Over the past couple of months, numerous state legislatures have begun to pass laws that ban or limit the teaching of Critical Race Theory in K-12 classrooms. Critical race theory has been making big inroads into the wider culture these last few years. If you’ve heard the terms “intersectionality,” “whiteness,” “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” etc., then you have been exposed to ideas that have been shaped by or come directly from critical race theory. In light of this, how should a Christian worldview inform how we think about critical race theory?
[Note: Before reading this article, it is highly recommended that you read our article on critical theory generally, as much of the same analysis will apply to critical race theory.]
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical race theory (CRT) is one of many forms of critical studies such as critical feminist theory, critical queer theory, postcolonial criticism, etc. While CRT originally sought to analyze the plight of Black Americans in the United States, it has since split off into several branches like Latino critical race studies (LatCrit), Asian critical race studies (AsianCrit), American Indian critical race studies (TribalCrit), among others.
CRT originally began in the 1970s and 1980s as a movement in legal scholarship. It emerged out of critical legal studies and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. (Critical legal studies itself has roots in critical theory.) Critical legal studies teaches that the law is inherently biased and cannot be separated from political and social issues. It believes that those who have the power to create laws do so in such a way that serves themselves and those in power. Thus, as Cornell Law School puts it, “the law supports a power dynamic which favors the historically privileged and disadvantages the historically underprivileged.” Critical legal studies stands in contrast to the classic Western liberal tradition that viewed the law as a neutral and objective arbiter of rights.
Those who developed critical race theory utilized critical legal studies because they sought to explain why the gains made by the civil rights movement in the 1960s had stalled or were being reversed. If a change in the laws and a guarantee of rights was all that was needed to make true and permanent gains in civil rights, then legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have done the trick. However, during the late 60s and 70s, many states, courts, and other institutions of American society still resisted or obstructed the implementation of civil rights, and overt racism was still widely experienced by black Americans. While CRT theorists saw the usefulness and the good that changing laws could accomplish, they sought to go beyond that to examine the fundamental assumptions of society and culture that served to preserve the power of oppressor groups and keep oppressed groups disempowered.
There is no one definition of CRT. Derrick Bell, considered to be one of the most formative thinkers for CRT, defines it as “a body of legal scholarship…[that is] ideologically committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalized in and by law.” This is spelled out to a greater extent in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s seminal work Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. They define the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement as,
“A collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses 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.”
Thus, CRT examines the role of racism in everything from economics (such as economic disparities along racial lines) to the law to your very emotions and unconscious thoughts and biases. Virtually nothing is left untouched by CRT.
What is Racism?
A crucial point in understanding CRT is how racism is defined. Delgado and Stefancic divide CRT scholars into two groups: idealists and realists.
Idealists hold that “racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude, and discourse.” Since they hold that race is a social construct (more on this below), racism can be reduced by “changing the system of images, words, attitudes, unconscious feelings, scripts, and social teachings by which we convey to one another that certain people are less intelligent, reliable, hardworking, virtuous, and American than others.” Thus, idealists tend to focus more on the internal attitudes and thoughts that people harbor towards different races.
Realists, on the other hand, believe that racism is more than one’s internal attitudes towards another race. Racism is “a means by which society allocates privilege and status. Racial hierarchies determine who gets tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools, and invitations to parties in people’s homes.” Realists primarily focus on the distribution of material goods. “For the realists, attitudes follow, explain and rationalize what is taking place in the material sector.” In other words, cultures will form attitudes about race based on what they want to accomplish socially and economically. As such, realists will look at economic disparities along racial lines and will often assert that if there are unequal outcomes on the basis of race, then that itself is evidence of racism.
Thus, in CRT, racism can be classified either as internal attitudes and biases towards another race or as an unequal distribution of material goods, societal benefits, and power on the basis of race.
What Does Critical Race Theory Teach?
As we have seen in recent days, there is no shortage of opinions about what CRT does or does not teach. While there is no one set of principles all CRT scholars will agree on, there are some fundamental beliefs and themes that most proponents of CRT will adhere to. Again, these are taken from Delgado and Stefancic:
- Ordinariness of Racism. One of the most fundamental principles of CRT is that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational.” Many people tend to think about racism as something which comes up in a person’s thoughts or actions from time to time, but CRT holds that racism permeates all structures of society such that it becomes a mode by which we operate. Thus, “racism is difficult to address or cure because it is unacknowledged” and often unseen.
- Interest convergence. Interest convergence means that white people (or other dominant groups) will only advocate for civil rights for minorities (and empower them) if it also serves their own self-interest. For example, Derrick Bell argued that the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education (school desegregation) came about only because it coincided with the white elite’s desires to promote democracy abroad as well as the South’s realization that segregation would hinder its long-term economic development.
- Social Construction of Race. According to Delgado and Stefancic, CRT teaches 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.” In CRT, race is a social construction. Of course, they acknowledge that certain groups of people tend to share certain physical traits like skin color or hair texture, but the fact that these seemingly insignificant differences are emphasized over the more significant traits we have in common (“personality, intelligence, and moral behavior”) shows that race is more of a social construct than a biological reality. Along with this idea comes the concept of differential racialization, which explores how dominant groups of society advance their interests by “racializing” certain minority groups through the development of stereotypes and popular imagery. For example, pre-9/11, those from the Middle East were often portrayed in popular media as exotic and interesting, but post-9/11, they were more often portrayed as terrorists or religious fanatics.
- Intersectionality. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, another formative thinker in the CRT movement. It refers to how people can experience unique forms of oppression (or privilege) based on a combination of multiple facets and identities like race, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. This is because no one is completely defined by any single facet. For example, a black woman may experience unique oppression that results from the combined disadvantages of being black as well as being a woman. However, if she were heterosexual, upper-middle-class, and able-bodied, these would be points of privilege. As Delgado and Stefancic note, “Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.”
- Unique voice of color. This aspect of CRT says that the unique histories and experiences associated with minority status “brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism,” and to “communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know.” Thus, minorities can engage in “story-telling” and develop counternarratives to the narratives perpetuated by dominant groups. This also involves engaging in revisionist history, which “reexamines America’s historical record, replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations of events with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences.” If you’ve ever heard of the 1619 Project, this is an example of revisionist history.
- Rejection of “color-blindness” and “meritocracy.” In addition to the principles mentioned by Delgado and Stefancic, one final important belief of CRT is its rejection of the majority culture’s adherence to values like “color-blindness” and “meritocracy.” According to CRT, these values only expose more overt forms of racism and maintain white people’s power by allowing them to pretend to be neutral toward people of color. The belief that “blindness to race will eliminate racism” must be continually challenged. Racism is much more subtle and can be seen in the outcome “of processes and relations irrespective of intent.”
A. Strengths of CRT
As with critical theory generally, critical race theory also correctly recognizes:
- The existence and evil of oppression (Psalms 103:6, Zechariah 7:9-10).
- The existence and abuse of hegemonic power (Ephesians 6:12).
- The importance of listening to others’ lived experiences (Proverbs 18:13, James 1:19).
In addition, principles like interest convergence and intersectionality hold some truth to them. With interest convergence, we know that people are sinful and in many cases, only do good things for others because of selfish motivations (Matthew 6:1-3). Likewise, with intersectionality, CRT does rightly point out that people can often view us through multiple lenses at once and treat us unjustly as a result. Think of the Samaritan woman in John 4, who was marginalized on account of being a Samaritan, being a woman, and having had five previous husbands. We don’t have to buy into the entire theoretical framework of CRT to acknowledge basic things like this.
Above all, though, CRT has forced us to reckon with American history. Much of the debate about whether CRT should be taught in schools revolves around how we are going to teach American history. As Christians, we need to strive for truth and honesty (Psalm 32:2, Proverbs 12:22, John 8:32, Ephesians 4:15). Traditionally, many of America’s ugly past sins with racism and slavery have been downplayed or inaccurately portrayed. This should not be. We need to acknowledge our past sins and deal with them truthfully, teaching the facts of history.
At the same time, we must recognize that history is difficult to teach without an accompanying narrative that ties all the individual facts together (i.e. “story-telling”). Things like the 1619 Project develop a counternarrative that seeks to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” By doing so, it portrays the United States as fundamentally racist to its core, unable to be separated from its sins of slavery and jim crow. In my view, this narrative is unbalanced and ignores the many goods which our Founders accomplished. Nevertheless, Christians can debate which facts of history ought to be told and the narratives that go along with them. In the end, the only narrative which can accurately convey both the depth of humanity’s sin and the riches of God’s goodness throughout history is the gospel, but that is unlikely to become the narrative adopted by public education.
B. Weaknesses of CRT
While CRT can draw our attention to many important issues and problems, it also has numerous weaknesses:
- CRT’s definition of racism seems problematic. The Bible certainly addresses racism as an expression of showing partiality (Leviticus 19:15, Acts 10:34-35, 1 Timothy 5:21, James 2:1-9), hatred (1 John 2:9-11, 4:20-21), and failing to love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:25-37). However, much of CRT scholarship is premised on the idea that material disparities observed along racial lines are the result of racism. While we should acknowledge the many ways in which the sins of the past and present contribute to racial disparities or other injustices, making an immediate correlation between any disparity and racism is simplistic. As we explained in our 3-part series on equity vs. equality, not all differences in outcome are the result of injustice. It takes a greater degree of nuance and wisdom to sort through the causes of racial disparities and what to do about them.
- Since CRT draws from postmodernism (where there is no objective source of truth), it presents minorities’ lived experience as an authoritative source of truth (sometimes called standpoint epistemology). It’s important to listen to one another’s lived experience, as it can help make us aware of blind spots in our own ways of thinking. However, if lived experience is held as the highest source of knowledge, this undermines the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word as the final arbiter of truth (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This will become readily apparent if “truths” drawn from lived experience were to conflict with the Bible. Which gets prioritized? Biblical wisdom and faithfulness should draw us towards recognizing the fallibility of our limited perspective and submitting ourselves to God’s Word (Proverbs 14:12).
- CRT is overly skeptical of people’s motivations and the racial progress that has been made. As I mentioned above, interest convergence has some truth to it. Nevertheless, as Christians, we are commanded to act without selfishness (Philippians 2:3-4). Even if someone has ulterior motives, if they accomplish genuine good, then we should still rejoice in the good that is accomplished (Philippians 1:15-18).
- On balance, CRT overly emphasizes our racial differences and group identities. On one hand, part of the purpose of CRT is to draw our attention towards how race does play a role in society and can go largely unacknowledged by the dominant culture. This has some value. On the other hand, CRT (and its practitioners) can end up filtering everything through our racial or other group identities. Placing such emphasis on group identity runs counter to the biblical narrative, which presents humanity as fundamentally united. We are united in creation, being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) and having a common lineage to Adam (Acts 17:26). We are united in our sinfulness and our need for forgiveness in Christ (Romans 3:21-26), and in Christ, we have an identity, faith, and unity that transcends our group identities (Colossians 1:19-23, 3:11; Galatians 3:28). We become one new humanity in him (Ephesians 2:14-18). This results in a forgiveness, reconciliation, unity, and peace between groups which is unattainable under CRT.
I could go on to critique other aspects of CRT (rejection of Western values, unhelpful racialized language like “Whiteness,” attributing majority privilege to racial privilege, criticisms toward colorblindness and meritocracy, etc.) but this would make this article too long. Suffice it to say, CRT is not something that Christians should wholeheartedly embrace.
In many ways, CRT is the best explanation that worldly, human reasoning can come up with apart from an understanding of sin and the gospel. As such, it can accurately describe some of the realities of living in a broken world infected with sin. People are sinful (Romans 3:23). They have and will continue to use race as a means of sinning against fellow image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:26-28; James 3:9). On the other hand, CRT can be simplistic in its diagnosis of racial problems; it is materialistic and postmodern in outlook; and viewing everything through the lenses of race and other group identities will ultimately serve to further division rather than unity. Christians can acknowledge the true observations that CRT makes without buying into the narrative or belief structure that goes along with it.
**This article was originally published on Advocates for Truth under the title Critical Race Theory and the Bible.
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