A quick guide to Critical Race Theory

Where did it start?

Critical Race Theory started in academia about 40 years ago. It was created by legal academics Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others.

Critical Race Theory holds that racism is not simply a discriminatory attitude held by an individual but that racism can become embedded in laws and institutions.

A US example was ‘redlining’, where governments drew boundary lines around areas of housing and, as a subsequent result, banks refused to lend. An outcome was that Black Americans could not do what many Australians do – climb the property ladder. They were restricted to poorer parts of towns, and were often refused mortgages.

Today, CRT suggests that such restrictive zoning of upscale suburbia is a form of discrimination against people of colour.

Another potential example flowed from the personal experience of CRT founder Bell, who was a Harvard Law academic and a Black man. He was concerned with how his own faculty hired – or failed to hire – people of colour. But this is no longer a particularly radical approach.

Taking care to hire a diverse staff is something even avowedly conservative institutions and companies now seek to do.

What is Critical Theory – and is it Marxist?

CRT grew out of Critical Theory which was, in turn, pioneered by a group of emigre German Marxists (the Frankfurt School) headed by Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Eric Fromm (among others who fled from Adolf Hitler’s regime).

Horkhiemer described the task of Critical Theory: “To liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” Critical Theory studies society to reveal power structures embedded within it.

But the Critical Theorists found that traditional Marxism did not account for the rise of Nazism and other aspects of their modern society. So they concentrated on selected parts of Marxism to carry forward (‘Commoditisation’, for example).

Fromm began an attempt to unify Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, bringing together two theoreticians who can be regarded as two ‘gods’ which failed. But this meant their Marxist content was diluted. A second generation led by Jurgen Habermas and others moved Critical Theory towards pragmatism.

The question of whether the description ‘Marxist’ applies or not is obviously a live one.

“Critical Theorists … have been successors to Marx in both their quest to unmask what’s really going on in society and in their intent to offer a better alternative,” Christian Scholar John Stackhouse writes.

“Unlike Marx, however, they have not focused mostly on economic matters, but submitted everything to their X-rays, from art to politics to religion.”

Post-Modernism has challenged Critical Theory, which has become fragmented as a result. Post-Modernism is suspicious of overarching theories, such as traditional Marxism.

Stackhouse suggests that Critical Theory and Post-Modernism are incompatible.

Is Critical Race Theory useful?

A left-wing movement can be the ‘canary in the coalmine’, providing a list of reforms for a society which might reject CRT’s more revolutionary agenda.

To take the ‘redlining’ example above: this practice by US banks clearly had a racial impetus, with a desire to keep races segregated, and Blacks poor. By contrast, zones can be considered indirect discrimination rather than an attempt to discriminate directly on the basis of race.

“Change is the means of our preservation.” – Edmund Burke

A potential change to ‘redlining’, then, might be developing tools – rather than abandoning zoning – to further the equality of opportunity.

So, in alerting society to areas in need of reform, CRT can be useful to society as a whole.

Equality before the law is a conservative ideal – with a revolutionary past. Making sure that the law is applied equitably is a conservative as well as a progressive ideal. Conservatives still know that “change is the means of our preservation”, as articulated by 18th Century Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke.

A conservative approach to CRT will be to identify necessary change and implement it, while rejecting the more extreme rhetoric and theory associated with it.

CRT focusses on outcomes – such as the numbers of each race admitted to university – rather than individual achievement. This means that the policies, resourcing and cultural factors that influence inequality can be examined. For example, in the US IQ tests and college entrance exams, it has been found that cultural bias exists, due to the language used.

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat in The New York Times makes the point that conservatives will find the work of Post-Modernist Michel Foucault increasingly useful if or when they become a minority group under pressure. What Douthat is pointing out is how worthwhile it can be to separate the tools for examining power structures from the ideologies which surround those tools.

What are the limitations and dangers of CRT?

A downside of CRT cited by conservative critics is that it reinforces group identities over the universal, divides people into oppressed and oppressor groups and, so, promotes polarisation and intolerance. CRT presupposes that change occurs through relief for oppressed groups – as groups, not individuals. This may downplay a culture of individual attainment that conservatives will wish to defend.

Some groups are cast as oppressors – cis-gender white males, for example. Some Christian positions, especially about the family, are attacked as a result. Critical theory favours some oppressed groups over others: ethical challenges such as abortion are framed as a human rights issue for women, but another group – the unborn – is ignored. Yet pro-lifers point out that Black babies are vastly over-represented in US abortion statistics.

Supporters of CRT can use it to justify censoring alternative views. ‘Civic Totalism’ is a term devised by Princeton academic Stephen Macedo to describe a state that wants to regulate citizen’s private lives, including their beliefs.

Ridley Melbourne’s Academic Dean Michael Bird points to Macedo’s writing which predicts that religion’s opposition to progressive forces, leads to the unmasking of the Left’s civic totalism. In a similar vein, Eternity has described the authoritarian streak in the Left, seen in cancel culture for example as “cultural leninism”. (Vladmir Lenin being the leader that set up the state’s power over the individual in the Soviet Union).

Remedying injustice is part of a Christian calling.

As with all revolutions, critical theory (which is capitalised when speaking of the Frankfurt School) eats its children, including CRT.

A Christian reflection on CRT

“Speaking truth to power” has been the calling of prophets. The Exodus and the Abolitionist Movement are examples of God’s people working to lift up the powerless.

Studying the power relations in society is not only for Marxists. Remedying injustice is part of a Christian calling.

However, Christians will see all women and men – regardless of class or race, or whether they belong to a particular group– as sinners who are in need of a saviour, and as those who made in the image of God.

No particular race or class, no human identity group, is the driving force or vanguard for bringing in the kingdom of God – unlike the nation of Israel in  Old Testament times – and our vision of a beloved community is only fully realised at the eschaton.

In his New Testament letter, James sets us two tasks of holding on to truth and aiding those without power: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27 NIV) That task is ours, and will outlast any political theory.