You Don’t Know What Critical Race Theory Is

By Ismail Royer

“Truth” is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.

Michel Foucault

For the critical race theorist, objective truth, like merit, does not exist, at least in social science and politics. In these realms, truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group.

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, First Edition

And yet I hardly think that you know what a Sophist is; and if not, then you do not even know to whom you are committing your soul and whether the thing to which you commit yourself be good or evil.

Plato, Protagoras

There is much to-do in popular culture today about Critical Race Theory (CRT), whether it should be rejected or embraced. Champions of CRT accuse those who oppose it of not knowing what it is (“You can’t summarize CRT in three sentences!”). The truth is that most of CRT’s champions and opponents appear to have no clear idea of what it is.

That’s not really their fault. CRT is hard to pin down because it is a species of postmodernism, and postmodernism is a very elusive phenomenon. In some ways it is more of a mood than a defined ideology characteristic of the sort that came out of modernity, that is, the Enlightenment.

CRT, like all postmodernism, actually belongs to the Counter-Enlightenment, primarily originating with Nietzsche and the Romantic movement which rejected the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason. The defining features of postmodernism are its rejection of reason and absolute truth, its moral and epistemological relativism, and its notion that truth claims are in reality simply power flexes aimed at benefiting those in power. The connection between CRT and Nietzsche‘s “will to power” and the genealogical method (i.e. the radical historization of all truth claims, a relativizing approach) is by way of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who were major influences on CRT.

CRT also has Marxist roots. Many will say, “It’s not coherent to say that CRT is both postmodernist and Marxist because Marxism is an Enlightenment ideology.” As an initial matter, it’s true that Marxism is an Enlightenment ideology, but Marx himself was a relativist who wrote that societies will hold certain things to be true and moral that are appropriate to certain stages in the process towards communism.

CRT adopted many aspects of Marxism (as in its substitution of racial struggle for class struggle) but ultimately, it rejects the Enlightenment teleological myth of progress that Marxism shares with all Enlightenment ideologies. That modified, postmodernist version of Marxism is inherited from the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School from which CRT descends by way of its parent movement, Critical Legal Studies.

This is why its a serious error to debate CRT merely on the level of “it’s racially divisive.” Of course it’s racially divisive, but that’s not the whole story or even the main story. The primary problem with CRT is that, like all postmodernist thought, it is corrosive not only to faith but also to reason.

Traditional religion founds truth and morality on God and reason. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, rejected God, and instead attempts to found truth and morality on reason alone. The postmodernist response to the Enlightenment’s doomed attempt to found truth and morality on reason alone was not to return to the faith that the Enlightenment rejected, but instead to agree with the Enlightenment that faith was untenable (“God is dead, and we have killed him”), while also rejecting the Enlightenment’s embrace of reason as a replacement for faith. In sum, the Enlightenment rejected God and kept reason, while postmodernism rejects both God and reason and says claims of truth and morality are merely exercises of power.

That’s why, to a believer, critiques of CRT by atheist liberals like Helen Pluckrose often make a lot of sense, because liberals are right insofar as they argue that truth does exist and that reason helps us grasp it. But it’s also why postmodernist critiques of the Enlightenment often make sense to believers: because postmodernists are correct in pointing out that founding morality on reason alone is impossible, and that liberalism is merely a mirror image of the bourgeois values of 18th and 19th century European Christians which Enlightenment thinkers attempted to elevate to the status of universal truth while blowing up its epistemological foundation by rejecting God.

But does CRT have “tools” that are useful in understanding the nature of race-based injustice in America? Yes, but only in the sense that, for example, claims of universal truth and objectivity are in fact quite often false, quite often have historical roots, and quite often serve the agenda of those in political power. But this insight is hardly unique to CRT, and in fact all postmodernism generalizes from the fact that some truth claims are mere products of their time and place to the conclusion that all truth claims are mere products of their time and place. Thus the adoption of CRT to any extent by believers is a serious mistake, because it is both unnecessary (in that its true insights are not unique to it) and corrosive to faith.

But didn’t Muslims (and Christians) incorporate much of Aristotle’s thought? Yes, in a sense, but it’s not the same thing. Historically, Islamic scholars benefited from the wisdom of a great many people and cultures, from pre-Islamic Arabs to Greece to Persia and beyond, but none of these rejected the very notion of truth and reason. There is very little benefit and much harm in attempting to incorporate wisdom from a strand of thought which rejects the very foundations of faith and indeed rational thought itself, which allows us to arrive at faith, especially when any insights that strand of thought might have are to be found elsewhere. Islamic scholars spent no energy attempting to derive benefits from barren ideas and methodologies like sophism, for example, which postmodernism in many ways resembles.

But doesn’t CRT lead to key insights, such as the fact that liberal attempts to solve the problem of racism often merely exacerbated it and covered it up, or that racism can be perpetuated by institutions even if individuals who make up those institutions are unaware of it or might not be personally racist? Well, these fact claims are empirically testable (and in my view are demonstrably true, but that’s another essay). CRT theorists are not the first to have made these observations, and more fundamentally, CRT’s premises are not required in order to make them. Indeed, CRT’s anti-rationalist premises actually undermine empiricism and thus thwart attempts to measure the effects of institutional racism.

But isn’t it racist to criticize CRT since CRT is the thought product of black thinkers? No, because, with all due respect to CRT theorists, it is ultimately German and French in its origins. In any event, the truth or falsehood of ideas has nothing to do with the color of the skin of those who espouse them, but must be evaluated on their merits.

CRT has many other problems and, like all man-made ideologies, inherent contradictions, but I have outlined some of the most important ones here.

أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا كَلِمَةً طَيِّبَةً كَشَجَرَةٍ طَيِّبَةٍ أَصْلُهَا ثَابِتٌ وَفَرْعُهَا فِي السَّمَاء وَمَثَلُ كَلِمَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ كَشَجَرَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ اجْتُثَّتْ مِن فَوْقِ الْأَرْضِ مَا لَهَا مِن قَرَار

Do you not see how God sets forth a parable? A good word is as a good tree: its root is firm and its branches reach the sky. And the parable of an evil word is that of an evil tree, uprooted from the face of the earth, having no stability.

Quran, Surah Ibrahim 14:25-26

Updated to include linked citations.

4 thoughts on “You Don’t Know What Critical Race Theory Is

  1. Pingback: You Don’t Know What Critical Race Theory Is by Ismail Royer – Social Justice Archive

  2. This is a superb piece. I am really impressed with the author’s ability to explain the big notions in post-Enlightenment thought in such an accessible way.


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