Not CRT but critical thinking about race

Over the fold a piece I wrote on the Critical Race Theory panic. I took my time and I think everything has been said by now, but readers might like to discuss it anyway. There’s an earlier version here

The latest round in the seemingly endless culture wars in the US, now rapidly spread to satellite states like Australia, concerns Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT has a lot in common with previous bogeys, including cultural Marxism, socialism, postmodernism and, on the left, neoliberalism. All of these terms refer to ideas that were influential, at least in some circles, in the 20th century. All have been used as generalized pejoratives, applied to just about anything the user doesn’t like.

But not all of these pejoratives are the same. While plenty of people know they should dislike cultural Marxism and postmodernism, few have any real idea what they are, beyond ‘things I don’t like’. While these terms referred to real intellectual movements, no one who was not deeply familiar with 20th century thought could infer their meaning from the label.

Indeed, despite the fundamental hostility of postmodernists to ‘grand narratives’ like Marxism, most users of these words as pejoratives think of them as synonymous. The same is true of neoliberalism, with extra confusion generated by the fact that, in terms of economic policy, ‘liberal’ has a meaning in the US that is more or less the opposite to its meaning elsewhere. Most of the time people who use these terms have no idea what they are talking about.

By contrast, although terms like ‘socialist’ are grossly overused, there is a general understanding that socialism is state intervention to control the economy. To those who object that this is an oversimplification of a complex idea, the best answer is that words mean what people use and understand them to mean. For that reason, it makes more sense to own the term and fight back, as the Democratic Socialists of America have done, than to engage in quibbles about whether, say, single-payer health insurance is really socialism. And,long before the emergence DSA, Forbes magazine proudly pronounced itself a ‘capitalist tool’, largely defanging the use of ‘capitalist’ as a loose pejorative.

Where does CRT fit into all this ? In its capitalized form, CRT is a body of academic literature arising out of critical legal realism in the 1970s and enmeshed in late 20th century controversies around the role of Theory (with a capital T) in the humanities. As well as making claims about systemic racism, CRT incorporated a large dose of the epistemological and ethical relativism that used to be fashionable on the left (it’s now much more prevalent on the right).

Outside the academic circles from which it emerged, hardly anyone has the expertise to mount a coherent critique of CRT, or, for that matter, a coherent defence.

By contrast, while few people understand the nuances of CRT, it’s pretty clear what the argument is about. Based on its actual use, and dropping the capitals, critical race theory means nothing more, or less, than criticism of the way American society has dealt with race, and, in particular, criticism that makes white people uncomfortable. This criticism is equally unwelcome whether it is stated in terms of ‘systemic racism’ or as the suggestion that many or most white Americans hold racist views (implicitly or explicitly)

On this view, responding to the debate over critical race theory depends on whether these ideas deserve an airing. If you believe, as the vast majority of US Republicans do, that the main problem with racism is ‘seeing discrimination where it does not exist’, it is obvious that critical discussion of race is only going to make matters worse

Conversely, if you believe that the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites, this is an issue which urgently requites critical discussion. Failing to discuss critical race theory, in schools and elsewhere, amounts to ignoring issues that are central to all kinds of social conflict, in the US and many other countries.The correct response to rightwing attacks on CRT is not to say that the critics don’t know what they are talking about. They know perfectly well what they are talking about, which is why they want to suppress it, and why they should be resisted head-on.

8 thoughts on “Not CRT but critical thinking about race

  1. The grand narrative of the postmodernists is that there is no grand narrative (with any validity). This fails, of course, to the liar paradox.

  2. “This criticism is equally unwelcome whether it is stated in terms of ‘systemic racism’ or as the suggestion that many or most white Americans hold racist views (implicitly or explicitly).”
    Can a view be implicit? I suggest it may be better to distinguish between conscious and unconscious bias. The second is what mostly links individuals to systemic racism and other forms of discrimination. The conscious me is all for equality and understanding. I’m far less confident about my subconscious. Perhaps I interrupt women more than men, or am surprised when a PhD turns out to be black. This sort of thing should not be cause for shame, as it’s universal, but it does call for work.

  3. +1 James re subconscious.

    Fun evidence of OP;

    “Do any Republicans actually know what critical race theory is? Unsolved Mysteries (MAGA Edition) investigates

    “Republicans are past Dr. Seuss books, now focusing their fury on critical race theory. They say it teaches children to hate America and are fighting to keep it out of schools. But, of course, the fact-denying GOP is clueless about such (and all) matters. And that’s where the unsolved mystery lies.

    “”Critical race theory. It’s made conservatives so mad, they’ve temporarily forgotten about Ilhan Omar,” the Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr. says in this week’s “MAGA Edition” of Unsolved Mysteries. “But … one can’t help but wonder: Does literally anyone on the right actually know what critical race theory is?”

    “Watch as Wood hopelessly tries to make sense of a political party that thinks critical race theory is “a religion of secularism and guilt,” “the denial of critical thinking,” “a device to capture white guilt,” “teaching people to hate our country,” … And the icing on the cake: “It’s not even about race.”

    “He gives it his best shot, but some mysteries are too big for even Roy Wood Jr. to solve.”

    “Unsolved Mysteries – Do Republicans Know What Critical Race Theory Is?

  4. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley says yes to no caps crt.

    “Gen. Milley deserves no applause for his defense of critical race theory
    “Out of line.

    “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley got way out of line Wednesday, scolding members of Congress while defending the inclusion of ultra-progressive racialist literature in military curricula.

    “The moment, which took place during a congressional hearing, occurred after Republican lawmakers pressed the general on the extent to which members of the military are exposed to critical race theory. Republican Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, a National Guard colonel and former Green Beret, asked specifically whether West Point cadets were really asked to attend a seminar on “white rage.”

    Milley responded with an answer that was as self-righteous as it was emotional. Neither is appropriate for a man in his position.

    “A lot of us have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is,” the nation’s highest-ranking military officer said. “But I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read.”

    “He added, “… and I want to understand white rage. And I’m white, and I want to understand it. So, what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out.”

    “That Milley apparently believes critical race theory will help him better understand the events of Jan. 6 is ridiculous — and revealing in its own right. Also, depending on how you interpret his remarks, Milley comes awfully close to endorsing the establishment of a Jan. 6 commission, which, if this was indeed his intent, is extremely inappropriate.

    “The general added, “I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read ― I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin ― that doesn’t make me a communist.”

    “This, by the way, is what we call a motte-and-bailey. …”

  5. Postmodernism and crt and, we are all pomohobes now?

    pomo +‎ -phobia, possibly as a play onhomophobia.
    pomophobia (uncountable)
    An aversion to postmodernism or postmodernists.”

    “How postmodernism became the universal scapegoat of the era

    “The irrational fear of the “pomo”, or pomophobia, has claimed minds from across the political spectrum.

    “Before asking what postmodernism is, it is worth clarifying what it isn’t. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) did not “pioneer” postmodernism. He would not even have described himself as a postmodernist. In its post-Second World War inception, “postmodern” was principally an aesthetic category, referring to literary and architectural forms that superseded the formal ambition of modernism. Only in the 1970s did “postmodernity” acquire social and political content, inasmuch as the postmodern world was thought to be post-industrial, beyond class conflict, and increasingly beyond left and right. Far from exhorting a militant confrontation with “societal power structures”, early postmodernists tended to be sceptical of left-wing politics.

    “Yet while Sokal and Bricmont at least engaged with their opponents’ ideas at some level, many critics no longer feel the need to do so. It is sufficient for Kakutani, Peterson or Truss to knowingly mention the term “postmodernism”, for many people to assume they know what they are talking about. Recently, a number of right-wing culture war entrepreneurs have engaged in a similar credential-building exploitation of slightly obscure references. Consider conservative documentarian Christopher Rufo, who appeared on Fox News in September last year claiming to possess insider knowledge about the dangers posed by “critical race theory”, a gambit that worked because of his audience’s clickbait-driven appetite for scandal. One might call it disinfotainment. The overall effect of this is to tranquillise thought, stifling curiosity with bullying appeals to the obvious. And as mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg warned in the wake of Sokal, “sometimes the obvious is the enemy of the true”.

    “Most worrying of all, however, is the countersubversive edge of contemporary pomo-bashing. As with the attack on critical race theory, there is an element of “shooting the messenger”: blaming critical theory for the social problems it diagnoses. Where postmodern intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard have described a collapse of the “reality principle” as “socialisation is measured by the exposure to media messages”, pomophobes like D’Ancona have accused them of hastening this process.

    “”The culture war against postmodernism is conducted in the spirit of inquisition, whether postmodernism is deemed an obscurantist attack on truth, or a neo-Marxist attempt to “deconstruct” the West (as right-wing Australian news anchor Chris Uhlmann once complained). The logic appears to be that these left-wing intellectuals are always complaining,  criticising, dividing people and undermining our self-confidence. They’re always doing us down. The crises in political trust, in traditional gender norms, in scientific consensus, and in the historical self-image and self-belief of modern states, are all the fault of these postmodernists, critical race theorists and “cultural Marxists”. If only something could be done about them.”

  6. I thought a pomophobe was somebody who on principle will only buy an Android smartphone.

  7. Pomo was mostly motte-and-bailey – strong statements implying no difference between science and astrology, with a retreat to something more like “scientists are fallible humans:” under pressure. As Latour recognised, it help to smooth the path of climate denial (and later of Trumpism).

  8. Although I am skeptical that we will really get anywhere much, I think it is – or could be – healthy to have more discussion of our divides, here in the US. (I am not sure we are actually “discussing” yet – we may still just be in the emoting stage. Or playacting. Or, warming up. Or … ?) Something else will probably come up before much actual progress happens.

    I do see many rhetorical excesses happening, and if I had a kid in school, I’d be watching closely. There really is a lot of New Left weirdness happening here. Sorry but it’s true. (Also … biases aren’t just for Anglo-derived folks. You guys know that right?) Still, it is a chore to comtemplate all the ugliness in history, and it is good if our teachers make us do it. CRT itself may be a red herring, but there are a lot of important topics and we should try to get the facts straight.

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