As unlikely as it seems, a highly obscure academic theory known as Critical Race Theory has completely mainstreamed in society, and now everyone is discussing it. While Critical Race Theory has the noble goal of pointing out problems that can be hard to see and that maintain or constitute racism, it turns out to be a remarkably bad way of going about this. A little familiarity with the basic principles of Critical Race Theory and how they go wrong can help with this.
Before I begin, I offer my apologies to the reader. Critical Race Theory has been growing for over 40 years, and it has many deep problems. Therefore, this is long, and still it is not nearly complete. Here, I document just eight of the biggest problems with the entire Critical Race Theory approach. Treat them as eight short essays on specific topics in Critical Race Theory and digest them one at a time. I offer them in the hopes of helping people understand it better so they can decide for themselves if Critical Race Theory is the way we should be dealing with race issues and racism in our society, or if we can genuinely do better.
Since this is so long: here’s the ‘too long; didn’t read’ bullet-point summary:
Critical Race Theory…
- believes racism is present in every aspect of life, every relationship, and every interaction and therefore has its advocates look for it everywhere
- relies upon “interest convergence” (white people only give black people opportunities and freedoms when it is also in their own interests) and therefore doesn’t trust any attempt to make racism better
- is against free societies and wants to dismantle them and replace them with something its advocates control
- only treats race issues as “socially constructed groups,” so there are no individuals in Critical Race Theory
- believes science, reason, and evidence are a “white” way of knowing and that storytelling and lived experience is a “black” alternative, which hurts everyone, especially black people
- rejects all potential alternatives, like colorblindness, as forms of racism, making itself the only allowable game in town (which is totalitarian)
- acts like anyone who disagrees with it must do so for racist and white supremacist reasons, even if those people are black (which is also totalitarian)
- cannot be satisfied, so it becomes a kind of activist black hole that threatens to destroy everything it is introduced into
1) Critical Race Theory believes racism is present in every aspect of life, every relationship, and every interaction.
Critical Race Theory begins from the assumption that racism is an ordinary part of every aspect of life in our societies. Foundational Critical Race Theory scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write, “First, that racism is ordinary, not aberrational—‘normal science,’ the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country,” on page 7 of the standard introductory textbook on the subject, titled Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.
Notice that these scholars list this assumption first among the “basic tenets of Critical Race Theory” in the introduction of their book. Understand also that what they mean by “racism” isn’t even what most people think racism means. It is not prejudice based upon race or believing some races to be superior or inferior to others that they mean by “racism.” It is, instead, the “system” of everything that happens in the social world and beyond that results in any disparity that works in the favor of “racially privileged” groups (on average) or any “racially oppressed” person claiming they experience racial oppression.
These assumptions lead people who take up Critical Race Theory to look for racism in everything until they find it. That is, after all, the job of a “critical” theorist or activist: to look for the hidden problems that they assume must be present in whatever they scrutinize.
In the workplace that adopts Critical Race Theory, this means that it’s only a matter of time until someone with that worldview finds out how your entire company and its culture is “racist.” At that point, they will cause a meltdown that forces everyone to take sides and demand a reorganization of the entire (now divided) office culture and management.
In schools, it will mean teaching our children to think this way and always be looking for racism in every situation and interaction. In our personal relationships, it means that friends and even family members—especially our kids who have already been educated with Critical Race Theory ideas that have been incorporated in our schools—will eventually call each other out and reject one another, because tolerating racism is also considered a form of racism that would have to be discovered and stopped.
2) “Interest convergence”: White people only give black people opportunities and freedoms when it is also in their own interests.
One of the founders of Critical Race Theory, a (now deceased) scholar at Harvard Law named Derrick Bell, made his “Interest-Convergence Thesis” central to the Theory. Turning to Delgado and Stefancic again,
The second feature, sometimes called “interest convergence” or material determinism, adds a further dimension. Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class people (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it. Consider, for example, Derrick Bell’s shocking proposal (discussed in a later chapter) that Brown v. Board of Education—considered a great triumph of civil rights litigation—may have resulted more from the self-interest of elite whites than a desire to help blacks. (p. 7)
It isn’t hard to see how paranoid and cynical this idea is, but it’s also horrible when you pause to consider some of its implications. Take the demand that also comes from Critical Race Theory that everyone should be an anti-racist. This sounds good on the surface but is horrible underneath. If someone with “racial privilege” (including white, Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Indian, and lighter-skinned black people) decides to become an anti-racist in accordance with this request, the Interest-Convergence Thesis would say they only did so to make themselves look good, protect themselves from criticism, or to avoid confronting their own racism. This isn’t a fringe idea or possible gap in the concept, either. The academic literature on “whiteness studies” is filled with this notion, including book-length treatments by academic scholars, for example one titled Good White People that was published in 2018 by the State University of New York Press.
The Interest-Convergence Thesis makes it literally impossible for anyone with any racial privilege (again, as outlined by Critical Race Theory) to do anything right because anything they do right must also have been self-interested. If Critical Race Theory makes a demand of people with any form of racial privilege and they comply, they just make themselves more complicit in “racism” as Critical Race Theory sees it. By giving people no way out, Critical Race Theory becomes deeply manipulative and unable to be satisfied in its lists of demands.
3) Critical Race Theory is against free societies.
Believe it or not, Critical Race Theory is not a liberal idea. It is, in fact, critical of liberal societies and against the idea of freedom to its core. Critical Race Theory sees a free society as a way to structure and maintain inequities by convincing racial minorities not to want to do radical identity politics. Since Critical Race Theory exists specifically to agitate for and enable radical racial identity politics, it is therefore against free societies and how they are organized. (In this way, it is very different than the Civil Rights Movement it incorrectly claims to continue.)
Turning to Delgado and Stefancic, a critical stance about free societies and their norms is again central to Critical Race Theory: “critical race scholars are discontent with liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems. Many liberals believe in color blindness and neutral principles of constitutional law” (p. 21). The famous “critical whiteness educator” Robin DiAngelo (author of the now overwhelmingly famous book White Fragility) puts it even more plainly, writing with a colleague named Ozlem Sensoy in a widely read education book called Is Everyone Really Equal?,
These movements [Critical Theory movements upon which Critical Race Theory is based] initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace) but quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism. The ideal of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it [free society] fooled people into believing they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow. (p. 5)
In other words, Critical Race Theory sees free societies and the ideals that make them work—individualism, freedom, peace—as a kind of tacit conspiracy theory that we all participate in to keep racial minorities down. When its advocates accuse people of being “complicit in systems of racism,” this is part of what they mean. Obviously, they would prefer that we do not have free societies and would rather arrange society as they see fit and make us all go along with their ideas.
4) Critical Race Theory only treats race issues as “socially constructed groups,” so there are no individuals in Critical Race Theory.
Critical Race Theory isn’t just against free societies and the individualism that enables them, but it also doesn’t even believe individuals meaningfully exist at all! In Critical Race Theory, every person has to be understood in terms of the social groups they are said to inhabit, and these are determined by their identity, including race. “A third theme of critical race theory, the ‘social construction’ thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient” (p. 7), write Delgado and Stefancic.
Under Critical Race Theory, races are categories that society invents and that we impose entirely through social assumptions (mostly stereotypes), and people are members of those racial categories whether they want to be or not. Moreover, they argue that society is “socially stratified,” which means that different social groups (like these racial groups) have differentiated access to the opportunities and resources of society. While this bears some truth on average, it ignores individual variations that are obvious when considering examples of powerful, rich, and famous black people like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Kanye West. Critical Race Theory forces people into these averages, though, and considers them primarily in terms of their group identity rather than their individual identity. This is part of why they use the word “folks” instead of “people”—it designates a social group.
Thus, in Critical Race Theory, the goal of ideally treating every person as an individual who is equal before the law and meant to be judged upon the contents of their character and merits of their work is considered a myth that keeps racial minorities down. Instead, it sees people according to their racial groups only. This is why it is so common that progressive racial programs end up hurting the people they’re written to help most. “Racial justice,” in Critical Race Theory, means getting “justice” for the group, which it says is a social construction, not for the real person, who is just a member of that group. As Lynn Lemisko writes on page 193 of Educator to Educator, another education manual in Critical Social Justice programs: “If democracy is about individual rights (justice for individuals), then social justice is about group rights (justice for groups). And for me there is a fundamental difference between the general notion of justice and the notion of social justice.”
5) Critical Race Theory believes science, reason, and evidence are a “white” way of knowing and that storytelling and lived experience is a “black” alternative.
Remember above, where Delgado and Stefancic said that “normal science” is a part of the everyday, ordinary racism of our societies? That’s because Critical Race Theory is not particularly friendly to science, residing somewhere between generally disinterested in science and openly hostile to it (often depending upon the circumstances). This is because Critical Race Theory, using that “social construction” thesis, believes that the power and politics of cultural groups make their way intrinsically into everything that culture produces. Thus, science is just politics by other means to Critical Race Theory.
Since modern science was predominantly produced by white, Western men, Critical Race Theory therefore views science as a white and Western “way of knowing.” Critical Race Theory therefore maintains that science encodes and perpetuates “white dominance” and thus isn’t really fitting for black people who inhabit a (political) culture of Blackness.
This is obviously a horrible sentiment, and it is one that goes against one of the very first pillars of science: universality. Universality in science says that it doesn’t matter who does an experiment; the result will always be the same. This is because science believes in objectivity, which Critical Race Theory also calls an oppressive myth. For example, Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy write,
One of the key contributions of critical theorists concerns the production of knowledge. Given that the transmission of knowledge is an integral activity in schools, critical scholars in the field of education have been especially concerned with how knowledge is produced. These scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective, neutral, and universal. An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that objectivity is desirable or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it. (p. 7)
Sensoy and DiAngelo also claim that science “presume[s] superiority and infallibility of the scientific method” (p. 5) (by the way, this is false), and therefore we should be asking “whose rationality” and “whose presumed objectivity” underlies the scientific method. Then, even more cynically, they insist that we must ask whose interests are served by science, as though that’s the relevant question to ask of a universalist method. Critical Race Theory falsely asserts that white people’s interests are primarily served by science. This isn’t all just wrong (and genuinely racist!), it’s dangerous.
Continuing the genuinely racist thinking that black people aren’t suited to or served by science, Delgado and Stefancic say that storytelling about their “lived experience” is the primary mode by which black people and Critical Race Theory produce and advance knowledge. Importantly, these lived experiences are only considered valid if they agree with Critical Race Theory. They write,
Critical race theorists have built on everyday experiences with perspective, viewpoint, and the power of stories and persuasion to come to a better understanding of how Americans see race. They have written parables, autobiography, and “counterstories,” and have investigated the factual background and personalities, frequently ignored in the casebooks, of well-known cases. (p. 38)
While stories can be informative, to create a position that science is a “way of knowing” for white, Western people (especially men) and storytelling is one more suited to racial minorities, Critical Race Theory is itself racist (against racial minorities) and cripples the people it claims to help. This happens in multiple ways, including by undermining their capacity for critical thinking, teaching them to see the world in an us-versus-them way that oppresses them, and associating them with harmful, negative stereotypes that rigorous methods are what white people, and not black people, use.
6) Critical Race Theory rejects all potential alternatives, like colorblindness, as forms of racism.
Critical Race Theory is completely against the common-sense idea that race becomes less socially relevant and racism is therefore diminished by not focusing on race all the time. Where liberalism spent centuries removing social significance from racial categories once it had been introduced in the 16th century, Critical Race Theory inserts it again, front and center.
In fact, as you might guess now, it sees the idea of “colorblindness” as one of the most racist things possible because it hides the real racism from view. “While colorblindness sounds good in theory, in practice it is highly problematic,” write Sensoy and DiAngelo (p. 108). As we read from Delgado and Stefancic,
Color-blind, or “formal,” conceptions of equality, expressed in rules that insist only on treatment that is the same across the board, can thus remedy only the most blatant forms of discrimination, such as mortgage redlining or the refusal to hire a black Ph.D. rather than a white high school dropout, that do stand out and attract our attention. (p. 7)
While there is a point here—that being too colorblind can cause someone not to see racism at all, even when it is a real problem and especially when its influence is subtle (this is called “racism-blindness”)—the remedy Critical Race Theory gives to this imperfection in the colorblind approach is to do exactly the opposite. Thus, racism has to be made relevant in every situation where racism is present, which is every situation, as we saw in point #1 above, and it has attached incredible amounts of social significance to race and how it factors into every interaction. That means you have to find and focus upon the “hidden” racism in your workplace, your school, your society, your neighborhood, your books, your food, your music, your hobbies, your faith, your church, your community, your friends, your relationships, and yourself (and everything else too) all the time, according to Critical Race Theory.
This has the opposite of the putatively intended effect. Although it does cause people to see some legitimate racism that they would have otherwise missed, it makes all of our relationships and social systems extremely fragile and tense, ready to explode over a highly divisive issue. It also diverts resources from doing real work or building real relationships because looking for and thinking about racism all the time takes effort. (Critical Race Theory says minority races already have to think about racism all the time and only white people have the privilege not to, but this is, again, more sloppy analysis that ignores the reports and experiences of every racial minority who disagrees.)
7) Critical Race Theory acts like anyone who disagrees with it must do so for racist and white supremacist reasons, even if those people are black.
Following the “social construction” thesis discussed above in point #4, Critical Race Theory has outlined what the essential experience of each racial group is. It then judges individual people (especially of minority races) on how well they give testimonial to that experience—which is to say, they judge individual people based on how well they support Critical Race Theory. This makes it impossible to disagree with Critical Race Theory, even if you are black.
Before we discuss the case of how impossible disagreement is for white people (and other “racially privileged” people) consider a few poignant examples. The black superstar musician Kanye West famously donned a “Make America Great Again” hat and said he thinks for himself. In response, the poet laureate of Critical Race Theory, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote a widely read article suggesting that West is no longer really black. The black musician Daryl Davis, who is most famous for talking hundreds of real white supremacists out of their Ku Klux Klan hoods, once tried to invite a conversation of this sort in 2019, and members of the nominally “antifascist” group “Antifa” called him a “white supremacist” for being willing to associate with (rather than fight or kill) the people he invited to have a conversation.
This phenomenon can be explained. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the New York Times Magazine 1619 Project (a Critical Race Theory historiography—not an article of history), tweeted (and then deleted) that there is “racially black” on the one hand, and “politically Black” on the other. Critical Race Theory is only interested in the identity politics associated with being “politically Black,” and anyone who disagrees with Critical Race Theory—even if “racially black”—does not qualify. The common way to phrase this is that they are “not really Black.” This means that in Critical Race Theory, diversity (which it calls for often) must be only skin deep. Everyone’s politics must agree and must agree with Critical Race Theory.
This is obviously much worse a problem for white people or others who are said to have “racial privilege.” There are more concepts in Critical Race Theory to deal specifically with how and why white people are racists for disagreeing with Critical Race Theory than perhaps any other idea. Charles Mills claims that all whites take part in a “racial contract” to support white supremacy that is never discussed but just part of the social fabric. Barbara Applebaum says all white people have “white complicity” with white supremacy because they automatically benefit from white privilege and “white ignorance” which is a way for them to willfully refuse to engage (and proper engagement can only be proven by agreeing). Robin DiAngelo says white people enjoy “white comfort” and therefore suffer “white fragility” that prevents them from confronting their racism through Critical Race Theory. (Therefore, she says, anything that maintains white comfort should be considered suspect and in need of disrupting.) Alison Bailey claims that when racially privileged people disagree with Critical Race Theory, they are engaging in a “defensive move” called “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback,” which means that they are just arguing to keep their privilege and could not possibly have legitimate disagreements. All of these ideas implicate racially privileged people in racism anytime they disagree with Critical Race Theory.
8) Critical Race Theory cannot be satisfied.
We have already seen how Critical Race Theory cannot be disagreed with, even by black people. We have also seen how it rejects all alternatives and how it believes any success that it has comes down to “interest convergence.” Because it rejects science, it cannot be falsified or proven wrong by evidence, and because it assumes racism is present and relevant to all situations and interactions, even the acceptance of Critical Race Theory must somehow also contain racism. Therefore, Critical Race Theory cannot be satisfied. It is, in this way, like a black hole. No matter how much you give to it, it cannot be filled and only gets stronger—and it will tear apart anything that gets too close to it.
This means that if your workplace takes up Critical Race Theory, eventually activists will start to make demands and will threaten to make trouble if they do not get their way. (They usually do not ask.) If you give into them, you will not satisfy them, however, because Critical Race Theory cannot be satisfied. It is guaranteed, before you do anything at all, that you will do it wrong because of your racism. You did it out of “interest convergence,” to make yourself look good because of your racism. You did it in a way that just created new problems that amount to racism. You didn’t do it sooner, faster, or better because of your racism. No matter what you do, the resulting situation must contain racism, and the Critical Race Theory activist’s job is to find it and hold you to account.
Therefore, giving into a demand made by Critical Race Theory cannot appease it. It can, however, signal that you will give into their demands, which will then continue to come and to escalate. As we have seen in countless examples across the corporate world recently, this will include demands for you to step down from your job and give it to activists, and even that won’t satisfy them. And if the venture fails as a result of all of this disruption, racism was the cause of that failure too.
And that’s not all!
This is a grim but fair description of Critical Race Theory, and, what’s worse, it’s woefully incomplete. There are other horrible ideas at the very core of Critical Race Theory that fall in this same mold that we do not have time to list here. These include the idea that racism barely gets better, if at all, that equality is a source of racism, that people who benefit from “racism” have no incentives to be against racism, that racism is a zero-sum conflict that was arranged by white people so that no one else can have a real chance in society, that the races cannot truly understand one another (while demanding that they must and that racism is the whole cause of the inevitable failure), that racially privileged people are inherently oppressors and everyone else is inherently oppressed (this is derived from Marxism applied to racial groups), and that the only way to end racism is through a social revolution that unmakes the current society entirely and replaces it with something engineered by Critical Race Theory. It is easy to see what kinds of problems these doctrines will create in practice, and it’s horrible how Critical Race Theory consistently preys upon the best parts of our natures to achieve its goals (which, if it were correct (and it’s not), mostly leaves only the worst candidates to oppose it—real white supremacists—which it then uses as evidence of its bogus claims).
Therefore, there are many good reasons that have nothing to do with real racism to reject most of what Critical Race Theory teaches. Good people have every reason to reject Critical Race Theory for better alternatives, and the main reason they don’t is because they don’t know what it is and see what what it offers kind of sounds right and sort of seems good.
In summary, we can see that Critical Race Theory is a truly horrible way to deal with race issues and racism, and that would be true even if every problem (or “problematic”) it points out were 100% true. It simply is not a good way to go about these problems, and, as its advocates might say in realizing such a situation, we have an obligation to educate ourselves (about the problems and weaknesses of Critical Race Theory) and to do better (than they can hope to do).