At a recent gathering of Baptists, an adept assured us that Critical Race Theory and Intersectional Theory supplied us with “analytical tools” offering us “selective insights” for employment in our quest to “understand multifaceted social dynamics.” We just had to be careful to not receive these theories as “transcendent ideological frameworks” that could be “absolutized as … worldview[s],” displacing allegiance to the teachings of Scripture. Most of us were puzzled, even skeptical. But what did we know?
I’ve been trying to sort this out. First, what exactly is the theory in CRT? We have germ theory in biology (with toxic microbes), molecular theory in chemistry (with electrons), and plate tectonic theory in geology (with continental drift). These supply narratives about how people might get TB, build a nuclear plant, or decide, as seismophobes, to leave California. As scientific theories, they’re supposed to be testable and falsifiable. Alas, by these standards, social science theories are notoriously loose, more like tinted goggles one might choose to wear, with lenses designed to filter out certain rays. Freud’s goggles bathed everything in sexuality; Marx saw history in terms of economic conflict, and all sorts of conflict theories followed, some focused on race, some on gender, and some on the very notion of truth itself (including the canons of Western civilization). They look eagerly for haves and have-nots, oppressors and oppressed, privileged and disadvantaged, and then for the systems by which the power structures are maintained, consciously or unconsciously. In the case of CRT, the narrative says essentially that people of color are in a terrible fix, thanks to the historic and continuing activity of white folks.
So, then, one must ask whether that theory holds water. It’s sort of like questioning the soundness of Al Gore’s “inconvenient truth” regarding anthropogenic global warming. It seems fair to ask whether things are really as bad as all that and, if so, whether the blame is being fairly distributed. But in the case of CRT, this sort of talk is ingeniously deflected with a range of “King’s X” tactics. Doubters are labeled “fragile” and “racist,” afflicted with “whiteness.” They’re counseled to “just listen” while “we have a conversation” (the “conversation” being accusatory lectures from the aggrieved). They dramatize small slights, whether real or imagined, with talk of “micro-aggressions” and “safe spaces” and season speech with patronizing psychobabble, e.g., “Otherness.” The word,“racism” gets a crazy new definition restricting its application to the advantaged, and the word “widespread” is tricked up into “systemic.” In postmodernist fashion, CRT deploys a range of logical fallacies, disparaged in real science but now celebrated by this “theory”: ad hominem (attacking the person), ad misericordiam (appealing to pity), and false dichotomy. It snorts at the venerable ideal of “color-blindness” and lionizes the grim “insights” of Ta-Nehisi Coates, while treating Thomas Sowell as a “Tom.”
Actually, the goggles analogy falls short, in that CRT is not just a way of receiving impressions, but also, and avowedly, a way of burning off blemishes and malignancies — more like Superman’s “heat vision,” more a blowtorch than an analytical microscope. This is how critical theory rolls in general, whether its feminists are cauterizing the word “chairman” or queer theorists are incinerating titles such as “Mr.” and “Ms.” and grafting on “Mx.” in their place. Of course, virtually all theories generate action plans; Joseph Lister picked up on Louis Pasteur’s work in microbiology, making surgery safer by sterilizing his scalpels in carbolic acid. But, in critical theory, praxis far outruns scientia. It’s more akin to opposition research for a political campaign, driven by the desire to dig up dirt (or manufacture it or construe as dirt that which is not dirt). It’s the province of gotcha!s, histrionics, and slander — partisan muckraking and scandalmongering, dressed up in fancy words, the aim being more power, not more truth. As such, it’s textbook postmodernism, where the enemy’s words are “deconstructed” to expose shameful motives, where overarching metanarratives (or worldviews) are meant to be tactical, not veridical.
That being said, how exactly could one could use CRT/I theory as an analytical tool without buying into the basic conviction and spirit of the theory itself. Think of how odd it would be to commend the use of a dowsing rod while dismissing water witching. Or what of marketing craniometric calipers while shunning phrenology. Yes, of course, investigations based on dumb or evil assumptions can be productive. Alchemists were hard at work trying to turn lead into gold, but one of them was able to isolate phosphorous in the 17th century. And though Nazi physician Karl Brandt was hanged for war crimes, he did help us understand how long you can survive while floating in frigid salt water (an experiment conducted fatally on Holocaust Jews for the sake of Third Reich air crews, who might be shot down over the North Sea). Fact of the matter is, you can learn something from anything. Philo Farnsworth got the idea for television’s image scanner watching farmers plow their fields. But it’s reasonable to ask whether this or that approach is a waste of time or even deleterious.
Consider the “observer effect,” which is in play whether we’re using a tire gauge (lowering the pressure as we read it) or using photons to take readings on electrons in particle physics (knocking the latter off course in the process). The same goes for CRT/I, in that its application aggravates the grievances it’s supposed to detect and measure. Furthermore, some analytical tools can be dangerous to the user. Think of the dental technician who steps behind a lead wall when taking an X-rays. Similarly, we need to assess the damage done to the CRT/I enthusiast obsessed with taking “outrage X-rays.”
I began with reference to a Christian meeting, so let me attempt to wax pastoral and biblical for a moment. Above all, I’m convinced that CRT/I is scripturally deficient (both sub-Christian and anti-Christian) and spiritually toxic. Forget race for a moment: Suppose one of the flock, a white guy, comes to me week after week with complaints about how his boss doesn’t appreciate him, how he gets passed over for promotions, how his fellow workers drop thinly veiled insults on him, etc. Yes, I might commiserate a bit or maybe suggest that he look for a new job. But, following the spirit of the Bible, I’m more inclined to say things like “Be anxious in nothing,” “Give thanks in all things,” “Let your light shine before men,” “The Lord is your shepherd,” and “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.” (And, if I dared, I might lead him to consider whether there could be some defect in his performance or, perhaps, a beam in his own eye.)
And then there’s the health/wealth gospel: Christ didn’t come to insure freedom from disease on earth; he came to (among other things) ensure freedom from horror at the thought of disease on earth. So, back to CRT/I — Jesus didn’t come to put you in a state of constant, simmering resentment or lament over mini, midi, or maxi nicks to your dignity, but to free you from fretting over these things. He didn’t come to give you earthly privilege, but to give you joy when you lacked it.
But am I not protecting the oppressors with this servile counsel, dispensing opiates to the oppressed masses. “Sure, Coppenger, you can be as meek as you wish, but don’t ask others to respond so pathetically. What about the demands of justice?”
I’m glad you brought that up, for it seems to me that CRT/I partakes heavily of the bogus notion of “social justice,” which makes equality of outcomes the ideal, and, indeed, a right. But this is manifestly not a biblical standard, either in this world or the world to come. As Thomas Sowell typified social justice, it’s “envy plus rhetoric,” which, again, lacks scriptural favor. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t insist upon equality of results, but rather upon treating equals equally, without regard to race, whether individuals were equally admirable or equally deplorable.
Besides being toxic, CRT/I is superfluous. When, in Acts 6, the Hellenistic Jews complained that the Hebraic Jews were neglecting their (intersectionally-disadvantaged) widows in food relief, the church appointed deacons to pick up the slack. Done and done. No need to appoint diversity officers to monitor the congregation for Hebraic microaggressions: “Samuel, listen. Andrew doesn’t feel safe when you wear that head covering to the service. And, while you’re at it, would you go easy on quoting Habakkuk in small group, since Junias, who doesn’t know Habukkuk from Zephaniah, feels marginalized.” Think how that would have changed the dynamic of the early church, with a shift from mutual care to frenetic indulgence of hypochondriacs.
Of course, you want to be considerate, not calling old folks “geezers” and “coots” (unless they fill the bill as creeps in their golden years). Some words are loaded. But now it’s fashionable to load perfectly good words with the radioactive waste of hypersensitivity. It’s the stock in trade of the CRT/I enthusiasts, and it’s guaranteed to be a fellowship killer. W. E. B. Du Bois is celebrated for identifying the tortures of “double-consciousness” (in which a divided self always having to gauge itself through the racist’s eyes), but CRT/I has generated a new form of torment: the “double-consciousness” of walking on eggshells lest those wielding the “analytical tools” turn on them.
In practice, CRT/I is a bottomless pit of indignation, a never-ending search for slights. Indeed, it is pharisaical, in that it manufactures ever-more-precise rules for “righteousness.” It befuddles and even beclowns people who should know better, but who still cave in to, and enforce, its conceits, whether through stirring conviction, overweening tenderness, misplaced trust in the preachments of others, lack of confidence in one’s powers of discernment, fear of stigmatization, or desire for ingratiation, marketing zeal, virtue-signaling, or the frisson of abnegation.
Another thing: The Bible makes it clear that our fallen world is vastly out of whack. Of course, racism still exists. So do lust, greed, and sloth. It’s trivially true that there are always grounds for complaint. But pride, hair-trigger crankiness, recrimination, and score-keeping are enemies of the “racial reconciliation” churches are said to seek. (A slight puzzle: When was the earlier conciliation that puts the “re” in “reconciliation”?)
Of course, Christian solidarity across ethnic lines is wonderful and much to be desired. But the Bible says you achieve that through Word and Spirit, not through seeing how close to the flame of treacherous words and spirits you might fly without being burned.
Finally, let me suggest that Critical Race Theory is a highly uncritical theory, for the reasons given above, but also for what it presumes to promise. Implicit is the claim that it provides a path to well-being, when it actually generates more misery for all ethnicities involved. It operates like a Ponzi scheme, with big payoffs for those who get in early in terms of acclaim, employment, publication, and platform opportunities. But those who get the impression that it is a reliable path to self- and social esteem and the satisfaction they bring, are in for a big, sad surprise. Or, to put it otherwise: “Get woke, and get took.”