Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.