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Three Tenets of Critical Race Theory & Why They Matter to Human Flourishing

Critical Race Theory has become pervasive in every corner of American society: in schools, government, entertainment, sports, and, yes, in churches and seminaries. It is an unavoidable monstrosity, often misunderstood, and in part because it is not really understandable.1 Dr. Nathan Cartagena, professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, and himself a proponent of Critical Race Theory, says this about CRT, “Most broadly, CRT is a movement aimed at providing an antiracist understanding of the relationships between “race” and law. This movement contains competing and complementary traditions (e.g., some conditionally accept political liberalism while others completely reject it). Each tradition houses multiple methods and claims. CRT therefore is not a single theory, method, or analytic tool. It’s a diverse, contested, multi-layered movement.” posted online at: https://faithfullymagazine.com/critical-race-theory-christians/ [emphasis added]. Reasons for this ineffability will hopefully become transparent below. Nevertheless, there are three core features of Critical Race Theory that Christians of various traditions, as well as theists more generally, and even atheists who hold to the scientific method and universal applicability of reason should be aware. These core features are: 1) CRT is not a truth-oriented theory, 2) it is purely political, and 3) it is a fundamentally moralistic endeavor. How points two and three are not contradictory will be explained below. A final feature of CRT that I will discuss in a later post is how CRT acts as a replacement religion, something again that the religious and non-religious alike should be very concerned about. 2 Bill Maher, an infamous critic of religion, is equally, if not more, incensed by the infiltration of CRT into schools than many Christians, as evidenced here.

1. Critical Race Theory is Not Oriented Toward Truth

Critical Race Theory, like any Critical Theory, is a strictly immanent pedagogical project. On Critical Theory, there is nothing outside of society itself. There is no transcendent Principle or Person or even transcendent Identity (e.g. a “Nation,” “Child of God”) that acts as a shared and universal banner under which people of various ethnic backgrounds, different genders, or even discrete personal experiences can come together in order to pursue truth, seek justice, and have a common ground for other human endeavors. On any Critical Theory, society and the individuals who compose it simply compose reality itself, as one of the founding fathers of Critical Theory, Max Horkheimer explained when contrasting critical theory from traditional theory:

Indeed, Horkheimer criticizes “traditional theory” in light of the rejection of its representational view of knowledge and its nonhistorical subject. Echoing Marx in The German Ideology, Horkheimer insists that for a critical theory the world and subjectivity in all its forms have developed with the life processes of society (Horkheimer 1972b [1992, 245]).

James Bohman, “Critical Theory” in Standford Encylopedia of Philosophy

While early critical philosophers like Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, and even Herbert Marcuse, tried to avoid the “skeptical predicament”3 Bohman, “Critical Theory” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy., which would make all claims about reality entirely relative to the whims of contemporary culture, it is now obvious that the sociological naturalism these thinkers were pushing back against, a methodological naturalism that would make all “true” knowledge a product of historically located social groups, has won the day. Early critical theorists may have wanted philosophy to organize and prioritize social data 4 see Bohman, “Critical Theory.” and defend the cumulative acquisition of knowledge gained over time, but that view has clearly been rejected. Today’s critical race theorists have been crystal clear as they passionately decry almost all of past knowledge as essentially “white supremacist,” indelibly infected with racism, and therefore worthy of total negation. Any knowledge that has emerged out of the Western European context, to include that of the early critical theorists themselves, is tainted with racial corruption and must be entirely undone and excised from culture.5 This claim seems to be an incredible example of the “Genetic Fallacy” which would judge the truth value or validity of a claim or set of claims based solely on their origins. However, since logic itself is for many Critical Race Theorists a product of white, European culture, the additional claim could be made that informal fallacies like the Genetic Fallacy are themselves just products of white supremacists.

In this light, anyone that offers Critical Theory as a solution to a human problem is doing so under the pretense that knowledge itself is merely a product of human societies. Thus, as we, i.e. our collective bundle of present affections and desires, change, so too can we generate new knowledge to accommodate those affections and desires (as well as the technology we have devised to help satiate them). Knowledge, on Critical Race Theory, is generated entirely by the individual mind or the collective communal mind. Knowledge is not discovered or grasped by the individual intellect or the truth-seeking community, it is produced in virtue of individual or group experiences. Whatever is produced is asserted as true. On a CRT view, Archimede’s famous “Eureka” is no longer translatable as “I have found it!” but only as “I have invented it!”6 In truth, it is some of both. There is a grasping of a chunk of reality and a creative conceptualization of it for the sake of communicating about it.

As such, Critical Theory is Marxist in this regard, regardless of what defenders of CRT might want you to believe, as “the world and subjectivity in all its forms” have simply developed as society has changed over time. Truth, according to any Critical Theory, is relative to historical conditions and the societies living in those conditions. While current Critical Race Theory may reject other aspects of “vulgar” Marxism or its purely material dialectic, nevertheless this historicism with regards to truth is fundamental to it.

On this view then, the Bible or the Koran or the Torah have little if anything to say that would apply to us today, even if their “truths” might have been applicable to the “life processes” of the ancient cultures that produced them. In addition to the historical and social relativism of religious beliefs, however, Critical Race Theory (or Gender Theory, or Feminist Theory) also considers scientific claims relative to historical, cultural and social conditions. On Critical Race Theory, there are no shared principles of right reasoning– no logic that acts as a universally applicable standard or norm by which we can grasp truth about the way the world is and know something about how it works. Instead there are “logic(s)” that are relative to discrete social groups, each “logic” perhaps being only partly compatible, or perhaps not at all compatible, with any other logic of some other group. This is why we now see subjects like math, once considered by the ancient Greeks to bear properties of the Divine itself due to its universality, now come under the scrutiny of Critical Race Theory. Even math is merely relative to society and its racial subgroups; no longer mirroring the divine harmony of the cosmos or pointing to the Divine Mind. Embracing Critical Race Theory should lead to an anti-realism about scientific proclamations. Any scientific study in chemistry, biology, geology, physics, etc., should be considered as merely an invention of the scientist doing it, an invention that will itself be based upon which social group that scientist ascribes to or from which she comes. For a culture ever more given over to finding its security in medical technologies, this should be very disconcerting.

In sum, Critical Race Theory is not a truth-oriented project, rather it is a “truth” constructing one. However, the construction of knowledge is not something that originates in the intellect, but, as with any creative act, emerges foremost from the will. This leads to the next core feature of Critical Race Theory: its inherently political nature.

2. Critical Race Theory is Inherently and Only Political

Because Critical Theories have abandoned the traditional pursuit of knowledge, i.e. traditional or classical theory, and because knowledge on Critical Theory is a product of the will, be it the individual will or the will of the masses or the will of the dominant racial group, Critical Theories are inherently and only political.

Recently I attended a meeting of concerned parents in a local school district of Southern California. The parents, most Christian but not all, were justifiably upset about a new regiment of diversity training that is being rammed through the California state school system to all K-12 classrooms. This curriculum, the Social Justice Standards, avows to train children in four areas: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. Not once in the outline for this new training program is truth mentioned. Nowhere is “critical thinking” emphasized. The reason is simple: this curriculum is only interested in the training of social behavior, it is social engineering in its purest form, because it has abandoned any hope that truth can be known or discovered. It is in this sense that Critical Race Theory is Post-Modern and, as such, an entirely a political program. Since there is no objective reality, let alone objective design to the world that we are meant to grasp and align ourselves with, the human person is reduced to a purely political organism; a creature whose sole purpose is to act as an agent of sociological change through persistent structural revolution– to bend society towards its own will.7 Of course, one is reminded of Luther’s Lecture on the Romans, where he says “Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, [being] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”

Moreover, as purely political creatures embedded in ever-changing historical conditions, we not only create the standards by which we seek this perfection but also choose the means by which new standards are implemented. Again, religious beliefs and values, and principles of right reason being downstream from the culture producing them, the means by which we realize any newly devised standard are not subject to some higher authority, some tradition, or set of universal virtues. They are implemented through a sheer act of political will, through the will to power. The most cursory look at the new Social Justice Standards, devised by the most accusatory organization in the country, the Southern Poverty Law Center, should make anyone who holds to a pre-political view of morality shudder. The introduction to the new curriculum couches this will to power in moralistic language, but any critical reader understands the inherent danger in this kind of view:

Prejudice reduction seeks to minimize conflict and generally focuses on changing the attitudes and behaviors of a dominant group. Collective action challenges inequality directly by raising consciousness and focusing on improving conditions for under-represented groups.

TT-Social-Justice-Standards-June-2019[1]

Nothing is mentioned anywhere in the new California state curriculum guidelines about whether the attitudes or behaviors of the dominant group are “good,” “true,” “virtuous” or “right.” If anything is referred to at all as “good” or “true” it is only in the context of a personal narrative being true in the sense of the person’s experience being normative, or of someone “feeling good” whereby the term “good” operates solely as a marker of positive emotional states. These terms: “good, true, virtuous, right,” otherwise are simply not allowable as they have acted, according to CRT scholars, as terms used to make objective or absolute, i.e. trans-cultural, moral claims. According to CRT scholars, the claim to objectivity, scientific or moral, is itself nothing more than a product of an aggressive and power hungry White Eurocentric culture.8 See Kenneth B. Nunn, “Law as a Eurocentric Enterprise” in The Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality, Vol. 15, issue 2, Article 2, December 1997, 334-337.

Nor is it mentioned whether or how the elevating of the minority or under-represented group’s views would increase goodness or virtue or right living. It is assumed in the document that under-represented groups are morally superior to majority groups and, vice-versa, that majority groups must have their attitudes changed to be more accommodating to the views of the minority. There is no objective or external criteria by which these normative evaluations are made other than the apparent existence of a disparity in social “power,” whatever that might be or however it might be calculated. As C.S. Lewis pointed out poignantly in The Screwtape Letters, the very questions of truth or falsehood, or prudence or virtue, are exactly what this curriculum tries to keep children from asking or even being able to ask:

“The Enemy [God] loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He [God] wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we [the Demons] can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make.”

Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-screwtape-letters/id360640935

Finally, this approach also seeks to preclude individuals who might be viewed as members of an under-represented group from aspiring, espousing or accepting the values of the dominant group should they feel compelled to accept those values based on their discovery that they actually are true or good or right or prudent. When the very idea of all people being endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights is no longer considered “self-evident” but is seen as a statement operating solely as a mechanism of power, then truly all things have become political, for there is nothing left prior to politics.

3. Critical Race Theory is Fundamentally Moralistic

The final core tenet of Critical Race Theory is that it is fundamentally moralistic. Unlike the strict scientistic materialists of the last generation, who claimed that moral statements were effectively meaningless and subsequently stayed at arms-length from moral theorizing, 9 I am thinking here of the Logical Positivists like A.J. Ayers critical race theorists are fixated on morality. However, any moral theory that has been espoused since the days of Thomas Aquinas, let alone Luther or even Mill, is seen either as antiquated or evil. Antiquated if it came before the rise of the racial hierarchies that emerged at the dawn of Colonialism, but evil if it arose during or after the Colonial era.

Here, Critical Race Theory finds itself truly stuck in a quandary, an enigmatic labyrinth from which it cannot escape. Its quasi-religious impulse, a very Marxian one indeed, is to engineer a perfectly harmonious, i.e. perfectly just and democratic society. However, its main proponents reject any notion of a corrupt human will or sinful nature. As such, Critical Race Theory can be seen as an indirect descendant of Rousseau, who famously stated that “man is born free, but everywhere in chains.” Taking this cue, it is moral man who must dismantle the immoral system. How the system became immoral, however, is problematic for the CRT advocate who assumes that man is inherently good.10 CRT scholars and advocates like Kenneth Nunn or Robin DiAngelo are careful to distinguish white people from Whiteness, the culture that white people produce which is the evil. In this sense CRT offers the individual a free pass, even though they must recognize they are “caught up” in systemic evil and also do something about it. In his book, A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell explains this “unconstrained view” of human nature, showing how this vision of man as espoused by the likes of Rousseau, William Godwin, and Condorcet was diametrically opposed to the views of theorists like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, who saw human beings as “constrained” by a nature or essence from which they could not escape nor ultimately perfect in their own power. According to Sowell,

“His [Godwin’s] was the unconstrained vision of human nature, in which man was capable of directly feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own, and therefore of consistently acting impartially, even when his own interests or those of his family were involved. This was not meant as an empirical generalization about the way most people currently behaved. It was meant as a statement of the underlying nature of human potential.”

On the one hand, then, Critical Race theory rejects the project of “Scientism,” as critical race theorists look to “rehumanize” social experiences. But, having rejected traditional religious views of human nature, critical theorists grope to find a way to espouse a coherent morality without any transcendent norm or norming principle, or any sense of the finite capacities of the human person. There is a hope that one can access an underlying human potential to be moral and that this potential is unlimited. In short, that we can become as gods, at least as it pertains to moral goodness.11 Think of it as a sort of “Pelagianism” on steroids.

However, without the “pre-political” to ground morality, morality for the critical race theorists just becomes the act of moralizing itself— an act which is little more than a rhetorical tool for attaining that which the will most strongly desires. Thus, critical theorists “virtue signal” because of its psychological effectiveness on their opponents, not because they actually believe their are objective virtues that are worthy in themselves of exemplifying, regardless of whether they produce some social or material benefit. Hence, Critical Race Theory is not a moral project, but it is a moralizing project. Such moralizing uses something real, our moral sense or conscience, to get what it wants. Thus, everything about Critical Race Theory is couched in moral terms, not because these moral terms actual refer to some objective moral norm or nature, but simply because they have psychological effects on people.

This is the scariest aspect of the California Social Justice Standards curriculum, as it transforms children into little moralists, willing to fault find in others and report any identified faults in others to the controlling authorities. While the nuns of yesteryear’s Catholic schools used to scold children for the sin of “tattle-taling,” today’s CRT-inspired teachers encourage this sinful behavior, exhorting children to perform an act once known as the sin of “detraction.”

Critical Race Theory plays off of the worst of human nature, albeit somewhat unwittingly since it denies that human’s have a nature. Nevertheless, in reality, the influence of Critical Race Theory in our schools will exaggerate and even encourage various vices already innate in our children’s wills: envy, detraction, calumny, greed, and pride. Yes, very much pride.

Why do the nations conspire,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
    and cast their cords from us.”

Psalm 2

Critical Race Theory is nothing more than the latest attempt of man to do just that, to relieve himself from the moral authority of the Lord and to burst his bonds and cords so as to be free of His Lordship, His Sovereignty, and ultimately from His Loving-Kindness, and that all because of pride in oneself and in ourselves.12 Two terms used throughout the curriculum in a positive connotation are “pride” and “self-esteem.” No wonder.

  • 1
    Dr. Nathan Cartagena, professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, and himself a proponent of Critical Race Theory, says this about CRT, “Most broadly, CRT is a movement aimed at providing an antiracist understanding of the relationships between “race” and law. This movement contains competing and complementary traditions (e.g., some conditionally accept political liberalism while others completely reject it). Each tradition houses multiple methods and claims. CRT therefore is not a single theory, method, or analytic tool. It’s a diverse, contested, multi-layered movement.” posted online at: https://faithfullymagazine.com/critical-race-theory-christians/ [emphasis added].
  • 2
    Bill Maher, an infamous critic of religion, is equally, if not more, incensed by the infiltration of CRT into schools than many Christians, as evidenced here.
  • 3
    Bohman, “Critical Theory” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • 4
    see Bohman, “Critical Theory.”
  • 5
    This claim seems to be an incredible example of the “Genetic Fallacy” which would judge the truth value or validity of a claim or set of claims based solely on their origins. However, since logic itself is for many Critical Race Theorists a product of white, European culture, the additional claim could be made that informal fallacies like the Genetic Fallacy are themselves just products of white supremacists.
  • 6
    In truth, it is some of both. There is a grasping of a chunk of reality and a creative conceptualization of it for the sake of communicating about it.
  • 7
    Of course, one is reminded of Luther’s Lecture on the Romans, where he says “Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, [being] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”
  • 8
    See Kenneth B. Nunn, “Law as a Eurocentric Enterprise” in The Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality, Vol. 15, issue 2, Article 2, December 1997, 334-337.
  • 9
    I am thinking here of the Logical Positivists like A.J. Ayers
  • 10
    CRT scholars and advocates like Kenneth Nunn or Robin DiAngelo are careful to distinguish white people from Whiteness, the culture that white people produce which is the evil. In this sense CRT offers the individual a free pass, even though they must recognize they are “caught up” in systemic evil and also do something about it.
  • 11
    Think of it as a sort of “Pelagianism” on steroids.
  • 12
    Two terms used throughout the curriculum in a positive connotation are “pride” and “self-esteem.” No wonder.

6 thoughts on “Three Tenets of Critical Race Theory & Why They Matter to Human Flourishing

  1. R.H. (Rusty) Foerger – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
    R.H. (Rusty) Foerger says:

    Well said Anthony. This so timely… or may be we are late in speaking to what has become a current of error. I confess the first time I even heard of CRT was reading Timothy Keller’s post: https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/a-biblical-critique-of-secular-justice-and-critical-theory/.
    I appreciate your articulate posts.

    1. Hi Rusty,

      It is an error, but I suppose we should expect after so many decades (centuries) of trying to understand life through the cold harsh lens of science and reason that that would not ultimately suffice in man. One thing that CRT seems to be doing is really pushing back against the scientistic view of reality. That is in one sense good, because it does make religious belief a more viable option for many. But, of course, sinful man is not necessarily going to be returning back to old time religion as we understand it, but by looking deeply into the past pagan cultures that the missionaries encountered. I don’t know if CRT advocates are intentionally conflating rationalistic Enlightenment with Christianity, but the movement seems to be doing so in general.

      Thanks for your readership. I equally appreciate your eloquent and thoughtful essays.

      Anthony

  2. Great read. How do you interpret Maslow’s hierarchy through the CRT frame? It seems that the moralistic views ignores the human desire for comfort, safety, belonging and that need for self actualization?

    1. Bill,

      Good question, something I hadn’t thought of. That said, I am not sure exactly what you mean by saying the “moralistic views ignore the human desire for comfort, safety, belonging, etc…” Could you elaborate? If I take a stab at what I think you might be pointing out I would say that moralism doesn’t ignore these things, but that as human beings with a conscience are need to be moral (or at least be seen as moral) goes beyond these other needs. Perhaps I would argue that for the well-functioning adult (i.e. infants and the extremely handicapped excluded) it is as basic a need as comfort, safety, belonging, etc.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Anthony

      1. Let me chew on that for a bit…I will expand what I feel is a conflict between social/emotional issues and the desire for self fulfillment

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