race theory

Is Critical Race Theory “UnChristian” Part 5

Is Critical Race Theory “UnChristian” Part 5

Written by: Dr. Matt Mullins (Assistant Professor of English and History of Ideas/Associate Dean for Academic Advising)

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-

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?

-Expand History-

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.

-Critique Colorblindness-

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 2

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Is Critical Race Theory “UnChristian” Part 2

Written by: Dr. Matt Mullins (Assistant Professor of English and History of Ideas/Associate Dean for Academic Advising)

In the last post, I introduced the concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and raised questions about where it came from and how it was born. This post answers these questions by explaining the origins of CRT and introducing some of its key figures. The following account is drawn primarily from my reading of Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. This book is written by Critical Race Theorists, and I lean on it in an effort to represent CRT on its own terms. I also rely on Andrew Hartman’s excellent book, A War for the Soul of America, for some important historical context.

Origins of Critical Race Theory

Where did CRT come from? Critical Race Theory was not born out of a university department. It did not emerge from a political party, think tank, or policy center. It was a natural reaction to the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While overt forms of racism such as discriminatory hiring practices and voter intimidation had been made illegal thanks to civil rights activists, new forms of racism emerged that required new forms of resistance and new forms of legal defense. For instance, where the legal response was obvious in the cases of states or municipalities that sought to bar people of color from the voting booth on the basis of race, how could lawyers, activists, scholars, and politicians address the disparities in incarceration between white men and black men? How could they fight laws that disproportionately affected people of color when the laws themselves said nothing explicit about race? The main channel of CRT thus lies in law, with tributaries stretching into political activism, community organizing, and other academic disciplines such as history, sociology, and literary theory.

As a range of people from different professions and academic disciplines began to address these issues and trace their histories, a common cause led to a workshop in 1989 in Madison, Wisconsin on something called “critical race theory.” The birth of CRT was motivated by many different factors, but the theme that seemed to underlie them all was the concept of colorblindness.  Colorblindness rejects the idea that race should ever be taken into account. If you’ve ever heard someone say something like “I don’t see race,” or “I don’t believe in any race except the human race,” then you’ve experienced a colorblind theory of race.

Proponents of CRT saw (and continue to see) colorblindness as the most powerful enemy of racial justice because of its refusal to recognize how race plays a significant role in both the past and the present. In response to those who would say we should be colorblind, activists sought to expose the inherent racism in our political thinking. Legal scholars set out to reveal how colorblind laws actually depended on age-old prejudices. Historians, sociologists, and literary theorists traced the slow but steady submersion of racism from the blatant forms of the past to the more covert forms of the present in major events, cultural phenomena, and literature. CRT came into being as a loose confederation of activists and scholars found common cause in their efforts to demonstrate how a society supposedly committed to colorblindness was, in fact, deeply dependent on and fractured by color.

Key Figures of Critical Race Theory

Because CRT was born out of questions about the law and the field of legal studies, most of its key figures tend to work and study in the field of law. Perhaps the most influential early figure in CRT was Derrick Bell, who taught at Harvard, the University of Oregon, Stanford University, and New York University. According to Andrew Hartman, Bell’s appointment at Harvard represented progress, but his long stint there as the sole tenured minority came to seem like tokenism rather than a true breakthrough. His frustration led to the development of a key belief of CRT called “interest convergence,” which I will take up in one of the next posts on the core values of CRT.

Neil Gotanda, another law professor, has written extensively on the concept of color blindness. Two other important figures, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, have written an introduction to CRT that is fairly accessible to nonspecialists, and which I’m drawing on in this post. Angela Harris is a professor of law who studied at the University of Chicago in the 1980s when CRT first took off. In her foreword to the most recent edition of Delgado and Stefancic’s book, she offers her own narrative of CRT’s inception.