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What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory – Part I

We must labor to understand and evaluate CRT in light of history, political philosophy, sociology, and theology—and the movement’s internal diversity.

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


“Critical Race Theory is the most exciting development in contemporary legal studies.”
Cornel West

“The [Conservative Baptist] Network rejects various unbiblical ideologies currently affecting the Southern Baptist Convention such as Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, and social justice.”
The Conservative Baptist Network

Critical Race Theory and the Church

In 2015, Christians in the U.S. changed how they approached race. They had to. For, despite the chorus of voices declaring the U.S. a post-racial society—hadn’t it re-elected President Barack Obama, its first Black president?—police had killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. A White supremacist murdered nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The deaths of Brown, Garner, and Gray sparked mass protests across the U.S. The slayings in Charleston began a movement to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the state capitol grounds in South Carolina. These horrendous injustices forced Christians to reconsider how to love their neighbors in a racialized society, and ignited renewed calls across Christian denominations to pursue racial conciliation within the church and broader society.

Dylann Roof
This photo from a white supremacist website shows Dylann Roof, convicted in the mass shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

These considerations and calls have sparked heated discussions about “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). For some, CRT is an ideology antithetical to the gospel. For others, it is a helpful tool Christians could employ to facilitate justice and love of neighbor. And for others, CRT remains a nebulous phrase and nothing more.

Silence and Lack of Clarity

Given the importance critics and opponents attribute to CRT, this widespread ecclesiastical silence is tragic. All sides owe Christians an account of what CRT is and why it is harmful or useful. Charity and justice demand as much.

So, what is CRT? Most Christian treatments never say. The Conservative Baptist Network, for example, declares CRT an unbiblical ideology without defining the term. “The Statement of Social Justice and the Gospel” does much the same. John MacArthur, one of the statement’s architects, adds that CRT is the source of “anger, resentment, and vengeful separation” within the Church. Yet, he is silent about what CRT means in the first place. This pattern holds true even among Christian proponents of CRT. Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer suggest that “there are areas in which Christians should agree with critical [race] theory” without specifying how those areas relate to the broader whole. The Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution on CRT merely states that it is “a set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society.” Which specific set of tools is the SBC considering in their resolution? Again, silence and a lack of clarity.

Given the importance critics and opponents attribute to CRT, this widespread ecclesiastical silence is tragic. All sides owe Christians an account of what CRT is and why it is harmful or useful. Charity and justice demand as much. Therefore, the widespread silence on these very issues is a strike against the Church’s leaders. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote years ago: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

As a racialized minority suffering from internal and external forms of racism, this silence—this betrayal—hurts. Most of my life, I have lacked an antiracist vocabulary; those harming me had a racist one. Most of my life, I couldn’t diagnose my racialized wounds; those harming me inflicted these wounds with precision. Most of my life, I unwittingly wandered in a racialized cave; those harming me worked to keep me in the shadows. So, when Christian leaders offer meager condemnations or approvals of race-conscious scholarship, I lament, fear that they have engaged in selective anti-intellectualism—the very thing Mark Noll observes characterizes the Evangelical mind—along racialized lines, and desire to shed light where shadows mesmerize.

Academic Fluidity of Defining CRT

These scholars engage in academic gentrification: they take up residence within CRT scholarship, replace its original methods and commitments, ignore its founders, and silence the founders’ intellectual heirs.

Shedding light necessitates acknowledging that academic circles also spread ambiguity about CRT. Critical race theorist Tommy Curry observes that scholars use the term with a reckless range: “The CRT label to describe (1) any work dealing with postcolonial authors like W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon or (2) the role postcolonial themes like power, discourse, and the unconscious play in the social constructionist area.” Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of CRT’s founders, adds that “the name Critical Race Theory . . . [is] now used as interchangeably for race scholarship as Kleenex is used for tissue.” This pervasive, fluid use of the term “CRT” has led scholars including Lewis Gordon, Charles Mills, and Lucius Outlaw to misidentify CRT. Beyond simply obscuring the definition of CRT, some appropriate the term to denote an emaciated conception of race divorced from CRT’s founders and their methodological and theoretical commitments. These scholars engage in academic gentrification: they take up residence within CRT scholarship, replace its original methods and commitments, ignore its founders, and silence the founders’ intellectual heirs.

The Need for a Guide

Confusion, misidentification, and gentrification characterize academic treatments of CRT; silence and name-dropping typify treatments within the Church. It’s hard to find accurate, detailed treatments of CRT. We as Christians need more than light. We need a guide.

CRT therefore is not a single theory, method, or analytic tool. It’s a diverse, contested, multi-layered movement.

But not just any guide will do. A mere blog post or essay cannot sustain a presentation that elucidates CRT’s range of topics, theories, genres, or camps. CRT’s scope and complexity demand a book-length treatment. But, books take time, and the pitched ecclesiastical debates reveal that Christians need a stopgap treatment of CRT now, not later. These debates also show the necessity of the Reformation slogan ad fontes, “to the founts.” We must engage CRT’s primary texts. We must hear these authors, these neighbors. To these ends, I write this series to exposit central CRT texts and themes. I write as a race scholar teaching CRT at an Evangelical Christian college.

Having explained the problem that gives this series urgency, let me conclude this essay by setting the stage for the others. Most broadly, CRT is a movement aimed at providing an antiracist understanding of the relationships between “race” and law. This movement contains competing and complementary traditions (e.g., some conditionally accept political liberalism while others completely reject it). Each tradition houses multiple methods and claims. CRT therefore is not a single theory, method, or analytic tool. It’s a diverse, contested, multi-layered movement.

Constellation of Shared Commitments Within CRT

Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founders of Critical Race Theory.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founders of Critical Race Theory. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite their differences, Kimberlé Crenshaw notes that CRT scholars share two interests and five conclusions, and I draw from her thoughts heavily in the paragraphs that follow. This constellation of commitments illuminates CRT’s founding texts and gives readers direction. The first shared interest is “to understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America, and, in particular, to examine the relationship between the social structure and professed ideals such as ‘the rule of law’ and ‘equal protection.’” Here, “white supremacy” refers to a set of ideologies and practices birthed during fifteenth-century colonialism that presume “[W]hite racial, moral, and intellectual superiority.” With this presumption, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands—the major European colonizing empires—constructed pigmentocracies, countries and governments by and for people deemed White. Slave codes, the 1790 Naturalization Act, Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), The Greaser Act (1855), Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and Ozawa v. United States (1922) betray the United States as a white nationalist project at its inception and reveal the lengths people went to maintain this racial identity. CRT scholars analyze how this historic status quo haunts us today.

The second shared interest builds on the first. CRT scholars desire “not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it.” These specialists strain to resist and remediate white supremacy’s impacts on the laws governing all who inhabit the U.S. This activist commitment makes CRT an antiracist project.

Five common conclusions shape the project. First, CRT scholars “reject the prevailing orthodoxy that scholarship should be or could be ‘neutral’ and ‘objective.’” They believe “legal scholarship about race in America can never be written from a distance of detachment or with an attitude of objectivity.” Human beings are perspectival knowers. We learn about, see, and treat things from tradition-bound perspectives. Our scholarship, then, never arises from a neutral, objective view from nowhere. Second, because perspectives are inherently political, CRT scholars contend that “scholarship—the formal production, identification, and organization of what will be called ‘knowledge’—is inevitably political.” Legal histories, for example, establish political visions of a country through what they highlight or ignore.

Dred Scott. (Photo: Smithsonian Learning Lab, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access)

Third, CRT scholars argue that analyses of U.S. histories of law should promote a “deep dissatisfaction with traditional civil rights discourse.” Whereas colonial and post-colonial U.S. laws largely maintained the country’s status as a white supremacist pigmentocracy, during the 1960s and 1970s, “racial justice was embraced in the American mainstream in terms that excluded radical or fundamental challenges to status quo institutional practices in American society by treating the exercise of racial power as rare and aberrational rather than as systemic and ingrained.” Crenshaw continues: “What [CRT scholars] find most amazing about this ideological structure in retrospect is how very little actual social change was imagined to be required by ‘the civil rights revolution’. . . One might have expected a huge controversy over the dramatic social transformation necessary to eradicate the regime of American apartheid.” Citizens of the U.S. ignored their racist past, misrepresented the legal systems undergirding that past, and settled for relatively minor remedies rather than radical reconstruction.

Fourth, CRT scholars contend that the narrowing of remedial action requires acknowledging that although “civil rights advocates met with some success in the nation’s courts and legislatures,” these successes “ought not obscure the central role the American legal order played in the deradicalization of racial liberation movements.” This defanging of radical, race-conscious liberation movements is apparent in how many reconceptualized “racism” during the Civil Rights Movement. This reconceptualization had two parts. First, “racism was identified only with the outright formal exclusion of people of color; it was simply assumed that the whole rest of the culture, and the de facto segregation of schools, work places, and neighborhoods, would remain the same.” By this understanding, only explicitly apartheid policies and practices rose to the level of racism—and even these were framed to avoid radical change. Second, people reconceptualized racism as “the irrational and backward bias of believing that someone’s race is important.” Thus, “the American cultural mainstream neatly linked the [B]lack left to the [W]hite racist right: according to this quickly coalesced consensus, because race-consciousness characterized both [W]hite supremacists and [B]lack nationalists, it followed that both were racists. The resulting ‘center’ of cultural common sense thus rested on the exclusion of virtually the entire domain of progressive thinking about race within colored communities.” The dual-framing of racism as race-consciousness and race-consciousness as irrational left inhabitants in the U.S. linguistically destitute. They lacked a piercing antiracist lexicon and accompanying catalogue of antiracist activity despite inhabiting a white supremacist pigmentocracy.

Fifth, CRT scholars agree that social forms of organized forgetting enabled a massive rewriting of U.S. history which bolstered the belief that colorblind meritocracy was the solution to U.S. social ills. Selective quotations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. played a leading role in this endeavor. Again, Crenshaw: “Mainstream legal argument regarding ‘race relations’ typically defended its position by appropriating Dr. King’s injunction that a person should be judged ‘by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin’ and wedding it to the regnant ideologies of equal opportunity and American meritocracy.” This dominant view construes “merit” as a neutral, perspective-less category detached from power and history. So understood, visions of meritocracy also blunted the sharp edge of radical antiracist movements: “Rather than engaging in a broad-scale inquiry into why jobs, wealth, education, and power are distributed as they are, mainstream civil rights discourse suggests that once the irrational biases of race-consciousness are eradicated, everyone will be treated fairly, as equal competitors in a regime of equal opportunity.”

Toward a Christian Response

We must repent of our shoddy, unjust presentations of CRT. We must labor to understand and evaluate CRT in light of history, political philosophy, sociology, and theology and the movement’s internal diversity. This is what neighborly love demands.

How should Christians respond to these common interests and conclusions? They should begin by recalling that Christ and the apostles call the Church to foster justice and mercy, giving special attention to the marginalized and oppressed (see Matthew 25; James 1). Because marginalization and oppression in pigmentocracies operate along racialized lines, Christians should share the common interests of critical race theorists. And they should recognize that assessments of those scholar’s conclusions must be robust and nuanced. An endorsement or rejection of CRT requires examining a lot of U.S. history—especially U.S. legal history—political philosophy, sociology, and theology. And either require treating the varied positions tied to these conclusions. You’d never know these requirements by reading Christians’ pithy rejections or shallow endorsements of CRT. We must do better. We must repent of our shoddy, unjust presentations of CRT. We must labor to understand and evaluate CRT in light of history, political philosophy, sociology, and theology and the movement’s internal diversity. This is what neighborly love demands.


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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.