions of our seemingly colorblind society. If “race-neutral” policies lead to racially discriminatory outcomes, then the policy needs to be modified. If our laws, like so many of us, “don’t see color,” it’s as if they don’t see black Americans or their struggle, neither in the past nor in the present, and if they can’t recognize the problem in the present then the future doesn’t look too good either. One must identify and describe the problem to start working toward a solution.
It’s here where we can introduce the hot-button concepts of equality and equity. Opponents of CRT emphasize equality. They say that the law should treat all races equally, not favoring any one race or ethnicity over another. Affirmative action, for example, gives preferential treatment to minorities, which isn’t equal treatment under the law.
Critical theorists, of course, are skeptical of “equality” as an unassailable American virtue, mostly because, as demonstrated above, actual outcomes don’t match this aspiration. Instead, they think our laws and society should work to achieve “equity,” or a fairer outcome for the less advantaged, which affirmative action could help accomplish. (This concept is not without its controversy, and it’ll be re-explored in Part II.)
CRT thinks it’s incumbent upon all of us to mull over the systemic racism in our society, regardless of whether we’re actively racist, and hopefully conclude that A) there is a problem, B) society should do something about this problem, and C) that means I have to do something about this problem. To achieve equity, CRT calls on all of us to do more.
How much more depends on the CRTist. To some, even if I treat every person of every race with respect, that’s not enough. That bare-minimum polite behavior isn’t leveling economic disparity, it’s not fighting a racist judicial system, and it’s not addressing discriminatory housing practices. We need to buy from black stores, support multi-family zoning initiatives, push for local policies to desegregate schools, and help elect officials that have plans to address systemic racism.
In other words, it’s not enough for us to simply not be racist. Instead, we need to be “anti-racist.”
Now it’s right around here that CRT starts to lose some people (if everything else wasn’t enough). If society is systemically racist, does that mean the people partaking in society are racists? Am I, a white man, actually racist by not using my dominant whiteness to help fight racism?
Well, now we get into territory that many people — myself included — find uncomfortable.
But that’s for another time, assuming my employers don’t tell me to knock it off. Subscribe for updates if you want to be alerted to Part II.