Does Anybody Know What Critical Race Theory Really Is?

Here's an easy way to get a grip on it.

By Tom Gilson Published on June 22, 2021

Everyone’s talking about critical race theory these days. I’m one of them. The problem is, I’m not sure anyone knows what it really is. I’m not sure there even is anything that it really is.

I’ve seen people who believe in systemic racism arguing over what it “really” means. I’ve read critical race theorists complaining that Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility” shouldn’t be called CRT because she’s not a critical race theorist.

I say, that’s just too bad. CRT jumped out of academia into punditry, politics and “mostly peaceful protests,” and academia no longer has control of the term. It’s out in the wild, and it’s going to mean whatever people intend it to mean.

Still “CRT” definitely means something. There’s even an easy way to get a grip on it.

What’s in the CRT “File Drawer”?

Imagine a file drawer labeled “Critical Race Theory.” On the label there’s a stern warning: “Approved Definitions Only!” You open the drawer expecting to see one thin file and one short academic explanation, and indeed it’s there, but behind it you see a couple dozen file folders crammed full, bulging with papers, and they’re all labeled “Definition.” Someone walks up while you’re standing there, pulls a paper out of the file, reads it and stuffs another one of his own in front of it.

That’s when you realize how it works: Everyone has his own opinion, and they all get tossed together in a pile. It’s not totally out of control, though. You rifle your way through the papers, and thanks to someone’s help organizing them, you can see some clear themes there.

This is one case where something like relativism actually works. If there were one truth about what CRT is, then that would be its meaning, period. There isn’t.

Justice is All About Power

  • What matters in life is power, especially economic and political power.
  • The good life is found in social justice, which is all about equalizing power.
  • Equality is about outcomes, not access or opportunity.
  • Power inequalities are always the result of oppression.
  • The concept of social justice comes straight from the Bible. (Parts of it, that is. Carefully selected parts, with other parts carefully excluded. — The editor)
  • Hardly anything else deserves any attention but power and inequality.

Racism is All About Structures, Not Attitudes

  • Racism isn’t about attitudes or beliefs. It’s about benefiting from the effects of systemic racism.
  • No person of color is racist. When Hutus slaughter Tutsis, or Han Chinese tear Uyghurs to pieces, that’s not racism at work.
  • Curing racism incrementally won’t work; radical steps are necessary.
  • Whites are all racist by way of participating in the oppressive system and benefiting from it.

Whiteness is the Problem. Shame, Shame, Shame!

  • The one big problem in the world is “whiteness.”
  • The road to white redemption is through whites being shamed.
  • If whites ever give anything to blacks it’s because of “interest convergence”; that is, whites get something out of it. They never do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing.
  • Whites can never be non-racist, because the term has nothing to do with heart attitude, but only with whites’ stance and activities with respect to oppressive systems.

Systemic Racism is This. No, Wait, It’s That!

  • Systemic racism is racism grounded deep within the nation’s legal and economic systems.
  • As such it has nothing to do with racist attitudes.
  • It has everything to do with racist attitudes, except it’s the attitudes of whites in years gone by.
  • It has everything to do with racism as defined above, which is the racism whereby whites benefit from systemic racism.

(Sure, it’s all contradictory. Too bad. You can’t stop people stopping by and dropping their papers in the file drawer.)

Sometimes you can just forget the “CRT” label. Sure, it’s a handy way to summarize what’s in the drawer, but it’s the contents that count. If they’re teaching that all whites are racist but no persons of color are, you don’t need to call it CRT. You can just call it wrong.

Knowledge and Truth are Nothing Like What You Thought They Were

  • There is no objective truth; instead, power determines what is true.
  • One’s identity is mostly about one’s race, along with other “intersectional” minority statuses one might fit into.
  • Truth is tightly connected to identity:
    • Minorities have special access to truth via “lived experience”; not merely knowing “what it’s like to be one of us,” which everyone has for their respective groups, but a gnostic sort of special knowledge about all human reality, especially race relations.
    • Non-white females, homosexuals, transgendered and/or disabled persons have even greater “lived experience” knowledge. This is “intersectionality.”
  • Some people of color disagree with critical race theory. In that case, white elites who believe in it know better than they do after all.
  • Standard bodies of knowledge such as mathematics, logic, science, history and especially the humanities are tainted with whiteness. Therefore:
    • Minority approaches to logic and the STEM disciplines may be perfectly valid even if they disagree with white answers (or answers of non-politicized scholars in China, India or Russia).
    • Minority understandings of the humanities are always morally superior.
    • A non-white person’s feelings, however ungrounded in facts or statistics, may trump the results of scholarship, science and even reason.

Solving Racism? Can’t Happen. But You Have to Give It Your All Anyway, If You’re White

  • There is no forgiveness between the races.
  • The only hope of redemption for whites is in works, not in grace.
  • Blacks and other persons of color have no errors to correct in terms of racism.
  • Although whites cannot be non-racist; they can and must become “anti-racist”:
    • They must “check their privilege.”
    • They must work actively toward dismantling oppressive systems.
  • Few whites will do this because of “white fragility.”
  • Whites should embark on a path of self-accusation and renunciation of power, although it will never lead to their forgiveness or reconciliation.
  • Classical “liberal” solutions to racism are too slow. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass were totally misguided in their battle for an equal claim on America’s freedoms.
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Grab-and-Go Definitions

So where in there will you find the real definition? There isn’t one. Not anymore. One person will pull one set of papers out of the drawer and say, “This is what CRT means.” Someone else will say, “Are you nuts? You can’t include that paper on the list. That one isn’t CRT!” Everyone grabs whatever paper he likes out of the drawers.

This is one case where something like relativism actually works. If there were one truth about what CRT is, then that would be its meaning, period. There isn’t. What it means is whatever the person or group thinks it means. You won’t know exactly what that it is, unless they spell it all out for you.

So What Do You Do?

So if there’s no fully agreed-upon definition of CRT, how can we talk about it? Try these three simple principles:

  1. The scholars’ original meaning still matters, so it’s wise to know what it says. (And yes, a lot of what’s listed above comes straight out of academic critical race theory.)
  2. You won’t know exactly what each person means by it unless you ask.
  3. If you can’t do that, you’ll almost certainly land somewhere close to it by pulling a whole lot of papers out of the file drawer.

That won’t get you to any “real definition” for CRT, but it’ll likely get you close enough. The file drawer is real — metaphorically real, that is — which is to say, the pile of papers in there really does define the territory pretty well.

Or you could just forget the label. Sure, it’s a handy way to summarize what’s in the drawer, but it’s the contents that count. So just pull those papers out one at a time, and ask whether each one makes sense on its own. If your local schools are teaching that racism is all about structures, never about attitudes, you don’t need to label that view, you can just talk about how crazy it is to teach that attitudes don’t matter. If they’re teaching that all whites are racist but no persons of color are, you don’t need to call it CRT. You can just call it wrong.

Update: See also “Is Everybody Clear on What Critical Race Theory Isn’t?


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality. Credit also goes to John Zmirak for contributing “papers” to the “file drawer.”

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