Critical Race Theory (in brief)

I apparently made a splash by confronting Owen Strachan about his use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a convenient bogey man for anything that made him uncomfortable. He uses the term, suggesting it will destroy the church, in a vague way (with how it destroys the church even more vaguely). So I asked him to define the term. I will admit I as a little snarky with the way I asked him, but this is not the first time he has used the term as a vague catch-all, and I had previously asked politely with no response. This time, I received a response rather quickly: I was blocked.

As I noted on Twitter, I am not bothered so much when anyone blocks me. I can be irritating. I know that about myself. I am bothered, though, that Strachan purports to be an academic and a public theologian. You can’t be those things without some thick skin. And if you are going to throw a term around, labeling it a massive threat, and condemning anyone who utilizes it, you better be able to say, with some precision, why. He can’t. In the interest of fairness, I decided to give a brief description of the term. Also in the interest of fairness, I wrote the following without any additional research. As someone who claims to use it, I thought it best to use simple recall to explain, because I thought that is a reasonable ask from someone in a public forum. Even if he were to respond by giving me a quick response that lacked some precision and then made the caveat that Twitter is insufficient to truly discuss it, that would have been an appropriate response. So in response I gave the following definition:

The rest of this is continuation of that thought

History and Nuance

Critical Race Theory (CRT) began in 1970s in Law Schools in the US as a way to explain why the gains made during the 1960s began to stop or stop having much of an impact. It is a Critical Theory in that it is grounded in sociology theory of Karl Marx. This does not mean it is necessarily communist, socialist or even (actually) Marxist. Marx argued that present conflicts were the result of material actions taken in history. That is, you cannot explain most disparities in societal treatment through appeals to God (only), genetics, or fate. Instead, people took real actions in history that resulted in the present disparities and conflicts that we observe today. This is not controversial. It is also a Critical Theory because it grounds its claims in quantifiable data. So CRT: a) acknowledges that there are real disparities and conflicts, b) uses data to show this, and c) argues that these disparities and conflicts are a result of historic actions. That’s what makes it a Critical Theory.

Some assumptions are built in here: 1) racism is real; 2) it’s a result of history and 3) we might be able to change it. In the course of its application, most Critical Race Theorists began to suggest that the reason relatively little progress has been made in Civil Rights since the 1960s is because racism had become enmeshed within the fabric of society, largely through certain key institutions. This is not to say that there are not racist individuals. Instead, it argues that the best way to address the disparate treatment of certain ethnic populations is to exam the institution/systemic racism, rather than only addressing the exist of White Supremacists. If, rather specific individuals being responsible, the continued unequal treatment of non-white ethnic groups was the result of systems/institutions, this also meant that non-racists or even non-white ethnic groups might be participating and incentivized to uphold systems and institutions that result in racist outcomes. Again, these are not imagined outcomes, but backed by data.

An Example

Let’s take, briefly, the example of policing that was highlighted this past summer. A Critical Race Theorist will examine instances of violent crime in predominantly white and Black neighborhoods (the existence of such “ghettoization” and its connection to redlining practices is another example of systemic racism), and notice immediately that police respond significantly faster and with more arrests when violent crime occurs in white neighborhoods than Black neighborhoods. However, they will also notice that non-violent crime arrests are substantively higher in Black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods.

Further they will find that police treatment of Black suspects vs white suspects reveals further disparities, with higher incidence of violence used on Black suspects than white suspects in apprehension regardless of the severity of the crime. Additionally, they can pull the sentencing disparity for convicted white offenders (lesser sentences) vs Black offenders (harsher sentences) for the same offences.

A CRT theorist will also look to the way that laws are passed which indicate disparate treatment. For instance, in the 1980s, crack cocaine, which was bought, sold and used more frequently in Black communities compared to white communities, had additional laws and significantly harsher sentencing guidelines than powder cocaine, despite the fact that they are essentially the same product, only ingested differently. Yet powder cocaine was much more common in white neighborhoods (one could demonstrate that powder cocaine was used at a higher rate in white communities than crack cocaine in Black communities). Both of them paled in comparison, at the time, to the heroin epidemic.

Historically, the practice of policing in the US is different from other parts of the world. In the US, policing has its roots in methods and practices not only in the principles of Robert Peele (from Britain), but also in officers tasked with finding and arresting runaway slaves. Further, police were used to enforce segregation, including in brutal attacks on non-violent protestors.

All of this would lead a Critical Race Theorist to conclude that the problem is not racist police officers or judges (though that may still be a problem), but rather than something about the justice system in America is fundamentally flawed that produces this disproportionate outcomes—outcomes that have ripple effects on the communities of these individuals, which are rooted in the historical development of that system. The result is that some sort of drastic change must take place.

This has led to 4 different calls with regard to policing (not a comprehensive list). The first is police reform: something needs to change within policing as it exists. The next is “defund the police,” which advocates in redistributing funds for police from simply not allowing police to buy military grade weaponry to reworking funding toward mental health and community services to the more extreme version that comprises the 3rd call: “abolish the police.” This suggests that policing in America is so fundamentally flawed that it needs to be stripped down entirely and reimagined as something else. The most extreme version of this is the 4th call the: ACAB movement. The ACAB movement suggests that any institution whereby one person operates as an agent of the state to enforce laws upon another as their fulltime occupation with result in all of those agents necessarily acting unjustly either because unjust/racist individuals are the type of person most drawn to those positions, or the level of authority vested in those institutions necessarily corrupts those people. It is important to note that these are not all the same people. These are discrete individuals and groups that often have their own heated disagreements between themselves, but they do agree one issue: something is wrong with the Criminal Justice system in the US.

“White Guilt”

CRT is useful because it presents hard data with an accompanying historical narrative that can act not only to demonstrate the problem of racism, but provide an explanation for its cause. Once both of those are demonstrated, advocates have a stronger position from which to argue for system change, whether in education, housing, the loss of inherited/generational/family wealth, etc.

Because of the historical narrative, it is evident that white Americans have historically been the primary driver of racial/ethnic disparities. It also becomes apparent that ethnic whites have a certain level of privilege that comes from these disparities. This is not saying that other privileges do not exist, nor is it saying that all white people are culpable for the current state of the world, these are mere statements of fact, not value judgements. A prima facia, naïve, and bad faith reading of CRT would suggest that “white guilt” is the expected response, but it is not. While it may be true that white people are not necessarily morally culpable for this state, white people, as those who are in a state of privilege do bear some responsibility to address the issue. Failure to recognize or own up to this responsibility could make one morally culpable, but there is some leeway here.

The Church

In a Church setting, some objections are to the idea that CRT is Marxist and therefore anti-Christian. I hope it is clear by this point that such is a bad faith reading of CRT. Many other objections are rooted in the idea that either: a) white culture/domination of culture is synonymous with the church, b) racism is not actually an issue/we’ve moved beyond it or c) changes to the current culture are upsetting to those who have (often unknowingly) benefited from the culture and they do not believe they bear responsibility to change it.

Most other objections are more or less permutations of these or a form of White Nationalism. One potentially valid objection is that Critical Race Theorists do not necessarily accept limits/bounds of authority over actions and activities. While in practice such boundaries would be unlikely have very much impact, it remains true that those who work in and for the Church do recognize the authority of Scripture and, potentially, the Church as having an authority that may act as a boundary to certain types of actions. Again, it is unlikely that this would result in materially different action other than to limit some of the most extreme applications of CRT. The way that most seminary professors, clergy, and churchwomen and churchmen employ CRT recognizes these other sources of authority.

My own application of CRT finds its most ready use in my Christian Ethics classroom. In particular, with deep seated roots in Black Theology and Liberation Theology, I make particular effort to engage with the voices of Black, Hispanic, Womanist, Mujerista, and other theologies when examining ethical topics. It also has an impact upon topic selection. We will discuss racial disparities in housing and policing when we discuss justice. We will talk about the role of civil disobedience a bit longer when discussing the relation of the Christian to the State. This does not mean I have bowed down to CRT. Rather, it means that, as a scholar, I have kept myself aware of trends and methodologies, examined their usefulness as appropriate. As a Christian and a Theologian, I look to see if they accord with Scripture and the actions of God in history. Clearly systemic sin and racism are issues addressed in Scripture. Just read the entirety of Ephesians (to those who say institutions/systems can’t be sinful, I invite you to consider the preface to the armor of God where Paul declares that “Our Battle is not against Flesh and Blood.”)

That’s a rundown, off the top of my head, of CRT: what it is, and why I use it. I hope this can be an example of sorts. I am by no means a CRT expert, nor anything approaching a sociologist. I do, however, bristle at anyone who declares a theory/method off limits, especially when the one making such a declaration cannot seem to articulate the specific reasons why such a declaration is made. The reason so many predominantly Black churches, Black pastors and teachers are leaving the SBC over its most recent declaration condemning CRT is not because they are all Marxist. It’s because, when present with a reasoned, evidenced based approach to use as one tool among others to address the actual problem of racism, the SBC seminary presidents (and many of their faculty) said that to even begin to address the issues of racism in the country, to even consider looking at things from a perspective that was not “white,” was tantamount to heresy. They didn’t even look at it, but listened to the ill-informed, bad faith readings of non-experts and took the word of these white men as gospel.

  2 comments for “Critical Race Theory (in brief)

  1. Anonymous
    January 27, 2021 at 8:35 pm

    I appreciate this post on CRT. Mostly, I suppose that I appreciate it because it conforms to my own thoughts on the subject! However, I also appreciate it because the mere effort to define CRT is, apparently, too much for most of the people throwing the term around.

    I observe that White people, myself included, don’t want to think too hard about the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining of mortgages, police brutality, etc. I attempted to read “My Life as a Slave” a couple of years ago and put it down after two chapters. It hurt my heart too much to read anymore. Generally, when forced to be aware of unpleasantness, we cluck our tongues, say “That’s terrible!” indignantly, and move along. It doesn’t feel good to reflect for very long on such cruelty. (There is the white privilege! We can choose to bury such unpleasantness rather than have to face it in an unrelenting grind of frustration.)

    My own less than perfect approach to this is to remember that everyone whom I meet is a creation of our God. As such, they are precious in His sight and I owe them love and respect. That may not seem like much, and it certainly doesn’t offer redress for all of the past indignities, but redress for all of the past indignities exceeds my grasp. I will pray for the hurting, encourage those on the mend, and rejoice with those who have risen above all of the many hurdles put in their path.

    • January 28, 2021 at 9:24 am

      I definitely think doing something, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing or, worse, denying a problem exists. As a white man, I understand the onus is on me to understand, listen, and do what I can. That’s not “white guilt” as some like to label it. That’s being responsible. Too many times people want to run away from their responsibility and claims of “heresy” or that something will destroy us is an easy way to scapegoat the responsibility away.

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