When President Trump signed an executive order banning Critical Race Theory from being taught in the federal bureaucracy, it provoked an outraged response from the ideology’s defenders in academia and the mainstream press. In the flurry of articles, editorials, and news segments that followed the September 22 ban, CRT was regularly, and dishonestly, described as “diversity” or “racial sensitivity” training. Then-President Donald Trump strongly denounced the ideology as “divisive, un-American propaganda,” a harmful view propagated by a jaundiced “ideology ... rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”
The media reported his objections as yet another example of the White House’s reactionary chauvinism. This controversy, and the media’s mishandling of it, came to a head at the first presidential debate, when Chris Wallace – echoing the talking points of progressive activists and Democratic Party functionaries – asked President Trump:
This month, your administration directed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training that addresses white privilege or critical race theory. Why did you decide to do that, to end racial sensitivity training? ... What is radical about racial sensitivity training?
What is so radical about it, indeed? Most Americans deplore racism, believe in the fundamental human equality upon which our republic was founded, and see racial diversity as an unobjectionable phenomenon – indeed, as an unalloyed good. To the untrained eye, then, the idea of “racial sensitivity training” is entirely reasonable.
The problem is that the attempts by Wallace and his counterparts in the media to describe the program, which is based in critical theory, as a benign diversity training were profoundly deceptive. Its ideology is, in fact, every bit as radical as the Trump administration had argued. It is in tension with the fundamental tenets of American constitutional democracy.
The recent executive order’s use of the term “anti-American” was met with predictable outrage. “Want to fight racism? That makes you ‘un-American’ in Trump’s book,” read the headline of a widely circulated Seattle Times editorial. But critical race theory’s foremost proponents have, in their own words, said as much. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write, “Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order; including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
Critical race theory is a legal theory and academic discipline concerned with the relationship between race, law, and power. It was developed in the 1970s as both a continuation of and a correction to the social and political gains of the civil rights movement. Spearheaded by a group of scholars and activists such as American lawyers Kimberlée Crenshaw and Derek Bell, and drawing from disciplines including radical feminism and critical legal studies, CRT emerged as a response to the persistence of racial gaps between whites and blacks as measured against the apparent decline of overt racism since the 1960s.
To account for this asymmetry, CRT developed a “structural” analysis of racial inequality that attempts to account for the less obvious ways that racism takes place in American society – implicit racial biases in our institutions, the intergenerational socioeconomic impacts of past racism, the exclusion of blacks from important social networks that yield upward mobility, and the cultural and psychological damage of historical stigmas and stereotypes. Critical race theory argues that, by eliminating the lingering effects of racism, we can create a society in which race does not predict or determine one’s outcomes in life.
Its core claims are that racism, whether overt or systemic, lies at the root of all racial disparities; that race and racism shape our political and personal lives; and that the dominant group in society – in this case whites – have a hidden psychological, political, and economic investment in maintaining their privilege at the expense of minorities. Some other principles include intersectionality, the idea that human beings are composed of a multitude of intersecting group identities, some of which are considered victims and others oppressors; standpoint epistemology, the notion that our racial identity informs our worldview in ways that are less accessible to those of other backgrounds; and differential racialization, the attempt to grapple with the different ways that a group has been “racialized” at different times in history to the benefit of the majority culture.
In essence, critical race theorists look at two indisputable facts – that the United States of America was historically racist and that racial gaps between whites and blacks persist – and then seek to unearth the connection between these two realities by deconstructing the complex interplay between privilege, identity, and structural oppression. The question is not whether these facts are related, but how they are related.
Although the specific tenets of CRT are rarely discussed in depth outside the gilded halls of academia, its underlying framework has come to shape virtually all conversations around race issues in our institutions over the past few decades. It has even begun to seep into high school classrooms in the form of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which explicitly sets out to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of our national narrative.”
At first glance, the claims of CRT are not necessarily unreasonable, and many of them are so obvious as to be banal. For example, historical racism clearly plays some role in some of the racial outcome gaps that we see in America today. Moreover, the principle of color blindness, and civil rights traditionalism more broadly, can sometimes neglect the less overt forms that racial bias takes in our culture. It should also go without saying that, at the very least, being black makes a person more likely on average to better understand the specific impacts of anti-black racism.
But the question is, how do we get from here to, say, the mind-reading polemics of bestselling author Robin DiAngelo and her Kafkaesque book, White Fragility, which views the denial of racism as evidence of racism and argues that “white identity is inherently racist”? Or this past summer’s “racial reckoning,” which saw “mostly peaceful” rioting and looting across the country in response to inflated claims of racism in policing? Or the widespread belief among younger progressives that America is so irredeemably racist and evil that we would be better off scrapping the Constitution, getting rid of the flag, and changing the name of the country to reflect greater diversity and inclusion?
It’s not just idealistic young activists who feel this way. The assertion that racism is a fundamental feature of every institution or social arrangement in this country – and as a result we “should work toward abolishing the Constitution ... either for a new document or a new democratic order,” as the prominent progressive writer Osita Nwanevu wrote in a recent essay for The New Republic – has bled into mainstream commentary on the Left.
These excesses are not tangential to critical theory but stem directly from its analysis. For one, CRT scholarship presumes a direct causal relationship between historical racism and present inequalities, allowing a form of historical determinism to distort the demands of the present by looking at them through the lens of the past. Similarly, the presumption that racial outcome gaps are necessarily evidence of racism – as opposed to a result of the complex tangle of demographic, cultural, geographical, historical, and socioeconomic forces – fosters interracial strife, foments ethnic tribalism, and promotes a dynamic of majority guilt and minority victimology. Moreover, the obsession with unearned and identity-based advantages erases an important category distinction between rights and privileges, between what we owe to each other as citizens and what our own group deserves in relation to other groups.
More fundamentally, the conceptual expansion of the term “racism” that CRT scholarship has facilitated – from an interpersonal behavior to a structural or systemic force, from overt to implicit, discrimination to disparity, political to personal, past to present – collapses our sense of time and proportion. This is how we get to the point where progressive activists and scholars can genuinely believe that racism is worse now than it was before the civil rights movement.
Finally, and most perniciously, sterile and reactionary categories of race are injected with a whole new social, moral, and political meaning in the name of identifying and fighting racism, ultimately committing to the same ethical blunder as white supremacists of the pre-civil rights era: the use of race as a means to power or absolution. These are not bugs but features of critical theory.
Maybe the best example of illiberal ideas gaining momentum on the mainstream Left is with the rise of historian and author Ibram X. Kendi. In his 2019 memoir How to Be an Anti-Racist, Kendi argues there is no such thing as not being racist; there are only anti-racists and racists. Under this binary, racist policies and ideas generate racial disparities, and anti-racist policies and ideas generate equal outcomes between groups. Kendi writes:
One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.
Discrimination itself is not racist in Kendi’s view but a necessary means of ensuring racial equity:
The only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.
Further, he argues that all cultures are equal and cultural differences cannot explain why a given group achieves more on average than another. “To be an anti-racist is to reject cultural standards and level cultural differences,” he writes. The logical conclusion is that being a moral, anti-racist person means ridding society of any standard or metric that perpetuates racial inequity, such as standardized testing, which Kendi admonishes as “one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade black minds and legally exclude black bodies.” Likewise, Kendi proposes instituting an anti-racist amendment to the Constitution and employing a Department of Anti-Racism armed with “disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
Among the problems with Kendi’s approach, beyond its sheer absurdity, is that guaranteeing equal outcomes between different groups is in conflict with America’s constitutional order and with liberalism itself. By striving for equality of result in the name of group rights, we ultimately sacrifice equality of process and individual rights. As the renowned economist Thomas Sowell unpacks in his classic book The Quest For Cosmic Justice, there is an unavoidable tension between the urge to “mitigate the undeserved misfortunes arising from the cosmos” preventing perfect equality between groups, and traditional notions of justice that compel individuals to abide by the same set of social, political, and economic standards.
The question is not why there are still racial disparities between whites and blacks half a century after the civil rights movement but why we still presume there is a causal relationship between the amount of racism in society and the extent of racial disparities – as though disparities between groups have not been the norm in every multi-ethnic society we know of, regardless of whatever level of discrimination may have existed. Indeed, virtually no two ethnic groups in history have ever achieved equal outcomes on all metrics, anywhere, ever. Racism, racial inequality, and historical racism, although reflexively equated in public discourse with “structural racism,” are entirely different things.
CRT holds that the United States is a fundamentally racist country to its core and across time, in ways that are historically and morally unique. But there is plenty of reason to doubt this story. For starters, any measure of how racist America is must account for the sheer size of its population and its unique cultural and ethnic diversity, which comes with challenges that smaller and more homogenous countries are less likely to face. If the country were as racist as progressives imagine, then we might expect white Americans to predominate every sphere of society, but that’s not the case. Contrary to the popular concept of white privilege, Asian-Americans outearn, outlearn, and outlive whites by a wide margin. White Americans’ average income has been eclipsed by about a dozen nonwhite ethnic groups, including Indian Americans (who top the list), Taiwanese Americans, Filipino Americans, and Chinese Americans. Moreover, despite the alleged intractability of anti-black bias in American culture, a number of black immigrant groups achieve remarkable success here: Ghanian Americans make more than the national average income, while Nigerian Americans are one of the most educated ethnic groups in the country.
We also might expect in an allegedly white supremacist society that whites would cling to their majority status to keep hold of power, but the opposite has occurred: Due to high rates of immigration and intermarriage, whites are on track to become a minority in the next few decades, as we see the rise of a mixed ethnic majority. Whites also make up the majority of those who live in poverty, largely because of their higher representation in the population, and harbor the highest suicide rate of any other group except for American Indians. Hispanics are on track to have the same average income as whites.
Finally, if any doubts remain about Americans’ commitment to stamp out racism, the fact that virtually every mainstream institution and major corporation came out in explicit support of the Black Lives Matter movement – in the middle of a global pandemic no less – should put them to rest.
The massive leap in public acceptance of racial intermarriage in America – from 5% in 1958 to 87% in 2013 – speaks for itself. Furthermore, America’s system of slavery, although brutal, was by no means a novelty in the broader scope of human history: Slavery has been practiced in almost every major civilization throughout history.
Ultimately, the question is not whether America has ever expressed racism but whether present-day America is racist relative to other places, to its own history, and to basic moral standards. On that front, we’re doing exceptionally well.
Taken in historical context, modern America’s commitment to remedying the racial injustices of its past is actually quite staggering: Beginning in the 1960s, for example, trillions of dollars were spent on President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, explicitly intended to eliminate “poverty and racial injustice.” Indeed, one could make a compelling argument that America is a structurally anti-racist society.
In the face of CRT’s growing influence, the challenge for defenders of the American tradition and the principles of our founding is to distinguish its useful insights from its radical ideological claims. When examined in global and historical contexts, there is no contradiction between the belief that America is a fundamentally good nation and the fact that our history – and even aspects of our present – possess serious flaws and injustices.
To love America is not to deny its flaws nor the dark periods of its past. Rather, it is to recognize America’s greatness despite them, understanding that perfection is no standard against which to measure human societies. Patriotic gratitude derives from a recognition of the fundamental brokenness of human nature, understanding that the violent injustices for which CRT attacks America are universal features of the human condition, present in all places and all times. Our capacity to collectively transcend the nasty, brutish, and short lives that people experienced for most of the human race’s existence – despite our enormous ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity – is reason enough to believe that this remains the last, best hope of men on Earth.
Ideologues like Kendi have no use for these nuances. In their view, conventional expressions of American patriotism are little more than racial chauvinism. “Some of the nation’s proudest patriots have also been the nation’s most virulent racists,” Kendi writes. “The organizing principle of the Ku Klux Klan has always been allegiance to the red, white and blue flag.” It follows, then, that patriotism “whitewashes history,” glossing over the less savory aspects of our past in order to present a facade of faultlessness.
But if American patriotism – expressed through an attachment to the flag, the national anthem, or other patriotic traditions – is marred by an ignorance of history, critical theory embodies the same fault to a greater magnitude. The historical illiteracy of prominent endeavors like the 1619 Project has been well-documented, and the New York Times’ persistent unwillingness to acknowledge the qualms of fact-checkers who criticized its inaccuracies is an example of the ideologically tainted historical understanding that characterizes CRT’s worldview. Furthermore, the frenzied toppling of statues and monuments – including those of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and a number of prominent abolitionists – is a testament to the radically anti-historical tendency in the larger ideology.
America’s genius does not lie in its ability to conform to an insular class of disgruntled intellectuals’ unobtainable standard of justice or equality; rather, it is in our ability to be a good, noble, and just nation, founded on noble and just ideals, striving continuously to further embody our founding principles while recognizing that the constraints of history and human nature make them impossible to realize perfectly. The fact that we have not entirely eradicated the racism and injustice that have always been features of human civilization is not an argument against the significant achievements of the American experiment.
American citizens should take reasonable criticisms of America’s present into account, acknowledging the ways in which racial injustice persists today and seeking to teach our history honestly, without sacrificing proper context which compares U.S. history to other nations’ actions in the same era. While the Trump administration’s impulse to confront the insidious influence of CRT in our institutions may have laudable goals and intentions, the former president’s inability to articulate nuances deserves critique. Those who would defend our national character against its critics are not well served by giving credence to the accusation that they “whitewash history.” Acknowledging that we still have work to do in the never-ending quest for a more perfect union should not negate our deep gratitude for the unlikely miracle that is America.