systemic racism

Is Critical Race Theory “UnChristian” Part 3

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Is Critical Race Theory “UnChristian” Part 3

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

In the previous posts I introduced the concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and briefly discussed its origins and some of its key figures. In this post I turn to the substance of CRT and explain some of its core beliefs.

Critical Race Theory is just that, a theory; it’s a system of beliefs that attempts to explain why things are the way they are. Specifically, it’s a theory of what race is, how it has functioned, and how it continues to function in society.  At its core, CRT holds that race and racism are woven into the very fabric of our society. Racism is not merely how one person feels about another. It is built into the foundations of culture, including in our laws, our customs, and our arts/entertainment. CRT seeks to expose and challenge this racism.

I have done my best to explain CRT in its own terms, but given the medium in which I’m writing, I have inevitably oversimplified some of its core beliefs and left others out altogether. Please approach these posts as a place to start exploring CRT, not as the final word.

What Do Critical Race Theorists Believe?

Before we examine the beliefs that underpin CRT, we should note that any given proponent of CRT may hold a range of views. They may embrace some aspects of CRT and reject others. Like any belief system, there are some values that are not up for debate and others that are optional, or about which like-minded folks can disagree in good faith.

-Race is a Social Construct-

To address the history and effects of race and racism, we first need to understand what race itself is. If you’re not familiar with this conversation, it may surprise you to find out that many scholars and activists disagree about the precise definition of race. There are two major definitions of race:

Race is a biological reality

Race is a social construct

From a CRT perspective, those who understand race as a biological reality see it not only as a marker of skin color but also as a reliable indicator of how a person will live and behave. They draw a causal line between a person’s biology and her/his personality, abilities, and tendencies. For these folks, people of different races live and behave differently not only by custom but also because of their biological differences. Think about it like this: under this view, having light skin can tell us something about a person’s family, behavior, even their IQ. Race is nature, not nurture.

In contrast, those who understand race as a social construct see no causal connection between a person’s biology and her personality, abilities, and tendencies. For those in this second category, race is not about biology, it’s not about melanin (skin pigmentation). Instead, race is the system of values, characteristics, and narratives that we assign to different people and groups. Think about it like this: having light or dark skin means something different in Poland than it does in Ethiopia than it does in Brazil. Different cultures assign different values to people of different colors. To understand race is not to understand anything about the biological reality of skin color, but to understand how specific values, characteristics, and narratives have become associated with different colors in different contexts over time. Race is nurture, not nature.

Proponents of CRT typically hold a social construction view of race. To be clear, this does not mean that they think race does not exist. It simply means that race is a social reality rather than a biological reality. It does not mean that they think that everyone’s skin is the same color. It means that the characteristics we associate with those colors are imposed rather than inherent. Race is something we have invented to organize our world, rather than a product of our DNA. And for CRT, folks with lighter skin have organized the world based on values assigned to colors that privilege themselves and oppress people with darker skin.

-Racism is Structural-

For CRT, racism is thus not only treating someone badly because their skin color is different from yours. Racism is a huge, complicated, historical system. It is the very way our world has been organized over time to empower folks who came to understand themselves as white and to subjugate those who fall outside that category.

Remember, since race is a social construct for CRT, whiteness is not primarily about the color of one’s skin. Whiteness is a system of values, characteristics, and narratives that have been assigned to lighter skin. Racism is thus not only personal feelings or prejudices. Those things may be symptoms, but they are not the disease. Racism is a system, or structure. CRT thus rejects the idea that adopting a colorblind theory of race will remedy racism. After all, even if we all stopped acting on our individual prejudices the historical system of racism would still exist. Racism is ordinary; it’s just the normal, everyday order of things.