What’s Wrong With CRT?

Human society and human interactions are complex phenomena. To view them through a single lens is the worst sort of reductionism and rarely provides a true picture. Karl Marx and his followers looked at human action through the lens of class alone and for this reason Marxist analysis consistently proves to be flawed.

The most convenient lens for examining human action recently is race. It has become commonplace to claim that the United States is fundamentally unjust because of “systemic” racism. This is a central claim of critical race theory (CRT).

Contrary to the claims of some of its defenders, CRT is not simply a benign academic theory that marks another milestone in the advancement of civil rights for African Americans. I believe one of the main reasons that some dismiss concerns about the destructiveness of CRT is that they confuse it with “critical thinking,” an educational concept that stresses reason, the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking, and understanding the logical connection between ideas.

If CRT were a species of critical thinking, that would be fine. But it isn’t. Instead, it is a species of what Marx called “kritik,” which in the guise of “critical theory,” rejects the validity of rationality and objective truth. For Marxists, critical theory has a distinctive aim: to unmask the ideology that justifies some form of social or economic oppression—to reveal it as ideology. Critical theory posits two categories: oppressed and oppressors. In Marx’s original formulations, the lens was economic class. The bourgeoisie was the oppressor class and the proletariat were the oppressed.

A 20th-century sect called the Frankfurt School—which included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas, following in the steps of Antonio Gramscideveloped and refined this Marxian project, expanding its application beyond economic class. Thus, CRT as a subset of critical theory substitutes race for class. According to CRT, the entire system of a society is defined by those who have power (whites) and those who don’t (people of color).

As such, CRT cannot be seen as just a contribution to expanded civil rights. It is fundamentally at odds with the principles that underpinned all advances in the rights of black Americans, from the Civil War constitutional amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964: that all Americans should be treated equally, regardless of race, color, creed, or religion. These are philosophically linked to the Declaration of Independence, which holds that human beings are equal in their possession of natural rights and that, accordingly, no one has the natural right to rule over another without the latter’s consent.

But CRT attacks the American founding. Advocates of CRT do not wish to fulfill the promises of the American founding, which they regard as racist. Instead, they want to replace the principles of the founding with something radically different, for instance, replacing such concepts as “equality” with “equity” and subverting the meaning of “justice.”

As far as learning about CRT, that’s fine as long as it is treated as a real “theory,” subject to testing and falsification. That is the essence of a theory. A good theory accomplishes at a minimum, two things: it explains phenomena; and it predicts future outcomes. If a theory accomplishes these two things, it can also serve as the basis for policy prescriptions. But CRT fails on the first criterion. It denigrates African Americans by stripping them of all agency or free will. According to CRT, blacks are simply inanimate objects, ciphers who are victims of forces over which they have no control. Nothing could be more demeaning to an entire group of American citizens, many of whom have risen to high status, than the claim that they are helpless victims of impersonal forces.

So how does CRT account for the election of Barack Obama to the presidency? If CRT is true, how did Colin Powell become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff several years ago? If CRT is true, how did Lloyd Austin become secretary of defense? Of course, the reality is that African Americans have had to overcome racial prejudice and bigotry to achieve what they have but the fact that they did excel would seem to falsify CRT if it is indeed a useful theory.

But CRT’s shortcomings as a theory are also illustrated by the fact that it cannot be questioned. The normal methods of testing a hypothesis are not permitted when it comes to CRT, which employs a rhetorical tool developed by the neo-Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, called “repressive tolerance.” According to Marcuse, to tolerate all ideas—the essence of reasonable discourse that traditionally has defined the mission of education—is, in fact, repressive, since it does not “privilege” the “correct” ideas. True tolerance, Marcuse argued, “would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” 

Adopting Marcuse’s logic, CRT brooks no dissent. To argue against CRT is itself fundamentally racist, evidence of the dissenter’s “white fragility,” “unconscious bias,” or “internalized white supremacy.” Thus rather than offering a perspective that invites debate, CRT “education” is essentially ideological indoctrination. 

Some suggest that opposition to CRT is motivated by a desire to whitewash American history. That history should be taught—both the good and the bad. But perspective matters. Slavery is America’s original sin, yet when the United States was founded in 1776, slavery was a worldwide phenomenon. America’s founding principles made the abolition of slavery a moral imperative. Jim Crow was indeed a terrible stain on America, especially as it was nationalized by Progressives such as President Woodrow Wilson. The Tulsa Massacre must never be forgotten.

But teaching our history honestly is not the same thing as the CRT program to which American institutions are now genuflecting. Its radical dogma seeks to unmake America entirely. For those who appreciate irony, CRT is nothing more than a return to 1850s-style racism as espoused by John Calhoun and Chief Justice Roger Taney in his infamous Dred Scott decision. It is divisive; it fosters racial hatred by trafficking in racial stereotypes, collective guilt, racial segregation and race-based harassment. It rejects Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hope that we should be judged, not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.

Of course, racism exists. Racial prejudice, which is a different phenomenon, also exists. But Americans of good will strive to rise above our prejudices. We live in a country founded on principles that reject the concept of racial superiority. Living up to those principles, not embracing the pernicious doctrine of CFT, is the best antidote to racial problems in this country. 

About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: Martin Simon-Pool/Getty Images

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