A Conservative (Liberal) Mind on Critical Race Theory

UPDATE: So this one actually took off. Thank you to all those who read, and liked it enough to clap. Thanks to Tee Em and Frank Font for some particularly kind and thoughtful responses in the comment section. Above all, my gratitude goes to the founder of the feast, Stranger at the Gate, who (some time ago) wrote up this gracious response to the response.

First thing’s first. This is in no way meant to be the definitive conservative take on Critical Race Theory. As the bracketed afterthought in the title suggests, I don’t even consider myself conservative without caveat. Conservatism to me is practical, pragmatic and relative to time and place. Less an ideology than a disposition, conservatives seek to manage the constant tectonic shifts in Western society by preserving what is good. And what is good about Western society in a nutshell is its freedom; in other words, that Western society is liberal. So we conserve liberalism. Do I contradict myself?

The title reflects the nature of this piece, a response to a typically thought-provoking entry on the always excellent blog A Stranger at the Gate, entitled ‘The Conservative Mind on Institutional Justice’. The second important proviso — more important than the first — is that having marvelled at the talents of this writer for so long, it is simply a privilege to at last feel vaguely qualified to have something to write in reply. As he modestly says in the piece, writing on politics is a departure from his usual fields of religion and scriptural exegesis (and some stunning poetry on those themes).

The anonymous writer, describing himself as a Singaporean Christian on a journey for a “better faith”, writes of his bafflement at the resistance from conservatives of all stripes — yes, all — against efforts to make lasting amends for the “institutional sin” of racism. He defines institutional sin as:

“a structural crime perpetrated and encouraged by conscious or subconscious social structures and norms,”

…as opposed to individual sin, which are “isolated acts of evil” like robbery or murder.

And the jeremiad calling out this harmatia? Critical Race Theory, the controversial academic movement and recently the (apparent but unnamed) subject of a condemnatory resolution by the Southern Baptist Convention, the catalyst for the writer’s ire.

It’s easy to see why the well-meaning, truth-seeking Christianity of our ‘Stranger at the Gate’ might well see Critical Race Theory as an equally well-meaning, truth-seeking ally on the road to institutional justice. That he so readily reaches for the label ‘sin’ is itself a neat encapsulation of the parallels between Christian theology and postmodern racial discourse, and I, as someone who believed in the ‘Tom Holland school’ of Christian history before Holland himself did, am more than happy to acknowledge the Christian ancestor of the ‘Great Awokening’.

Doesn’t CRT take an essentially Christian preoccuption with individual sin and apply it to the level of institution and society? Surely we must acknowledge sin to gain absolution, whether individual or societal, whether from judgement divine or secular.

And for us conservatives, in shining a light on persistent toxins in the body politic, doesn’t CRT simply provide a helpful corrective, of the kind we can learn from and whose more moderate recommendations we can, in time, integrate into policy and law? James Kanagasooriam caused quite a stir last month by arguing conservatives are actually pretty good at this. If we are to take pride in our institutions as every conservative believes is at least desirable, then it follows that we must bear some proportionate share of guilt and shame too. We also tend to believe that institutions are more than just bricks and mortar — or gowns and mortarboards, or whatever the case may be; that they in some sense have a life.

But so do ideas. As Jordan Peterson put it somewhere in Rule 7,

“an idea that grips a person is alive. It wants to express itself, to live in the world”

I will forever defer to Stranger at the Gate on matters scriptural but I’m not satisfied that we can reduce CRT to “simply a framework” for identifying institutional sin/racism. In fact, I doubt that “simple” enters into it.

So… what is it?

CRT is an offshoot of critical theory, itself of that amorphous postmodern thinking to which there is a distinctly gnostic character. Stephen Sawchuck, in the fairest account of the CRT controversy stateside that I could find, points out that

“much scholarship on CRT is written in academic language or published in journals not easily accessible to K-12 teachers.” [That’s primary and secondary education teachers, for us in the Old World]

This dovetails with accounts from CRT practitioners themselves. Gary Peller writes that CRT:

“describes the diverse work of a small group of scholars who write about the shortcomings of conventional civil rights approaches to understanding and transforming racial power in American society. It’s a complex critique that wouldn’t fit easily into a K-12 curriculum. Even law students find the ideas challenging; we ourselves struggle to put it in understandable terms.”

But this candid definition seems to fall short of capturing the full nature of his discipline. Peller was among a group of editors of the definitive 1995 volume Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed a Movement.

Wait, what?

The Key Writings that Formed a Movement.

Featuring a foreword by the philosopher and activist Cornell West which describes CRT as a “politically committed movement”, the book partly outlines the origins of CRT, borne of (you guessed it) a split among legal students of a school of thought called Critical Legal Studies, holding that Western laws are created as means to maintain the status quo. Dissident black students had become disillusioned with the class-based framework that the “crits” — of the “predominantly white left” in Crenshaw’s words — treating race and racism as mere sideshows the world-historial class conflict. The radical breakout group, becoming known as the “race crits” sought to replace the “colorblindness” of their erstwhile comrades with a progressive “colorconsciousness”. More recently Peller explains:

“We reject ‘colorblindness’ as an ideal because being conscious about race is the only way to tell whether the situation of the Black community is improving or not. As appealing as colorblindness might sound to some, it’s also dangerous: It can lull decision-makers, wrongly, to assume that once they no longer explicitly discriminate along racial lines in admissions or hiring, then racial power no longer plays a part in social life.”

This then is the thinking behind such titles as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists (2013). The Afro-Porto Rican sociologist argues that whites in the US form a “social collectivity” which promotes an ostensibly “colourblind ideology” that unconsciously justifies the “racial status quo” in four main ways:

  • ‘abstract liberalism’: Western individualism enables whites to continue making choices that contribute to a racially unequal society e.g. living in majority-white areas
  • naturalisation: the argument that it a level of racial inequity is natural and inevitable e.g. living in majority-white areas is simply ‘like gravitating towards like’
  • cultural racism: the stereotyping of racial groups as an explanation of their marginalisation, rather than racist discrimination e.g. blacks/Mexicans/Muslims/etc. don’t have a culture that values work
  • minimisation of racism: simply the argument that racial discrimination has been largely solved as a problem, therefore cannot be the primary explanation for continued disparities

There are some valid points here. Perhaps I am guilty of minimisation of racism myself. I’m certainly more likely to be found pointing out the progress made against racism — in the UK, at least — than pointing the way toward progress yet to be made. Although most data I see tends to confirm my inclinations — not least university entrance, which if anything displays far more concerning stats for white working class boys — but I am not above being shocked out of complacency. For instance, the consistent evidence that African and Middle Eastern-sounding names on CVs are less likely to be called to interview…and more likely when candidates “whiten” their names. Furthermore, the one conservative explanation of this I have heard — that there is a natural, not necessarily racist, bias toward working with those whom we are culturally similar — sounds very much like the naturalisation justification identified by Bonilla-Silva.

I do wonder however about a programme that raises such constructive points, yet places them secondary or tertiary to a critique of individualism. It is surely unfortunate at best for a top thinker belonging to a movement accused of being neo-Marxist to place its — quite possibly legitimate — doubts about a core Western value so high on the hitlist?

Well no. It’s not unfortunate. Because scepticism of the liberal values of the West is as integral to CRT as its race-consciousness.

Write Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2017):

Unlike traditional approaches to civil rights, which stress incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

Peller:

“Rather than seeing “racism” as an irrational deviation from rationality, we began to explore how liberal categories of reason and neutrality themselves might bear the marks of history and struggle, including racial and other forms of social power.”

Crenshaw wrote in Key Writings that Formed a Movement that a “progressive racial politics” necessitated a breakaway from the “liberal legalist tradition that viewed law as an apolitical mediator of racial conflict”, and Mari Matsuda of “the falsity of the liberal promise” in an essay on Critical Legal Studies and reparations.

CRT takes the divisive class-based reading of power structures and morphs it into a divisive race-based reading of power structures. But not only that, it attacks the very idea that those power structures contain the means of their own reform; in other words, that mission to ever-strive towards a more perfect union.

Yes, CRT — along with all Marxist and Deconstructionist movements — has the United States of America in its sights.

Just look at the 1619 Project. Beginning in an August issue of The New York Times in 2019, its stated goal is to “reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year” — 1619 being the first year a slave trading ship landed on what would become US shores. The Project set out to contend among other things that racism and the maintenance of slavery was in fact the primary casus belli in the War of Independence, not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The first edition featured ten essays indicting the US founding ideals and the whole society as racist, and blaming modern American ills such as polarised politics, lack of universal healthcare and even traffic jams on the nation’s Original Sin of racialism. Just one of the essays was written by a historian. The Project has come under vociferous criticism from numerous historians including on the pages of the World Socialist Web Site and to its credit, the NYT. Allen Guelzo, Senior Research Scholar at Princeton, denounced it as a conspiracy theory.

Unsurprisingly, 1619's founder, NYT journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, defended CRT as “not radical if you actually know what it is”, because the idea “that race is embedded in the law and our nation’s institutions is simply historical fact”. She has also — points for honesty — said that the Project is not a historical one, but a “fight…about who gets to control the narrative”.

And yet — just over a month before the killing of George Floyd — the 1619 Project Curriculum, developed in collaboration with that famed repository of historical expertise the Pulitzer Centre, entered US schools.

If anyone wants to know what conservatives are so het up about, that’s just the type of thing. If an agenda with no claim whatsoever to the discipline it presents itself as can make its merry way into the classroom within months of its launch, there is a serious problem.

Now this isn’t necessarily to defend the way Republicans have gone about combatting the problem. Sawchuk points out that the anti-CRT bills in Iowa, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee and elsewhere are “so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover” with implications for overall quality of teaching, free expression and even their own constitutional viability.

I will refrain from comment as that is not thefocus here. With race relations not being as fraught here in the UK as in the US, we can hold reasonable hope that it is not a battle we will have to fight. Stranger at the Gate graciously credits British society as “a model for the world as a society capable of self-reflection” and possessing “a powerful social mechanism for addressing social injustices within”. As I said before, there is no sense in complacency, but it won’t surprise anyone that I think he’s called that one (essentially) right.

But I do invite him to consider. The British Conservative Party — rotten and cynical as it in many ways is — has been in government in the UK for 46 of the 73 years since the Empire Windrush first brought West Indian Britons to Tilbury Dock in June 1948. Not everything is down to government of course, and many reforms happen despite rather than because of, but could he really imagine Britain as a model of self-reflection if all those Conservatives in positions of power had been simply a clique of heel-digging, narrow-minded, one-track reactionaries? The Conservative Cabinet right now is the most ethnically diverse in European history.

But it isn’t just the UK. To look back at where the story started, the Southern Baptist Convention, set up in 1845 to support slaveholding missionaries, might be seen as a convenient pharisaical Disney villain in a redemptive showdown. But that would elide that their history too shows them heeding the better angels of their nature, repudiating the sins of slavery and racism, promoting black worship leaders and calling on Christians to stop flying the Confederate flag.

As I said at the beginning, when self-identifying politically I find it helpful to tag ‘liberal’ on the end ‘conservative’ to remind myself of what it is I generally wish to conserve, the gains and benefits of a free society. But I will tend to take my chances with even a blunter sort of conservatism if I think it’s set its sights on a deserving target.

My final appeal to Stranger at the Gate — if he’s followed my ramblings up to this point — is that it isn’t just conservatives who are concerned about CRT. Great names of the American liberal establishment — Bill Maher, Andrew Sullivan, Bret Weinstein, Bari Weiss — are aware of the ideological challenge it poses. I call on Stranger at the Gate and all those who stand in that fine tradition to join them, because when a movement that repudiates not only Martin Luther King’s Dream of being judged not by the colour of your skin, but also the faith of a Frederick Douglass in the greatness of the Founding Fathers — despite their human hypocrisies — then it isn’t just conservatives that should be standing up to it.

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Jason Plessas

Jason Plessas

Writer & actor. Conservative liberalism. Generous orthodoxy. (For everything else, there’s Blu-Tac.)