I honestly never thought this topic would ever hit the mainstream, but it has. What surprises me most is that those who are talking about critical race theory in the popular press and in the political sphere ... on both sides... don't seem to have a clue what they are talking about.
A few weeks ago one of my left of center friends challenged my claim that critical race theory (CRT) is a dangerous and anti-liberal ideology. It seems that a great many people simply just assume that since CRT exposes systematic and structural racism and it is opposed by the right wing, it must be good. That is simply not the case.
Just because someone talks about a disease does not mean they have the cure. Snake oil salesmen have been doing this forever. CRT at its core offers the same false and oppressively vison for society as do fundamentalist religions. It is just the same snake oil with a different label.
SO... for those of you who actually want to know what does the term Critical Race Theory mean, I offer this short critique I wrote a few years ago.
A Short Critique of Critical Race Theory
I spent over a decade deeply immersed in the fundamentalist Christian community. I have both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from flagship institutions in two different wings of the movement. As such I know what fundamentalist religion is. I’ve seen it up close.
Despite their claims to the contrary, fundamentalist religion is founded on the utilitarian concept of “the greater good”. Such religions believe they have the inside track on ultimate truth; and, that the “here and now” control they seek to inflict on others, is justified by some greater long term good. Their practitioners are convinced that all people must yield to their vision of reality in order for society to reach a higher level of existence, justice and happiness. Religion rejects the scientific method because their beliefs trump what appears to be measurable fact. They see the world as an illusion hiding the underlying supernatural truths that lie beneath. Finally, fundamentalist religion, specifically fundamentalist religious institutions, are self-serving. When push comes to shove, religious institutions (like all institutions) act in their own self-interest rather than the interests they publicly espouse.
The political leftists in the US and in Europe have pilloried religion since the enlightenment; however, in the past half century, the “new-left” has embraced an all-encompassing religion of their own. Their religion is non-theistic, but it has all the hallmarks of fundamentalist religion. The name of that religion is Critical Theory. And in this short paper I lay out why I am concerned their religion aims to supplant democratic liberalism with a totalitarian quasi-theocracy.
However; addressing critical theory is not a simple matter because Critical Theory is not a theory of society, or a wholly homogenous school of thinkers or a method. Critical theory, rather, is a tradition of social thought that, in part at least, takes its cue from its opposition to the wrongs and ills of modern society’s on the one hand, and the forms of theorizing that simply go along with or seek to legitimize those society on the other hand”. (Bernstein, 1995, p. 11).
The term critical theory was coined by Max Horkeimer in a 1947 article which was primarily an attack on what he believed to be the misplaced belief in the scientific method, and in specific, he attacked the Cartesian dichotomy of separating the object and the observer (Bernstein, 1995; Thomassen, 2010). Additionally, as a member of the Frankfort School, Horkeimer combined this constructivist view of reality with Marxian conceptions of economics, materialism and class domination. Horkeimer said “the [critical] theory never aims simply at an increase in knowledge as such. Its goal is man’s emancipation from slavery” (Thomassen, 2010, p. 20) . The essential difference, between traditional Marxism and critical theory however, is not just that the proletariat is replaced by other groups; but, that identity formation of the new sorts of groups does not require direct action (i.e. revolution), rather, the new group identity requires action in the political arena. (Bernstein, 1995,p. 20).
Other German philosophers, chief among them Jürgen Habermas built on the foundation laid by Horkeimer to continue to develop the critical theory.
One particular challenge to the Marxist in Western Europe in the 1950’s was the need to update Marx’s vision of the inevitability of a proletariat uprising, which by that time was clearly not going to happen. The predicted collapse of capitalism just didn’t and wasn’t going to happen in a world of growing affluence for the working class. How were they going to tell a bunch of factory workers who lived in nice homes, had cars and TV’s that they were oppressed?
One approach was to say their wealth and leisure oppressed them. Habermas wrote how wealth and consumerism has led to what he called alienated leisure, and even a welfare state, like France, can be a dehumanizing force as it exercises control over the individual (Edgar, 2005). That approach didn’t get very much attention. A more productive line of thought lay in finding new reasons people were oppressed.
The success of critical theory lies in its focus on unmasking hidden structures and meanings that lead to oppression of social groups using the traditional political theory of Marx blended with the psychoanalytic theory of Freud (Thomassen, 2010). Habermas, extended and clarified, adding to Marx, the psychoanalytic ideas of Freud to reenergize discredited Marxism. In this he changed Freud’s efforts to uncover repressed feeling of a single person, to encompass society as a whole. Habermas, sought to put whole nations “on the couch” to understand how society is driven by meanings that are hidden from every day view (Thomassen, 2010). Importantly, only the analyst (i.e. the critical theorist) can divine these hidden oppressions or alleviate them.. Thus, critical theorists seek to find new groups who are oppressed, tell them they are so and offer themselves as the solution to their oppression. So, why do we suddenly have a hundred different groups claiming to be oppressed minorities? Because the critical theorist is on a religious mission to find as many groups as possible, and convince them they are oppressed.
Thus, modern critical theory has many faces and focuses but all look so very much like religion. Two core beliefs have defined the philosophy (quasi-religion) from the outset: a rejection of scientific proof, in favor or a belief system (i.e. faith) and the duty to seek to uncover hidden oppression (i.e. sin). Because of this, the critical theorist has a life-long evangelical mission to tell those who do not know they are oppressed that they are indeed slaves and that the gospel of critical theory will set them free (preaching and evangelism) (Carspecken, 1996).
For illustration I will, based on classical liberalism, specifically address my concerns based on two very popular incarnations of critical theory: critical race theory and critical feminist theory.
The first precept of critical race theory is “Critical race theory recognizes that racism is endemic to American life”. (Dixson & Rousseau, 2005, p. 9). This is not presented as a possibility, but as an indisputable fact. As constructivist, critical race theorists legitimize such unequivocal “fact” statements founded on their constructed reality based on finding hidden agendas visible only to critical theorist (McKnight & Chandler, 2012). This core belief justifies critical race theorist, Gloria Ladson-Billing, to use her position as President of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), to proclaim that there is not just an achievement gap, but an education debt owed by European-Americans to be paid to African and Latino Americas (Ladson-Billings, 2006b). In her address to the AERA, she makes a case that race and race alone drives educational achievement. All other factors are functionally irrelevant. The justice, or even factual truth, of suggesting, as she does, that African-American children cannot succeed because “racism is normal not aberrant in American society.” (Ladson-Billings, 2006a) is simply not considered in her address. Thus, in her vision of critical theory of justice the white population, including the children in schools today, owe what she specifies as economic, sociopolitical and moral debt to every child of color, no matter their particular circumstances (Ladson-Billings, 2006) .
Schouten (2012) strenuously objects to the whole notion that there is a moral debt owed for education as suggested by Ladson-Billings. Rather she counters with a classically liberal answer that there is a moral obligation to those who are disadvantaged. She acknowledges that the disproportionate number of low performing African-Americans is certainly rooted in historical bias, and that disproportionate resources are required to remedy the statistical inequity. However, the assistance should not be geared to groups based on past injustices, but to individuals based on current need. She wrote, “They therefore have a claim to be benefited, as they are themselves victims of an injustice; the injustice of being badly off.”(Schouten, 2012).
There is a significant case to be made that poverty, not race is the driving factor in the difference between races in school success; however, this runs counter to the critical race theory commitment to treat “race as a defining principle rather than a variable within research” (Leonardo, 2012, p. 430). When income is addressed by critical race theory, it is often in the context of Bourdieu’s Marxian tradition rather than income.
Nowhere is CRT’s relationship with class analysis more clear than its uptake of Bourdieu’s (1977a) concept of cultural capital. It is one of the most frequently used and critiqued class-oriented concept in the CRT literature on education. There are several species of the appropriation. First, in an endorsement of Bourdieu’s concept, cultural capital is used to explain school biases against more or less essential(ist) cultures of color, their family value systems and priorities. Consistent with Bourdieu’s ideas about class stratification but applied to race, CRT scholars indict the White standards of learning in schools, from the English forms that are recognized to the behaviors that are punished or rewarded and the historical contributions that are valorized or omitted. (Leonardo, 2012, p.438)
I find it significant that in the current US Department Of Education figures, African-American’s comprise the exact same percentage in the U.S. undergraduate colleges and universities (15%) as they do in K-12 and nearly the same rate for graduate education (14%) (Aud, Hussar, Kena, & Roth, 2012). The data indicate a more complicated situation with Latino students in the 2011 DOE report (Aud et al., 2011) notes that the dropout rate for immigrant Latino’s is over three times that of native born Latino’s and further notes that Asian immigrants also have the same disproportionate dropout rate, despite the overall success of Asian students in US schools. This would indicate that the issue may well be surrounding the process of immigration rather than race. Even still the Hispanic college undergraduate population is 14% of the total. I’m sure you have not heard that African-Americas are no longer underrepresented minorities in colleges and universities.
Because the criticalists control the academic press and to them this is bad news, not good news.
I have presented this line of argumentation about critical race theory to highlight the underlying problem with the use of all types of critical theory. They give themselves, carte blanch to assigning negative motives to others and when one says “I’m not a racist” they just respond with their belief system, “Your denial is proof you are a racist.” This is very similar to a Baptist telling someone “You’re a sinner going to Hell”, when the accused says they don’t believe in Hell, the Baptist says “Ah, your denial is proof you’re going to Hell.” See how this is basically religious in nature.
This approach leads to a huge body of “research” that shows little but the prior beliefs of the researchers. Typical for the articles I read for this project was a peer reviewed article on how young African-American college men worked out race in predominantly white colleges (Wilkins, 2012) . Throughout, the researcher made motive claims with no evident connection to the subject’s statements. When her subjects made statements that did not conform to the tenants of critical race theory, the author again assigned negative motive. Thus successful behaviors by the subjects were negatively labeled and the author condemned her subjects as being oppressors themselves. The conclusion is brazen in its condemnation of the subjects refusal of specific agendas the authors believes are required based on race; “But more, by dismissing both black women and, often, black organizations, as immoderate spaces, black men abandon their collective responsibility to fight racial inequality, focusing instead on individual strategies of mobility and leaving the work of fighting racism up to women.” (Wilkins, 2012, p. 57). My readings in preparation for this project indicate that this type of approach is not an anomaly, but common practice.
This is not to suggest that the profound achievement gap is not important, nor does it suggest that there are not differences in life circumstance for children that are highly correlated with race. What this does suggest is that there is a fatal weakness in the argument for using critical race theory as the core tool to measure educational justice.
Critical race theory is closely related to critical feminist theory in philosophy and method with sex being substituted for race when presenting oppression in schools (Hannan, 1995; Okin, 1994); The intersection of race and feminist theory is common such as in the Wilkins article above, yet it shows a willingness to choose interpretations of the subjects statements to prioritize the researchers agenda. It becomes apparent that critical feminist choose ideology over objective statistical measures. It is not that critical theorist do not use statistical data on inequality, but they only condone statistical data as valid when it is convenient to support their beliefs. Despite the fact that long term trends show that females are far more successful than males on nearly every educational measure, critical feminist continue to search for evidence that girls are disadvantaged in education, and to seek programs to promote girls performance (Bianco, Harris, Garrison-Wade, & Leech, 2011; Kafer, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Overall the critical feminist response is to downplay the significant achievement gap between males and females that has been growing for over two decades (Froses-Gremain, 2006). Worse yet, in certain segments of the critical feminist community, there is resentment at the idea of addressing the achievement gap that favors females (Mills & Keddie, 2010; Zyngier, 2009).
I think, if you made it this far into my rather dense essay, that you can see how critical theory acts just like a religion, based not on facts or evidence, but firmly on a belief system. Marx is Moses, Das Capital is the holy writ, with Freud as a co-prophet, and Habermas as the apostle Paul making the new religion palatable and understandable to the larger world beyond the zealots. Across the land, primary in Colleges and Universities this religion is enforced with an iron hand. Eighteen year old undergrads not only aren’t told the core of this religion, but are crushed and belittled if they resist. As a doctoral student, older than most of the professors expounding on this I had to fight tooth and nail to get a draw. When confronted with the Marxist core of critical theory, several of my professors simply lied and denied the facts while they tried to belittle me as they desperately tried to sell their religion as liberalism to the younger students. But as the greatest philosopher of the late 20th century, John Rawls, pointed critical theory stands in stark contrast to the claims of universal rights based on a common humanity.
So next time you hear, something presented as social justice that seems to do quite the opposite, think of this essay.
Aud, S., Hussar, W. :., F., Kena, G., & Roth, E. (2012). The condition of education 2012. ( No. 2012-045). Washington DC: US Dept. of Education Center for Educational Statistics.
Bernstein, J. M. (1995). Recovering ethical life: Jürgen habermas and the future of critical theory. New York: Routledge.
Bianco, M., Harris, B., Garrison-Wade, D., & Leech, N. (2011). Gifted girls: Gender bias in gifted referrals. Roeper Review, 33(3), 170-181. doi: 10.1080/02783193.2011.580500
Carspecken, P. F. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research: A theoretical and practical guide. New York: Routledge.
Dixson, A., & Rousseau, C. (2005). And we are still not saved: Critical race theory in education ten years later. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 7-27. doi: 10.1080/1361332052000340971
Edgar, A. (2005). The philosophy of habermas. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Froses-Gremain, B. (2006). Educating boys: Tempering rhetoric with research. Mc Glill Journal of Education, 41(2), 145-154.
Hannan, D. J. (1995). Gender equity in the american classroom: Where are the women? English Journal, 84(6), 103. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9510172609&site=ehost-live
Kafer, K. (2011). Wasting education dollars: The women's educational equity act. ( No. Backgrounder #1490). Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12. doi: 10.3102/0013189X035007003
Leonardo, Z. (2012). The race for class: Reflections on a critical raceclass theory of education. Educational Studies, 48(5), 427-449. doi: 10.1080/00131946.2012.715831
McKnight, D., & Chandler, P. (2012). The complicated conversation of class and race in social and curricular analysis: An examination of pierre bourdieu's interpretative framework in relation to race. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44, 74-97. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ962318&site=ehost-live; http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2009.00555.x
Mills, M., & Keddie, A. (2010). Gender justice and education: Constructions of boys within discourses of resentment, neo-liberalism and security. Educational Review, 62(4), 407-420. doi: 10.1080/00131911.2010.482202
Okin, S. M. (1994). Gender inequality and cultural differences. Political Theory, 22(1), 5. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9407053853&site=ehost-live
Thomassen, L. (2010). Habermas: A guide for the perplexed. London: Continuum.
U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Women's educational equity. Retrieved 9-19, 2012, from http://www2.ed.gov/programs/equity/index.html
Wilkins, A. (2012). “Not out to start a revolution”: Race, gender, and emotional restraint among black university men. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 41(1), 34-65. doi: 10.1177/0891241611433053
Zyngier, D. (2009). Doing it to (for) boys (again): Do we really need more books telling us there is a problem with boys’ underachievement in education? Gender and Education, 21(1), 111-118. doi: 10.1080/09540250802580844