Critical Race Theory and Christianity

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic discipline that attempts to understand race and racism primarily through the lens of power. img_1198In responding to CRT, Christians can fall into two opposite errors: alarmism and denialism. CRT alarmism equates any discussion of race with CRT and refuses to recognize that CRT offers any true insights. In contrast, CRT denialism refuses to recognize that CRT includes ideas that are false and dangerous or that CRT is growing in influence within evangelicalism.

Assessing CRT requires us to steer a middle course which recognizes that CRT can provide real insights into the nature of racism while also recognizing that many of its ideas, if followed to their logical conclusions, will have devastating consequences on the life and health of the church.

Part of the problem with analyzing CRT is that its essential tenets are often in dispute. For example, Delgado and Stefancic characterize CRT in terms of three “basic tenets” and four “hallmark themes.” Kumasi lists eight “key concepts.”  Harper, Patton, and Wooden list seven central tenets while Hartlep lists five. Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap in these descriptions, but there is also some ambiguity. Similarly, whether CRT sounds more radical (Crenshaw’s CRT: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement) or more moderate (Delgado and Stefancic’s CRT: An Introduction) will depend on the author.

Unfortunately, this uncertainty allows for a certain amount of equivocation. A commentator can position CRT as a neutral, academic discipline or a radical, postmodern exercise in deconstruction, depending on what they choose to emphasize. Neither characterization is wholly false but both are incomplete.

In this short post, I will only touch briefly on various CRT themes that are problematic, but I urge readers to consult the primary sources themselves. In particular, I have reviewed numerous works of CRT and have collected thousands of words of quotes, which can be found in the links below.

Racism as structural, persistent, and evolving

One of the core tenets of CRT is that racism is and has always been deeply embedded in American society. CRT defines racism not merely in terms of overt acts of racial hostility by individuals but also in terms of the subtle and covert means by which racial disparities are perpetuated. While this “new racism” is not as visible, it is just as effective as traditional racism:

New racism [captures] the way in which racism has adapted over time so that modern norms, policies, and practices result in similar racial outcomes as those in the past, while not appearing to be explicitly racist (DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 39)

Today ‘new racism’ practices have emerged that are more sophisticated and subtle than those typical of the Jim Crow era [but are] as effective as the old ones in maintaining the racial status quo (Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists, p. 25)

CRT is correct to note that we do not live in a color-blind or post-racial society, that racial disparities still are enormous, and that racism is still a real problem. However, its definition of racism creates several serious conflicts.

First, in emphasizing the idea that racism is about institutional power and not individual actions, CRT obscures the fact that Christians should primarily view racism as a sin. Structures and systems can encourage and promote sin, but they don’t commit sin: human beings do. Thus, while Christians can recognize that laws and institutions such as chattel slavery or Jim Crow can be unjust and need to be abolished, we must always keep the focus on individuals who are guilty before God for their thoughts, words, and deeds.

Second, a focus on structures leads many CRTs to insist that people of color cannot be racist by definition. Again, this understanding of racism conflicts with a biblical understanding of racism as a sin. Just as we wouldn’t define the word “adultery” to apply only to men, we should not define “racism” to apply only to whites.

Third, any definition that equates “systemic racism” with “systems which produce or perpetuate racial disparities” will logically have to classify all kinds of good and just systems as manifestations of “systemic racism.” For example, marriage, inheritance, homeschooling, and the ownership of private property all perpetuate racial disparities, but none of these should be dismantled as examples of “systemic racism.”

Finally, the insistence that racism is subtle and insidious means that -according to CRTs- it can be hard to detect. And that leads naturally to a second problem: the idea that white supremacy masquerades as “neutrality” and “objectivity.”

Racism and the guise of objectivity

The early CRTs were legal scholars working in the field of Critical Legal Studies, which argued that supposedly “neutral” and “objective” legal standards were really mechanisms by which the ruling class concealed its self-interest:

The critics [i.e. Critical Legal Scholars] present law as a series of ideological constructs that operate to support existing social arrangements by convincing people that things are both inevitable and fair. – Crenshaw, “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment,” in Crenshaw’s CRT, p. 108

CRT adopted this same perspective and applied it to ideas like “colorblindness” and “meritocracy,” arguing that appeals to these abstract principles were really ways in which the white majority justified its own dominance and avoided actual racial reform.

the U.S. Supreme Court’s use of color-blind constitutionalism -a collection of legal themes functioning as a racial ideology- fosters white racial domination… A color-blind interpretation of the Constitution legitimates and thereby maintains the social, economic, and political advantages that whites hold over other Americans. – Gotanda, “A Critique of ‘Our Constitution is Color-Blind’,” in Crenshaw’s CRT, p. 257

The assumption that supposedly neutral principles disguise the interests of the dominant group will have several corrosive effects on our discourse and theology.

First, accepting CRT’s underlying assumption about objectivity will undermine our ability to have discussions about the origin of racial disparities, the efficacy of proposed legislation, or the prevalence of racism. Not only does CRT assume that racism is ubiquitous, it can also assume that any denial of its ubiquity is motivated by a desire to maintain power and privilege. As a consequence, the pronouncements of CRT become virtually unchallengeable. Whites who question them can be dismissed as exhibiting white fragility or as being unwilling to admit their own complicity in white supremacy. And people of color who question them can be accused of harboring “internalized oppression” and the desire to curry favor with the dominant group.

Second, given the dynamic mentioned above, there is no obvious stopping point for CRT’s demands. If opposition to prison abolition or opposition to reparations can be dismissed a priori as covert racism, why can’t opposition to Black Liberation Theology be dismissed in the same way? Notice here that I’m not equating reparations with BLT; instead, I’m asking a question about when dissent is permissible. If we can instantly shut down the discussion by claiming that opposition is motivated by racism, what discussions can’t be shut down? What room is there for someone to raise concerns that certain claims stand in opposition to the best empirical evidence or to the teachings of Scripture?

Lived experience and truth

Finally, CRTs recognize that storytelling, narrative, and reliance on the lived experience of people of color is vital to deconstructing racism. Because whites are socialized into white supremacy, CRTs argue that they tend to be blind to racial injustice. In contrast, people of color tend to have unique insight into their own oppression and possess a corresponding authority to speak on issues of race and racism:

A CRT framework recognizes the centrality of experiential knowledge of people of color and views this knowledge as legitimate, appropriate, and critical to understanding, analyzing, and teaching about racial subordination. – Kumasi, “Critical Race Theory and Education,” in Beyond Critique, p. 211.

Certainly, Christians should recognize that our experience is limited and that other people, speaking from different backgrounds, may have insight that we lack. Yet, once again, if we insist that the claims of people of color carry inherent authority and that whites should only adopt a posture of “listening,” what possibility is there for disagreement? Christians should recognize that both whites and people of color are capable of sin and error. The fact that someone is part of a minoritized group does not make them an infallible interpreter either of Scripture or their own experience.

We can grant that, too often, the testimony of people of color, women, the poor, and other groups are unjustly undervalued without falling into the opposite error of allowing anyone to get a free pass when it comes to doctrinal error. All Christians should, in love, hold all other Christians to the standards of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy laid out in Scripture.

Summary

In this article, I‘ve only focused on a small subset of conflicts between CRT and Christianity. I haven’t discussed the question of whether it’s appropriate to treat Blacks and other people of color in 2019 as monolithically oppressed groups. I haven’t discussed the convergence that CRTs see between race and other systems of oppression based on sex, class, sexuality, and gender identity. I haven’t discussed the conflict between collectivism and individualism in terms of identity and ethics. I haven’t discussed the assumptions of relativism that underlie many of CRT’s criticism of law or culture. I haven’t discussed the unfalsifiability of concepts like “interest convergence.”

Yet we can’t discuss these problems until we first discuss CRT’s stance towards objectivity and truth. Once we accept CRT’s assumptions about the role of lived experience and the deconstruction of our supposed neutrality, we’ll be unable to object to any of its other assertions without being charged with fragility, internalized oppression, or covert racism.  This danger should -at a minimum- make Christians skeptical that CRT offers a clear path to racial reconciliation and unity. Critical evaluation and reflection are necessary. Tread carefully.


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