What Critical Race Theory Gets Right, and Wrong

Advocates may have diagnosed the problem, but their solution would be a huge mistake

At a protest in Leesburg, Virginia, last June against critical race theory being taught in public schools, two men debate with a female counter-protester. Image Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The culture war over critical race theory rages on. The theory’s proponents cast racial inequality as a fundamental feature of modern Western societies, including America. According to them, racism is endemic and fully integrated into our institutions. It is impossible to go to work or attend school without being subject to white privilege and microaggressions. On a larger scale, critical race theorists tell us that the legacies of slavery, segregation and colonialism are impossible to escape.

It’s tempting to dismiss critical race theory and related “woke” ideas out of hand. With some in the political class, the common response has certainly been knee-jerk dismissal. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for example, has published a “battle manual” for those who wish to oppose critical race theory. Newly inaugurated Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has signed an executive order banning “divisive” concepts in his state’s public schools.

But a cottage industry of writers and intellectuals also offer a middle-brow rejection of the theory. For example, John McWhorter directly compares it and “wokeness” to a religion that demands “pious virtue signaling.” One of his key goals is to protect readers from the ideology’s religious fervor and “liturgical concerns.” Likewise, Andrew Sullivan in the essay, “Woke: On The Wrong Side of History,” criticizes the theory for being stuck in an “outdated binary” where whites are at constant war with “B&B’s”—Blacks and Browns.

Picking the Wrong Enemy

In truth, such outright rejections of critical race theory are unhelpful. Classical liberals have something to learn from this school of thought—and also have something to teach it: They need to fully appreciate that people like to create racial groups and gain status and advantage from membership in these groups. But what advocates need to learn is that liberal institutions such as free speech, private property and limited government are not their enemy. These things can meaningfully address racial repression in a way that statist solutions cannot—no matter how much these solutions put radical equality at the center of the critical race project.

Let’s consider what critical race theory gets right: The fundamental truth is that race and racism are real, and our institutions often reinforce and perpetuate racial inequalities. There is a great deal of academic research showing that our criminal justice system treats African Americans far worse than whites. For example, Marit M. Rehavi and Sonja B. Starr have found that African Americans receive sentences almost 10% longer than whites who are arrested for similar crimes.

And African Americans don’t just get a raw deal at the hands of state institutions. They also lose out in the private sector. There is plenty of research showing that employers are less willing to hire African Americans, even when they have qualifications similar to white applicants.

A Belief in “Structural Racism”

Critical race theorists don’t believe that such outcomes are necessarily the result of active racism—namely, a belief on the part of whites that they are genetically or morally superior to African Americans. Rather, they believe that they are the result of “structural racism.” They argue that societies tend to organize around racial hierarchies so that those on top can collect “rents” by virtue of their privileged status—not because they deserve them.

And those hooked on privilege don’t just give it up. So racially disparate outcomes can persist even after individual racism has ended because the groups on top continue to pursue their privilege in private settings or lobby the state for policies in their favor without much regard to the impact they might have on minorities. (For more on this theory, see this primer on Explains Frances Lee Ansley in an anthology compiled by one of the founders of the doctrine, Richard Delgado:

[By] ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self‐​conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non‐​white subordination are daily re‐​enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.

Classical liberals should think about structural racism like they do about crony capitalism: Once business interests manage to rig a system—through state policies and private networks—to obtain an unfair advantage over potential competitors, it becomes extremely difficult to dismantle it. The economic clout that these businesses amass gives them the political clout to defend the status quo through lobbying, campaign contributions to sympatico candidates and other such things. All of this makes reform to create a level playing field extremely difficult even as the economic and social costs pile up.

A system of racial privilege that was developed over centuries and pervades so many aspects of life can hardly be easier to remove and replace. Skin color has become the basis of social judgments about beauty, desirability, dependability and criminality that confer privileges and penalties and are hard to see because they are so ubiquitous. Critical race theory insists that simply moving to colorblind practices in, say, hiring won’t eliminate but instead will entrench existing inequities because such practices can easily become an excuse to minimize the number of minorities hired.

Classical liberals should not reflexively dismiss the notion that the liberal order is severely distorted by a system of racial hierarchies, just like they don’t dismiss the notion that free enterprise has been deeply corrupted by rent-seeking business interests. Critical race theory’s depiction of American race relations is hardly unfair. Clearly, discrimination did not end with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Socialism Isn’t the Answer

However, even though critical race theorists use sound empirical insights to offer an accurate diagnosis of the persistent racial ills in contemporary America and Western societies, they get the cure wrong. Unlike the traditional civil rights movement, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theorists question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law. They believe that this order requires racial exploitation and inequality to function. Because slave drivers exploited blacks to produce low-priced goods that they could then sell for a profit, Ibram X. Kendi goes so far as to suggest that antiracists must be anticapitalists. His fellow theorists reject free speech and individual rights as a ruse to protect exclusionary “white spaces.” This critique of capitalism makes a political system that sanctions the use of state power to eliminate inequality—socialism—more attractive to them.

That, however, is a mistake.

For starters, persecution of racial or other minorities is not a problem only in liberal societies.  Socialist states, where political power is concentrated, have a far more atrocious record on social justice. China is engaged in an extraordinary campaign to rid the country of its Muslim Uyghur population, for example. More than 1 million Uyghurs are languishing in re-education camps. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghur men have been thrown in jail and ethnic Chinese men dispatched to live with their wives and impregnate them, a real life enactment of a dystopian fantasy. Similarly, communist Cuba has a long history of mistreating LGBT people, Afro-Cubans and dissidents. Russia has few compunctions about ruthlessly cracking down on its Chechen minority.

Persecuted and marginalized minorities that have a tough time prevailing in liberal societies will hardly be able to win power from entrenched players in statist systems to advance their equity agenda. Uyghurs who can’t speak up, organize or build a movement to demand better treatment won’t be able to move into the halls of power and obtain perfect justice anytime soon.

Don’t Throw Out the Baby

Just because racism exists alongside liberal institutions, it does not follow that racism and these institutions are inseparable, as critical race theorists believe. For example, schools may not treat African American and white students equally, but it does not follow that schools are automatically racist and should be abolished. Similarly, just because there may be racial inequalities in markets, it does not follow that markets should be abolished.

What distinguishes a market-based liberal order is that it has internal resources for course correction that statist, illiberal systems lack. For example, it was the liberal commitment to free speech and free association that allowed Martin Luther King Jr. to address a crowd of thousands and deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that mobilized millions and resulted in the Civil Rights Act. Likewise, it was the liberal belief in the free press that allowed King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to be circulated and read.

Moreover, freedom of religion and economic freedom played a crucial role in the civil rights struggle. Aldon Morris’ “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement” pointed out that the freedom struggle of African Americans relied on a network of Black churches and ministers. And key protest actions such as the Montgomery bus boycott required financial donations, large and small, from thousands of African American and others. Likewise, the modern Black Lives Matter movement depends on the extremely open Twitter culture and private donations to advance its cause.

Organizing and propelling a movement for reform is never easy because those who stand to lose their privilege in a more equitable system will put up massive obstacles on the road to progress. Critical race theory is right that just because America has a Bill of Rights on paper does not mean that freedom and equality will become automatically available to everyone. But the theory’s proponents need to recognize that the liberal commitment to equal rights means something. It hands them crucial tools for resistance and reform that are absent in the illiberal alternatives.

That is not everything. But it is also not nothing.

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