One of the random bits of trivia I learned from 80’s movies was how to escape quicksand. Whatever you do, don’t thrash around; it will only make you sink faster. And don’t rush into it to save your friend; stay on solid ground, find a vine (those are always lying around somewhere, right?), and pull him out. Well class, it’s time for a simile. Critical race theory is like quicksand. How so? Read on.
One of the core tenets of critical race theory is that racism is normal, permanent, and ubiquitous. It is not present only in overt acts of hatred like cross-burning and lynching. It is also deeply embedded in structures, systems, symbols, language, implicit bias, and microaggressions. Second, CRT believes that racism is no longer defended by overt appeals to racial superiority. Instead, racism is concealed beneath appeals to colorblindness, neutrality, objectivity, and meritocracy. Regardless of conscious intent, the effect of these appeals is the perpetuation of racial hierarchy and the legitimization of white supremacy. Thus, critical race theorists are committed to interrogating and exposing the ways that even supposedly neutral, objective reasoning, laws, and practices are manifestations of racism.
These two tenets produce an “epistemic quicksand,” which is nearly impossible to escape. I’m worried that many well-intentioned Christians are ankle- (or knee- or waist- or neck-) deep in this quicksand without realizing their danger. So first, how does this quicksand work? Second, how did we get here? And third, how do we get out?
How Does It Work?
How does this work in practice? Let’s say that someone proposes something rather innocuous like reducing the capital gains tax. We might think that this is a fairly non-racist proposal that should be evaluated on its objective merits. But no, according to best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi, this policy is racist, since it would disproportionately benefit whites, who own more stock than blacks.
“Wait, wait,” someone says, “I don’t see how that policy is racist. It’s colorblind; it makes no reference to race. And there are several objective reasons that this policy could be beneficial.” But, according to critical race theory, isn’t that exactly how racists defend racism: by denying that their policies are racist and by appealing to “colorblindness” and “objectivity”? And if they insist “No, I’m really not motivated by racism; I think we should look at this policy in non-racial terms,” isn’t that just another way to perpetuate the racial status quo, denying racist impact by hiding behind supposedly non-racist intent?
At this point, our interlocutor has two options. He can continue to defend the reduction of the capital gains tax. In that case, his insistence will be clear confirmation of CRT’s claim that racist policies will be stubbornly defended by appeals to “objectivity.” Or he can give up and admit that his plan was -in fact- racist all along, thereby confirming CRTs claim that racism is ubiquitous, showing up even in something as seemingly innocuous as capital gains taxes. No matter what he does, his actions therefore confirm the truth of CRT.
Another example is found in the paper “Addressing Whiteness in Nursing Education“, by critical race educator Robin DiAngelo. She writes: “the question is not ‘Did racism take place?’ but rather, ‘In which ways did racism manifest in this specific context?'” and continues by explaining how whiteness is “intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of white racial domination” and is “dynamic, relational, and operating at all times.” These statements are perfect illustrations of the trap CRT places us in. We can either accept CRT’s analysis of racism or we can be accused of complicity in racism for denying the presence of racism.
Trying to directly rebut specific claims about race or privilege or history or theology using reason, or evidence, or Scripture within the framework of CRT is like diving into the quicksand and flailing about with all our might. We won’t get out; we’ll just end up sinking a little deeper.
How Did We Get Here?
In response to the horrible racial injustices of our past, anger towards the election of President Trump, and viral videos of police violence against black men, many Christians and Christian pastors have renewed their efforts toward wholly biblical aims like racial unity, the repudiation of racism, and the healing of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
However, they also began using terms like “white privilege” and “intersectionality” and “systemic racism.” They began reading books like White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning and So You Want to Talk About Race and Racism Without Racists. To be clear, I’m not arguing that no one should read these books or that there is nothing of value in them. But Christians often fail to realize that there is a set of assumptions at work, both in these books and increasingly in our culture.
Slowly, but surely, it can be assumed that there is one obviously correct way to think about race and racism and criminal justice and police brutality and education and that anyone who disagrees is only doing so because they are blinded by their privilege. They dissent only because they want to avoid admitting their complicity in white supremacy. Even people of color who disagree can be accused of experiencing “internalized oppression” or of speaking from a position of “white adjacency.” In all of these cases, the focus is not on whether certain claims are true or false, but on the motivation of the one making the claim and the impact that the claim will have on the struggle for justice.
Yet all people, especially Christians, must reject this reasoning. A person’s motivation is irrelevant to whether a claim is true or false. And the impact of a claim is irrelevant to its truth. Indeed, what we deem “harmful” depends largely on what is actually true. It is psychologically extremely harmful to believe that I have colon cancer, unless I do actually have colon cancer, in which case the acknowledgement of my condition is my only hope for survival.
In the same way, the correct solution to complex social problems will depend on the actual truth about the nature and origins of those problems, whether or not this truth is deemed “harmful” or “problematic.” The same is no less true when it comes to spiritual issues. If we’re more concerned about the impact of various theological claims and the purported motives of the people making them than the truth of the claims themselves, we’re setting ourselves up for disaster.
There are many ways in which the basic premises of critical race theory will be harmful to the church, but this epistemic trap is probably the most dangerous. It will swallow us if we don’t avoid it.
What Do We Do?
But how widespread is this kind of reasoning, especially within the church? Here is where I play a dirty trick on you.
When you read this piece, what was your first thought? Did you immediately begin to wonder: “why is he bringing this issue up at a time like this? When we should be focusing on the scourge of racism and white supremacy, why trot out the bogeyman of critical race theory? What’s he really trying to do? And doesn’t he realize the impact that essays like this one have on people of color? Doesn’t he see how all this abstract philosophical reasoning will be weaponized by racists to further the status quo?”
Catch yourself. Reflect. Do you see what’s happening? Are you engaging my arguments or speculating about my motives?
These are questions we need to ask more generally. Have we carefully considered people’s arguments? Can we restate them in their strongest form? Or do we ignore them because they are “providing cover for white supremacy” and “invalidating people’s lived experiences”? The first step of getting out of quicksand is realizing we’re in it.
What’s the second step? Genuine dialogue rooted in Scripture and charity. This is the rope we throw into the epistemological swamp of critical race theory.
Especially within the church, we are commanded to question our own motives and to assume the best of others’ motives. Especially as Christians, we should recognize our own tendencies to rationalization and blindness. Not others’ tendencies, but our own tendencies. Until we are ready to submit our own beliefs to the public scrutiny of Scripture and of other believers who disagree with us, we will be in grave danger. We will create echo chambers that will breed error and prevent any possibility of correction.
Of course, this danger exists on both sides. Die-hard conservatives can be just as hardened in their beliefs and just as willing to impute bad motives to their opponents. Conservatives can also refuse to engage with arguments or to read authors who disagree with them. That’s why a final step is broad exposure to ideas. Dialogue is good, but it will be necessarily limited to your local context, whether your church or your social network. So read broadly. Conservatives: read Kendi and Coates and Alexander. Liberals: read Sowell and Steele and Riley. Be willing to listen to the best arguments on both sides (even the arguments of Critical Race Theory!). Then hold them up to Scripture.
Finally, leave room for freedom of conscience. This is a crucial point. Scripture speaks clearly on some issues and we need to be willing to draw clear boundaries around them. However, Scripture does not speak clearly on all issues, especially on particular policy solutions to social problems. We need to recognize the difference between moral principles that the Bible is clear on and the practical application of those principles in a modern democracy. Most importantly, we dare not find our solidarity in our politics rather than in our theology. This is a serious danger.
Creating a Manichean political universe in which every policy (and every person) is either racist or antiracist is a recipe for division. The Bible does not draw a line primarily between those with power and those without it, but between those inside the Kingdom and those outside it. The church exists to call those outside of the Kingdom into it and to show the world the unity that Christ created between people of every race, class, and gender. Let’s never forget that.
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