Honest Answers about Critical Race Theory: Part 2 of 2
They’re at it again, those white apologists who brought us the radical orthodoxy manifesto. This time, they’ve issued “an open letter to Pro-CRT Latter-day Saints at BYU and beyond–inviting a good-faith dialogue.” Sigh. We’ve been here before, right? People screaming about how colleges are going to destroy our entire society with (insert moral panic agenda item). The craze against CRT is just the most recent fad (I discuss CRT here). In the past, Moral Panickers have Chicken-Littled about comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, mini skirts, interracial marriage, and Rock and Roll. At their most extreme, Moral Panickers fought to maintain slavery, supported Indigenous boarding schools, and threw stones at women caught in adultery. It’s easy to dismiss Moral Panickers once we see them for who they are: individuals who benefit from the status quo, intent on maintaining their current position of power. Unfortunately, they maintain a wide platform from which to speak, even though they scream about being cancelled. So, here we go, once again explaining where their fallacies lie, and what lies they’re currently telling. Sit back. It’s a wild ride.
Originally, the “open letter” included a picture of a Black man directly over the names of the writers. I assume they got word that a lot of people recognized their choice for what it was: an insinuation that a Black man had been involved in writing the article. In other words, blackface. They swapped that out for a picture of a Black student listening to a white teacher. Oops. Also problematic. As of the writing of this post, the picture they’ve selected to appear under the names of the writers has two young Black children smiling for the camera. They just can’t get it right, can they? Ah, those power dynamics. It’s a heck of a drug, privilege. To be so certain that they, with their limited relevant experience, yet steeped in power and bias, have something to teach a young Black man, or any Black person, about what power looks like, or how society works–well, that’s a whole lot of ego right there. And combined with the rest of the article–one that insists the authors are devoted to “racial reconciliation”–I wonder what, exactly, they think “racial reconciliation” looks like. Because from the picture (and from the article, honestly) it appears that, to them, reconciliation means nothing more than Black people listening to white people telling them what’s what.
I’ll be honest. I have little interest in addressing the writers themselves. They’ve proven how deeply they’ll dig the trench in order to maintain current power dynamics. They’ve attacked people harmed by LDS church policy, telling them to be patient, palatable, and polite. I responded here.
I don’t believe the writers genuinely care about real dialogue when it comes to Critical Race Theory. Every single thing they insist needs to be addressed has already been tackled by people who have been writing about the topic for, oh, centuries. Or at least since the 1970s. But, of course, these “open letter” writers don’t seem to listen to those voices, do they? “Too often allied thinkers largely talk amongst themselves about those who disagree with them, rather than engaging their differences together openly with grace, civility, and trust” they write. Tone policing aside, there are literally entire conferences devoted to discussing issues of Critical Race Theory. Thousands and thousands of pages have been generated in an ongoing, open dialogue. Many “crits,” as CRT theorists are sometimes called, speak at conferences, Tweet, teach in universities, or argue in public court rooms. Where, brave open letter writers, are you when those events occur? Where is your desire for dialogue when you run across an Instagram account or an email address of one of these highly-educated, extremely informed crits? The writers say, “We want to keep learning…” but that isn’t really what they want, is it? As their cover picture reminds us, they care about the appearance of inclusivity without the stomach to engage with those already doing the work.
Question 1 reveals both their bias and their ignorance. “How open are you to concerns over Critical Race Theory and associated ideas reflecting something other than underlying racism?” Well, since they asked so genuinely, I’ll answer: I’m extremely open to critiques of CRT. In fact, some of my favorite CRT writers have pushed back against the theories posited by other CRT writers. Latiné, LGBTQIA, and Indigenous writers, among others, have expanded the voices of people engaged in looking at structures of power and systems of oppression. The disabled community has been actively speaking and writing as well, something we all benefited from during a pandemic that sent us to makeshift home offices to work, teach, and socialize. With every additional voice, with every push on those boundaries, our ability to meet needs and create a truly just society has increased.
What do the writers of the letter bring to the table? “To be clear, unlike many in popular discourse right now, when we speak of ‘Critical Race Theory,’ we are not using the term as shorthand to refer to any and all measures, programs, and ideas that seek to address historical injustices. We are specifically referring to perspectives that can, if not wielded carefully, lead us to see all ideological and philosophical disputes through the prism of historical race conflicts, rather than allowing us to evaluate political and ideological arguments and proposed approaches to reconciliation and progress on their own merits.” They, themselves, attempt to reduce CRT to the most narrow definition. From its beginning, CRT was never a program, or a measure, or an idea: it was a way of exploring power dynamics so that America would be what it promised to be. It was, and still is, a conversation. Aren’t their own perspectives leading to ideological and philosophical disputes through a certain prism, one that denies the lived experiences and voices of hundreds of thousands of people? Why should their concerns be centered when they refuse to hear the concerns of those who work within a CRT framework?
It’s also nonsensical to claim that CRT isn’t being evaluated on its merits. If the writers were truly interested in a good-faith discussion, they would already know that CRT writers are not a monolith and that there is a healthy and vigorous debate going . “Here are some examples of debates in the black intellectual community that have only begun to get played out and transformed in law,” Dr. Duncan Kennedy writes in “A Cultural Pluralist Case for Affirmative Action in Legal Academia.” He continues with the following list: “between nationalists and integrationists, between progressives and conservatives, between those who see current racism as a more or less important determinant of current black social conditions, and between black feminists and traditionalists.” Want to engage in good faith? Dr. Kennedy already invited you, “There is nothing that precludes white scholars from making the contributions anticipated from scholars of color.” But you are required to sit at the tables where it’s already happening rather than demanding the entire conversation move to your table and center itself around you. That’s exactly the sort of power play that CRT seeks to address and discard.
Question 2 is no better than the first because it, too, forces the answer they would like us to give. “Are reports of racism increasing in part because we are expanding the set of attitudes and opinions considered racist?” Do we really believe that 5 white people are the best experts on what is and isn’t racism, especially when they misquote and misrepresent the words of Black people within their article? More on this in a moment, but to start, they quote Dr. John McWhorter (without giving him his title, it should be noted). If they quote one African American man, and if his statement seems to suggest that what we call ‘racism’ is actually just misused language, then clearly racism is done and dusted! I mean, Candace Owens also agrees…
Question 3 asks “Are we operating under a shared definition of racism or are we talking past each other?” As an answer, they quote a white professor and President Oaks, both clearly experts in racism. Actually, I’ll give them credit for this. As with a lot of what CRT has done, it has given us words to refer to things we didn’t know how to name before. Here are some words CRT writers have used that might help the open letter writers out: intersectionality, interest convergence, microaggressions, antiessentialism, hegemony, hate speech, language rights, black-white binary, nullification. All of these are used and defined in the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. I invite the writers of the article to read it and see if those words are more helpful in describing different situations. If they don’t find it there, some other terms may help: ideologically specific products; segregated racial privilege; subordinated cultural communities. If the writers would like, they’re welcome to propose other descriptive terms. After all, Dr. Kennedy (also a white man) has already invited them into the conversation.
Question 4 has been answered by countless writers, including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Audre Lorde, Lee Maracle, Dian Million, Sarah Deere, Ijeoma Oluo, Ibram X Kendi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. I should probably stop listing people who have addressed why our siblings of color feel unsafe. I fear the writers of the article won’t get through the list I’ve already given them.
I will touch on two things, though. First, THE QUOTE. Yes. An actual quote by an actual Black man, Dr. John McWhorter (referenced earlier). You know what’s funny about the quote? It was given in a very specific context. A context which, if the writers had included the whole passage, would have undermined their assertion. The quote comes from an interview Dr. McWhorter gave to NPR’s Steve Innskeep regarding Dr. McWhorter’s thoughts on Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. His critique of her work points out that by focusing on changing individual behavior rather than systems of oppression, she offers white people a way to feel good without doing real work. Here’s the longer quote, and as you’ll see, Dr. McWhorter appears very much in favor of changing systems.
“Steve Inskeep: She’s trying to, you argue, fix white people’s souls when in reality the place that people should look is at institutions. What are the rules for police? What are the rules for fair housing? That sort of thing.
“Dr. McWhorter: You have said exactly what I believe. I think that what Robin DiAngelo is doing is well-intentioned, but I think ultimately, it’s idle. Ultimately, the result of what she would create is a certain educated class of white person feeling better about themselves. And frankly, that’s antithetical to her goal, because no matter how she wants it to go, people are going to think that they’ve done some kind of work. It’s going to be hard to get people to truly feel as endlessly culpable as she’s seeking.
“And in the meantime, what’s the connection between that and forging change? You can say that all of this is a prelude to changing structures. But the question will always be, why don’t you just go out and change the structures?”
Dr. McWhorter is an advocate of changing systems of oppression. What he’s against is something done just to make white people feel better without doing the hard work to change those systems. His targets sound a lot like the writers of that article, don’t they? White people wanting to feel better about themselves without doing any actual work?
Second, a quote by Kimi Katiti, a Uganda-born musical artist. Recognizing baked-in racism in the US hurts. It feels like leaving Eden, or Plato’s cave. Part of CRT is personal narrative as academic work, and if she wants to volunteer her story, along with her very valid, very real feelings, wonderful. If, in that story, she would rather not name an experience “racism” or “misogynoir,” she’s absolutely welcome to name it however she wants. Or to ignore the events. And if she’s never experienced racism, hallelujah! We’re doing something right. But it doesn’t mean CRT is null and void. Children are still exposed to history books that only mention their ancestors in the context of enslavement and not as inventors, mathematicians, writers, or theologians. Children still lack adequate educational opportunities, including language inclusivity. Black women still make less money than Black men, white women, or white men. Black, Latiné and Indigenous people still fill jails at higher rates, are more likely to be killed by a police officer, and are less likely to have a bank near their homes. These are systemic ways racism still shows up, and this is why CRT is needed.
Question 5: the open letter writers attempt to draw a parallel, but it’s more like two points from completely different planets. One of the white writers of the article led a university workshop. We aren’t told where the workshop was held or who the students were. (In CRT, situatedness, or the identity a person has, matters a great deal because it changes how life is experienced. But, I digress.) The leader of the workshop, we are told, had the undergraduates talk about “subtle manifestation(s) of underlying racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.” Which then turned into a discussion about how to maintain peace in the home, the point being that calling out injustices creates tension, undermining domestic bliss. Except it doesn’t. The injustice itself creates the conflict: naming it is, in fact, the first step in healing. In the same paragraph where the writers insist that they want to “heal, reconcile, and come together” they also insist on silencing those who point out injustices.
And then they use Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a weapon. They say he talks about forgiveness but they don’t tell you the whole truth. So, let’s see what he actually says:
“True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done. We know that when a husband and wife have quarreled, one of them must be ready to say the most difficult words in any language, ‘I’m sorry,’ and the other must be ready to forgive for there to be a future for their relationship. This is true between parents and children, between siblings, between neighbors, and between friends. Equally, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the lives of nations are not just airy-fairy religious and spiritual things, nebulous and unrealistic. They are the stuff of practical politics.
“Those who forget the past, as many have pointed out, are doomed to repeat it. Just in terms of human psychology, we in South Africa knew that to have blanket amnesty where no disclosure was made would not deal with our past. It is not dealing with the past to say glibly, ‘Let bygones be bygones,’ for then they will never be bygones. How can you forgive if you do not know what or whom to forgive? In our commission hearings, we required full disclosure for us to grant amnesty. Only then, we thought, would the process of requesting and receiving forgiveness be healing and transformative for all involved. The commission’s record shows that its standards for disclosure and amnesty were high indeed: of the more than 7,000 applications submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it granted amnesty to only 849 of them.
“Unearthing the truth was necessary not only for the victims to heal, but for the perpetrators as well. Guilt, even unacknowledged guilt, has a negative effect on the guilty. One day it will come out in some form or another. We must be radical. We must go to the root, remove that which is festering, cleanse and cauterize, and then a new beginning is possible.”
Oh dear. It looks like the writers were a bit too selective in their reading of the Nobel Peace Prize winning activist’s words. Perhaps acknowledging the need for radically exposing the truth was more difficult for them than it was for Archbishop Tutu.
Question 6 is directed specifically to LDS readers. They say they’re not attempting to misconstrue CRT, or form a reactionary anti-tribe (yes, they used that knucklehead phrasing, but they would likely argue that they’re from the tribe of Ephraim, so they’ll use the word ‘tribe’ any way they want). Anyway, they say they don’t want to misconstrue or form an anti-CRT coalition. And yet, isn’t that exactly what they’ve tried to do? They’ve purposefully misrepresented the work of Black people, insisted on “starting” a conversation that actually began years before any of them could stomp on it, claimed no one will talk to them, and then promoted the work of white academics who, quite frankly, have everything to gain from maintaining the status quo. Sheesh.
Lisa Delpit said, “Those with power are frequently least aware of–or least willing to acknowledge–its existence [and] those with less power are often most aware of its existence.” This is where I land with the open letter. From start to finish, it’s an attempt to obfuscate the ways the writers benefit from current power dynamics. Under the guise of genuine curiosity, they sea-lion their way into convincing themselves that they are the only honest brokers in a conversation about CRT. I’m not fooled, and I call ‘foul’ on the whole thing. I haven’t even touched on the anti-LGBTQ tropes, the digs at single parents, or extended family situations, or the ridiculous nature of their language (insisting on Christ-centered wording to address a theory that incorporates all faith communities, including agnostics, atheists, humanists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many others). There’s so much in the article. Unfortunately, most of it is bunk and should be tossed in the bin as the self-serving drivel it is.
For some worthwhile reading about CRT, from people who actually know what they’re talking about, I recommend Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. If you’re hungry for more after you finish that (and who wouldn’t be?), Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement features a collection of powerhouse writers who engage in good faith, speak to (instead of over) each other, and provide a lot of insight into how systems of power continually work to perpetuate themselves.