What Is Critical Race Theory, Really?
And why that’s often the wrong question
It’s all CRT these days.
I’m teasing a bit here, but only a bit. As the debate over the teaching of various critical theories in U.S. public schools has heated up, major papers have published wave after wave of articles denying that critical race theory is taught much at all outside law schools, while other writers have drawn the most technical of distinctions between “CRT” and other academic specialties like critical theory, whiteness studies, critical pedagogy, intersectionality, white fragility, white privilege theory, and so on.
This debate over semantics might provide an interesting basis for a panel at a scholarly conference, but it’s of little use or interest for parents concerned that their children are being taught partisan nonsense. While technical differences exist between the various critical paradigms, virtually all of them share three baseline assumptions: that racism is “everywhere,” and supposedly neutral systems, such as policing or standardized tests, are set up to oppress minorities; that to prove the existence of this oppression one need only note that large groups perform at different levels; and that the solution to this problem is equity—or proportional representation of all groups across all endeavors.
None of this is an exaggeration. The quote about racism being “everyday” and constant comes from Richard Delgado, one of the founders of critical race theory. The claim that group differences must indicate racism or other prejudice comes from no less a critical eminence than Ibram X. Kendi, who has famously said that the only possible explanations for such gaps are either oppression or literal genetic inferiority. Kendi has also proposed a federal-level Department of Anti-Racism. Along with these core ideas of “systemic racism” generally come a basket of other woke concepts like white privilege, “cultural appropriation,” “intersectionality,” the Black Lives Matter take on policing, and the idea of constant interracial conflict and crime.
Parents reject most of this package not because they are bigots or too complacent in suburbia but because they believe it is wrong. As analysts like Thomas Sowell have pointed out for more than 40 years, the idea that gaps in performance between large groups must be due either to racism or to genetics is absurd.
Groups of people who vary in race and religion also often vary across other cultural and situational traits. For example, the most common age for a black American, which could be fairly called the modal average, is 27; the most common age for a white American is 58. Simply adjusting for these differences in age (and thus work experience), and for a few other traits like the regions people live in and their scores on standard aptitude tests, closes black-white gaps in income to almost nothing. In fact, either seven or eight—depending on how you count South Africans—of the top ten income-earning groups in the United States these days are made up of “people of color.”
Most of the ideas associated with the major critical paradigms collapse as easily and totally as their core concepts. After years of flattering mainstream media coverage of Black Lives Matter, a large recent study revealed that the majority of “very liberal” Americans believes that in a typical year police kill anywhere from “about 1,000” to “more than 10,000” unarmed black men. Last year, the actual number of blacks killed in this manner was 18.
A serious look at the data on interracial crime and conflict reveals similar patterns. Major papers run nonstop stories about cruel whites or mobs attacking minorities. Meantime, figures from the U.S. National Crime Victimization Study reveal that only about 3 percent of all serious crimes in a normal year, like 2019, are violent crimes involving a white perpetrator and a black victim or a black perp and a white victim. Further, 70 percent to 90 percent of these incidents are generally black-on-white, rather than the reverse.
Facts matter, but so does context. Critical theorists say some things that are essentially true, but meaningless—and likely to mislead unless one has a nuanced understanding of history or other disciplines. For example, it is undeniably true that slavery once existed in the United States. However, it is also undeniably true that almost every other powerful nation in history held slaves as well.
A trans-African slave trade run largely by Muslim merchants lasted far longer than even the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and it subjected far more people (about 18 million) to human bondage. The same amoral traders didn’t hesitate to sell battle captives or shipwrecked sailors with pale skin: the conveniently forgotten Barbary slave trade shipped more than 1 million Caucasian slaves to Arab and black masters for centuries. Focusing lesson plans and curricula on the horrors of slavery without ever mentioning the universal nature of the practice or the fact that it was ended by Western countries is hardly “just being honest.”
Just being honest: that phrase really sums up what parents demand—not, generally, a jingoistic system of education, but also not a reflexively critical one. Parents want an honest, fair, and reasonably apolitical curriculum that depicts the United States as it was and is, warts and all.
Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
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