What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory – Part III

christians critical race theory

Editor’s note: This is the third and final part of a series on Critical Race Theory by Nathan Luis Cartagena. Read part one and part two.

 “The intersected histories of race and sex in America tell an unseemly story…”

Kendall Thomas

“Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Critical Race Theory’s Painful Relevance

Critical race theorist Kenneth Nunn’s words haunt me. As I struggle to process the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd as well as the glaring racial disparities in COVID-19 cases, I remember Nunn’s words: “Law organizes [W]hite society; then it helps maintain that society through both physical and ideological coercion.” Laws and the broader legal system, Nunn argues, order and maintain the U.S. as a White nationalist project through physical and ideological force. Consequently, white supremacy permeates U.S. law and order. Nunn’s disturbing insight anticipates the racial violence and governmental responses we’ve witnessed these past weeks.

If Critical Race Theory (CRT) scholars like Nunn are right, we must not limit Christian anti-racism to chanting “Black Lives Matter” or “Defund the Police” while marching upon blood-soaked stolen lands. Instead, we must identify, resist, and remediate the forms of racism coursing through and from the legal systems shaping people, lands, and institutions.

White Supremacy is Terrorism
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

These God-glorifying anti-racist actions require complex analyses of concepts or events that at first glance may appear unrelated to white supremacy, racism, or law. This is how confronting racialized oppression works. As Paulo Freire writes: “When people lack a critical understanding of their reality, apprehending it in fragments which they do not perceive as interacting constituent elements of the whole, they cannot truly know that reality.” To help us see additional elements constituting our racialized society, this final essay highlights what critical race theorists teach about how law maintains and materializes conceptions of gender, sexuality, and racism undergirded by white supremacy.

Critical Race Theorists on Gendered Races

CRT founder Derrick Bell instructed his students to ground legal analysis in history: “We have to look at history.” The movement’s literature on gendered races shows that Bell’s students heeded his counsel.

Treatments of gender often project contemporary conceptions onto the past. What Tommy Curry writes about Black philosophers generalizes across many disciplines:

“It is common practice for [B]lack philosophers to simply assert that the idea of nineteenth-century thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois (sic), Martin R. Delany, or Anna Julia Cooper, who wrote about racism, manhood, womanhood, and labor can be expressed within our configurations of race, class, and gender in the twenty-first century.”

But these projections obscure the beliefs Du Bois, Delany, and Cooper defended, for each subscribed to the widely-held idea that gender only existed among civilized races. Again Curry: “Under ethnological systems of thought, races were gendered as proof of their evolutionary development above other races. This meant that there were no shared categories of manhood and womanhood across racial groups.”

As Curry’s comments imply, the gendered conceptions of races were hierarchical: some races had evolved further, and so were superior to those lagging behind. Nineteenth-century thinkers presented this hierarchy through the prism of patriarchy. The White Anglo-Saxon race was deemed superior, and thus “masculine;” all others were deemed lesser, and thus “feminine.” Discussing the supposed inferiority of Negros, Robert F. Park declared that “The Negro is, so to speak, the lady among the races.” Jules Michelet said “Africa is a woman; her races are feminine.” Franz I. Pruner-Bey maintained that “the [B]lack man is to [W]hite man what woman is to man in general, a loving being and being of pleasure.” Further still, Carl Vogt argued that “The grown-up Negro partakes, as regards his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the female child, and the senile [W]hite.” A review of Arthur De Gobineau’s influential book Inequality of the Human Races shows similar reasoning applied to all peoples racialized non-White. Masculinity and superiority belonged to Whites.

Chinese Exclusion Act
Editorial cartoon about Chinese exclusion from 1882. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Critical race theorists note that this gendered conception of races shaped U.S. laws. Champions of California’s 1855 “Greaser Act,” such as T.J. Farnham, championed the removal of Mexicans given their race’s lack of masculinity. Since the “Law of Nature” doomed this mixed-blood, feminine race to oblivion, Farnham argued, it was fitting for California’s laws—indeed all the laws of the U.S.—to establish the masculine Caucasian race. Similar reasoning informed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1888). Exclusionists argued that Chinese men’s behavior proved the Chinese were a lesser, feminine race. How else, they contended, could one account for their feminine clothing, hair styles, and clothing? Or their willingness to immigrate alone and never establish a family? Both laws, critical race theorists note, illustrate how gendered conceptions of races maintained white supremacy throughout the U.S.

Critical Race Theorists on Gender-Race Discrimination

Returning to contemporary conceptions of race and gender, CRT scholars use history to illuminate distinctive law-based gendered injustices perpetrated against racialized minorities. Consider Black women. Colonial slave codes and antebellum slave laws traced slavery through the maternal line, thus rendering enslaved Black women slave-bearers for the Southern slavocracy and its Northern dependents. Likewise, Kimberlé Crenshaw notes that, whereas antebellum and postbellum U.S. laws established “[W]hite male regulation of [W]hite female sexuality,” there was “absolutely no institutional effort to regulate Black female chastity.”

A similar lack of specific legal protection for Black women characterized twentieth-century anti-discrimination law. Crenshaw demonstrates that cases such as DeGraffenreid v General Motors, Moore v Hughes Helicopter, and Payne v Travenol failed to offer remediation for the forms of compounded gender-race discrimination Black women encountered, forcing them instead to seek remediation in terms of the experiences of White women or Black males. To overcome this legal discrimination, Crenshaw champions “intersectionality.” She writes:

“I argue that Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender. These problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

For Crenshaw, intersectionality is an analytic concept that helps people identify compounded forms of injustice and discrimination presuming and maintaining white supremacy and patriarchy.

Though Crenshaw created the phrase “intersectionality,” she was not the first to note compounded, identity-based injustices. Scholars including Beverly Lindsay and Deborah King used phrases such as “triple jeopardy,” “interactive oppressions, and “nexus” when referring to gender-race discrimination all racialized minority women experienced. Likewise, Robert Staples refers to the “dual dilemma” Black males face. Staples argues that because “institutional racism and its machinations shape the expression of [B]lack masculinity . . . any understanding of their experience will have to come from an analysis of the complex problems they face as [B]lacks and as men.” Staples calls this “complex of problems” the dual dilemma.

Staples’ writing foreshadows conceptual limitations CRT scholars identify in Crenshaw’s account. These limitations, they argue, emerge from the strands of feminism and anti-racism Crenshaw united while constructing intersectionality. For although Crenshaw applied intersectional analysis to other racialized minority women and the social, political, and economic injustices they experience—and sparked the global reception and implementation of intersectional analysis by presenting at the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism—her presumption that racialized minority males are privileged, legally and otherwise, by gender proved false. Athena Mutua, for example, documented that Black males experience a gendered disadvantage while racially profiled. She writes: “What [B]lack men were experiencing was not sexism, a term that over a long history seemed to me to reference the discrimination and oppression of women, but rather, was gendered racism.” White patriarchy’s manifestation in law and policing bequeathed Black gender-race discrimination, not gender privilege. Tommy Curry and Darren Hutchinson make similar arguments. The legal and ideological legacies of gendered races persist.

Critical Race Theorists on Sexuality

Bob Jones University
Entrance sign at Bob Jones University. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite these debates about Crenshaw’s account of intersectionality, CRT scholars agree that intersectional analysis aids in detecting and dismantling sexual racism in law. Kendall Thomas writes, “The intersected histories of race and sex in America tell an unseemly story . . . because ‘at the core of the heart of the race problem is the sex problem.’” Examinations of U.S. anti-miscegenation laws such as Rachel Moran’s confirm Thomas’s point. So do cases like Bob Jones University v. United States (1983); images of racialized minorities in law; and U.S. immigration policy beginning with the Page Law (1875)—a ban specifically targeting Chinese women. As Erika Lee writes, “the Page Law and the Chinese Exclusion Act provided the legal architecture for twentieth-century American immigration policy.” Similar sexual racism against Latinos has always suffused President Trump’s immigration rhetoric and policies.

Behind these laws, critical race theorists argue, are individual and communal commitments to preserving White racial purity and supremacy. Regarding Black-White relations, Kendall Thomas writes: “The ideology of white supremacy has rarely failed to find a dark and dangerous sexual motive behind the assertion of [B]lack political and civil rights. This almost reflexive ascription of sexual meanings to [B]lack political militancy is surely one of the most constant and curious features of our national history.” CRT scholars point to the mythological construction of the “Nigger-Beast” and Black rapist during Reconstruction and its weaponization in twentieth-century courtrooms to corroborate Thomas’s claim. In McQuirter v. State (1953), for example, a Black man was convicted of assault with intent to rape because he was on the same street as a White woman. Indeed, the judge presiding over McQuirter instructed that when “in determining the question of [McQuierter’s] intention the jury may consider social conditions and customs founded upon racial differences, such as that the prosecutrix was a [W]hite woman and defendant was a Negro man.” Tommy Curry notes that similar sexual racism bolstered White feminism and calls for women’s suffrage. And Ian Haney López traces it throughout presidential campaigns beginning with Barry Goldwater.

Whereas CRT scholars are united in resisting and remediating the legal presence and materialization of racist ideas about the hypersexuality and licentiousness of racialized minority men and women, they do not speak with one voice about how anti-racism relates to LGBTQ+ concerns. Derrick Bell’s major works rarely discuss unjust treatment of homosexuals, for example, and each treatment is peripheral, lying outside the center of his analysis. Mari Matsuda, in contrast, explicitly argues that CRT must include resistance to heterosexism and homophobia because “dismantling any one form of subordination is impossible without dismantling every other.” Similarly, Francisco Valdes argues that CRT offshoots such as LatCrit work “to dismantle the hegemony of Euro-heteropatriarchy.” Yet Crenshaw questions if “LatCrit or QueerCrit are turns, spinoffs, or splinterings of CRT,” even while noting similarities between her identity politics and those of the LGBTQ+ community. Despite these varied positions, CRT scholars agree upon the need to resist proclamations such as “gay is the new black” because, as Patrica Hill Colins and Sirma Bilge argue, these slogans sustain “the post-race myth that fallaciously declare that racism has lapsed.”

Critical Race Theorists on Racism

Though CRT is an anti-racist movement, its adherents disagree about how to conceptualize “racism.” Generally speaking, critical race theorists divide into two camps: those contending racism is an ideology, and those contending racism is a network of material conditions. Richard Delgado outlines each camp’s commitments.

Those contending that racism is an ideology “[hold] that racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, attitude, categorization, and discourse.” On this view, eradicating racism strictly involves “purging [the U.S.] of its underlying images, words, attitudes, and scripts that convey the message that certain people are less worthy, less virtuous, and less American than others.” Charles Lawrence III represents this view.

Those contending that racism is a network of material conditions grant that racism includes ideological components, but stress that “material factors are necessary to the analysis of racial discrimination.” These self-identifying “racial realists” contend that “racism is a means by which society allocates privilege, status, and wealth. Racial hierarchies determine who receives tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools, and the invitations to parties in peoples homes.” On this view, eradicating racism requires radical changes to society’s material conditions and relations. Delgado represents this view.

Although these camps exist, CRT authors sometimes fluctuate between them within a single essay. In “Racial Remediation: An Historical Perspective on Current Conditions,” Derrick Bell, for example, offers a realist analysis while championing an ideological definition of racism. He writes: “Racial policies are still based on the sense-no less deeply held when it is unconscious-that America is a [W]hite nation, and that [W]hite dominance over [B]lacks is natural, right and necessary as well as profitable and satisfying. This pervasive belief, the very essence of racism, remains a viable and valuable national resource.” And again: “Fear of inundation by [B]lacks should be added to the two, already identified, components of racism: (1) the inherent sense that [W]hite people represent a higher and better order of humanity than do [B]lacks; and (2) the feeling that while [B]lacks are citizens, have made many contributions and should not be discriminated against, America is not simply a country consisting of [W]hite majority; it is a [W]hite country which means that flourishing [B]lack institutions of any kind are unnatural, suspect and not to be encouraged.”

Bell’s definitions point to another tension within CRT treatments of racism: many of the early essays operated on a Black-White binary. Robert Chang, Richard Delgado, Angela Harris, Juan Perea, and Deborah Ramirez offer penetrating critiques of this conceptual cropping. Still, each stresses, like Bell, that white supremacy undergirds racism.

Racism may carry hatred, apathy, or benevolence. And it may be explicit or implicit; loud or faint; strategic or spotty; symbolic or structural; individual or institutional; and so on. Laws have and continue to organize the U.S. as a White nation with amalgamated forms of racism.

Whether ideologues or realists, most critical race theorists endorse Bell’s claim that racism is a permanent feature of the U.S. But their endorsement presumes that, just as “race” is a fluid construct, so too is racism. As such, they argue, racism comes in many forms. Racism may carry hatred, apathy, or benevolence. And it may be explicit or implicit; loud or faint; strategic or spotty; symbolic or structural; individual or institutional; and so on. Laws have and continue to organize the U.S. as a White nation with amalgamated forms of racism.


If Nunn’s words haunt me, so does the realization that my three essays on CRT barely begin to convey the movement. I have said nothing about its literature on education, hate-speech, policing, or prisons. And I’ve said little about it’s detailed discussions of whiteness and white privilege. I will address these omissions and make up for this minimal attention in a forthcoming book with IVP Academic. As I said before, CRT requires a book-length engagement. I offer this collection of essays as a stop-gap between now and the publication of my or other such books.

I also offer these essays as an exercise in neighbor-love. I’m appalled by the ever-increasing tendency within the church to speak about CRT without having made an extended stay with the movement’s authors or texts. This lack of familiarity surfaces in disgraceful blog posts and essays published throughout Christian communions. We should be ashamed. Sadly, few will be, and even fewer will repent. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. And Spirit, help us love our CRT neighbors within and without the church as we struggle to be salt and light in a racialized world.

Related: Watch Faithfully Magazine’s Live Q&A on CRT with Dr. Cartagena
Purchase: What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory PDF

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    Written by Nathan Luis Cartagena

    Dr. Nathan Luis Cartagena is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College (IL), where he teaches courses on race, justice, and political philosophy. Cartagena also serves as the faculty advisor for Unidad Cristiana, a student group working to enhance Christian unity and celebrate Latina/o cultures. You can read his writings at nathancartagena.com, and follow him on Twitter @MeditarMestizo.

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