As I have watched, read, and engaged in discussions about Critical Race Theory (CRT), I discovered people advocating it often use very different definitions. When this diversity is ignored, as it often is, debates can become acrimonious without ever engaging in a genuine discussion because the parties are talking past one another.
There are three different broad definitions commonly employed by advocates of CRT. One is insightful, one is bad history and bad social science, and one is worse than this. Blurring them in discussion discredits the first and ultimately strengthens the power of genuine racists. The third has been used by CRT’s enemies to discredit its most powerful variants.
I. American Society is systemically racist
At its best, CRT goes beyond examining the history of racism and how it is rooted in individual psychology. This kind of CRT explains how there are systemic features of American society that embed racism within what can appear, on the surface, to be racially neutral institutions. Institutional racism exists when race causes a different level of access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society.
Importantly, racist patterns emerge from the interactions of people within a system at least somewhat independently of their having racist values. Systemic racism can exist within specific institutions, such as the police, or within more encompassing social structures, such as the economy. It often happens unconsciously and is invisible to those not injured by it. This CRT approach to understanding American racism examines entire systems, and how they can act independently of individual intentions. As such, institutional racism is not confined to African Americans. Native Americans continue to suffer from it, and it was a mainstay of much colonization by Europeans. It also exists in non-Western nations, such as Japan with respect to the Ainu and Koreans.
Social systems incorporate people within society into a network of relationships that is much like an ecosystem. These relations mutually influence one another, but not equally. I influence the price of milk when I buy or do not buy it, but compared to the dairy industry, my influence is minimal, and requires millions of similar choices by others to be felt. Because not all influence is equal, over time some attitudes and values will be reinforced by this system and some will be weakened. Slavery, the attitudes it encouraged, and the institutions it supported or modified, played an important role in American history. The institutions that rose after it had been abolished were often shaped by the cultural residue it left behind.
If racism is a personal failing, and not a systemic condition embedded in society and its institutions, nothing is required of Euro-Americans, or of our institutions, we need do little to combat it beyond personally rejecting racism and ensuring laws are formally race neutral. But, if racism is systemic, because it is to some degree removed from individual choice, bigger changes are needed. Absent them, existing institutions can undermine the intentions of those seeking to end racism.
I think this perspective is true.
Consider that the same neutral and procedural rules apply to Euro and African Americans for buying a house, and yet African Americans have more difficulty in buying one. This is not simply because they make less money. It was only during my life that these basic rules actually became more race neutral. Neighborhoods had long been long defined based on racial categoriesand FHA loans depended on meeting racist requirements. The result was segregation based on race that often also reflected large differences in income.
A great many White homeowners benefit from inheriting a house or wealth for at least a down payment from their parents. I am among them. This good fortune is exceptionally rare among African Americans. Even when Euro- and African Americans are earning the same income, their other means of support usually vary widely. The result is that a major part of the “American dream” is inaccessible to many African Americans. Today only 43% of black householders own their home vs 72% of white householders.
Patterns of living powerfully influence who we know and with whom we associate. I am on friendly terms with all the people who live in my cul de sac of modest homes here in Taos. I know hardly anyone else within a several block range and my broader social circle is shaped by shared interests.
American prosperity was based in part on entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and hard work. This part of the national image is true, but it is not the whole truth. It was also partly based on exploiting others. Africans and Indians were the principal victims, and here I focus on Africans. Much of the wealth early ancestors produced was obtained directly or indirectly through slavery. Setting aside broader moral issues, slave labor was unpaid, its value appropriated by the slave owner who was essentially parasitical on the slave. Early Northern economic development depended on formally free labor, but also often depended on slave-produced cotton sold to Northern textile mills. New England shipping was deeply involved in the slave trade, even after it became illegal. When slavery formally ended, other exploitive economic arrangements followed, influenced by the culture it helped produce, such as share cropping and chain gangs.
Many – not all of course, but many – Euro-Americans benefit today from inheriting wealth they themselves did not create. A much smaller percent of Native, Asian, and African Americans do as well. Their ancestors’ work was usually genuine, but often occurred in systems where, on balance, African Americans were denied similar opportunities. This history creates the context within which neutral rules of buying and selling operate in ways that do not impact everyone equally. The median wealth for a single black woman is $100 vs $41,000 for single white women. This pattern persists no matter the level of education and value of their skills. For example, the median wealth of black college graduates is $23,400 vs $180,500 in white college graduates. The average Black college graduate leaves a public four-year institution with $111,486 in debt; 55% more debt than the average white college student. How much money one has available influences how easily we can start a small business or take chance on a promising opportunity when we have a family to support.
American school districts are locally funded, and poorer districts have fewer resources for educating their children. A neutral rule – local funding – has very unneutral consequences in an American context, and African American kids are among the biggest victims. If neighborhoods reflect differing racial mixes based on the impact of policies that have been abolished for decades, the pattern is being reinforced systemically. It is significant that when wealthy philanthropists offer to pay college expenses for young black kids in a neighborhood with a high dropout rate, the number graduating from high school increases dramatically.
These factors tend to create a society where Euro-American kids, especially from prosperous families, grow up with minimal interaction with African American kids. Since one of the largest dissolvers of racism is friendship, this reduces opportunities for overcoming ingrained attitudes based more on habit than deliberate choice. In addition, networks of friends are an important avenue by which people become aware of opportunities they might otherwise miss.
But systemic racism is more than economic. It shapes life in many directions. For example, defenders of statues of Confederate generals erected by racists around the end of WWI. claim these statues honor ‘history.’ But they had little to do with history and lots to do with reminding everyone who dominated these places. Once erected, as decades passed many white people came just to think of them as ‘history.’ But African Americans saw them as honoring people who killed others to preserve slavery. So long as they stood without challenge, the message went out that this was the dominant point of view, honoring important historic personages. Absent were statues of abolitionist leaders of both races, slaves who resisted their enslavement, or honoring Southerners who stayed loyal to the union and opposed slavery, as with the state of Jones. Think of the message sent if we only had statues of people who had fought against the American Revolution, such as Benedict Arnold.
Because causality flows in both directions, with institutions shaping people, but people shaping institutions, the outcome can be counter intuitive. A number of experiments have demonstrated if no one has any problem living in a culturally or racially diverse neighborhood, but everyone has even slight preference to not be a minority, as houses are sold and apartments are rented, over time, very segregated neighborhoods inevitably arise for mathematical reasons. Yet everyone could in practice prefer more integrated neighborhoods. (Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, pp. 142-3)
In this case, individual psychology meets systemic dynamics where neutral rules generate nonneutral outcomes not desired by anyone. In this case a reasonable argument can be made that as people of different races interact less, racist stereotypes can be strengthened. To the degree this is true, a neutral rule can operate within a system in such a way as to increase racist views. Were they practical, these biased rules would make a majority of both races happier within inter-racial communities than would less biased rules tending towards segregation.
Schelling described this dimension of how systems work long before the issue of systemic racism became a topic of public conversation: (p. 149)
Some of the processes may be passive, systemic, unmotivated but nevertheless biased. If job vacancies are filled by word of mouth or apartments go to people who have acquaintances in the building, or if boys can marry only girls they know and can know only girls who speak their language, a biased communication system will preserve and enhance the prevailing homogeneities.
An institution’s neutrality regarding race depends on the context within which it exists. Equal opportunity is not just an issue of healing psychological attitudes and abolishing explicitly racist laws. Human systems are complicated. CRT has drawn our attention to this as nothing else has.
But there are other interpretations of CRT.
II. American society is fundamentally racist
Some CRT advocates argue racism has been the underlying value behind our basic institutions. For example, while the Electoral College (EC) is very harmful in modern contexts, this approach to CRT claims it is rooted in racism. This claim is bad history and employs bad logic.
The EC was developed when there were no political parties and people were concerned over who would follow after George Washington, who most imagined would be our first president. After him, no likely Presidential candidate would have a truly national reputation. The idea behind the EC was that local notables would be chosen as electors by state populations who knew them. They would have a wider view as to who could best serve as president. It never worked as intended, as political parties emerged almost immediately, and took over selecting electors, as they do today.
To be sure, the 3/5 rule that allowed a slave to count as 3/5th of a citizens for purposes of representation did beef up Southern influence in Presidential elections, as it also beefed up Southern presence in the House of Representatives. But that rule existed separately from the EC and once slavery was abolished the EC remained unchanged. Further, not all who opposed slavery regarded the rule as pro-slavery. Frederic Douglass considered this aspect of the Constitution to be anti-slavery, writing “A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”
Ironically, much of the EC’s current damage was rooted in an effort to reduce the influence of former Confederate states once they were readmitted. By adding a bunch of Western states far removed from Southern culture, and where slavery had never been important – like the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana – the South’s once powerful influence would be permanently reduced. But in time, for unrelated reasons, this change increased the influence of slavery-rooted authoritarianism and racism in the Senate and the EC, the opposite of why it was instituted.
The Electoral College example illustrates the failure of this second version of CRT. At least in part, this second version equates systemic patterns with the intentions of those who first designed the institutions. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it is not. As the history of the EC demonstrates, institutions can function independently of intentions- and sometimes in opposition to them.
This error is compounded by arguing that racism is the foundational value of our institutions when it was a value among others. The reality was far more complicated. For example, John Jay, a major revolutionary figure, became an important early voice for abolition. In 1788 he wrote the President of the English Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves:
Prior to the great revolution, the great majority or rather the great body of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves, that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it. Some liberal and conscientious men had, indeed, by their conduct and writings, drawn the lawfulness of slavery into question, and they made converts to that opinion; but the number of those converts compared with the people at large was then very inconsiderable. Their doctrines prevailed by almost insensible degrees, and was like the little lump of leaven which was put into three measures of meal: even at this day, the whole mass is far from being leavened, though we have good reason to hope and to believe that if the natural operations of truth are constantly watched and assisted, but not forced and precipitated, that end we all aim at will finally be attained in this country.
Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s first and only Vice-President said in 1861:
The prevailing view entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen of the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature, that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.
Again, human systems are complicated. Linear reasoning based on a single standard – racism in this case, but class, religion, and geography have all been similarly employed – cannot comprehend them. Good historical studies and competent social science demonstrate cultures are shaped by many factors, some contradictory and others paradoxical. In the United States racism is an important element long minimized, and needs to be more widely recognized. But racism is embedded within and exists in various degrees of tension and harmony with other beliefs and institutions, and has never been unchallenged.
III. All White Americans are racist
Some CRT advocates take a still darker road: you are a racist if you are ‘White.’ I try and avoid the term “White” because it is, first, false- we are more beige or pink than white. Second, it changes with the times. As a young man, Benjamin Franklin argued most Germans were not white. More recently Italians and Jews were denied that term. Third, many of its nonracial meanings carry a moral weight absent in this context, but which nevertheless spills over. So, I prefer the term Euro-American.
That said, for this third kind of CRT, all who are of European descent, and are considered ‘white,’ are “racists” in the sense that we participate in and benefit from systemic racism. Euro-Americans all benefit from ‘white privilege’ and systemic racism. Even a poor Euro-American man rarely has to worry about being pulled over by a cop because of the color of his skin, nor need he worry much about being shot afterwards. When all else is equal, being Euro-American is better, healthier, and safer than being African American. All ‘white’ people are therefore in some important sense “racists.”
Some of these CRT advocates insist calling Euro-Americans racist is not a personal attack, but it very often is expressed in very personal ways. I have been accused of such by a half Hispanic half Euro-American woman here in Taos who is a well-known advocate for this approach. As she put it, “I have no patience with white people dragging their feet when they fight tooth and nail to deny racism at every turn, splitting hairs and raising endless arguments – I just get pissed. The moderate racist is the protector, the enabler without which the lynch mob could not get away with terrorism. You are one of the majority who will not protect me or stand up for me.”
In an online discussion an academic friend wrote “We’re just suggesting that everybody – including the baby white boys – ought to help repair the damage that was done and definitely avoid doing that sort of thing again.” But beyond asking babies to get involved, this is hardly a new suggestion, and many of us taking a more traditional liberal approaches to combating racism have said and acted on the same point for years. ‘Racist Whites’ in some cases gave their lives during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s.
What is happening here?
The meaning of “racism” has been unilaterally changed by those advocating this final version of CRT. For them, emphasizing the systemic racism within racist societies has replaced rather than enriched the earlier focus on individual racist attitudes and their historical foundations. Racism has traditionally referred to believing core racist values and an understanding about how to realize them, as with liberalism, Marxism, capitalism, socialism, and other ‘isms.’ Take some time to look up the word’s meaning and it always refers to a belief.
A racist shares at least some racist beliefs and so approves of the institutions reflecting them. In the United States most Americans consider being a racist a bad thing, and they are correct in doing so. But they will be distributed along a continuum of what they believe qualifies someone as racist. There are many racist beliefs, some far more toxic than others. Opposing a son or daughter marrying an African American is on a different level from joining the Ku Klux Klan. This continuum enables mild forms of racism to be challenged by emphasizing their compatibility with more toxic forms already rejected by the person adhering to milder forms, such as those saying “I am not a racist, but….”
In response, my friend wrote “Nobody has changed the meaning of racism. It’s still about privileging one group over another. It’s that instead of looking at it as a problem caused by prejudiced individuals, we now look at it as a systemic problem.” My friend added “All of us who are of European descent and appear white are racists in the sense that we participate in and benefit from systemic racism . . . It’s challenging to own up to the ways we benefit from white privilege and systemic racism. It can feel like a personal attack, especially if we have also been victims of other kinds of discrimination (class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity). It helps me to consider that this statement (that I am racist by virtue of appearing white) not a personal insult, but an acknowledgment of privilege. And that privilege is always intersectional and contextual.”
But this way of putting the issue exemplifies the change in meaning I am describing. Racism in its original meaning was not about privileging one group, it was about demeaning another group. It was less about privileges for one’s own group- though that is part of it, than about denying rights to others. Not having to fear being shot by a cop is not a privilege, it is a right that should apply to all. Out of racism both genuine privileges and violations of rights, arise, but rights are not privileges. This shift replacing the language of rights with that of privileges carries other implications, mostly bad.
If we are ALL racists because we live in a racist society, and benefit personally from living in this society, then ‘racism’ becomes a simpler way of saying “Euro-American.” Part of being a Euro-American is being a ‘racist.’ Eliminating blame from adhering to racism eliminates its moral dimension.
V. Shifting Meanings
We may now take a step deeper. My friend wrote “It’s that instead of looking at it as a problem caused by prejudiced individuals, we now look at it as a systemic problem.” The prominent Taos advocate of CRT I mentioned above wrote me racism is “systemic, constant, and inescapable even for presidents. ‘Prejudice’ is a personal negative feeling, and yes it can range from murderous hatred to mild revulsion – but it is personal, isolated and occasional. People of color can be prejudiced – but only white people can be racists – because the system backs white supremacy in all things, all the time . . .”
Again, what differentiates a system from traditional Western linear analysis is that causality flows both ways. If explicit attitudes and racist laws were all that was involved, changing laws and attitudes would solve the problem. The second version of CRT reduces all of American history to a working out of racism’s implications, describing a deeply reductionist model of history that does not fit the facts.
The third, that ‘Whites’ are unavoidably racist, takes this error much farther, eliminating contemporary human agency entirely. We are nothing but the expression of racist ‘systems’ and so are racists regardless of our beliefs. But a system has no moral sense, only individuals do. By eliminating human agency and responsibility, human morality is eliminated as well. And yet, paradoxically, these advocates rely on our morality in order for us to care about ending racist society. If someone asks “Why should I care?” they have no answer beyond their own preferences.
Changing the meaning of the term shifts from individual attitudes to systemic patterns, from violations of rights to acquiring systemically provided privileges independent of rights. A right refers to something an individual has as a member of society. A privilege refers to something that differentiates a class of people from another. In this context a right has always has moral weight, a privilege does not. When racism is divorced from attitude and only concerns context it loses its power as a critique. When the reason I am not shot by a cop is “White privilege” the moral condemnation involved in violating a right is replaced by membership in a privileged group. A KKK member and a liberal Democrat are both “racist.” A Nazi thug and a Euro-American beaten by him because he is a “race traitor” are both racist. The murderer, Derek Chauvin, and those of us who joined African Americans demonstrating for BLM are all racists.
This is an (unintended) attack on morality as well as clear communication.
To claim “prejudice” means what racism used to mean is false. Prejudice has a wide range of meanings, and some are laudatory in ways “racist” never is among decent people. I am prejudiced in preferring one style of art over another or dogs over cats, or vice versa. A person can have an at least initial sexual preference for blonds or red heads and not be called racist for being so. However, a personal ‘prejudice’ towards favoring ‘Whites’ over ‘Blacks’ because there is something inferior about them is morally wrong. It is morally wrong because of the racist character of the prejudice.
VI. With ‘friends’ like these…
A person’s social context can explain why someone is racist, as an ecosystem can explain why a tree has the characteristics it has, but it is the tree that has the characteristics. My friend responded: “To use your analogy, you can look at a tree as having certain characteristics (for example, being stressed by drought or pests), but if you divorce it from the system that is causing the characteristic (say, climate change), you cannot really address the problem. It’s not enough to change individual attitudes; we also have to change the system in which racism is baked in.”
This is an example of shifting definitions of CRT from the third to the first: there are racist attitudes, and racist institutions within which people live. It takes individual actions to deliberately change the system because, left to itself, the system may perpetuate racism. Slavery was such a system. It was abolished because enough Americans believed it was so immoral as to require deliberate action to abolish it. Even at the cost of their lives. For this third kind of CRT thinking, those who fought and died to end slavery were racists, at least if they were Euro-Americans. African Americans motivated by the same values were not.
The first version of CRT is a powerful corrective to blind spots in American individualism. Individualists ignore or deny the systemic insight individuals are who they are because we live in specific social systems. But the second and third kinds of CRT are collectivist theories, treating individuals entirely the product of their social relations, be they class, race, religious, or some other group or groups. If you live in a racist society and you are of the dominant race, you are a racist regardless of what you believe, as a kind of original sin.
If racism is ultimately entirely divorced from individual attitudes, as the third class of CRT advocates claim, on what grounds can individuals be urged to battle it? I am a racist because I am a Euro-American, and I can do nothing about it. If racism is divorced from my beliefs and actions, and if prejudice is not racism, why not consider it my fate, and worry about issues over which I have greater influence?
From this it is a small step to arguing “OK, I am a racist and my race has done these good things- so I will defend it. What my race did to others that was not so good would also have been done by other races in our situation- as much world history abundantly demonstrates. That’s the way of the world.” Better to be part of a hammer than a nail.
What argument can the third group of CRT advocates offer against that position? None of much weight. In a world like this, why should I support the weak instead of the strong, since no matter what I do the weak will call me a racist, privileged, member of the strong, and were they in my position, the weak would do the same to me.
The original and coherent meaning of racism answers this question clearly, but it has been dissolved away.
There is another dimension to the harm this third use of the term does. It discredits legitimate CRT in the eyes of many who resent being condemned for who they are (Euro-Americans) rather than what they do. The excesses of the third’s advocates opens all critics of racism up to attacks by the political right wing, as we see today being orchestrated by the Republican Party and even further right organizations. Indeed, because the racist right never defines “Critical Race Theory” it can even include the historical studies of the past that racists now seek to keep from entering education.