A Critical Eye on Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory was an idea developed and discussed by a small group of academics decades ago, but was largely contained to the world of a few left-wing intellectuals. Yet, amid the concentrated focus that many in America shined on race issues since the killing of George Floyd last summer, what was once an obscure theory became a subject of intense media coverage and public debate.
Before the death of George Floyd, one of the most controversial works that has come to be associated with the theory is The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a series of articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones that sought to explain American history largely through the lens of racial oppression. Another is Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, the most contested aspect of which is the author’s assertion that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
Recently, ideas from both these works and others based on principles related to Critical Race Theory have found a good deal of mainstream traction. In addition to a long list of universities designing ways to incorporate its concepts into their curricula and operation, America’s two largest teachers’ unions endorsed finding ways for the theory to help shape history lessons. In June, the Biden administration issued an order that did not mention the theory by name, but instituted training programs for federal employees to impart “knowledge of systemic and institutional racism,” key words of the movement.
Reaction has been fierce as well with many, mainly conservatives, decrying the theory and its teachings as anti-American and unnecessarily stoking racial tensions. Several Republican-controlled states have passed legislation to ban teaching lessons based on the theory from the classrooms of public schools.
In an effort to better understand what Critical Race Theory is and what could be right or wrong with it, Hamodia spoke to one of its early proponents, Gary Peller, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center and co-editor of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement.
Hamodia also spoke with two outspoken opponents, Deroy Murdock, a news commentator and syndicated columnist who serves as a senior fellow with the New York-based London Center for Policy Research, and Kevin McGary, President of the Frederick Douglass Foundation of California, a political advocacy group and co-founder of Every Black Life Matters.
Professor Gary Peller, Georgetown University Law Center
Help America Make Good On Its Promises
The definition and parameters of Critical Race Theory is a subject of great debate. As one of its originators, how do you think it should be understood?
Critical Race Theory is an interpretive method intended to serve as a lens for understanding and talking about our social world. It is one of many competing interpretive methods for examining social realities like neo-classical economics or Freudian psychology or Marxism or secular liberalism.
Critical Race Theory is distinct from traditional “civil rights” in that is critical of the idea of liberal universalism, that is, that there is a way to distribute social benefits and burdens that would be neutral to race.
How did Critical Race Theory come about and how did it evolve?
The civil rights movement, which was guided by the spirit of liberalism, faced an apartheid society and focused its energy on fighting racial exclusion, symbolized by the “whites only” and “colored only” signs that once dotted America.
By the end of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had achieved those goals. But looking around in the late 1970s and early ’80s, advocates for racial justice were faced with new forms of resistance. Racial progress was blocked by those advocating purportedly race-neutral policies like preventing the deterioration of standards in academia and meritocracy in many employment contexts. We focused our work on the many ways that racial power continued to be exercised, even under purportedly race-neutral rules. Many of us who thought this way ourselves had experienced entering elite institutions as outsiders, including myself, as someone who is Jewish.
The expectation of the civil rights movement had been that once their goals were achieved, African-Americans would be integrated into race-neutral institutions. But, as your readers are well aware, the mainstream institutions of America are marked by a cultural history that is largely Christian and based largely on the experiences of white people in North America.
Just as Jews have been concerned that secular universalism posing as something that is neutral to religion can lead to a sort of forced assimilation, Critical Race Theory scholars have been concerned that these same institutions can create what one of our scholars called a “painless genocide” for the continuation of African-American culture, as African-Americans are integrated into mainstream white institutions and expected to conform to those institutional cultures.
What is an example of how you feel racism is systemically woven into the American system of today?
The examples are boundless.
When I first started teaching in the early 1980s at the University of Virginia one of my appointments there was to serve on the student admissions committee. The university, like the entire state of Virginia, had been part of American apartheid and had put up massive resistance to racial integration, but by the time I was there, the school had already formally been desegregated for several years with tiny numbers of black students admitted to each class.
On the committee with me were older colleagues who were the same people who had administered admissions when the university was formally racially segregated, when it was a whites-only school. They were no longer enforcing the rules of segregation but they were just left in power as if racial apartheid in America only consisted of rules of exclusion and not the mentality of all the people who carried them out. My older colleagues would vote against anybody coming from a historically black college on the grounds that they weren’t properly prepared for study in a rigorous institution like UVA.
That’s a pretty blatant example. I’m not saying that anybody who had any role in apartheid America should have been purged, but they certainly shouldn’t have been left in charge of the country’s main institutions. The fact that the administrators of American apartheid kept their jobs shows how shallow was the reckoning with the effects of American apartheid.
It goes deeper than that too. The LSAT is used as a prime selection tool for admission to elite law schools today, but the LSAT has a disproportionate racial impact. That disproportionate impact is presented by its apologists as if it’s simply a measure of competence to study law. But that competence is measured by how legal education proceeds today, practices rooted in a culture that developed during American apartheid. And actual legal practice can’t be the validator for the same reason — that’s the very legal system which sanctioned racial apartheid as consistent with American constitutionalism and American liberalism. The legal system that embraces apartheid should not be the barometer for who is fit to practice law in a post-apartheid world.
There are no pure starting points. There are no neutral institutions or neutral rules of who gets to go and who doesn’t get to go to law school, to follow our example. It’s political, it’s cultural, and that’s what Critical Race Theory tries to expose.
If we follow your example of the LSAT, what is the next step? What do Critical Race scholars suggest should be done to address what they see as an injustice of this sort?
As I said, it’s a theory. It’s a lens of how to view society. It’s not Leninism; we don’t have a 100-point plan of what to do about every problem in society. It’s a critical practice, and some of us have focused on different aspects of society and come up with approaches to what we worked on. The example of the LSAT should at least suggest either abolishing the LSAT or refiguring how admissions to law schools — and colleges — are done.
Some of our opponents say that Critical Race Theory is flawed by seeing everything in racial terms. The charge is untrue. There’s a lot that goes into understanding how law schools are structured. Race is part of it, but another part of it is the reproduction of Protestant culture and of a kind of upper middle class elitism; another part is the attempt of American liberalism to present itself as neutral and apolitical, as a “rule of law not people.” It’s not just about race. But race is a significant factor in how social power has been constructed and reproduced across wide swaths of American life.
One of the reasons I keep on emphasizing secular universalism is that people of faith in general and the chareidi community in particular should have a special affinity for a movement like Critical Race Theory that is critical of the false claims to universalism of secular liberalism.
American public institutions like public schools present themselves as having transcended partiality by being equally open to everyone. So public schools officially don’t discriminate on the basis of religion, and the idea is that everyone can go to these schools. In the liberal tradition it is a meaningful aspiration to have an institution that has its doors open to all. But when I went to public school, it wasn’t a culture that was neutral to me. It was clear that it had a sort of Protestant flavor to it. The values of public school, the values of hard work and critical thought and self-reliance, these are the values of a worldview of secular humanism that holds the human being at the center of everything. The secular humanism that dominates American public education is inconsistent with virtually every religious tradition.
This culture that claims to be neutral towards religious people presents itself as such by blinding itself to all the ways in which it is culturally grounded.
The purpose of this analogy is to help understand that, just as our institutions purport to be neutral to religion while still being deeply rooted in Protestant culture and values, so too, our officially racially neutral institutions still do not understand or contend with the degree to which they bear the marks of a particularly white culture.
A dramatic way to see this was when the University of Virginia was first integrated. There had never been black students there before and a few of them occasionally got asked if they could please pick up the trash. That is because that institution had only seen black people as maintenance workers so any black people that show up are perceived according to a grid of meaning. That’s a form of power that hangs in the air of a place … like a silent form of regulation.
What is your response to the charge that Critical Race Theory presents an anti-American version of American history?
That’s a false charge. It is coming from far-right cultural warriors who really want a kind of patriotic indoctrination in public schools. We are certainly not for claiming that America is evil. We are working for a multi-racial democracy in North America. That’s what we want, to help America make good on its promises and overcome its failures.
There are some inspiring parts of the American story and there are some horrific parts of the American story, and both should be taught.
Do you feel that some more extreme proponents of Critical Race Theory, Professor Kendi being the most public figure on the subject, have set back your work or goals?
You can’t trademark an idea so we can’t regulate how people use the term “Critical Race Theory.” But I tend not to think that Professor Kendi or others who think similarly and have been in the public eye have set our work back.
What is happening is a backlash against the commitment to progress that a broad band of American society embraced after the George Floyd murder. In the backlash, people are throwing a lot of things that they might disagree with into the box of Critical Race Theory.
I would not necessarily say things the same way that Professor Kendi has; but I do not find much that I strongly disagree with in what he has presented as his analysis of American history. His book is excellent. And while I’ve heard some isolated stories about poorly conceived teaching that can occur with any approach, what’s clear is that American education has to change to reflect the truth about our racial history, and we should provide teachers with the resources to help them teach the truth in the most effective ways.
The worst thing that has been said about us is that we think that people are inherently good or evil based on skin color. We are against secular universalism, but we of course do not endorse racialism, or the idea of racial essentialism. Those ideas are not what our theory is about. We are against racism — the subordination of one racial group to another.
Deroy Murdock – News commentator, syndicated columnist, and senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research
CRT: Socio-Political Cancer
As the definition and parameters of Critical Race Theory are themselves a subject of debate, how do you define them?
Critical Race Theory is a school of thought that labels all white people as racial oppressors and all black people as racially oppressed victims.
CRT goes beyond the economic ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who framed society in 1848 as a constant class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The Frankfurt School in Germany in the 1920s was frustrated that the Marxist goal of a proletarian revolution did not transpire in the industrialized Western European countries because so many workers hoped to grow rich one day. So, the thinkers in the Frankfurt School moved beyond economic Marxism and, instead, promoted cultural Marxism. This variant of the original Marxist virus set forth a struggle over culture rather than economics, namely between racial oppressors and racial victims. These are the evil germs that spawned today’s CRT pandemic.
The goal of CRT, nevertheless, remains very similar to that of the Bolsheviks. CRT proponents exacerbate racial tensions with the ultimate goal of fomenting a race war whose violence would overthrow America’s capitalist, constitutional republican system. From those ruins, the CRTniks dream, a socialist utopia will germinate.
Do you think it is fair to characterize Critical Race Theory as anti-American?
I think it’s a totally fair characterization. I don’t think that anybody objects to telling the good, the bad, and the ugly of U.S. history. Many things make America exceptional, from rescuing Europe from Nazi tyranny, putting a man on the moon, constitutional republicanism, democratic elections, and the whole model of individual liberty and limited government that has inspired billions and been adopted all around the world. But a fair reading of American history cannot and should not overlook slavery, the Democratic institutional racism via Jim Crow laws, FDR’s Japanese internment camps, and other things that happened here of which few Americans are proud. Still, they need to be acknowledged, studied, and understood.
CRT’s un-American nature begins with its lie that the American Founding was not about overthrowing British imperial tyranny, preserving liberty, securing property rights, and establishing self-government. Instead, the CRT crowd lies, 1776 was about shielding slavery. This sort of thing usually is found in landfills.
The Critical Race Theorists conveniently forget that America fought a Civil War in which approximately 365,000 mostly white men from the North died while fighting the South and ending slavery. Some 260,000 Confederate troops perished in the War Between the States. A third of a million white soldiers giving their lives to liberate black slaves? Does that sound like white racial oppression?
What is your opinion of the claim that racism is systemically woven into the America of today?
If America is so systemically racist, how did we have a black President for eight years? Obama became President in 2008 and 2012 by handily defeating two white men. Why didn’t the white men who, according to CRT, have total control of this country, make sure that the white guys won? Not only did this alleged white supremacy fail miserably, but soon after Obama was inaugurated, his popularity rating stood at 70% — with scores of millions of white people rooting for him.
President George W. Bush made Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice Secretary of State. Under President Obama there were two black Attorneys General, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. Lloyd Austin is now the Secretary of Defense, and Kamala Harris is Vice President. If America is systemically racist, how is it possible that these alleged white supremacists who reputedly run these systems of anti-black oppression let black people run the White House, State Department, Justice Department, all for eight years, and now the entire Pentagon?
Some 53 members of Congress are black, including Maxine Waters (D-California), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. If the white folks on Wall Street are so racist, why do they allow this black woman to hold so much power over them? Congressman David Scott (D-Georgia) chairs the House Agriculture Committee. How on earth do these white nationalists let this black man oversee America’s food supply?
In recent years, the CEOs of American Express, Citigroup, Time-Warner, and Xerox were all black, as is Merck’s CEO Kevin Frazier. E. Stanley O’Neal’s grandfather was a slave. His father was a sharecropper. O’Neal was chairman of Merrill Lynch. The O’Neal family went from slavery to the chairmanship of Merrill Lynch in two generations. Does this sound like systemic racism?
What impact do you think Critical Race Theory has on black Americans today?
CRT increasingly fuels an ugly situation in which white people fear that blacks worry that they are hostile to them, and blacks are afraid that white people are there to oppress them. CRT teaches each race to look at the other with suspicion. This makes people less likely to reach out to each other in friendship [and] hire each other for jobs. … This is terrible for whites and blacks alike.
If black kids grow up hearing that the system is rigged and no matter what they do “whitey” will hold them down and white cops will shoot them before they turn 21, then why work hard in school, read textbooks, or raise their hands in class? If whitey really is going to ruin your life, then why not drop out of school and join a gang? If CRT were true, such behavior would be far from irrational.
I fear that CRT could become a self-fulfilling prophecy among whites. CRT insists that blacks and other minorities obsess over their racial identities. Why, then, shouldn’t whites focus on their white identities? That attitude will build walls between the races, not bring [walls] down. If this happens, blame the Critical Race Theorists.
Critical Race Theory is socio-political cancer. It needs to be excised and catapulted onto the medical waste heap of history.
Kevin McGary, President of the Frederick Douglass Foundation of California, and co-founder of Every Black Life Matters
We Are Not Helpless
What do you see as the accurate definition of Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory, as its name suggests, is a theory, so by definition it’s an amorphous term. Even if you would ask the academics that initiated it, you would probably get different responses.
What I can say is that if you look at the outcome that its proponents want, it focuses on labeling who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed. It views the world through the prism of a power dynamic where hegemonic forces align and control society based on race and their goal is to tear down that perceived hegemonic framework.
What is your view on Critical Race Theory’s claims that America is plagued by systemic racism?
I agree with the premise that there is racism inherent to the system, but I take issue with the direction they see it coming from.
There is a long history of racism in this country going back to slavery and segregation. Both those systems were started and elongated by people who hated blacks.
But that is only part of the story.
From the founding of the nation through the Civil War, there were two factions in this country, one that supported slavery and another that abhorred it. To look at the abolitionist movement and hundreds of thousands of white people who literally put their lives on the line to set blacks free in the Civil War and then to say that all whites are colonizers and oppressors is ridiculous.
I think if you want to look at systemic racism, a good place to look is at a person like Margaret Sanger, who advocated for a system designed to limit the black population and which bears much guilt for hurting black family life.
People like Lyndon B. Johnson, who put social welfare policies in place that made blacks permanently dependent on government entitlement programs, also helped create a situation that is systemically racist, but that’s not what Critical Race Theory proponents talk about.
I am all for teaching the good, bad, and ugly of American history, but leaving these points out of the Critical Race Theory’s historical critique betrays how politically motivated their position is.
What do you feel is the effect of the propagation of Critical Race Theory’s ideas on blacks in America today?
The effect is that it infantilizes and demeans blacks. These are mostly a group of upper-crust whites saying that I as a black person can’t get anywhere because they have all the power and that in order to change that, they have to abdicate or be brought down so that I can get a little of that power, but that without that, I will never go anywhere.
It’s not true and it’s demeaning. If Fredrick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and a lot of other great American blacks would have thought this way, they never would have even tried to get out of their plight.
We are not the helpless people that these academics seem to think we are. We are resilient and we possess the power to overcome the challenges we may face.
What do you think are some ways that would be helpful to address some of the racial tensions that received a great deal of attention over the past year?
What would be helpful would be to have conversations about the real plight of black people. There is real racism and we don’t have the equality and inclusion that we should, but in my opinion a lot of this is because of the policies of the American left, the same people who pretend to be our greatest defenders.
The same goes for education.
People like Nancy Pelosi send their own children and grandchildren to private schools, but they won’t support school choice, which could open those opportunities up to a lot of blacks and Hispanics who could benefit from it.
Her attitude is that we need to keep our public school platforms so that blacks and Hispanics can go there, and school choice would take away from that.
The message is that they, white-privileged liberals, have education opportunities open to them, but blacks should remain dependent on what the government offers them.
This is abhorrent.
We should be encouraging blacks to have healthy and flourishing nuclear families for children to grow up in.
We need educational choice to help level the playing field and help more blacks compete with other ethnic groups.
What is happening is that blacks are used as pawns. We are looked at and viewed as a dependable voting bloc and not as respectable citizens who can become successful members of society.
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