Everybody’s Talking About . . . Critical Race Theory
While this pot has been simmering for a while, of late it seems to have reached a boil. In recent days articles and essays about Critical Race Theory are everywhere — PBS Newshour, Wall St. Journal, New York Times, The Christian Century and more. I’m imagine Fox News is all over it.
Part of this is explained by a conservative backlash in the form of anti-CRT legislation in various red states. This has caused CRT advocates and sympathizers to come to its defense. Meanwhile, critics warn of CRT’s dangers and excesses. It as if a new front has opened in the on-going Culture Wars. More nuanced criticisms of CRT have been coming, for more than a year, from journalists like Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss.
One of the challenges, as Ross Douthat notes in a good piece (first of two in the NYT) is defining what CRT actually is. For some it means, telling neglected truths about slavery and racism, segregation and Jim Crow in American history. So, for example, the largely unknown (at least among white people) story of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” and the “Tulsa Massacre” of 100 years ago is finally told. More broadly, the story of how quickly post-Civil War “reconstruction” vanished amid the brutalities of Jim Crow and the rise of domestic terrorist groups like the KKK is faced.
Of course, it’s not only history. It is also the way, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, that racism shows up in contemporary life.
But there’s another dimension to CRT that is more problematic. That is the broader claim that U.S. ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were never more than smoke-screen for a thorough-going and irredeemable culture of white supremacy and black exploitation. This finds expression in pulling down statues not only of Confederate generals, but of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. And by teaching, in schools, that white people are necessarily and unavoidably racist.
The first version of CRT is hopeful. We can learn and do better. The latter version is not. We are locked in a nation and culture that cannot be redeemed from its “original sin.” One can understand why the latter grates and seems a case of two wrongs not making right. At the same time, given the very long and persistent history and reality of racism in America one can understand — I can understand — the more pessimistic and radical critique.
In the current issue of The Christian Century, the lead editorial is titled, “Critical Race Theory Is a Gift to Christians.” (It may be behind a pay-wall, sorry.) That editorial makes an important point with which I agree and have argued here, a year ago. (Some have trouble with direct links to my site. If that happens to you, you can use the archive function at my homepage to find this piece, which first appeared June 17, 2020).
That point is that American Christians tend to think of sin as particular acts of individuals. But Sin, biblically, is not only that our individual mis-deeds. It is a power and a condition, thus the capital “S.” Sin binds people in deep and insidious ways. “The good that I would, I do not do,” says St. Paul. If sin is only individual wrongful acts then we can just try harder to be better. But if it is deeper and more pervasive, a binding power, then we need something more. We need a redeemer. We need deliverance.
As you’ll see if you look at the piece I wrote in 2020, we may protest “I’m not a racist” (and, true, we do not as individuals behave as one). Nevertheless, we are all caught in a something larger, more pervasive and insidious. Hence the term “systemic” racism. I argue, as do the Century’s editors, that a better biblical understanding of sin can help us address racism more effectively.
That said, the Century’s editors go on argue a further point that is at odds with the more radical expressions of CRT, namely that this sin too is redeemable.
“The good news about collective and institutional sin is that, like individual sin, it can be redeemed. By acknowledging systemic sin and working to change unjust structures—with the aid of tools like CRT—we realign ourselves with God’s work in the world.”
At least some exponents of CRT do not agree that redemption is possible for America or for white Americans. For them, one’s racial and group identity fixes destiny (and tells us everything we need to know about a person), and America is irredeemable. While I can sympathize with such despair, I cannot share it.