In the 1970s and 1980s, many Americans recognized that the Civil Rights Movement had disarmed much of the overt racism of America’s past but that subtle forms of racism still existed. However, they disagreed on how to identify, define, and address those subtler forms. One school of thought that arose in response to these questions is Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Legal scholar Derrick Bell is generally considered the founding father of CRT. He argued in his 1970 book, Race, Racism, and American Law, that whites have always been racist and only allowed for black rights when it benefitted whites to do so. In his 1987 book, And We are Not Saved, he writes even more explicitly that “progress in American race relations is largely a mirage obscuring the fact that whites continue, consciously or unconsciously, to do all in their power to ensure their dominion and maintain their control.” Other scholars—most notably Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Harris, and Patricia Williams—built on Bell’s work with sophisticated analyses of identity and the “lived experience” of racial expression.
The primary tenets of CRT are encapsulated well in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s reader Critical Race Theory. Racism, these authors argue, is the everyday experience of black Americans. The idea of “race” itself is a social construction that fostered a system of white ascendancy, and it continues to psychologically and materially benefit the dominant group. Because whites are the beneficiaries of this prejudiced system, they are not only incompetent to speak about race or racism but also are complicit in systemic racism to the extent they participate uncritically in the system. Whites are encouraged to participate critically in the public square by exposing the racial disparities prevalent in our nation’s policing, sentencing, and incarceration. Additionally, whites are encouraged to advocate minority groups’ voting rights by eliminating gerrymandering and using legislation or social pressure to change speech norms that are seen to perpetuate racism.
Although CRT finds many supporters in the black intellectual community, many prominent black thinkers reject CRT as a flawed theory. In their view, this way of thinking actually perpetuates racism and harms society. Such critics of CRT include economists (Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Glenn Loury), political scientists (Carol M. Swain, Wilfred Reilly), political commentators and activists (Derryck Green, Alveda King), professors of linguistics (John McWhorter), professors of divinity (Robert Smith, Jr.), public intellectuals (Coleman Hughes), and elected officials (Tim Scott), among others.
Further, many Christians—including some of the black commentators enumerated above—criticize CRT from a distinctively evangelical point of view. While they often acknowledge that CRT can be a useful tool for analyzing power dynamics, they ultimately reject CRT as being fundamentally incompatible with the Christian faith. Indeed, although CRT offers some valuable insights, it usually functions as an ideology, which is a form of intellectual idolatry. As such, CRT should be rejected.
Here are four reasons why.
Defining Racism: Personal Prejudice or Cultural Embeddedness?
Many of the difficulties that we have in speaking about racism today arise because interlocutors are defining the concept differently. Although proponents of CRT recognize an individual’s racial prejudices as racist, they focus almost exclusively on the West’s historic cultural “system.” As the works of Richard Delgado, Robin DiAngelo, and many others demonstrate, once the primary focus of racism is its systemic manifestations, each white citizen is implicated as a “racist,” whether or not he or she is personally prejudiced.
This systemic emphasis contrasts sharply with an evangelical understanding of sin. Because sin begins with the corruption of an individual’s heart, morally culpable racial injustice is rooted primarily in individual racist acts or intentions. Such racism occurs when a person thinks, feels, acts, or speaks in a prejudiced manner toward another person merely because of that person’s ethnic heritage. Racism, in a Christian context, is first and foremost a movement of the will.
However, because human culture is an extension of individuals’ acting on God’s creation, cultural institutions can embody sinful tendencies of groups of individuals. Accordingly, systemic racism occurs when a society’s personal prejudices coalesce to corrupt its social institutions, tilting those institutions in favor of one ethnic group over others. CRT rightly calls us to recognize that the effects of sin can be magnified throughout the institutions and social structures erected by individuals, leading to social systems that embody unjust racial prejudices. Yet CRT agendas are flawed to the extent that they focus exclusively or even primarily on systemic manifestations of racism. By focusing on sin as embodied with or without intent in social systems, they lose what makes sin so wrong in the first place: that individuals who bear a moral accountability before God break his moral law. For Christians, injustice is an effect of individuals breaking God’s law. But in the reductionist view of CRT, injustice itself becomes the origin and source of sin.
The reason for this is that CRT establishes its definition of sin—and consequently the nature of racial injustice—on the basis of the “lived experience” of individuals, rather than any objective form of moral norms. Racial injustice is perceived any time someone feels they are being discriminated against, and the reason racial injustice is wrong is because of the experience of oppression it brings. A historic Christian view of sin, however, sees racial injustice as wrong because it violates God’s moral commands, which apply to all people at all times, oppressor and oppressed alike.
One of the major problems with emphasizing lived experience as the source of one’s moral norms is that it is almost impossible to tie cause and effect together, thus making it very difficult to study racial prejudice objectively. For decades, Thomas Sowell has argued not only that the claims of CRT that our whole society is racially unjust because some feel prejudiced against have not been proven, but that they cannot be proven. As Sowell argues, CRT proponents and programs often perpetuate falsehoods and traffic in racial stereotypes.
Both aspects of racism should be recognized, and CRT is right to draw attention to a neglected form of racial injustice. However, without a robust understanding of the individual source of sin and injustice, CRT offers only a halfway critique that ultimately falls flat in the pursuit of true justice. Only when we begin with sin in its individual forms in relation to God can we secure justice and equality for all.
Overcoming Racism: Colorblindness and Other Theories
A pillar of CRT is the assertion that it is impossible for individuals to be “colorblind,” and that therefore the solution to racial injustice is not to be found in efforts to treat all people the same. Rather, CRT agendas promote treating people differently on the basis of their ethnic heritage in order to privilege the oppressed and oppress the oppressor. As black sociologist George Yancey notes, CRT tends to ignore sins committed by minorities and in so doing, ironically, disempowers minorities by alleviating them of responsibility, while at the same time alienating whites.
For CRT, “evil” is located not primarily in individual choices, but in group power and prejudices that result in racial struggle and material inequity. Peggy McIntosh, a white Critical Race Theorist, writes, “My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor . . . I was taught [wrongly] to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.” CRT’s vision is for racial groups to achieve uniformly equitable results in all measures, rather than merely being granted the same basic rights. Delgado and Stefancic write:
critical race scholars are discontented with liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems. Many liberals believe in color blindness and neutral principles of constitutional law. They believe in equality, especially equal treatment for all persons, regardless of their different histories or current situations.
As Christians, we must reject any model that creates a moral asymmetry between various ethnic groups. God’s commands are universal, and those rules apply primarily to a person’s different roles and callings rather than to a person’s status on a “power differential” scale. In fact, scripture encourages us to show deference to inherited power structures and to seek reform from within those structures rather than overthrowing them.
Salvation: Individual or Systemic
Although CRT was founded as a theory about ethnic heritage in relation to power dynamics, it has come to function as an ideology—a comprehensive system of thought wrapped around an idol. The idol embedded in CRT is not equality but equity—the achievement of equal outcomes for all our society’s member groups. To the extent that equity is achieved, CRT proponents argue, society will be liberated from injustice.
Like all ideologies, CRT espouses a narrative that competes with the Bible’s story of the world. Indeed, CRT offers a form of anti-religion as an alternative to Christian orthodoxy. Instead of a worldview that begins with all things created by God, CRT tends to begin its narrative about the world with human oppression. Rather than emphasizing that the truest thing about human persons is their relation to and accountability before God, CRT claims that the truest thing about human beings is that they are embedded in human groupings that form their identity.
CRT even has a “priesthood”: social and political influencers who raise awareness, engage in activism, and lead revolutionary action. Its social justice ethic focuses on outcomes rather than procedures, using power to restrict certain racial groups and favor others. As Mary McClintock’s 1990 essay, “How to Interrupt Oppressive Behavior,” reveals, CRT’s eschatology is one in which racial injustice mostly fades away after society is liberated from its captivity to white cultural institutions. CRT’s salvation, therefore, is situated within the physical world.
It is essential for Christians to position any insights gleaned from CRT within the Bible’s overarching master narrative. In this narrative, all human beings are both finite and fallen. Therefore, our fallen motives and finite rational capacities will never suffice to create pristinely just cultural institutions. The best we can do is bring reform to the institutions we already have. Further, the Bible teaches that we should strive for equality for all human beings, no matter their ethnic heritage, but it never promises equity among us. In fact, when Christ returns to set the world to rights, some Christians will possess more “crowns” than others. Some men and women will sit closer to Jesus’ right hand than others.
“Plundering the Egyptians” or “Worshiping Ba’al”?
CRT is a system of thought devoted to an idol: equality of outcome. CRT is preoccupied with ensuring that everyone comes to exhibit the same standards of flourishing, and if someone fails to flourish, CRT holds that the primary reason for this must be that they are oppressed by an unjust system.
As with any ideology, the discerning person can gain valuable insights from CRT. CRT rightly recognizes that oppression is evil, that individual sins and prejudices often coalesce in our society to warp and misdirect cultural institutions and associations, and that we should all work to bring healing and redirection to the injustices embedded in our culture. Yet precisely because CRT’s narrative conflicts with scripture’s overarching narrative, we should reject any temptation to buy into it as a system of thought.
Some hold that CRT offers a useful tool that has emerged from non-Christian social commentary and that we ought to “plunder the Egyptians” to make good use of it. On the contrary, because CRT rejects so much of the Bible’s view of human nature, sin, and God’s goal for his creation, perhaps it is better to say that Christians embracing CRT are bowing before the false god Ba’al, who cannot bring justice, healing, or salvation.