Sojourner was sitting, tall and dark, on the very front seat, facing the platform; and in the hush of deep feeling, after Douglas sat down, she spoke out in her deep, peculiar voice, heard all over the house, “Frederick, is God dead?”
Is Critical Race Theory “UnChristian” Part 5
If you’ve followed along with the earlier posts in this series, you’ll have a basic understanding of some of the core beliefs of Critical Race Theory (CRT) by now. In this post I will examine one last core belief of CRT and explain how CRT informs what people do.
What Do Critical Race Theorists Believe?
Intersectionality is the study of how different identity categories overlap. For instance, if structural racism oppresses black folks in the United States, someone interested in intersectionality would be drawn to the similarities and differences between the oppression of black men and black women, or between black people from the United States and black people from the Dominican Republic. In other words, how do race and gender or race and nationality “intersect”?
Proponents of CRT who study intersectionality typically believe that people living at the intersection of multiple oppressed identity categories face unique forms of discrimination that require equally unique forms of defense. You may even hear the word “intersectional” used as an adjective to describe “intersectional individuals” or “intersectional groups.” In addition to race, gender, and nationality, some Critical Race theorists are interested in categories such as class, religion, and sexual orientation. They might wonder how being impoverished affects a man and a woman differently or how black Christians and black Muslims are represented in American culture.
What Do Critical Race Theorists Do?
Proponents of CRT are committed to telling a more complete story of United States history than many of us learned in school. CRT holds that there is a familiar and comfortable narrative of U.S. history with which most of us are acquainted but which also obscures many important events and figures that can help us better understand the current racial disparities in our culture. With this in mind, many Critical Race theorists spend their professional lives providing expanded narratives of U.S. history that tell these stories.
We have already seen how CRT emerged, in large part, in opposition to the concept of colorblindness. People in a wide range of professions whose work is informed by CRT focus on revealing how stories, laws, customs, and decisions that seem to be neutral, or colorblind, are actually built on assumptions about race.
-Make the Legal System Fairer-
Proponents of CRT working in the legal profession or committing time to activism often focus on exposing disparities in policing, sentencing, and incarceration that disproportionately affect people of color. Examples of this would be Brian Stephenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in the legal profession and Black Lives Matter in the world of activism. This work is especially important for CRT because of its implications for political change. In the United States, there are major disparities in voting rights for people convicted of a crime from state to state. And from a CRT perspective, if political change is required to make the legal system fairer, then the disproportionate criminalization of people of color hinders the potential for change via the ballot box.
-Advocate for Voting Rights-
Whether it be through trying to restore voting rights for those convicted of crimes, fighting laws that make voting more difficult, or battling the gerrymandering of voting districts, Critical Race theorists are committed to fighting the disenfranchisement of minorities.
-Change Speech Norms-
Ranging from hate speech to microaggressions, CRT sees speech as a vital part of both perpetuating and battling racism. Hate speech is a category of speech that serves no other purpose than to demean and harm. Some proponents of CRT seek to criminalize hate speech, though this has been an especially contentious issue in the United States given the importance of the First Amendment to our Constitution. Even now, battles over speech codes, especially on college and university campuses, continue to rage.
A microaggression is an offense that seems minor to, or even goes unnoticed by, a member of the majority culture but which insults minorities. A classic example of a microaggression would be a white person in the United States asking a non-white person where they are from, or where they are “really” from. If the white person doesn’t know the non-white person and asks this question, the implication is that, based on the person’s appearance, he or she cannot be from the United States. In other words, to ask that question is to tell them that they don’t belong or to imply that, as we saw in the last post, normal Americans don’t look like them.
Hate speech and microaggressions are contentious because, to many, they seem entirely subjective.
Is Critical Race Theory “UnChristian” Part 4
What Do Critical Race Theorists Believe?
-Colorblindness is a Problem, not a Solution-
Colorblindness sounds like a good idea. Adherents of colorblindness typically believe that everyone should be treated equally regardless of their personal backgrounds, religious affiliation, racial identity, and so on. But for CRT, the idea of treating people the same “regardless” of their histories is why racism persists.
If racism has evolved over time into an integral part of the structure of our society, and if that structure holds some people back and gives others a leg up, then to treat all those people the same is to maintain a status quo that disenfranchises some and privileges others. In other words, if two equally-matched people are running a marathon and you give one a head start, then no matter how similar their paths, no matter how equally hydrated, no matter that both are chasing the same goal, the person with the head start will always win. It wouldn’t be fair to say to the loser, “Well, you ran the same race, had the same amount of water, and crossed the same finish line, why didn’t you win?” For CRT, turning a blind eye to the disparity at the starting line is like claiming that we should be colorblind when it comes to addressing racial inequalities.
-Interest Convergence, not Pure Progress-
Interest convergence is the idea that dominant groups only acquiesce to minority interests when those interests converge with their own. Derrick Bell developed this concept in an essay about the famous Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education. In Brown vs. Board, the Court outlawed the segregationist policies of “separate but equal” education in the United States. But Bell claimed that the ruling did not simply represent progress. Instead, he insisted that this landmark decision was reached because ending segregation was in the best interest of the dominant culture, not because it was truly just, fair, or best for minorities.
The Court had not had a genuine change of heart, Bell argued, and neither had the American people. Rather, for a number of other reasons it had become untenable to maintain segregation. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic summarize the argument, pointing out that African American soldiers returning home from World War II had glimpsed a different world and were not likely to go quietly back to Jim Crow America. The Court feared instability. They also note that the United States was in the midst of the Cold War and being a hotbed of racial unrest and white supremacist violence didn’t help the country win hearts and minds away from Communism. Interest convergence is a pessimistic feature of CRT. Critics of CRT often point to it as evidence of an unwillingness to acknowledge any kind of progress in race relations.
-Whiteness is Normative-
Another core belief of CRT is that whiteness has come to seem normal over time, making everything else non-normal, or other. To put it another way, whiteness and everything associated with being white has become the standard for how a person should be. You should hear echoes of colorblindness here because CRT criticizes the idea that we can be neutral, objective, or colorblind when it comes to race. If we are trying to be neutral, then we are inevitably reinforcing the status quo, or the norm, and the norm is to live and behave like white people.
Remember, most proponents of CRT also believe race is a social construct, so that means they don’t think there’s anything biologically superior about being white. Instead, they argue that whiteness has come to be dominant and desirable over time. In the colonial era and then in the early days of the Union, many people and groups from across the world who are now recognized as white were not considered to be white. People from Ireland and Italy were not white in the eighteenth century. Benjamin Franklin maintained that the Germans were too “swarthy” to be white! And yet, over time these folks have become white, not because their skin color has changed, but because they have assimilated into the values associated with whiteness.
This is where skin color is important. Such assimilation was impossible for people of African descent no matter how completely they adopted the values associated with whiteness because they were easily recognizable based on the color of their skin. And over time (especially in the seventeenth century), dark skin had come to be synonymous with slavery, an institution justified by pseudoscientific claims that skin color was a reliable indicator of inferiority or superiority.