Critical Race Theory (CRT) has been gaining traction in organizations throughout the Western world for over 50 years, but increasingly so for the past 5 years leading up to 2021. It is either highly criticized or highly-regarded, with little room for fence-sitting—a phenomenon facilitated by the widespread adoption of social media. This essay will attempt to provide additional information about the connections between Critical Race Theory and its philosophical parent Critical Theory (CT).
A thorough reading of the historical development of both philosophical disciplines reveals a genealogy that is closer than simple intellectual similarities.
A brief overview and explanation of Critical Race Theory will be followed by its history. Next, we will discuss Critical Theory, its origins, supporters, and key assumptions. Lastly, we’ll look at how CRT and CT are related by exploring their common genealogy and conceptual frameworks.
Critical Race Theory
What is it?
Everything in our world is power, the distribution of which is mediated by race (e.g. broad categorizations of Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, Native, Pacific Islander, etc.). Every human construction, from governments to homeschool co-ops, are embedded in racial structures that fundamentally build or dismantle racism and white supremacy. All people, regardless of socioeconomic status, location, or personality cannot help but perpetuate or undermine systems of racial oppression. This is Critical Race Theory in a nutshell.
For adherents of this theory, Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream is idealistic nonsense. The only path of progress is through the rubble of a completely dismantled America. Why? Critical Race Theory (CRT) asserts that the very structure of society is systemically oppressive to minority populations, and that racism is built into the very fabric of social life. So much so, that even when overtly racist policies, practices, or actions are ‘removed’ or ‘rectified,’ racism still exists—it is simply manifesting in new ways.
As a result, racism cannot ever truly be solved, according to CRT. This belief creates a truly dangerous situation. Children are being taught that they live in a society that is riddled with racism and hate. They are being told that, due to factors outside their control—their melanin levels—they are oppressed, or they are the oppressors. They are also being taught that there is no resolution to this problem. Consider what havoc this is likely to wreak on young minds. “We have a problem. You are the problem, and there is no way to fix it. You’ll never be able to do enough to repair the damage that you perpetuate simply by existing.” CRT is incredibly disempowering. Children who are placed in the ‘oppressed’ category are told that the system is rigged against them. In such a situation, why should a child make any attempt to succeed?
Where did it come from?
Like many ideas, CRT is the product of the combining of other, older ideas. In this case, it started as Critical Legal Studies—the combination of race relations (arguably the social issue of the late 1960’s in America) and the study of the law. A man particularly well-positioned to push this new theory forward, the founder of Critical Race Theory, was Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell. Bell (1930-2011) was the first black tenured law professor at Harvard. He was 40 years old at the time of his hiring.
The ideas and works of Derrick Bell are largely variations on a theme that was laid out over 65 years earlier by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). While Bell continues to be seen as the modern founder of CRT, his ties to Du Bois, if only conceptually, are readily acknowledged by CRT scholars.
Du Bois was a political economist who began his undergraduate studies at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, then moved on to Harvard University. At the time, some of the most prestigious universities in the world were in Germany. He spent two years in Germany studying on a scholarship from the Slater Fund, which ended before he could complete his PhD. While he was there, he wrote letters in which he mentioned several of his professors—some of them more than others. W.E.B. Du Bois completed his studies in Germany in 1894.
What is it?
Everything in our world is power. Systems and structures are created to maintain and build upon that power. Governments, organizations, businesses, and even hobby clubs exist solely to maintain and build power. Critical Theory’s goal is to intellectually emancipate society from oppression. Critical Theory is “…practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense.” In other words, “critical” arguments are formed and founded in rhetoric—only. You cannot test their claims with any instrument of measurement. This is Critical Theory in a nutshell.
So, if you can’t test its claims, how can anyone know whether its claims are true or not? This requires faith or ‘suspension of disbelief,’ whichever you prefer. What value does it really have to anyone? So far, it’s been a very effective method of creating additional faculty jobs at universities. It has the added benefit of creating for its proponents social protections that are granted to ‘allies of the oppressed.’
Where did it come from?
Goethe University Frankfurt was one of the preeminent universities during the interwar period of the early 1900s. During this time, the Institute for Social Research was created by Friedrich Pollock and Felix Weil with a professor of political law and economy at University of Vienna named Carl Grunberg installed as its first director. The Institute was bankrolled by Weil, a wealthy student at Frankfurt. All of them were neo-Marxists. While they agreed with Marx, they felt many gaps were left in his writings that required development and explanation. The Institute (now commonly referred to as The Frankfurt School) was formed with the vision of filling in those conceptual gaps through the work of its members. Most notably, these scholars argued, in effect, “Not only was the Social Democratic leadership too wishy-washy and compromising, its voting constituencies among the working classes were themselves clueless about their real needs and their real but masked state of oppression.” By this time, the leading lights of the Institute had agreed that what the Marxists really needed was an aristocracy—a role they could fill. The major result of this work is what is now known as Critical Theory.
Some of the Frankfurt School’s more recognizable names include Horkheimer, Marcuse, Adorno, and Grunberg. Of course, they each differed from one another on particular points of their ideology, but the fundamental theoretical underpinnings—noted above—of the School were largely undisputed among members of the Institute.
Max Horkheimer—who was involved with the Institute from the beginning—pursued his doctoral studies under Hans Cornelius, a neo-Kantian philosopher, at Frankfurt. Horkheimer was a major influence on The Frankfurt School, becoming its second director after the departure of Grunberg due to illness. Both Grunberg and Horkheimer were skeptical of epistemology and reason. They fostered that skepticism among others through their writings and speaking events. While they nurtured doubts about shared reality and objectivity, they pursued Kant’s anti-Enlightenment ideas that prioritized subjectivity and emotion.
The ideas that emanated from the scholars of the Institute for Social Research—Critical Theory—continue to influence the Western world today.
A Common Thread
Gustav von Schmoller was one of the frequently-mentioned professors in W.E.B. DuBois’ letters back home. Carl Grunberg also studied under Schmoller during his stint at Strasbourg from 1872-82.
While no one can be completely sure exactly how much influence Schmoller had on either DuBois or Grunberg, it seems perfectly reasonable to surmise that it was more than zero. And, given both of Schmoller’s eminent students went on to espouse similar positions on the proper framework through which to judge reality, the possibility seems even more likely.
So, who is Schmoller, then? He was born in Heilbronn, Germany in 1838. His father, as a civil servant in Wurttemberg, was a wealthy and influential man with connections to those in power. Gustav was entrusted with the operations of some of his father’s affairs which gave him experience with government, bureaucracy, the economy, and other integral systems that are constituent pieces of a functioning society. At the time, a prerequisite for consideration of an appointment within the government was completion of a university degree in Kameralwissenschaft a discipline “…which combines public finance, statistics, economics, administrative science, history, and even sociology.”
After working for his father for some time, rather than stick to government work, Schmoller decided to teach at a university. He was already a committed “communitarian,” having gained and retained full faith in the state’s ability to manage the entire economy in such a way that productivity and efficiency would be maximized.
For Schmoller, economic theory required a thorough consideration of all potential factors that could affect economic activity. And, as he himself had prescriptions for what the ideal society should look like, he provided social commentary willingly.
Economic behavior is embedded in a cultural style specific to one epoch, one historical structure of meaning, which happens to favor an economic style marked by certain “habitual moral sentiments” (Schmoller 1923a, 22), values, and norms. Therefore, if the most elementary object of economic analysis, economic action, has an ethical, cultural, and religious dimension, then the economic theory purporting to explain it must also encompass the interrelationship of ethical, cultural, and religious factors.
Schmoller sought and advocated for social reforms in the name of social justice that aligned with his prescriptions. He reasoned that the study of political economy was properly oriented when it was focused on the psychology of economic action. “The true desideratum of economic research was, therefore, a psycho-social description of the motivations of human action.”
Conclusion: Intellectual Brothers
Schmoller’s ideas about the psychology of economics found expression in W. E. B. Du Bois’ work on the influence of racism in American economic and political life. Carl Grunberg’s Institute for Social Research was the birthplace of Critical Theory—an admixture of Schmoller’s psychology of economics and Marxism, where Marxism is the interpretive structure and economic psychology is the object of study. Both Du Bois and Grunberg were communists—with Du Bois writing a series of articles in support of Marxism during the 1930s and ultimately joining the Communist Party very late in life in 1961. Both of them believed in a worldview that categorized everyone as oppressor or oppressed. Du Bois critiqued society using race as a frame of reference. Grunberg used social class as his.
Both Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory have at least one common progenitor: Gustav von Schmoller. Their common teacher joins Du Bois and Grunberg as intellectual brothers if their works did not show enough similarities to comfortably make that claim.
This article is adapted from the forthcoming book, Critical Condition: Destructive Ideologies in America’s Classrooms.
- Biologists do not use the term “race” to differentiate between people with variations in melanin levels. Race is a purely cultural and rhetorical phenomenon, which has no basis in biology. ↑
- Delgado, R., Stefancic, J. (1998). Critical Race Theory: Past, Present, and Future, Current Legal Problems, 51(1), 467–491, https://doi.org/10.1093/clp/51.1.467 ↑
- Avshalom-Smith, D. (n.d.) Toward a philosophy of race: W.E.B. Du Bois and critical race. 1619: Journal of African American Studies. Retrieved on 2021 May 10: https://www2.ccsu.edu/afamjournal/?article=419. ↑
- Stanford University (2010). Critical Theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/ ↑
- Hicks, S.R.C., (2004). Explaining postmodernism: Skepticism and socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Ockham’s Razor. 140. ↑
- Fischer, W., (1968). Schmoller, Gustav. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York. The Macmillan Company and The Free Press. 14(60). ↑
- Nau, H. H., Steiner, P. (2002). Schmoller, Durkheim, and old European institutionalist economics. Journal of Economic Issues. 36(4)1005-1024. ↑
- Nau, H. H., Steiner, P. (2002). ↑
- Jackson, J. E. (1961). W.E.B. DuBois to Gus Hall: Communism will triumph. I want to help bring that day. The Worker. Retrieved on 2021 May 10: https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/from-the-peoples-world-archives-w-e-b-dubois-joins-the-communist-party/. ↑
You can do better than this piece. Perhaps it is intended as the first in a series of pieces adapted from this book. By itself it doesn’t mean much, just amateurish speculation about Schmoller as father of it all because “it seems perfectly reasonable to surmise” that his influence on Du Bois (and thus Bell) and on Grunberg (and thus the Frankfurt School) “was more than zero.” The intellectual lineages in play are not in fact particularly mysterious or unstudied and can be laid out in plainer and more useful fashion.
Well, perhaps it’s not All about power, but it is undeniable that power is virtually everywhere, and in political, social and economic structures and institutions, power is an essential, even critical, component.
I’m all for studying social theories, I took a feminist course in college 25 years ago that was although mind candy interesting. If such theories I learned then, e.g., lactation is sexist, were to become mandatory as truth then we’ve got a problem. Half the population cannot suspend its disbelief to follow this contagion.
Only in America, could a ‘cock-a-hoop’, theory for all of mankind, take a grip of its leavers of power with virtually no resistance against it. Sad and dangerous times are ahead.
Does anyone else notice how CRT actually makes social interactions worse? People are more anxious around each other. Its reminds me of the months post columbine in my high school. Students seemed afraid of the few who dressed in Goth/trench coats. I remember one of the goth girls remarking how nervously nice people were being and how she KNEW it wasn’t from a genuine desire to be kind. I see the same problem arising from CRT. The people who do genuinely want to be kind/helpful will end up making things more uncomfortable for POC by drawing too much attention to their ethnicity.
Recently, I’ve developed a concept called Feedback Racism. Crucially, its a form of systemic racism which includes the vital understanding that often systemic racism can arise from poorly conceived policies designed to help. In this way we can see that anti-racism and critical social justice can and will produce the opposite effects of their stated aims.
I discuss it further in my essay on substack:
“voting constituencies among the working classes were themselves clueless about their real needs and their real but masked state of oppression.”
Does anyone else see the galling pretentious and elitist mentality hidden in this statement? I’ve long thought how ironic that men, like marx, who had all the privileges one could want money, education, warm housing, sufficient food, etc., thought they could comment at all about what the working class needed. Its paternalism of another color. Progressive and liberals STILL do it.
Yes, that leapt at me too. Patronising, condescending and sanctimonious – it always pops up with the so-called ‘progressives’.
Working people have always been better off singing the song of those whose bread they eat. /s
Great history lesson in this article. I’ve heard Du Bois’ name thrown around but really had no idea about his thoughts. I generally hear about him lumped together with Frederick Douglass as an inspiration for CRT, but Douglass held liberal and American ideals. Due to this conflation, my judgement on Du bois was suspended. I am saddened to see that, at first glance, he seems to be as big a nutjob as the CT community 🙁
‘One of the things that has always mystified me about CRT is why it thinks racism is wrong in the first place.’
Only racism practiced by the ‘Caucausian’ race is wrong. All other forms of racism are not only right but necessary for Utopia to arise. It simply is a matter of figuring out how to fit everybody into the ‘right’ racial pigeonhole to learn what privileges they will have.
A good succinct article describing the origins of CRT which I intend to post on other forums.
One of the things that has always mystified me about CRT is why it thinks racism is wrong in the first place. Given that it views all of society as a manifestation of power relationships, there is no inherent reason to condemn a particular power relationship as morally wrong or fundamentally unjust. True, whomever is getting the short end of the stick will object on that basis, but not liking something and it being wrong are different things. Only within the classically liberal order, with reason, objectivity, rights and individualism does a consistent moral objection to racism (or any other form of collectivism) arise.
Well worth pointing out, ADM, and well put
It’s because they justify their goals as ‘compassionate’. They assume this is morally superior to ‘rational’. It’s why anyone thinks Marxism is superior to Capitalism. Because it’s ‘kind’.
I can’t agree. Reason and objectivity (at least of the instrumental scientific kind) will never get you to any moral judgements, c.f. Swift’s “Modest Proposal” or the brilliant technical acumen required to run the German death camp system.
The concept of rights presupposes something about human beings that makes them bearers of rights. That “something” is missing in classical liberalism by itself. It is, in fact, the residue of the Christian notion that every human being has an inviolable dignity by virtue of being created in the image of God and sanctified by the Incarnation. But in the absence of Christianity itself, that residue has become attenuated nearly to the vanishing point.
Individualism can mean a number of things. If it means concern for the individual as individual and as valued member of the community and respect for the legal and spiritual equality of all individuals, it is a wonderful thing. But human beings are not Leibnizian windowless monads. Man is, as Aristotle said over 2000 years ago, zoon politicon, the social animal. Rousseau to the contrary notwithstanding, man is not born free but is born subject, first to the family, then to the community, then to the nation. We are born into a web of social obligations that we do not choose, that precedes us and will survive us. Like Aeneas, we carry our father on our back and hold our child’s hand. Classical liberalism has a strong tendency to atomism. It tends far too much to sacrifice the common good on the altar of individual autonomy.
There is no “common good” – a false concept that has been a tool in the hands of power-mad tyrants since time immemorial.
The human experience is not a social one either. We are not “social animals”. We actually experience life so subjectively that we have had to construct intricate systems of symbols in order to communicate with anyone outside our own heads. And that communication is extremely limited and imprecise. We are born alone, live life alone working on the impossible task to connect, and then die alone.
These two falsehoods are the cornerstones of all collectivist thought, which in turn is the main source of strife and suffering in the world.
If you study truly alone individuals (feral children) you will realize that for humans, a social life is essential for having any kind of life worth living. I mean, there’s alone, and then there’s Alone. Humans do not thrive if Alone.
I imagine BiggusD simply wants no responsibility for their fellow humans. This curious digression into “aloneness” is just a rationale for refusing it.
Liberal individualism is balanced by a belief in a universal human nature. This prevents the atomisation and isolation of pure individualism. As we all share membership in a common humanity this creates a universal group membership which supersedes all others and allows the development of a universal humanitarian ethic. The appalling results of tribal group power struggles can be avoided. Collectivism, the default human operating system and the basis of Marxism can only increase them disastrously.
> Liberal individualism is balanced by a belief in a universal human nature. This prevents the atomisation and isolation of pure individualism. As we all share membership in a common humanity this creates a universal group membership which supersedes all others and allows the development of a universal humanitarian ethic.
Haven’t seen much evidence of it yet. God (the fundamentalist God), guns and money rule humankind much more so than any universal humanitarian ethic that might exist.