Critical Race Theory

Conservative hucksters have recently seized upon something called “critical race theory” (CRT) and started acting like it is permeating itself through the cultural reproduction sectors — education, media, and entertainment. They then make calls to protect these sectors from CRT, which provides another wedge issue for especially state and local elected officials to run on.

The out-of-nowhere elevation of this relatively small and obscure area of academia has caused a lot of confusion and led to a lot of weird reactions and counter-reactions. By the end of this cycle, CRT will no doubt have had all of its original meaning obliterated and replaced with various dumber and contested meanings that help facilitate the political discourse. A similar thing already happened with “intersectionality” many years ago.

Funnily enough, I have had a lot of experience with CRT over the years. In high school and college, I participated in competitive debate and CRT was something you needed to know to do that successfully. I majored in philosophy and minored in black studies at the University of Oklahoma and, while there, wrote a CRT-inflected paper that was published in the APA newsletter Philosophy and the Black Experience. Then I went to law school where I also took an elective class about it.

This is not to say I am an expert in it, but I have a certain familiarity with it that preceded its recent political rise. And, given that, I thought it might be useful to give a very brief rundown of it, as I understand it.

For starters, “critical race theory” (CRT) comes from the similarly named “critical legal studies” (CLS). Indeed, it’d probably be cleaner to just say that CRT is the race-focused division of CLS, but I think people might get prickly about saying stuff like that for reasons related to who gets credit.

“Critical legal studies” has a good name because it ends in the word “studies” instead of “theory.” This seems to be a major source of confusion in the recent mainstream discussion of CRT. When we see the word “theory,” we think it refers to a specific set of claims and principles. In reality, both CLS and CRT are really more like specific areas of research (“studies”) than they are a unified explanation of something (“theory”).

While CLS and CRT have probably taken on many meanings over the years while referring to a lot of different people, the core approach of each seems to be to take a nominally neutral-looking philosophical principle or law and show that, upon closer inspection and reflection, it is a way of benefiting the rich or powerful or white.

From the time I was introduced to them until now, I’ve always thought that, as research programs, CLS and CRT are very interesting and fun areas of thought. You need a certain level of sophistication and background to really get anything out of them: you can’t understand these kinds of critiques without first separately understanding what they are critiquing, which itself takes quite a lot of time and effort to learn. But, if you can get to that level, reading CLS and CRT stuff can be illuminating. Additionally, CLS and CRT actually contain real cognizable arguments, making them a step up from a lot of adjacent discourse these days where arguments have been replaced with demands for deference to certain voices and whatever bald assertions they make.

As far as I know, CRT is not taught in many high schools, making the debate about it being taught in high schools confusing, if taken on face value. Furthermore, it’s unclear if, by “teach CRT,” people mean “teach that CRT is true” or “teach students about CRT.” The former would obviously be goofy, just as it would be goofy to teach any specific philosophical body of thought as if it is the truth. But the latter doesn’t seem like it would be a problem in itself. When I was in high school, I took a philosophy elective where we learned about Descartes and Nietzsche, among others. I don’t see how this would be any different.

Whether CRT makes the cut as something worth teaching in high school given the level of ability of your average high schooler and given all of the other things you could also teach is a different question and I suspect that, like my philosophy class, it would only probably make sense as an elective that taught a variety of different philosophical perspectives. Of course, this is not really what anyone is fighting about.