Here’s a critical question for enthusiasts of critical race theory, particularly its growing number of strange disciples on the religious left: How did MLK do what he did without CRT?
That is, how did the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. manage to do what he did without critical race theory? MLK preceded CRT, which began its rise in the 1970s, exploding in our terrible universities later. King was assassinated in 1968.
Hmm, how in the world did King manage to accomplish what he did without critical race theory? The answer is obvious: MLK didn’t need CRT. Neither did the NAACP, which was founded over 100 years ago. Neither did African American figures as diverse as Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks and countless more.
King, in fact, would have rejected CRT, least of all because of its Marxist roots.
I asked David Garrow, the preeminent biographer of King (and certainly no conservative), about King and CRT. “CRT so post-dates him that there’s no connection,” Garrow told me, “but MLK would have most certainly rejected ANY identity-based classification of human beings.”
No question. For King, you were to be judged on your individual character, not lumped into a category. You were a child of God made in the image of God.
King’s associates who survived him certainly rejected CRT.
Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker was very close to the Rev. King. He said: “Today, too many ‘remedies’ — such as Critical Race Theory, the increasingly fashionable post-Marxist/post-modernist approach that analyzes society as institutional group power structures rather than on spiritual or one-to-one human level — are taking us in the wrong direction: separating even school children into explicit racial groups, and emphasizing differences instead of similarities.” Walker stressed: “The roots of CRT are planted in entirely different intellectual soil. It begins with ‘blocs’ (with each person assigned to an identity or economic bloc, as in Marxism).”
The Rev. King’s views on Marxism and socialism are notoriously difficult to pin down. Garrow would put King in the camp of some form of “democratic socialism,” probably closer to that originally envisioned by “social justice” Catholic Michael Harrington during his founding of the Democratic Socialists of America in the early 1980s, a DSA far removed from today’s DSA — the DSA of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush. Today’s DSA is saturated with members who are sympathetic to Marxism, not to mention atheism. Harrington would have been very troubled by this.
It was likewise precisely the atheism of communism that bothered the Rev. King.
“Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God,” noted King. “I strongly disagreed with communism’s ethical relativism. Since for the communist, there is no divine government, no absolute moral order, there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently almost anything — force, violence murder, lying — is a justifiable means to the ‘millennial’ end.”
King would have vehemently rejected the embrace of Marxism by the likes of BLM founder Patrisse Cullors. “We are trained Marxists,” says Cullors of her and co-founder Alicia Garza. “We are super-versed on, sort of, ideological theories.” (READ MORE: The Politics of Patrisse Cullors, Founder of Black Lives Matter)
If only Cullors knew what a terrible racist Karl Marx was. I’ve written about this at length in articles and books. Both Marx and Engels nastily flung around the n-word, that is, the actual American-English racial epithet for black people. It’s striking to read letters between Marx and Engels in German and be struck by the n-word jumping off the page.
King would have vehemently rejected the embrace of Marxism by the likes of BLM founder Patrisse Cullors.
Of course, Cullors probably has no idea of that. She attended our universities. She would have learned only good things about Marx and Engels.
Dr. King would surely recoil at statements like the one issued last week from Cullors’ Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation blasting what it dubs “White-supremacist-capitalism.” The statement declared: “White-supremacist-capitalism uses policing to protect profits and steal Black life. Skip the Black Friday sales and buy exclusively from Black-owned businesses.” The shocking statement continued: “As BLMLA organizer, Jan Williams, reminds us, ‘Capitalism doesn’t love Black people.’ In fact, white-supremacist-capitalism invented policing, initially as chattel-slavery-era ‘paddy rollers,’ in order to protect its interests and put targets on the backs of Black people.”
It’s hard to imagine the Rev. King engaging in similar deeply divisive Marxist-based rhetoric. This is what can happen when the ugly specter of communism is dragged into the civil rights struggle. It does not unite. It divides. That’s what Marxism has always done.
All of this brings me back to my opening question: Why do so many people on the left, and particularly the religious left, feel the need to embrace critical race theory in order to teach about the nation’s past racial sins? Believe me, I know. I’m hearing from them constantly, especially as modern times have prompted me to regrettably enter into the CRT debate, which for years I avoided like the plague because it’s so incendiary.
Few modern topics have become as divisive, which is no surprise, given that CRT divides. It divides people into groups pitted against one another, into categories of oppressed vs. oppressor. And your group defines you. This certainly flies in the face of the Judeo-Christian conception of all individuals as children of God.
What’s making CRT even worse are misunderstandings and misconceptions on both sides, from the left and the right.
From the left, MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace recently made headlines for a comment about how “critical race theory … isn’t real.” The context of her statement seems to have been to allege that CRT isn’t really being taught in Virginia public schools — i.e., conservatives were manufacturing the claim to win elections. But the truth is that the revolt in northern Virginia started with very upset and frustrated parents at local school boards, many of whom theretofore had been apolitical in a highly Democrat district. It was a grassroots uprising. It’s crucial to understand that not only have conservatives taken notice and condemned the teaching of CRT in public schools — far from it — but so have liberals ranging from the likes of James Carville to Andrew Sullivan to John McWhorter to Bill Maher and many more.
Entire groups like the 1776 Unites project, made up of longtime leading African-American scholars like Carol Swain, Glenn Loury, Bob Woodson, Shelby Steele, Wilfred Reilly, and dozens more have sprung up to counter CRT ideas.
That’s no myth. That is real.
As a professor at Grove City College, I got an email last year from the parent of a prospective student really upset that one of her young kids was being taught that she as a “White” (upper case “W”) person was part of the oppressor class. As such, the girl needed to admit to her “White privilege” and unacknowledged racism and how she inherently discriminates against people of color, even if she believes she doesn’t. The kid, whose family every year at home celebrates MLK Day, was completely flummoxed by the whole thing. The class of fifth-graders was being urged to write letters to the Cleveland Indians organization to change the team’s name, and they live in Illinois — about eight hours from Cleveland.
That’s a manifestation of CRT thinking. That’s real.
And yet, on the flip side, authentic forms of teaching about legitimate racial discrimination can get mislabeled as advocating for CRT. That’s wrong, too.
Rejecting CRT doesn’t mean rejecting talking about racial discrimination.
A respected colleague and good friend fears that if he talks about slavery or racial injustices in a course where he has long done so, he’ll now be suspected of advocating for CRT, given how riled up conservatives are about the issue. Point taken. Of course, that would be wrong, outrageously so. Discussing such subjects, as myself and other professors at Grove City College have long done, is obviously not to advocate for critical race theory. One of the required readings in our mandatory Western Civ course is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s magnificent letter from the Birmingham Jail, which we all agreed from the outset to include as a core reading in the course. We certainly incorporated that letter long before the current CRT wave and will continue to do so.
I also lecture on King’s profound letter every fall semester in my comparative politics course, as well as lectures that I do around the country for Young America’s Foundation.
Clearly, teaching about the sins and evils of slavery and racism does not ipso facto place one in the category of CRT writers like Robin DiAngelo, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Ibram Kendi. Conversely, when CRT writers laudably condemn, say, Jim Crow, that’s no reason to become a CRT advocate. Just as when Marxists laudably condemn, say, forced child labor, that’s no reason to become a Marxist. All human beings should reject those things. You need not become a critical race theorist or Marxist.
Here, too, it reminds me of a constant caution I urge to religious-left Christians who oddly feel compelled to say sympathetic things of Marxism: If you want to help the poor, just follow the Gospel and teachings of Jesus. Why follow militantly atheistic Marxism merely because Karl Marx likewise talked of helping the poor? That’s silly. Marxists vehemently reject religion. Just as Marxists don’t get to claim ownership of workers’ rights, neither do critical race theorists suddenly get to claim ownership of civil rights. The NAACP, for instance, has somehow managed to fight for civil rights since 1909 without embracing CRT.
People on the religious left have long been so easily manipulated by radical theories. They’ve long been dupes to these ideas. They are very naïve to so many of these noxious ideological notions, and Marxist practitioners have long known that and targeted them (Whittaker Chambers observed it at length).
For the rest of us, and especially professors, this is a teachable moment to clarify such realities and what is and isn’t CRT. It’s what a teacher ought to do.
Alas, what doesn’t help the situation is the behemoth of Big Tech and how it politicizes and manipulates the definitions of these things, which I wrote about here recently. When typing “critical race theory” into Google, you land upon a thoroughly sanitized and sugarcoated Wikipedia definition, with no explicit mention of Marxism. The left’s control of Big Tech is a huge problem.
For those of us in education, we need to strive honestly to explain what these terms really mean and what they don’t. We need to explain what CRT is and isn’t. Most of all, rejecting CRT doesn’t mean rejecting talking about racial discrimination. It didn’t in the past and it won’t in the future.
Until then, in the spirit of Marxism, critical race theory will do what it does: divide people. We need to unite people around what is true. Teach MLK, not CRT.