A Long Review of Crenshaw’s Critical Race Theory – Part 1

As its title suggests, Crenshaw et al.’s Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, is a collection of essays and articles foundational to the creation of Critical Race Theory, a discipline that studies the role of race and racism in modern culture. img_1198This anthology helped me better understand the core themes and concerns of Critical Race Theory, its history, and its relationship to the earlier discipline of Critical Legal Studies. Particularly helpful were the contributions of Derrick Bell, Charles R. Lawrence III, and Kimberle Crenshaw, who popularized the term ‘intersectionality.’

Critical Race Theory is often confused with ‘critical theory,’ but the two are distinct. Critical theory is the name of a broad ideology that is principally concerned with liberating subordinate groups from hegemonic power, the ability of dominant groups to dictate society’s norms, values, and expectations. While Critical Race Theory shares this concern, it emerged in the specific context of legal scholarship. Originally, CRT analyzed the ways in which racial ideology shapes the creation and interpretation of law in order to protect white racial dominance. However, Critical Race Theory has evolved significantly since its inception. It is no longer merely the domain of legal scholars, but is also the framework employed by sociologists like Eduoardo Bonilla-Silva, historians like Ibram X. Kendi, and anti-racist educators like Robin DiAngelo.

While CRT is a diverse and by no means unified discipline, its proponents, especially those cited in this anthology, share several key assumptions.

First, CRT scholars reject liberalism, where ‘liberalism’ refers not to “liberal/progressive politics,” but to basic principles like individual rights, the impartiality of law, and equality of opportunity, which are shared by both political liberals and political conservatives. CRTs reject these foundational ideas as mere ideological excuses for the maintenance of the oppressive racial and legal status quo: “the traditional liberal image of the law as the neutral, impersonal mediator of group conflicts masks its function in producing and insulating white dominance” (p. 3).

Similarly, the CRTs in this volume argue that racial oppression cannot be remedied unless we move beyond ‘individualism’ and the language of ‘rights’ to focus on collective justice for historically oppressed groups: “Precedent, rights theory, and objectivity merely are formal rules that serve a covert purpose; even in the context of equality theory, they will never vindicate the legal rights of black Americans” (Bell, p. 307).

Second, this rejection of liberalism is not contingent on the U.S.’s history of racism, but flows out of a deeper, principled rejection of the very notion of legal “neutrality.” Following in the footsteps of Critical Legal Studies, these authors reject the very idea that laws and norms can be based on true, abstract principles of morality or justice: “Law, of course, is not only an instrument of social control but also a symbolic expression of dominant society” (Calmore, p. 323). In this view, laws, social norms, and ethics are all simply expressions of power.

Indeed, these authors would argue that appeals to transcendent principles of ‘justice’ are one of the many ways that dominant groups attempt to justify their self-serving decrees. Complex legal reasoning serves to “mystify” what is really just an exertion of naked power. Thus, they take a very pragmatic and functionalist view of legal reasoning. Like everyone else, CRTs are attempting to achieve their political goals. The only difference, from their perspective, is that they are forthright and explicit in admitting that their motivation is overtly political and pragmatic, while others disguise their agendas: “practitioners of the Word [i.e. critical pedagogy] evaluate work product (judicial opinions, legislation, organizing tactics, ideas, theory, poetry) according to the degree to which the effort serves the cause of liberation. Embracing intrumentalism, like owning one’s perspective, serves… as an antidote to the mystifying and oppressive properties of the dominant ideology of shared values and neutral principles” (Lawrence, p. 339-340).

Finally, numerous authors insisted that a key component of CRT is to elevate the voices and perspectives of the oppressed. Again, this idea follows naturally from the previous two points: if the law reflects the values of dominant groups, then the law can only be reformed by enshrining the values of subordinate groups. Given that this book was published in 1995, it doesn’t reflect the dramatic proliferation of oppressed identities that forms the backbone of the contemporary social justice movement. Nonetheless, a nascent interest in the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, and physical disability is still evident. Marginalized groups find solidarity in their common experience of oppression and their subordinate perspective gives them unique insight into reality that is unavailable to dominant groups.

What should Christians think about these ideas?

First, it’s impossible to look at the history of race in the United States and fail to recognize that the law has indeed been used as an instrument of subjugation and injustice, whether in major decisions like Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson or in the enforcement of ostensibly race-neutral statutes. Moreover, the depth and universality of human sinfulness means that every human system will be tainted by sin. Therefore, as Christians, we should not asume that the status quo is either fair or just.

But second, as Christians, we need to recognize that the claims of CRTs are often based on a worldview that is deeply incompatible with Christianity. For example, Christians cannot accept the idea that law is fundamentally an oppressive imposition of power by the dominant group on subordinate groups. Nor can we accept the idea that principles of ‘justice’ or ‘morality’ are vacuous abstractions empty of real content. Nor can we accept the perspective of subordinate groups without attempting to evaluate their truth against objective standards.

In all of these cases, the presuppositions of CRT run head-first into the basic Christian premise that God’s transcendent moral law is authoritative and binding on all human beings. It is not oppressive. It is not a vacuous abstraction. And it sits in judgment on every perspective, whether those of dominant groups or those of subordinate groups. While we can fully admit that human laws fall short of God’s standards, we cannot let go of the idea that there is an absolute standard to which all human law, and all human behavior, is accountable.

Given the growing influence of CT and CRT on our culture and on the church, this anthology is an important read. While several essays delve into specific legal issues and are therefore less relevant, many help to illuminate CRT ‘s basic outlook on power, law, authority, and ethics. Crenshaw’s “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment,” Bell’s “Racial Realism,” Calmore’s “Critical Race Theory, Archie Shepp, and Fire Music,” and Lawrence’s “The Word and the River” were particularly helpful.

For those who are interested, in the next section, I provide a long collection of important quotes taken from the book that help further substantiate the points made above.

Next: A Long Review of Crenshaw’s Critical Race Theory – Part 2

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