Critical Race Theory has a scholarship problem. Many of its most prominent academics impugn the motives of anyone who disagrees with them. They refuse to consider the possibility that critics might have something to add to the discussion.
In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado (one of the founders of CRT) and Jean Stefancic characterize opposition to CRT this way: “As Thomas Kuhn has shown, paradigms resist change. It should come as no surprise, then, that critical race theory, which seeks to change the reigning paradigm of civil rights thought, has sparked stubborn resistance.” This characterization serves to dismiss their critics; rather than admitting that critics might have ideas worth grappling with, the authors write them off as simply resistant to improving our civil rights.
In a chapter titled “Critiques and Responses to Criticism,” Delgado and Stefancic list only two criticisms of CRT that come from outside the movement. One questions CRT’s univariate analysis, and the other questions CRT’s assumption that minorities cannot succeed in light of the success in America of Jews and Asians. Each of these two criticisms—the sum total of all of the external critiques that Delgado and Stefancic would admit to or grapple with—elicited a paltry one-paragraph response. The first response asserted that the critic in question had performed an “unsympathetic reading” of CRT texts. The second said that CRT wasn’t racist against Jews and Asians (no, really).
Robin DiAngelo, perhaps the best-known Critical Race Theorist (or Crit, as they call themselves) today owing to the blockbuster success of White Fragility, takes this refusal to engage with critics to new lows. In White Fragility, she takes to task “white people who think they are not racist, or are less racist, or are in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘get it’” (that is, white people who disagree with the thesis of her book that we’re all unavoidably racist). These people, she asserts, “cause the most daily damage to people of color.” That is, if you disagree with DiAngelo’s argument, you’re part of the group that (at least according to her) does more daily damage to black Americans than the KKK.
This kind of blatant dismissal of critics might play well on Twitter, but it’s unbecoming for actual scholars. So why do Crits do this? The biggest reason is that the whole ideology is founded on a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” As Jacob Mackey, assistant professor of Classics at Occidental College, puts it, CRT is “dedicated to seeing hidden, ulterior, or unconscious motives as drivers of affairs.” This is an ideology founded on the idea that racism is systemic, that it lives in every interaction, and that it’s perpetuated by almost every member of the dominant race. That makes Crits inherently skeptical of the motives of anyone who disagrees with them. Or, as Mackey puts it, CRT “posits similar [hidden, ulterior, or unconscious] motives to individuals.”
The easiest place to see this is in Crits’ skepticism of the motives of whites. For Crits, all whites are oppressors. As Delgado and Stefancic put it, “racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained.” As such, “no white member of society seems quite so innocent.”
This skepticism of white motives is baked into a core component of CRT, the interest-convergence hypothesis. As described by Delgado and Stefancic, the interest-convergence hypothesis is the idea that “because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it.” According to this hypothesis, civil rights gains only come about when they’re good for white people, that is, when “civil rights gains for communities of color coincide with the dictates of white self-interest.”
What motivated whites to support the civil rights movement wasn’t horrifying pictures of black children in Birmingham being sprayed by fire hoses and attacked by dogs; whites (supposedly) didn’t care about that. Rather, what really motivated whites at the time was their own self-interest. In this telling of history, whites are borderline sociopathic, obsessed with our own self-interest, and uncaring of the plight of anyone whose skin contains a little melanin. No wonder Crits don’t trust the motives of white critics.
It’s not just whites, of course. Prominent Crits are skeptical of the motives of anyone with privilege. In Is Everyone Really Equal?, DiAngelo and coauthor Özlem Sensoy discuss the fact that children in poor schools often learn different things from children in affluent schools. Why doesn’t society address this imbalance? According to the authors, it’s because the children and parents in affluent schools don’t want to. “Because this system benefits the affluent child, she will be less invested in removing these barriers for others,” they write. “In fact, she (and those who advocate for her) will most often resist removing these barriers.” Got that? For DiAngelo and Sensoy, the reason that some schools aren’t very good is because children from affluent families are deliberately and maliciously hoarding their own privilege.
Some Crits have even published papers explaining why criticisms of CRT by people with privilege can be safely ignored. In an article published in the feminist journal Hypatia, Alison Bailey, a professor at Illinois State University, coins the term “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback” to invalidate criticism of Crits’ ideas. What is “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback?” Essentially, it’s “a form of worldview protection: a willful resistance to knowing that occurs predictably in discussions that threaten a social group’s epistemic home terrain.” It manifests as “barriers made of opinions and prejudices, which are fortified by anger, shame, guilt, indifference, arrogance, jealously [sic], pride, and sometimes silence.” Essentially, privileged people object to CRT because it threatens their privilege.
It’s true that people can often get defensive when their worldviews are challenged, but for Crits like Bailey, this defensiveness only ever goes one way. Privileged people who disagree with CRT are defensive and argue from self-interest, but Crits themselves (privileged or not) would never do something so base.
But what about minorities who happen to disagree with the tenets of CRT? What about folks like John McWhorter and Wilfred Reilly and Coleman Hughes among others? Here, too, Crits manage to dismiss any criticism by impugning the critics’ motives.
For prominent Crits, racism is endemic everywhere. At the National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University, Heather Bruce, Robin DiAngelo, Gyda Swaney (Salish), and Amie Thurber developed several core principles of anti-racism. One tenet is particularly revealing: “The question is not Did racism take place? but rather How did racism manifest in that situation?”
For Crits, because racism (and sexism, homophobia, etc.) is endemic and all-encompassing, it can easily seep down and affect the minds of minorities. This leads to “internalized oppression.” For DiAngelo and Sensoy, one symptom of internalized oppression is “Believing that your struggles with social institutions (such as education, employment, and health care) are the result of your (or your group’s) inadequacy, rather than the result of unequally distributed resources between dominant and minoritized groups.” So, if you’re a member of a minority who argues that your or your group’s struggles might have causes other than racism, then your beliefs can be safely ignored. You’re not thinking; you’re just mouthing words you think the dominant group wants to hear.
Indeed, Crits can be pretty dismissive of any member of a minority who has the temerity to disagree with them. Delgado and Stefancic call out members of minorities whose response to racism isn’t up to par; to them, they are simply “pretend(ing) that it didn’t happen” or pretending “that they ‘just let it roll off my back.’” God forbid that folks like Reilly or Hughes be allowed to say that racism isn’t the defining feature of their lives. When McWhorter published an Atlantic piece titled “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility,” DiAngelo hit back without even addressing his arguments: “I think that that is a disingenuous reading on the part of John McWhorter.”
Each of the above ideas represents a tool for dismissing the critiques of large groups of people, but it’s important to note that these tools are applied selectively. Whites who oppose CRT are “oppressors” engaging in “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback.” But whites who support CRT (even ones who make beaucoup bucks by doing so) are heroic “allies” using their privilege to bring attention to societal problems. Minorities who support CRT are speaking about their “lived experience.” Minorities who oppose CRT are suffering from “internalized oppression” and are merely pretending that racism doesn’t affect them. For many Crits, the true dividing line isn’t privileged people versus oppressed people; it’s people who agree with them versus people whose motives cannot be trusted.
The tragedy of all of this is that CRT does have some good ideas. Racism does exist in the United States. Some laws do have a racist component, especially in the criminal justice system. Intersectionality can be a useful tool to help understand certain forms of disadvantage. But too many Crits don’t see themselves as scholars searching for the truth. Instead, they see themselves as the anointed ones, in full ownership of the truth and chosen to dispense their wisdom from on high. Until they’re willing to grapple with the many sincere criticisms of their theory, their contributions to reducing racism will be limited. It’s hard to contribute to a good-faith discussion about how to solve a societal problem when your most prominent scholars won’t even admit to the existence of said discussion.