Critical Race Theory: Read It for Yourself

by John Ellis

Of late, friends and acquaintances ask me about Critical Race Theory (CRT) more than any other single topic. I am more than happy to answer their questions and engage in dialogue about CRT as best I can. To date, though, I have yet to have a face-to-face discussion about CRT with anyone who is outright antagonistic towards it. I’m not sure if that’s because my current situation allows me to semi-subconsciously “self-edit” whom I’m around, or if the anti-CRT folks in my life (if they exist) have deemed the platitude “discretion is the better part of valor” as the best approach regarding the topic while in my presence[1]. In the eventuality that I am approached by anyone anti-CRT, I’ll be happy to talk to them, too, but my approach will differ (drastically) from the dialogue I have with those who are honestly curious.

Make no mistake, I am aware of the (pejorative) accusation embedded in that previous sentence. That’s not owing to my desire to be skeptical and dismissive of the intellectual integrity of those who are anti-CRT. It’s because the anti-CRT movement is profoundly deceitful in the ways in which they engage the debate. This extends to those on my social media newsfeeds who are also anti-CRT; it is obvious they are not only receiving their marching orders from the talking heads on FOX “News” and other far-right media sources, but they are also essentially copying/pasting the content of their arguments against CRT.  

While I am not an expert in CRT, by any stretch of the imagination, I have not found a single anti-CRT source that has demonstrated an intellectual integrity that allows them to engage with the highly complex set of legal theories beyond the most cartoonishly strawmen versions of it. I’m also left wondering if any of the anti-CRT voices have even read anything that would be considered primary source documents for CRT, aside from the occasional pull-quote from Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s short primer Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. I will admit this, though, their lack of intellectual integrity aside, the anti-CRT voices are correct that it is a threat to their way of life – I’m just not sure they understand the real reason why. And to that, I say, “AMEN!” Their way of life – the Enlightenment project’s most successful outworking in the so-called American Dream – should be upended.

I’ve written about CRT and why I believe it’s a needed “threat” to the Enlightenment project (you can read one of those articles by clicking here). For the sake of this short article – short for me – I offer two things. Firstly, and utilizing a pull-quote from the aforementioned Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Delgado and Stefancic offer a short and helpful summary of the legal theories that compromise CRT. “Unlike traditional civil rights, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundation of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”[2]

I include that pull-quote because it’s not only a helpful, succinct definition of CRT but it’s also the definition that I’ve heard/read used by those who are anti-CRT as proof that CRT is an existential threat to their way of life. To that, again, I say, “AMEN!”

To be clear, that definition is used so poorly by the anti-CRT crowd, if not downright deceitfully, as to render Delgado and Stefanic’s arguments, not to mention the arguments found in CRT’s canon of primary sources, warped in ways that render the definition useless for legitimate dialogue. Anyone who has read much of this blog is aware that I have engaged in a near constant attack on the Enlightenment Project – the “liberal order” from the quote – but from the perspective as a subject of King Jesus. I find that CRT – and critical theory, in general – offers helpful tools in deconstructing classical liberalism and how it has shaped and controls our – Christians – worldview. If interested, you can easily find my arguments by blindly clicking on articles on this blog. But, again, I have a different objective with this current article. While there are a few talking heads that probably get it (and those few are also probably quite familiar with the writings and work of the paleoconservative grand poobah Paul Gotfried), my sharp sense is that most of the anti-CRT crowd don’t really understand what the debate is about and, hence, are unable to access why I claim “AMEN!” (in caps lock, no less) to the existential threat CRT poses to their way of life.

Secondly, and getting back on track with my objective for this article, I wrote that if I were to have a face-to-face conversation with anyone who is anti-CRT, my approach will differ from that when I’m having a discussion with those who are curious about it and aren’t sure what to think. To those who are anti-CRT, I will first ask something like this, “Have you read any actual primary sources of CRT?” If they respond in the affirmative, I will then press them on what/whom they’ve read, under the suspicion that they may not understand the term primary sources (for example, Neil Shenvi is not a primary source – he’s not even a legitimate secondary source, for that matter). For those who answer in the negative, I will interrupt their defense for relying on the words of so-and-so by responding, “How can you legitimately be so anti something that you haven’t even interacted with? Until you read CRT, I’m not interested in having this discussion with you.”

You can consider that rude if you like. For me, it not only serves a pedagogical purpose, but it also protects me from wasting my time with someone who isn’t arguing in good faith. I wouldn’t be completely dismissive, though. In that instance, I would offer to provide them with some primary sources for them to read (I’ll even buy them a book if it’s not in their budget). And that finally brings me to my main objective for this article: read CRT for yourself. And to help, below is a link to what is widely considered the essay that, “[set] the stage for the eventual development of Critical Race Theory.”[3]

Read it; it’s not long. And unlike other seminal works in the CRT movement, Derrick Bell’s “Serving Two Masters” is accessible to those of us who aren’t fluent in legal theory and legalese (some of CRT’s primary sources are hard to understand without the willingness to do some legwork in uncovering the meanings of terms and contexts of legal concepts and trial results). Read it for yourself, and, if you’re a Christian, feed Bell’s arguments through the rubric of Christian ethics. If you’re unwilling to read it, or some other CRT primary source, then at least have the intellectual integrity to admit that you do not have the epistemic right to hold strong opinions about it.

Ironically, one of the epistemic inheritances left us by the Enlightenment is the democratization of knowledge. We’ve not only been taught that we have as much of a right as anyone else to not only have an opinion on anything and everything (regardless of whether we actually know anything about it), but more negatively impactful, we’ve also been taught that our opinion has the right to carry epistemic weight even if we don’t know what we’re talking about. Please, reject that aspect of our “way of life” – and make no mistake, CRT provides a useful tool in battling that harmful epistemology. If you’re going to hold a strong opinion about CRT, at least do the bare minimum of reading some of it for yourself.

Click the title to read Derrick Bell’s essay: “Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation”

[1] I have family members – not in my house – who are anti-CRT. Some adamantly so. Some because that’s the worldview waters they swim in. In those circumstances, when CRT is mentioned, and it rarely is, I employ the platitude “discretion is the better part of valor,” and keep my mouth shut.

[2] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 3.

[3] Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed The Movement ed. Kimberle Crensaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York: The New Press, 1995), 3.

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