On the Debate Around Critical Race Theory

I like a lot of the points the author made in this NYT opinion piece about the dubious purpose and primary trends in the debate over Critical Race Theory. I, for one, have been quite guilty of being what she refers to as “anti-anti-CRT”, because of how often I’ve seen tribally-aligned opponents use what I see as inaccurate and misleading definitions and found myself falling into a mode of defense of an actually quite vaguely defined field of study, which means that its critics are free to lump in extreme views that I might not agree with and consider my opposition to their over-simplifications a defense of basically everything they’ve decided to label CRT… often including a number of things that CRT most definitely is not.

I recently saw someone say that Ibram X. Kendi defined racism as “any system that produces unequal outcomes”. I saw this as an obvious straw man, despite having not read Kendi’s book, because I’ve never seen any intelligent person define racism this uncarefully… did a quick search, and found that Kendi defined it multiple times using the term “equitable” rather than “equal” which is a pretty enormous distinction and far less difficult to get on board with. If you’re not up to speed–Inequity refers to unfair, avoidable differences arising from poor governance, corruption or cultural exclusion, while inequality simply refers to uneven distribution. I was simply dismissed. That’s how most of these interactions go. Some cling to ungenerous definitions that help them maintain an existing worldview, and supporters of the target terms often don’t share those definitions, making heated exchanges largely unproductive and often meaningless.

It’s an impossible conversation, when you’re discussing these things with people who are more bent on winning than understanding…

I am a student of sociology. Don’t worry… that doesn’t mean I agree with every sociologist ever. I also believe that Critical Theory is a powerful and useful sociological lens through which to describe and analyze social systems. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean I’m a “Marxist” despite the fact that Critical Theory historically derived from (in part) some of Karl Marx’s theories on social structures (often diverging significantly from his theories and prescriptive approaches on economy and governance). It also doesn’t mean I agree with every scholar in the field of Critical Theory. One of my favorite theorists from the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, describes what I believe as an idealized way to view the role of the “public sphere” in democracy, a topic which I am still studying. If Critical Theory can be described as “Marxist”, then how can Critical Theorists like Habermas help us better understand society and governance in a democracy? The answer is that when pundits use the term “Marxist”, they’re just trying to scare you, relying on your mental model of Marx as anti-American or anti-democratic and without contextualizing it, their audience is not actually equipped to understand what it means in sociological terms. This is why you may have seen me shouting about how using the term “Marxist” to describe CRT is misleading… because I think that honest communication involves using words that your audience understands and not using terms you know they will misunderstand without adding highly necessary context. The argument that anything with even a tiny drop of Marx’s influence is bound to result in radically advocating an uprising to seize the means of production falls into what’s called the “genetic fallacy”… and it’s a fallacy. I believe in the usefulness of some theories and critical methods that are derived from Marx’s works, and yet I still have positive views about the power of competitive markets such as we support, maintain, and modulate in a capitalist economy. How is that possible? Critical Theory has roots in just some of Marx’s theories (with Marx not being the only influence) while being critical of others… and by the way the “slippery slope” is also a fallacy.

I have found quite a lot of very worthwhile critiques of social structures in materials in and around the field of CRT, and thus I interpret the field generously. I believe in systemic racism, and that those who don’t are misunderstanding and misled. I can still empathize with people who don’t believe in systemic racism… because I also didn’t actually understand it until I read The New Jim Crow, which gave me the insight that I was personally unequipped to understand or appreciate how it manifests because of my background and position. If you think that we all can see the entire system from wherever we occupy it… then you’re misunderstanding something fundamental about complex systems–they can only be accurately described from multiple vantage points. Interestingly… this ties in pretty directly to Habermas’s theories of the public sphere.

I recommend you check out the linked article from the NYT at the beginning of this post describing the origins and dynamics of the CRT debate. I have seen my own reflexive tendencies reflected in it and it made me sad how susceptible we all are to the socio-political machinations of bad actors.

I have one final thing to add, however, and that is that cultural movements require strategic, if not purely theoretical, alignment. On ethical issues like civil rights and racial equity, it should be obvious that progress is more important than pure ideological alignment. The most powerful movements often have to find where their interests align with those with differing perspectives. I will have the tendency to fall on one side of this debate, despite being a free thinker and the fact that I might not have pure theoretical alignment with everybody pushing the same direction as me. There are severe and embedded inequities in this system, and if you are not aware of that fact, I encourage you to diversify your sources. I hate to bring up the old clichĂ© of the “wrong side of history” but some things are like that. Social structures have embedded survival mechanisms, and your anchored belief in their inherent correctness might actually be one of them. If you’re using logic to defend an unjust status quo, it ultimately doesn’t matter how sound your logic is. Obsession with ideological purity or accuracy is a sign that you’re focused on the wrong things and I see a lot of people privileged enough to not be directly affected by these issues really enjoying their ability to criticize both sides and thus feel like they’re really here to advocate for “reason” as unhelpful bystanders. You can logically nitpick either side, because any collection of views will be full of assertions that could be critiqued. I think the more important question is “What direction are you pushing?”

This is probably why the most effectual and helpful commenters are not spending too much time on the CRT debate, because it’s an effectively and strategically employed distraction from the actual issues at hand. It is sucking us into painful, stressful, heated confrontations about things that are now ambiguous enough for each side to feel like their position is obvious.

Keep doing the work, but don’t let clever propogandists or those who insist on ungenerous definitions decide what that work will be.

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