Critical Witchcraft Theory

It was good enough for William Stoughton in 1692. Stoughton was the chief justice who presided over the Salem witchcraft trials that sent 20 people to their deaths. What was good enough for Stoughton was “spectral evidence,” which referred to the testimony of witnesses as to what they had seen in their dreams. If a witness said that he dreamed of a neighbor engaging in witchcraft, Stoughton’s court admitted that as evidence against the neighbor. 

Not everyone in 17th-century Massachusetts thought this was a good idea. Cotton Mather, the colony’s leading theologian, thought spectral evidence was useful but insufficient. Cotton Mather’s father, Increase Mather, the president of Harvard, thought spectral evidence was untrustworthy as it might have been planted by demons. It took the royal governor, William Phips, to outlaw spectral evidence altogether in legal proceedings.

But that ruling, of course, couldn’t banish the readiness of people to believe accusations supported by no shred of real evidence. Contemporary Americans tend to scoff at the credulousness of those Puritans in Salem who leveled deadly accusations based on the phantoms of their own imaginations. But here we are, in the age of critical race theory, still doing it. 

CRT is based on the claim that an insidious, pervasive, but invisible force inhabits all Americans and American institutions. This invisible force exists outside the conscious experience of those who harbor it. Those purveyors of systemic racism are its hapless servants who believe in their own innocence as much as poor Sarah Good did when she got her chance to testify at the Salem trials. (“I’m no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink,” said Sarah when found guilty—the detail around which Nathaniel Hawthorne constructed The House of the Seven Gables.)

Denying one’s complicity in witchcraft, of course, was expected of witches. Their denials meant nothing in the ensuing trials. But in some ways the courts in Salem were less inclined to impetuous judgments than many of the advocates of today’s critical race theory. Cotton Mather, consulted after the first wave of Salem executions (Tituba, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Bridget Bishop) warned that “there is need of a very critical and exquisite caution, lest by too much credulity for things received only upon the Devil’s authority, there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences, and Satan get an advantage over us.” Cotton Mather was, however, still in favor of “the speedy and vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious.” 

His view lay not far from how Ibram X. Kendi views systemic racism: “one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known . . . There is nothing I see in the world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over the world of equity.” Kendi’s perspective, consistent with Puritan theology, is that this world has been given over to the corruptions of the infernal powers. 

No doubt enough ink has been spilled and pixels deployed by critics of Kendian “antiracism” to establish the circularity of his reasoning. Failure to endorse his edicts, in Kendi’s views, is itself racist. His message has been redoubled by Robin DiAngelo, and a host of others who seem to believe that they have been handed a profound insight into how our world works. Superficially this is a sociological insight, but to the extent that sociology is a real discipline dependent upon careful and critical analysis of empirical evidence, “systemic racism” is not a sociological theory. It is theology, or more precisely it is a demonology: a theory of witchcraft. It has no proof that “systemic racism” exists in modern American society. All it has is a Salem-esque panic based on the pseudo-authoritative declaration that it exists. 

We cannot, of course, prove that systemic racism does not exist, any more than we can prove that witches don’t exist. The West Indian slave Tibuba, the first Salemite to be accused, at first denied being a witch but subsequently acknowledged she had learned some occult practices in Barbados. And contemporary America has many self-professed wiccans. So in some sense witches do exist, but generally we allow these to be either harmless delusions or acts of self-advertisement. 

Systemic racism, by contrast, serves perfectly well as a realistic description of some societies, such as the antebellum states in which slavery was permitted. But today’s theorists of antiracism are faced with the difficulty that real systemic racism has disappeared from America. Individual racists can be spotted, i.e. people who loathe or at least dislike other people on the basis of race and behave towards those people with prejudice. But “systemic racism,” involving the complicity of law, the approval of society, the power of economics, and the reinforcement of culture is just gone. It was officially undone generations ago and we have since vigorously cleaned out its vestiges.

That leaves the proponents of systemic racism chasing after spectral evidence. They may not be able to see systemic racism with ordinary human eyes, but they “know” it is there and they have special magical eyes to see through its myriad disguises to the ugly truth beneath. William Stoughton and Cotton Mather would be proud of them. 

The rise and widespread acceptance within elite institutions of the theory of systemic racism may surprise many Americans who pride themselves on their secular rationality. We are past the age of credulous enthusiasms, or so we like to think. This is a time when we give highest authority to views that we elevate to the status of “science.” It is an amusing conceit, especially considering the ease with which ideologies that have very weak scientific foundations—or none at all—manage to appropriate the name of science for whatever collection of suppositions and spurious inferences they wish to sell. 

“Climate change” is perhaps one part science to 10 parts hysteria. The COVID-19 pandemic was real but was bundled and rebundled in lies, rumors, hocus-pocus, medical myth-making, and statistical illiteracy. There are probably very few widely attested beliefs among Americans that are not, in some significant ways, grounded in shared illusions. Few of those illusions, however, are as destructive as systemic racism, which invites America down a path of social division that makes old-fashioned witch trials look like the wholesome models of judicial restraint. 

I put Americans at the center of that last paragraph, but as an anthropologist who has read broadly in world ethnography, I will gladly forfeit any idea of American exceptionalism when it comes to readiness to credit the existence of witch-like malevolent powers. The power of invisible forces to torment mankind is a cultural universal. The exact forms of witchcraft accusations, protections against the hidden powers of undisclosed enemies, methods of discovery, punishments, and reprisals vary among sub-Saharan African societies, Inuits, Amazonians, Sri Lankans, and so on, but not the suspicion that sinister powers are at work. Atheistic societies are far from immune. Stalin and Mao had their equivalent imaginary categories of unseen wreckers and cultural traitors. 

Thus folks like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo are tapping into something very old and very human: our seemingly limitless capacity to project our fears onto monsters in the dark—monsters that wear the faces of our family members, friends, and neighbors—and worst of all, our own faces in the mirror. Perhaps that last element owes something to the legacy of Sigmund Freud, who warned us to beware the beast that lurks within. But even that idea has plenty of folk precedents in the ideas about possession by demons and the involuntary transformation of men into werewolves and the like. Kendi has given us the up-to-date theory of American werewolvery, with white people, one and all, cast as Canis lupus

To say that the conceit of systemic racism is a recrudescence of an ancient and broadly human kind of myth-making is not to excuse it. We should know our vulnerabilities and temptations, and we should draw on our civilized capacity to resist very bad but alluring ideas. Systemic racism allures because it grants an all-purpose excuse for the failures, disappointments, and unhappiness of American blacks, and it allures whites who long for the rewards of contriteness and penitence, which are no less real. Nor should we forget the opportunists of all races who see the chances of financial gain, social status, and political influence that come from indulging the new cult. 

Witchcraft crazes never end well—not for the accused, seldom for the accusers, and certainly not for the society that has permitted this temporary descent into madness. Where today is our William Phips, the governor who had the sense to put a stop to the orgy of hangings in a 17th-century New England village when the leading intellectual authorities would not? He has not stepped forward yet, but we can be confident he will. 

From the shape of things before us now, I don’t expect he will come from the church or the university. Both have absorbed the poison of imaginary guilt too deeply to provide the needed leadership. The business community is even more tainted. From where, then, should we look for our Phips? I don’t know, but I expect he will be someone who can call us back to our abiding ideals without spending too much time reminding us how foolish we have been in indulging these collective recriminations.

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