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No, Critical Race Theory Isn’t a New Civil Rights Movement. (Just the Opposite)

The difference between the civil rights movement and CRT isn’t one of degree or shade. It’s foundational.

No, Critical Race Theory Isn’t a New Civil Rights Movement. (Just the Opposite)
Singer Marian Anderson greeting members of the audience in the auditorium of the US Department of the Interior, 1943

Critical Race Theory has become a prominent subject in American political discourse. Several state legislatures have advanced measures aimed at banning it from public schools, on the basis that its rigid moral categorization of people as either “privileged” or “oppressed” is offensive and even racist. Yet supporters argue that Critical Race Theory is vital to the project of eliminating racism, which they see as an omnipresent contaminant in every sphere of American life. Only by constantly and explicitly taking race into account in every aspect of policy-making, the theory goes, can we rid ourselves of its presence.

One of the most ideologically ambitious defenses of Critical Race Theory presents the doctrine as the next logical stage in the process that began with the civil rights movement. This is the argument made by the American Bar Association, the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. The ABA instructs us that Critical Race Theory provides a “powerful approach for examining race in society,” as well as a “lens through which the civil rights lawyer can imagine a more just nation.”

One can understand why Critical Race Theory’s proponents would seek to link it to the civil rights movement, which properly enjoys a hallowed status in American history—and which yielded some of the most revered and intensely studied Supreme Court judgments on law-school curricula. But this line of argument, however rhetorically attractive, is logically incorrect: Critical Race Theory (often abbreviated as CRT) explicitly undermines the intellectual and moral foundations of color-blind American liberalism.

The civil rights movement was based on a hopeful and optimistic vision of modern Americans turning the country’s ideals into reality. CRT, on the other hand, presents a dystopian vision in which ubiquitous bigotry and oppression defines America’s national soul. Far from being heir to the civil rights legacy, Critical Race Theory is in many ways its opposite.

The American Bar Association presents CRT as an analytical tool for “interrogating the role of race and racism in society.” But lawyers are trained to examine evidence as a means of persuasion and truth-finding—whereas those who see America through the prism of CRT typically brush aside the need for any concrete evidence that extends past the broad inequities of American society more generally. Again, there is a fundamental contradiction here: Lawyers are trained to parse facts, while CRT specifically teaches us to simply infer the existence of racism in any given context.

When Donald Trump signed an executive order to rid federal agencies of CRT, over 120 civil rights organizations signed a letter condemning his initiative. The simplified political narrative presented CRT as the antidote to racism, while Trump clung to the old racist ways. But you don’t have to be a Trump supporter to find the tenets of CRT offensive. Martin Luther King and his contemporaries famously fought for a world in which “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Not only does CRT put the color of one’s skin front and center, it also presents human character as largely an outgrowth of race—with white oppressors being implicitly programmed by the wicked ideology of “whiteness,” while non-whites are presumptively granted the status of victim.

Critical Race Theory Wasn’t Always Like This
The version of CRT that I studied in the 1990s offered a useful critique of American institutions—rather than a moral condemnation of American souls.

In its relentless focus on whites as the source of evil in society, in fact, CRT often blurs into a form of mystical conspiracism. Influential Critical Theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, for instance, have claimed that racism is a tool maintained by “white elites” in unspoken alliance with the “working class” to keep non-whites oppressed. For the Critical Theorist, racism isn’t an individual frame of mind that can be discussed in the way that lawyers discuss mens rea, but rather a totalizing system of seizing and defending political and economic power. Star anti-racism author and lecturer Ibram X. Kendi defines racism as “a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.” Such sweeping, universalist definitions help sell books. But they also present the locus of racism as both everywhere and nowhere, much as religious texts present the existence of God (or the devil). How can such a nebulous idea possibly be invoked in the precise sort of legal context that the ABA’s members would find professionally useful?

In a speech at the University of Newcastle in 1967, MLK remarked that “there can be no separate black path to power and fulfilment that does not intersect white routes and there can be no separate white path to power and fulfilment short of social disaster that does not recognize the necessity of sharing that power with colored aspirations for freedom and human dignity.” Critical Theorists reject King’s suggestion that such a unified struggle against racism is even possible (at least as a mass movement), since whites are presented as automatons impelled by an inborne sense of racist hostility. King saw equality and enlightenment as values that anyone could access through love, empathy, and common sense. To the Critical Race Theorist, on the other hand, equality and enlightenment can come to white people only through the internalization of rigidly articulated, emotionally sterile dogmas expressed in arcane jargon. By design, this kind of education is fully comprehensible only to those privileged white “allies” who self-identify as a morally advanced vanguard. King would be utterly repulsed by this elitism.

King was hardly naïve to the manner by which the United States had betrayed its founding promise. Even once slavery had been abolished, he noted in a 1944 speech titled The Negro and the Constitution, “Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar.”

In the next breath, King shows how things were changing, however:

[Black contralto] Marian Anderson was barred from singing in [Washington, DC’s] Constitution Hall, ironically enough, by the professional daughters of the very men who founded this nation for liberty and equality. But this tale had a different ending. The nation rose in protest, and gave a stunning rebuke to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a tremendous ovation to the artist, Marian Anderson, who sang in Washington on Easter Sunday [1939] and fittingly, before the Lincoln Memorial. Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the supreme court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment. She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of “America” and “Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen” rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity.

But then King switched gears again, adding:

That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America. Recently she was again signally honored by being given the Bok reward as the most distinguished resident of Philadelphia. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, even after it has declared her to be its best citizen.

This juxtaposition of the good and the bad in American race relations shows how a lawyer—or anyone—should be “interrogating the role of race and racism in society”: There is good and bad in every person, and in every country. And only a racist believes that there is some fundamental skin-color-defined moral essence within any of us. The civil rights project acknowledged this truth by focusing on real projects of the type King describes: opening up businesses and public amenities to all people, regardless of race—as opposed to smearing whole swathes of humanity as irredeemably hateful.

King recognized the plain fact that slavery was a “paradox” that ran athwart of America’s founding principles, even as he demonstrated his continued faith in the Constitution as a means of improving America. And his faith in the Constitution was vindicated by Brown v. Board of Education and a hundred other cases like it, such as the 1956 federal court decision in Browder v. Gayle, which struck down racial segregation on public transportation. In the legislative arena, its capstone was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which effectively ended Jim Crow laws de jure from coast to coast. The grain of truth at the heart of Critical Race Theory is the fact that, as in all things, the reality of civil rights does not match the ideal. But the proper response isn’t to tear down the ideal, but to act constructively when we see it violated.

King was assassinated in 1968. But some of his contemporaries lived long enough to see the way that his ideas were mangled. The Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker (1928-2018), a leading civil rights activist, and one of King’s closest confidants, spoke out against Critical Race Theory in 2015, years before CRT went mainstream in schools and bestselling books. “Today, too many ‘remedies’—such as Critical Race Theory, the increasingly fashionable post-Marxist/postmodernist approach that analyzes society as institutional group power structures rather than on a spiritual or one-to-one human level—are taking us in the wrong direction,” he wrote in a co-authored article. “[These ideas] separat[e] even elementary school children into explicit racial groups, and emphasizing differences instead of similarities.”

The difference between the civil rights movement and CRT isn’t one of degree or shade. It’s foundational. Proponents of the former believe America can transcend Her flaws and sins, while the latter presents those flaws and sins as a pretext to destroy its liberal soul. One side pursues equality and progress, while the other makes a fetish of oppression and division. It’s easy to see which path leads to a brighter future for our country.

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