The definition and origins of critical race theory are difficult to explain, and this is part of the issue when we discuss it. Critics such as James Lindsay in his New Discourses podcast have noted the roots of critical race theory in Hegelian dialectical thought, and have been critical of Hegel’s work as such. But this is missing the point. Anyone who has been following this argument even casually for the last few years knows that neither the Left nor the Right have Hegel in mind when they discuss CRT.
A balanced definition of CRT from a primary source can be found in the book “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic: “the critical race theory (CRT) movement is 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.”
CRT was originally a branch of legal scholarship specifically rooted in American jurisprudence but has now come to refer to a broader understanding of race and social dynamics, which means it can be used in far more contexts than solely American courtrooms. Therefore everything, from dog parks (which are “unbearably, unapologetically white”) to everyday terms like “master bedroom” and “whitelisting/blacklisting” can be a manifestation of the white supremacist substructure which “permeate[s] nearly every aspect of our society”.
Delgado and Stefancic’s definition is extremely broad, and on the face of it seems eminently reasonable. The discussion of race has its time and place and acting like race is not considered in human interactions is a non-starter. Racism exists, and it must be addressed because it is morally wrong. However, as we can see above, CRT has evolved into a kind of sociological monster, devouring everything in its path. What used to be a unique and interesting, albeit heavily flawed, means of assessing legal cases has now become a profoundly distorted worldview.
In practice, applying CRT usually means addressing some phenomenon (say, a gap between racial groups in some social or economic outcome) as a manifestation of racial power dynamics, and use sociological terminology to describe it. CRT is related to many of the “activist” disciplines in academia, such as gender studies, black studies and other areas of research where the conclusions are already known in advance, and where the scholar’s task is to confirm and reassert them rather than to inquire. This is why discussions of racism are so predictable now: “X is racist” is an appealing argument to many, and as long as you reach the socially desired conclusion, your opinion is valid. It is ironic that a school of thought so concerned with social power dynamics adheres so closely to what is socially acceptable and popular to say and vilifies anyone who would dare to challenge their orthodoxy. So much for the “mavericks”.
A recent hoax by Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian and the aforementioned James Lindsay demonstrated this perfectly: they proved the hypothesis that academic journals would publish obviously absurd “scholarship” so long as it reaches the appropriately “woke” conclusion. Their re-purposing of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as a feminist narrative of struggle against patriarchy is particularly hilarious. Alan Sokal would be proud.
Previous sociological methods of addressing and combatting racism, such as “colourblindness” have been met with scorn by contemporaries, as they argue it obfuscates the existence of racial power dynamics. A colour-blind society would be one in which race does not affect someone’s relationship to society in any way, in the same manner that someone’s eye colour or favourite music genre are irrelevant characteristics which should not affect an individual’s life outcomes. This used to be a laudable ideal – it is now met with derision and can be associated either with out-of-touch liberal elitism, or even far-right adjacency. Colour-blindness was even described by the British National Library’s Decolonising Working Group as an example of “covert white supremacy”.
This is an example of how oppositional and antagonistic CRT can be when it is used in practice – if you are not with us, you are against us, which means you are defending white supremacy. Any means of epistemology which cannot be criticised is not a means of understanding, but a means of control over knowledge itself – it is more of a cult than an academic discipline.
CRT relies on social constructivist arguments, which assert that humans are blank slates and that our problems in society result from social constructs which can simply be re-engineered if the “right people” (the wokest) are at the helm of the social ship. The problem is that prioritising extremely weak forms of “evidence” such as “lived experience” is not a good means of asserting or refuting hypotheses, as a “lived experience” is by its very nature irrefutable. You would have to climb into someone’s mind and memories in order to properly dismantle their argument. And since we all have our own “lived experiences”, a kind of moral relativism can arise, where everyone is simply screaming their own lived experiences at each other, our hierarchy of values has dissolved, and no conclusion can be reached. The scientific method requires that test results are independently reproducible and verifiable so that any scientist could run the same experiment for themselves to see whether the original results can be reproduced. H2O is H2O and the laws of gravity are the laws of gravity; anyone can run the same experiments, and they would come to the same conclusion. In the postmodern vacuum of lived experience and power dynamics, feelings and relativism mean that nothing can be true or good – in fact, the concepts of “good” or “true” are simply manifestations of the corrupt status quo trying to justify its own existence.
What is interesting to note is that the book by Delgado and Stefancic itself has been updated to incorporate this new understanding of CRT. In 2017, the third edition of the book was published with a new section addressing topics such as “the Black Lives Matter movement, the presidency of Barack Obama and the rise of hate speech on the Internet”. The authors note that critical race theory “now includes a well-developed Asian American jurisprudence, a forceful Latino-critical (LatCrit) contingent, a feisty LGBT interest group, and now a Muslim and Arab caucus”. This is precisely one of the issues with CRT – its methodology or “praxis” (leftists love this word) has now been expanded to many contexts, disciplines and situations.
Perhaps this is one of the key strengths of CRT which activists and adherents like to employ: CRT is so undefined and ethereal that any substantive criticism can be met with “That’s not what I mean” or “You don’t understand what CRT is”. Purposefully vague and shifting definitions of words make them much more difficult to critique, even when we all acknowledge the principles and features of CRT when it appears in the wild – we know it when we see it.
CRT is an academic tool, but it is an incredibly imprecise one. Ultimately, CRT is an illustration of the “Law of the Instrument”: if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the only methodological tool you have is CRT, more and more aspects of everyday life will starting to look like “structural racism”.