Critical Theory escapes from the laboratory


Commentators from across the political divide have been logging their concerns about the influence of Critical Theory for much of the past decade. Until recently, it was possible to dismiss these concerns on the basis that Critical Theory was a parlour game of academics that had no impact on ordinary people. That was starting to change even before a 2020 dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the U.S. Suddenly, events took over and the language of one branch of Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory (CRT), became part of the language of street protest. Not everyone kneeling for Black Lives Matter was aware of the tenets of CRT or even the broader aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. But CRT was nonetheless present.

Purveyors of diversity training based loosely upon Critical Race Theory saw an uptick in interest as large corporations released statements promising to do better on diversity. More relevant to education has been the affirmation of ‘woke’ teachers and consultants and the effect this may have in the classroom. The Inspiration Trust, an academy chain in the UK that, until recently, was perhaps most notable as an advocate for explicit teaching and a knowledge rich curriculum, has just run a conference focused on the issue of race and diversity in schools.

Race and racism are key issues for schools to address and so how do we know when we are departing from the kind of antiracist work that would draw majority public consent in a democracy like Britain or Australia and instead tipping over the edge into CRT? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine what CRT is.

A while back, Jasmine Lane posted a fascinating 1998 paper on CRT on Twitter. In contrast to the more recent sources I have read on the subject, this piece is more measured, recognising that there are potential problems with the theory, and this stance perhaps reflects a time before CRT escaped from the laboratory of academia and made it on to New York Times bestseller list.

The author of the paper is Gloria Ladson-Billings, an American education professor, and the paper specifically addresses the application of CRT to the field of education.

Billings charts the history of CRT from its origins in legal theory. Briefly, proponents of CRT were frustrated with the slow pace of legal reform and the diminishing returns of public protest and engagement and instead sought a more radical option. Perhaps the most fundamental problem with CRT is its starting point. According to Billings:

“CRT begins with the notion that racism is ‘normal, not aberrant, in American society’ (Delgado, 1995, p. xiv), and, because it is so enmeshed in the fabric of our social order, it appears both normal and natural to people in this culture. Indeed, Bell’ s major premise in Faces at the bottom of the well (1992) is that racism is a permanent fixture of American life. Thus, the strategy becomes one of unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations.”

Firstly, note the claims about ‘American life’. CRT only makes claims about America*. Given one of the key criticisms CRT makes of ‘whiteness’ – that the specific values of ‘whiteness’ make a claim, through this ideology, to be universal values – there is something odd and contradictory about those who seek to apply it, with little adaptation, to societies other than America. It is not at all clear that CRT maps neatly on to British or Australian society, let alone the complex ethnic, religious and cultural relationships that exist in, say, the Balkans, Rwanda or the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, the concept that we (or Americans) are swimming in a sea of racism that people simply do not notice, is foundational. Critical Theory starts at this point and then seeks to unmask and expose racism. This starting point is not a hypothesis that is up for discussion, it is a premise. Moreover, it appears to be untestable – if you look and find no racism then that’s because it’s become normal and natural and so you must work harder to find it.

CRT twists and flexes in the face of potentially disconfirming evidence. Race is neither a biological category or a purely social construct – for either causes CRT problems. And black people can even be situated as white. As Billings explains, “as an African American female academic, I can be and am sometimes positioned as conceptually White in relation to, perhaps, a Latino, Spanish-speaking gardener.”

It is this bendiness and the resulting unfalsifiability that makes CRT unscientific. And there are many who would be philosophically untroubled by this. They may claim, for instance, that when we are examining the world of human thought and relations, science is not the right approach. And yet the field of psychology, for all its flaws, attempts to be a scientific approach to understanding human nature. In the very least, CRT departs from psychology in a fundamental way. This would not be a problem if CRT was presented for what it actually is – a belief system that people are free to believe or not. Yet it makes broader claims. It sees itself as sufficiently established to be a basis for training everyone from corporate executives to school children in the truth about racism and diversity. It has a proselytizing agenda, scolding those who will not repeat its mantras and painting them as far-right and morally flawed. CRT is not a microscope through which to examine the world, it is a hammer to wield at it. That’s the problem.

An alternative to the antiracism of Critical Race Theory is the antiracism of what we may term Generation X Liberalism (GXL). This is my philosophy and the way that I have dealt with racism throughout my career. GXL is fundamentally respectful of an individual’s inner life. It is essential to educate people, both young people in school and the wider population, and bring them to facts they may be unaware of. And we can certainly agree, as a society, on standards of behaviour. However, what a person ultimately believes is their own business. GXL claims no dominion over your mind.

A good example of the divide between CRT and GXL is in the notion of being ‘colourblind’. If a proponent of CRT happens upon someone unversed in its beliefs who claims, “I don’t see colour – I treat everyone the same,” then this is seen as prima facie evidence of racism, in much the same way that all denial of racism is prima facie evidence of racism. GXL, on the other hand, would see this as evidence of progress because GXL would assign behaviours to such a stance. If you do not see colour, then you should act accordingly.

In Billings’ paper, she explains that personal testimony is a key feature of CRT and then tells a story of about a conference she attended. The conference organisers had arranged her accommodation in the VIP suite of a hotel that had its own VIP lounge. As she was sat unwinding and reading the paper, a man with a southern accent assumed she was a waiter and asked when she would be serving.

This is racism of the overt kind. There is nothing mysterious or hidden about it and it can be accommodated both in theories that posit a sea of unseen, implicit racism and theories that place racism within individuals, their behaviours and perhaps wider cultures. What’s more, a colourblind approach has a practical answer to this problem. It confronts the man with the southern accent with his behaviour and asks him why he has treated this person differently. It is simple and easy to understand.

CRT, on the other hand, takes a more circuitous route. Not only does it posit the sea of racism, it posits the ideology of whiteness. In Billings’ telling, we are again confronted with its specificity and incongruity:

“Conceptual categories like ‘school achievement,’ ‘middle classness,’ ‘maleness,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘intelligence,’ and ‘science’ become normative categories of whiteness, while categories like ‘gangs,’ ‘welfare recipients,’ ‘basketball players,’ and ‘the underclass’ become the marginalized and de-legitimated categories of blackness.”

Coming from the UK, my stereotypical view of the ‘underclass’ would look a lot like the characters on the original British version of the TV show Shameless who live on a council estate in Manchester. There is no obvious association with blackness. Indeed, most of the categories invoked by Billings appear to be more about class than race, as would her discussion of the Latino gardener.

And it is interesting to consider the issue of class in this discussion. Black people in the United States have undoubtedly suffered historic forms of overt, organised oppression that have made it far harder for them to access the middle and upper classes. By today attributing to race disadvantages that may actually be due to class, we divide the working class and reduce class solidarity. I doubt whether anyone has intentionally done this, but it does make it harder for working people to challenge a system where ever more wealth is concentrated in the hands of ever fewer people.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of Billings’ paper is when she reveals what this is all about. Billings explains why story-telling is central to CRT:

“…naming one’ s own reality with stories can affect the oppressor. Most oppression, as was discussed earlier, does not seem like oppression to the perpetrator (Lawrence, 1987). Delgado (1989) argues that the dominant group justifies its power with stories, stock explanations, that construct reality in ways that maintain their privilege. Thus, oppression is rationalized, causing little self-examination by the oppressor. Stories by people of color can catalyze the necessary cognitive conflict to jar dysconscious racism.”

Through generating cognitive conflict, white people will become aware of the sea of racism they are swimming in. When you understand this, everything else falls into place. The stories from diversity training where participants are racially segregated or asked to step forwards or backwards if they have ever experienced this or that form of oppression – these are an attempt to generate cognitive conflict. And what of the curious reframing of the absence of discrimination based on race as ‘white privilege‘? This is intended to jolt white people out of their state of comfort and get them to confront a difficult reality.

As Kemi Badenoch, women and equalities minister in Britain’s Conservative government understands, the concept of ‘white privilege’ has become central to the way that CRT manifests itself in schools:

Advocates of CRT, if they can get past the default response of telling any critic they need to read more, would dispute Badenoch’s interpretation of the concept of white privilege as describing ‘inherited racial guilt’. They would argue that it is far more subtle a concept than that. And yet, on the face of it, it does look much as Badenoch describes it. Once we understand that CRT is about promoting cognitive conflict, we realise this is intentional.

Unfortunately, cognitive conflict does not work. It is a concept that is popular in the constructivist tradition of education but it lacks evidence of effectiveness. This is probably because the mind does not work in the way that theories of cognitive conflict assume. Rather than breaking down and reforming old schemas, the mind develops new, often conflicting ones. For instance, we never lose our old, naïve understandings of physics. Even physics professors still hold onto them. It is just that a physics professor’s training gives them superior schemas that have greater utility for solving problems and therefore outcompete the old schemas.

Rather than breaking down someone’s racism and rebuilding their mind again, in some kind of internalised Year Zero, antiracists would do better to provide alternative cognitive tools for people to use. One such tool might be the colourblind maxim. No, announcing you are colourblind may not rid you of racism, but it may be a step on the path of building a better mental model.

Conversely, exploding little cognitive conflict bombs all over the place is not something we have tried before and will have unpredictable consequences. All we can be reasonably sure of is that it will not achieve the intended aims. And with a little imagination, we can see many possible unintended consequences, such as increased race consciousness among white people and a possible increase in support for overtly racist, far-right movements.

Badenoch makes the further point that teaching concepts such as white privilege ‘as fact’ in UK schools is illegal. I’m not sure law is the way to go, but I do know that a principle of good teaching, long held to be self-evident yet called into question in recent times, is that teachers should not force their opinions on to students. Our job is to show students the world and give them the tools of analysis so that they can formulate their own views.

That’s what I will be doing, long after this experiment has run its course.

*Following feedback online, I should probably make it explicit that this applies specifically to the Billings formulation that I am discussing. Clearly, many people have since tried to apply CRT to other contexts, as I make clear in the rest of the paragraph. You wouldn’t think this needed to be pointed out, but hey.

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10 thoughts on “Critical Theory escapes from the laboratory

  1. Greg Esres says:

    “This is racism of the overt kind.”

    I would call it unconscious racism, rather than overt. Overt racism would be “You SHOULD be a waiter.”

  2. Your starting point seems to be about finding solutions and making things better. Theirs isn’t. Nothing they offer can make any positive change. Inducing people to feel guilt and shame, especially for things outside their control, is a technique long perfected by the church. It makes people malleable and disinclined to complain against anything done to them.

    • Chester Draws says:

      There is also the problem with anecdotes as a basis for philosophy.

      I doubt anyone seeing someone sitting down reading a paper would assume that person was a waiter. That’s not what waiters do. The number of people that racist in the US would be miniscule.

      Moreover as a middle aged white male I have been asked for assistance in the aisle of the NZ equivalent of Wal-Mart. (My shirt was their red.) If it happens to me, it is merely a mistake. If it happens to a black person it becomes racism, when it merely a mistake because they were wearing an outfit that looked like a waiter.

      Hence the NASCAR fiasco when a common rope pull became a “noose” because the person seeing was over-prompted to see racism everywhere.

      For a country embedded in racism, the US is a land where most races do very well. Chinese, Indians, Jews, etc all are better off than whites after one generation. For all the blurring of “POC”, it is Native Americans and US Blacks that don’t do well, not people of colour generally. If it were so racist Caribbean blacks would do poorly — but they do well.

      But CRT is uninterested in confounding data (or anecdotes).

  3. Daniel Effron’s research into moral licencing found that people are more likely to make racially biased decisions if you remind them beforehand of a prior decision of theirs that gives them emotional cover. Under his model that act of emotional horse-trading takes past virtue and uses it to licence future bias (in his experiment, reminding people that they voted for Obama licenced people to make a racially charged decision in a more racist way). On that basis I wouldn’t be surprised if your colourblind maxim had the opposite effect to the one you seem to expect.

      • After reading this originally (and re-skimming just now) I’m genuinely not sure what you are suggesting, at least in concrete terms.

        To be blunt I think you’re also unaware of the evidence when it comes to the existence of widespread racism. They’ve been doing callback studies for decades, there’s acres of evidence on this. Take Weichselbaumer (2016) for example. The interview callback rate drops from 19% to 14% when you change the candidate’s name from “Sandra Bauer” to “Meryem Öztürk” and then down to 4% when you add a headscarf to her profile photo. That’s a factor of nearly 5, or in other words 80% of the people who would have called her in for an interview no longer do because of racism. 80%. That seems utterly incompatible with your rejection of widespread racism. If you reject the idea that racism is widespread then it seems to follow that you have to explain how all of these studies find the same patterns.

  4. mrmrcm says:

    There’s a few features that stand out and should be shouted from the rooftops when it comes to CRT. The most glaring is ‘epistemological exploitation’ which claims asking black people for evidence for a claim of racism or anything tied to their ‘lived experience’ is an abuse from white power ‘systems of knowing’. This often pops up in the ‘it’s not my job to educate you’ retort. See Dr Shola Mos on This Morning

    https://www.stylist.co.uk/people/white-privilege-meghan-markle-gmb-this-morning-philip-schofield-dr-shola-mos-shogbamimu/343843

    People like Brett Weinstein and James Lindsay genuinely feel we are looking at the end of our ability to agree or care about objective truth. The Trans trend would be the obvious comparison of how easy it is to shut people up in this regard. However, this relates to a small, specific group of people. How far this could gain traction and erase all the norms inherited from the enlightenment I am not sure. I am maybe more concerned by a perpetual fog, noise and weariness from this stuff as I am a civilizational cataclysm.

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