A deep dive into CRT claims, counter-claims, the philosophical background, and the realities of power in today’s world.
Critical race theory (CRT) is all the rage these days. One doesn’t see a newsfeed without articles on it, pro or con. Allegations surrounding it have led to disrupted school board meetings by angry parents, and even a few arrests. People have left positions of responsibility over it. Something like thirteen states led by Republican governors have sought to ban it from their school systems. Others are following suit.
Critical Race Theory: Defenders and Critics.
What is CRT? That almost appears to depend almost on who you ask. Its defenders speak of it as a recent field of inquiry, a way of looking at race in U.S. history honestly and earnestly. It originated in the 1970s, but really getting off the ground in the 199os. Its advocates say it exposes the codification of racism in America through its legal and Constitutional system. It is therefore a necessary tool for undoing the long term effects of what began in 1619 when the first slaves were forcibly brought to our shores from Africa, with blacks* seen as intellectually inferior to whites even after slavery was abolished. American institutions and practices remain permeated, almost organically, by systemic racism that leaves blacks, other ethnic groups, and other minorities behind even if the laws have changed and few reputable scholars believe any kind of intellectual-inferiority thesis.
According to its defenders, CRT is benign in intent. Its claim, they maintain, is not that large numbers of white people still consciously discriminate against blacks and other minorities, disadvantage them, or want to harm them in any way. There is a difference between systematic and systemic racism. We may well have gotten rid of most of the former and quashed most of the personal attitudes behind it, but the latter persists as a stubborn legacy of our past. These include visible imbalances in racial and other forms of parity, not rooted in specific intentions but rising out of invisible structures built into institutions and occupations, often as unconscious assumptions that continue to be made. In myriad ways, many effects of these structures and assumptions are too small to be noticed by white people, but they compound over time. Take for example microaggressions. Example: a white professor tries to compliment a black student by telling him he writes really well. According to CRT, the comment’s subtext is an unstated and probably unconscious assumption by the professor that black students’ writing well violates expectations. These do unintended harm and place racial/ethnic and other minorities at a continued disadvantage.
Defenders of CRT contend, finally, that most white people see themselves as essentially “raceless,” not having given race any deep thought: especially those of us who are older and grew up in a less diverse America. If we are white, privilege (also systemic) has made our lives, lifestyles, and values the “gold standard” for everyone. We see this reflecting a meritocratic view of America in which “everyone succeeds or fails based on his/her skills and personal responsibility.” According to CRT’s architects, this is illusory. The colorblindness advocated even by early civil rights heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assumed that changes in the law would result in an America where you would be judged not by the color of your skin but the content of your character, and your race-neutral abilities. But for defenders of CRT there is no escaping the basic reality that America is not colorblind, never has been, and never will be — unless systemic racism is exposed and eradicated.
Critics of CRT see it very differently. They see an assault on American institutions and founding ideals rooted in a species of Marxism. They see it as antiwhite or “reverse” racism intended to shame and disadvantage white people, including white school children, more likely to further divide the races instead of bringing them together as it invites pushback by parents. CRT’s critics observe that defenders of CRT question their motives instead of directly answering such allegations. For according to defenders of CRT, critics seem willfully blind to all of the above, and at worse, as unconscious or conscious racists themselves — perhaps driven by visceral fear of losing their status and privileges in a country growing more ethnically and culturally diverse with each election cycle.
Respondents to the criticisms thus say that public critics don’t understand it, and are falsely portraying it as attacking white people instead of unveiling those structures and habits from which the latter uniquely benefit, knowingly or not. They point to its focus on history, revisiting U.S. history in ways that reveal events previously all but hidden (example: the deadly Tulsa, Okla. race riot of 1921). They ask why, after over 50 years of civil rights efforts, African-Americans still lag behind whites in terms of educational attainment, income, health outcomes, etc., even though the Jim Crow era is long gone. They ask, in effect, Are we not to have history texts and teaching reflecting the history of the entire population, as opposed to what mattered to the dominant group?
What is interesting is that while criticizing the alleged pretenses of white “racelessness,” the absolute last thing defenders of CRT want to encourage is any kind of racial identity among whites that would be seen positively. Top U.S. military leader Gen. Mark Milley, on the contrary, wants to understand “white rage” (his phrase). A psychoanalyst recently described “whiteness” as “voracious, insatiable, and perverse — with no permanent cure.” A few seem to believe (they’ve said so openly) that society would be better off if “whiteness” disappeared, or was eliminated! I don’t think anyone is considering actual genocide, although it may be worth asking, what are some of these people thinking (we will get into more specifics below)?
What some may be thinking is very much in tune with our postmodern (Fourth Stage) times: race is not a biological category but a social construct. What was unconsciously “constructed” can be consciously “deconstructed.” In doing so, many of CRT’s footsoldiers surely appear to be urging something akin to purposefully shaming and disadvantaging white people, even as they deny doing anything other than understanding “white rage” or countering “white privilege.” Their public statements, using phrases such as “white fragility,” seem calculated to put white people on the defensive. This, I think, is what is arousing ire such as that of the parents mentioned above who are horrified if Johnny, a fourth grader, tells mom and dad that his teacher told the class “we are all racists.” (I don’t know that such things have happened, but neither kids, nor their parents, are trained to sort out conceptual differences between what is systematic and what is systemic — which may be a reason for keeping CRT out of public schools as age-inappropriate.)
One of the “edgier” commentaries on CRT I’ve run across is here. Gregory Hood develops the idea and criticisms of it as well as I could. Some readers will hate the article, its author, and the site it appears on. I would urge them to get past such emotional responses. For then they’ll notice: Hood discusses a few things CRT unequivocally gets right! The U.S. isn’t a meritocracy. Nor is any other industrial (or post-industrial) society. It is possible to soar ahead in a capitalist economy with the right beliefs, skills, and habits, many of which have nothing to do with intelligence or personal merit, and the majority of people do not have those beliefs or skills or habits or inclinations. On the contrary, one might question the ethics of some who do.
The long and short of it: dismissing CRT as academic mumbo-jumbo, or as racism in reverse, on the basis of a few perhaps careless remarks its defenders or by teachers without a closer look would be a mistake. We need calm. We need to find out what it might get right — and where it goes wrong if it does. The outrage factory encouraged by mass media outlets and social media platforms competing for attention and ratings is getting us nowhere.
If I were to outline the philosophical roots of CRT from my perspective as a Lost Generation Philosopher, here’s how I would do it. Some of this might seem a bit far afield at first, but please bear with me. What we will discover will be surprising: its origins are Western through and through. It is therefore hardly as radical as either its advocates or its critics realize.
CRT’s Roots in Mainstream Western Philosophy.
At the beginning of the era that led to modernity, René Descartes (1596-1650) thought he needed to ground all knowledge, scientific, theological, or lived, on a “foundation” of epistemic certainty, akin to the certainty found in mathematics (he was, first and foremost, a mathematician, and we still speak of Cartesian coordinates).
Modern rationalism thus began with Descartes’s methodological razing of all experience and tradition to the ground and proposing to start over. The idea that tradition-based experience offered an imperfect but pragmatic and acceptable basis for organizing knowledge in society began to die among philosophers. Also dying was a fundamentally Christian if otherwise somewhat diffuse notion of persons as agents in the world, created by God in His image, standing before Him as sinners needing redemption. What replaced this traditional notion in Western thought was a Cartesian abstraction, a disembodied rational intellect or “thinking thing” (the usual translation from his Meditations on First Philosophy of 1641), emerging later in classical liberalism as “the individual” or homo economicus.
Collectivism (which goes back at least to Plato) surfaced in modern times with the general will of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the collective will of “the people” standing above their private wills and able to subordinate them if necessary. The group was a supervening force over the individual, who derives his/her identity from group membership.
Tribalism, which Hood sees as our human default setting predating civilization (and he’s hardly alone!), had found a philosophical voice. Early Enlightenment thought sought to break free of tribal impulses. Our individual reason, questioning authority as well as tradition, would be our means of becoming better than we had been.
Unfortunately, though, the mainline of modern philosophy’s most articulate alternative to either Christian tradition or emerging collectivism was the Cartesian private intellect (Descartes’s “thinking thing” in his Meditations) — on which CRT’s architects pounced as white, male, straight, and European through and through.
The Jacobins saw Rousseau as the great philosophical voice of the era. They married him to the Cartesian method which they applied, de facto, to society’s institutions, especially the Monarchy and the Church. All was subjected to cold light of disembodied Reason. Skipping over the details, where this led was to the French Revolution and the Terror. (I’ve cashed out a few more details in my The Virus of Revolutionism.)
Christians had assumed that problems with institutions and social relations were products of sin, and that it was not possible to wish the effects of sin away with either philosophical method or societal revolution. Traditional arrangements (familial, ecclesiastical, etc.) in Christendom were all that held sin in check, however imperfectly. A defense of such had to wait for Edmund Burke (1729-1797), after the French Revolution. By then it was arguably too late.
For by this time Western thought was fully in the grip of the two abstractions: the Cartesian one, and Rousseau’s brand of tribalism. Jacobinism fused them into one package, and the result was a bloodbath. The Cartesian abstract intellect continued to captivate philosophers, but tribal existence more closely approximated the realities of human life on the ground even as it evolved into national existence under the auspices of the European nation state since the Westphalia Treaties (1648).
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) took the next pivotal step, formulating his famous doctrines: (1) the mind is not a passive receptor but an active shaper of its experiences via forms of intuition and categories of the understanding; and (2) morality consists of duties deducible from pure reason. The Cartesian legacy hence continued in the guise of the autonomous Kantian noumenal intellect, shaping its experiences via a priori intuitions and categories, and inferring its duties rationally instead of finding them in Christianity.
It was a small step to the idea that different matrices of categories would yield different basic experiences: different “worlds,” perhaps. Did different groups (or tribes) shape their experiences in different ways? One ingredient was yet to be added: some groups or tribes — or maybe one group or tribe — soared ahead because of unearned advantages over other groups: colonizing them, stealing their land, enslaving them, or otherwise forcibly subordinating them, then creating “pre-legal” structures and institutional arrangements that would hold them back even if laws changed.
Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) took this step, distinguishing masters from slaves, or drawing as historically and philosophically important the dichotomy between “lordship and bondage” (Herrschaft, Knechtschaft). The “lord” held sway over those in “bondage.” The latter had no rights against the former, and the relationship was one of de facto or de jure ownership, not contract: the feudal system in a nutshell.
Serfs were tied to land owned by “their” feudal lords, whose troops sought to secure the land and protect their estates from invaders. This system had operated for hundreds of years. The nation state, followed by the industrial revolution, had mostly replaced feudalism in Western Europe by the time Hegel and his students came along, but for them all this meant was the arrival of new forms of masterhood and servitude.
What interested Hegel and his followers was the different ways masters and slaves experienced the world and how this affected consciousness, self-identity, and each one’s sense of place. Those in bondage surely experienced a different “world” than those in lordship. Whose was the more correct depiction of reality? Hegel’s progeny had their right wing who identified with the lords as having the superior, i.e., more “truthful” outlook on the world by virtue of their success at conquest and domination, while its left wing identified with those in bondage as closer to reality via their experience as laborers and sufferers.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) studied Hegel. His lords were the bourgeoisie, the capitalist overlords who held the proletariat in bondage courtesy of economic arrangements established by capitalism. Marx concurred that the two experienced the world in different ways, but held optimistically that as conditions of the proletariat worsened they would organize, force the bourgeoisie from power, and institute the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which would hold sway until capitalist arrangements were abolished.
The long term result of doing away with capitalism would be Communism as Marx originally understood it: the End of History!
This followed from the idea of class consciousness — the Marxian variation on tribalism — and the Marxian idea of history as the history of class struggle. If classes ceased to struggle, history as we understood it would end. They struggled because a dominant class controlled the means of production and a subordinate class did not. A few lords or masters had always held slaves (de jure or de facto) in bondage. The rest was details. Marx believed he had discovered an iron dialectical law of history that would end all such conflicts for good, and their end would usher in Communism.
From Classical Marxism to the Frankfurt School.
Is it unclear what all this has to do with race, with racial-identitarianism, and with CRT? Are we not beginning to see that CRT is very much a product of the Western philosophical mainstream, and would have been impossible without it?
CRT has no place for the Cartesian disembodied intellect, which does not fit well into a tribal view of the world. But that aside, CRT is quite at home with criticizing the entire basis of a society at its foundations (“razing it all to the ground and starting over”). Its idea of race (and gender) as social constructs would make no sense without Kant’s idea of the mind as a shaper of experience and not just a passive receptor; and notions like systemic racism would not make sense without Hegel’s lordship-bondage (or master-slave) dichotomy as pursued by left-wing Hegelians.
With this background in place, we come to the twentieth century and the Frankfurt School which began to organize in the 1920s in Frankfurt, Germany, founding the Institute for Social Research in 1929.
Now before going further, a psychic barrier might immediately arise that we have to get past to see what’s going on. Some have a kneejerk reaction to invocations of the Frankfurt School as a “conspiracy theory.” I realized some time ago that such phrases are code for: this is a line of thought you’re not supposed to pursue. Back off, peon, and listen to your betters, the “experts.” Believe what they tell you to believe.
Not exactly Enlightenment fare!
In any event, we will pursue it. The Frankfurt School did exist, after all. Right-wingers didn’t invent it out of whole cloth. (We’ll return to the “conspiracy theory” narrative below.)
The Frankfurt School was troubled both by the brutal totalitarianism that had descended on the Soviet Union, and the Western proletariat’s indifference to matters of social revolution. They had an answer to the former: the Soviets skipped the capitalist stage in Marxian development according to those laws of history Marx had worked out, and so couldn’t have expected the right results. The latter foxed them, though, for Western workers desired to join, not overthrow, the bourgeois! Some were doing just that (or their children were). Prosperity under capitalism was increasing by leaps and bounds. Their dislike of capitalism blinded them to what Marx had actually said, which was capitalism was indeed an engine of prosperity and a necessary stage of human development which had to reach its full potential before it would give rise to a fully revolutionary class consciousness. So strictly speaking, nothing unexpected was taking place.
Frankfurt School philosophers didn’t see it that way.
They (Max Horkheimer, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, among others) decided that the “problem” resided in cultural institutions, not mere economic arrangements. They recognized a fundamental truth: as some conservatives would put it decades later, political economy is downstream from culture. They broke with classical Marxism over its near-exclusive emphasis on class as the basis of collective consciousness and driver of revolution. Rather like Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) the Italian Marxist who developed similar ideas independently, they shifted their emphasis to culture. This opened the door to the critical theory for which they are best known.
By the way, this is why some conservatives speak of cultural Marxism even if the core ideas differ from those of Marx, making the phrase something of a misnomer. The Gramscian pursuit of a long march through the institutions was realized, however, especially when the Frankfurt School came to the U.S. in the 1930s fleeing the Nazis and rebuilt a small institute created by John Dewey and others as the New School of Social Research.
From Marcuse to CRT.
The most important protégé of the Frankfurt School in the U.S. was Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). In his hands, the lordship-bondage dichotomy underwent a shift from class to race/ethnicity, and potentially to other classifications such as gender (or gender identity), an emphasis beginning with Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) more than any other twentieth century thinker. CRT’s defenders tend to trace it to the 1970s. Its most proximate source given its emphasis on legal structures, is Marcuse’s important essay “Repressive Tolerance,” which appeared in a slim volume entitled A Critique of Pure Tolerance (1965).
Marcuse’s argument in that pivotal essay boiled down to the claim that to achieve equity and social justice, basic Constitutional guarantees such as free speech would have to be curtailed, because they continue to “privilege” the dominant group — “raceless” white people — thus thwarting the expectations of the marginalized. This association of basic Constitutional ideals with “whiteness” predated anyone’s using that term pejoratively, but here we see the origin of explicit calls for differential treatment: policies that favor women and minorities while disfavoring white men.
Marcuse was the leading philosopher of the New Left, his pervasive influence rivaled only by that of Saul Alinsky. Through such influences, calls for the nondiscrimination of the “early” civil rights era, via Dr. King’s call for colorblindness, evolved into preferences: set-asides, quotas, eventually what became known as racenorming for law school admissions, and so on.
The shift of emphasis from nondiscrimination as a process to calls for politically acceptable outcomes entered the legal system with the Supreme Court’s Griggs v. Duke Power decision (1971). To the outcomes-focused, process was an impediment. Besides, how could an employer prove he had not discriminated? Proving a negative has never been especially easy. In practice, what it meant was: every institution hired bureaucrats to collect reams of data on every applicant for every slot to which antidiscrimination law applied. This continued rather than minimized emphasis on group identity, and thwarted attempts to achieve colorblindness.
Pushback against preferences emerged quickly, Bakke v. University of California at Davis Medical School (1978) being the best known case, and continued into the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush years, leading to more cases coming before the Supreme Court (Croson and Ward’s Cove come to mind, both 1989, in which a more conservative Court let lower court decisions curtailing preferences stand).
The idea of rolling back “affirmative action” was catching on, as conservative black scholars such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams criticized it in book-length treatments. Sowell argued in Preferential Policies: An International Perspective (1989) drawing on examples from around the world that when government gives favors to some at the expense of others, the others eventually rebel, their rebellion hardens if ignored or suppressed, until it explodes into violence. Though Sowell doesn’t emphasize it as much, this was surely the impulse for just instead of differential treatment that fueled the original civil rights movement.
The rising conservative influence had to be countered, one might say. The results were aggregated under the pejorative label political correctness: campus speech codes, for example, and clear intellectual favoritism for, e.g., “third wave” feminists, as for reasons CRT claimed to be able to explain, not very many blacks were seeking academic careers. But white women were. Those troubled by obvious differential treatment favoring women on campuses felt the chilling effect as they watched the playing out of what Marcuse had advocated regarding race/ethnicity two and a half decades before. The so-called “culture wars” riveted a lot of people’s attention, and it was during this period, the 1990s, that CRT took off among left academics.
Critical Race Theory Emerges.
CRT’s own advocates don’t talk about much (if any) of the above. Their own voluminous writings lament the continuing inequities between whites and other ethnic groups (except Asians and Jews), the failure of so many blacks to make substantial progress, and attributing lack of progress in large part to the delusion of colorblindness which only perpetuates systemic racism and stereotyping. As for political correctness: it is a right-wing invention against a world in which words and actions that reflect bias are no longer accepted.
Thus we hear from spokespersons such as Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959- ), the legal theorist who originated the phrase critical race theory, came up with the idea of intersectionality, and arguably became the prime mover of identity politics as it developed in the new millennium. Other major contributors to CRT include Derrick Bell, Angela Y. Davis, Charles Lawrence III, Mari Matsuda, Cornel West, bell hooks, Richard Delgado, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Ibram X. Kendi (who coined the phrase anti-racism), and Robin Diangelo (author of White Fragility in 2018), among others.
Collectively, these women and men argue what we outlined in our opening section, that despite Supreme Court decisions going back at least to Brown in 1954, executive orders (EO 10925 signed by John F. Kennedy, EO 11246 signed by Lyndon B. Johnson) and laws passed (Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Fair Housing Act of 1968, among others), actual changes under the auspices of liberalism had been cosmetic and not fundamental.
What followed was that either there were actual race differences of the sort Charles Herrnstein and Charles Murray would champion in the most controversial chapters of their The Bell Curve (1994), an idea most scholars found abhorrent and repudiated vigorously, or there was something structurally (that is, systemically) wrong that eluded such corrections, and which liberals failed to grasp.
Here’s where things get even more interesting.
For in this author’s view, among the things CRT gets right, alluded to above, is holding that structural elements built into Western civilization ensuring that meritocracy is largely a myth, are real and not simply hoked up by left-leaning academics. These are not mere products of any legal system, though legal systems and some of their premises give them sanction. The result is unearned advantages or privileges for some at the expense of others.
Note that the last paragraph doesn’t identify who has the unearned advantages and privileges. That is purposeful. We will return to it.
Continuing with CRT’s recent history: New York Times journalist and historian Nikole Hannah-Jones (1976- ) developed the 1619 Project designed to unveil the full history and role of slavery in America, the jumping-off point for which was 1619 when African slaves were first brought to the U.S. She clearly overreached with her claim that the colonists fought the War for Independence to preserve slavery. Nevertheless, we had/have the three-fifths compromise, the ownership of slaves by many of the founders continuing into the 1800s, and eventually Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott (1857). All these, in CRT hands, served to undermine the idea that the U.S. was founded just on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We already noted a key postmodernist assumption that race is socially constructed, not read out of the biological world; the same with gender / gender identify, national origin, and so on, leading to compounded discrimination from combinations of these (intersectionality).
The idea, finally, is not just to study these systemic features from the past but set about to change them in the present.
This has put CRT’s advocates in a bit of a bind, since they insist they do not reject Constitutional government, are not antiwhite racists wanting a new form of educational segregation, do not advocate hostility towards or self-loathing among white people. What they say they want is a frank acknowledgment by whites of systemic racism and unnoticed white privilege built into institutions that will lead to systemic changes.
What is unclear is what this last amounts to, or where we go from there, especially given some of the hotheaded remarks cited by Paul Craig Roberts in the article I linked to above. Let me quote one recent case:
This is the cost of talking to white people at all. The cost of your own life, as they suck you dry. There are no good apples out there. White people make my blood boil. … I had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way, burying their body and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step. Like I did the world a f***ing favor.
This is from a lecture entitled “The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind” by a psychiatrist (not psychologist?) named Aruna Khilanani speaking before the Yale University School of Medicine. To their credit, Yale administrators repudiated the remark. Under fire from across the political spectrum, what choice did they have?
This is just one such case. There are numerous others, some from white scholars such as the above-mentioned psychoanalyst whose name is Donald Moss and who wrote (this is from the abstract, unedited, to an article entitled “On Having Whiteness”):
Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has — a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which “white” people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target nonwhite peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate. Effective treatment consists of a combination of psychic and social-historical interventions. Such interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Whiteness’s infiltrated appetites—to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation.
No hatred being expressed of whites? No self-loathing whites encouraging other white people to self-loathe? No, I did not read the article. Its abstract was enough.
These of course could be statistical outliers. But their visibility and likelihood of provoking strong reactions makes them more, playing directly into the hands of those who see CRT as divisive and destructive.
There have been white people who quit their jobs out of sheer frustration, perhaps having been forced to listen to this sort of thing, some leaving behind angered missives like this one. White rage? I have to wonder if such folks really have any “privileges” worth speaking of, or any prospects of such — especially since in the present cultural climate, when word of such statements gets around on social media, their authors find themselves unemployable.
So if CRT is right about pervasive structural features built into American society, where does it go wrong?
Where Critical Race Theory Goes Seriously Wrong and Becomes Useless.
The first and most painfully obvious thing CRT gets wrong — Hood’s article discussed this at some length — is that white people collectively have no economic or cultural power; most have no substantive privileges, direct or otherwise, that would justify blanket usage of the term “white privilege.”
Saying this may not fit Hegelian philosophy or its stepchildren, but it surely the explains the gut-level reactions many people are having, from Republican governors down to the ex-employee who penned the tweet linked to above.
Not only are white people not an abstract collective or tribe, very few are or ever have been anywhere near levers of real power.
CRT’s defenders will reply at once that one need not be anywhere near such levers to do real damage. Derek Chauvin had authority but was nowhere near the levers of real power.
The answer is, no, of course not; but that there have been plenty of whites also killed by white cops (and a few by black cops). Whites have lynched blacks in the past; but with cases such as the Wichita Horror and many others (see here and here for just two months of cases as this is published), blacks seem almost to be trying to catch up! Their victims’ “white privilege” did not save them!
Cases of open violence aside, this is the central drawback of looking at people as abstract collectives — which do not even qualify as tribes as they are not real — even overlapping abstract collectives enabling academic discourses about intersectionality.
Every white person who lost a job during the meltdown of 2008, or who found himself unemployed and eyebrow-deep in debt after his job was outsourced to a third world country for cheap labor before that crisis erupted, understands viscerally that he has no privileges that amount to anything. The same is true of every white person who finds himself made expendable by a robot that will do his job for free.
Whites, especially rural whites, are the only group whose rates of job loss, chronic illness, depression, substance abuse, and suicide have been going up since CRT surfaced. I am not asserting a causal connection here. What I am asserting is that the actual structures of these populations — or lack of, in the necessary sense — creates problems for those who think these people have invisible privileges.
It might be helpful to add that neither are American blacks an abstract collective. There is more diversity within any actual group than there is between groups. Attempts at, say, reparations for slavery (advocated by CRT theorists) would result in a bureaucratic nightmare, given that when we look at ethnic populations we are not looking at systems but heaps — like sand grains coming and going on a beach rather than organized and semi-permanent structures. How would anyone go about deciding which black person is owed what, and by whom — especially as the ancestors of many people today deemed “white” by bureaucrats (hardly a “social construct” where bureaucratic purposes are concerned) were not even in the U.S. when chattel slavery existed. Decisions would ultimately be arbitrary, and almost immediately everyone would be crying foul — whites whose ancestors weren’t in the U.S. when slavery was practiced and blacks complaining of not receiving enough.
Career academics of whatever ethnicity, protected by tenure and in some cases able to bid up their salaries because of their status as minority scholars (for which Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West have become infamous), manifestly don’t get any of this. The majority of academics look at the world through the “lens” created by their educations, received from professors who also never worked (or worked very little) outside of academia. This includes most professional philosophers even if they’ve gallantly tried to step outside the Platonic-Cartesian-Kantian axis.
This may seem manifestly unfair, but I was there and can certify: most university faculty would starve if they had to work outside academia. They’ve little understanding of how the nonacademic world works. Looking at it through categories familiar to them, they miss things that became obvious to those of us who left academia and struck out on our own, while continuing to explore and write and publish our research, especially about the barriers some of us did face and how they led us gradually to insights into how power really operates in this world.
Critical theory in its general sense that predates CRT originally aimed at identifying and studying arrangements of power and domination, and the effects these had on perception and on what we take to be knowledge. It associated the locus of power in these arrangements with concentrations of capital, and hence morphed into a critical analysis of capitalism — one which had the potential to go beyond anything Marx was able to accomplish given the limits of his time.
And here we return to that stumbling block that has doubtless hobbled many an analysis of how power operates in Western industrial civilization.
Whether consciously or not, critical theorists wanted to analyze power but did not want to be branded “crazy conspiracy theorists” (especially once the CIA weaponized that phrase back in 1967!) So they stayed within comfortable Hegelian-derived categories and located power (and eventually the systemic biases CRT theorists claimed to see) in the system itself and in what they took to be the dominant population, not in organized groups operating clandestinely or specific personalities whose immense wealth enabled them to dominate key sectors of industrial civilization.
Critical theory thus avoided the idea that the industrial system itself generates super-elites (a phrase I use to refer to extremely wealthy persons and groups who operate internationally and clandestinely, as opposed to the visible national elites we see at the helms of governments) as it creates the systems they study.
They do not note that super-elites develop and enhance those sectors, or parts of the system, that advantage them with privileges. At the center of these sectors are global finance and its institutions which include central banks as well as corporate leviathans such as Goldman-Sachs, and appendages of loyalists extending into government, corporate media, higher education (via endowments), and elsewhere. Have critical theorists noticed how super-elite goals and systemic effects feed off one another in a kind of symbiosis? These have led to disadvantages for all the rest of us, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender identity, national identity, or profession. Super-elites almost automatically use money in ways that privilege themselves and their own while blocking the paths of those outside their orbit, especially if they advocate beliefs, practices, or ideologies seen as opposing their goals for the world.
It now seems entirely credible that racism is itself a super-elite product: engineered by the super-elites of the late 1800s who feared that working class whites and former slaves might begin comparing notes, as it were, realizing that their commonalities rooted in class exceeded their differences. (See also this, this, and perhaps this.) Efforts to keep those outside elite groups divided and hostile toward one another continue to this day.
Is this a “crazy conspiracy theory”? If it is, make the best of it!
A few academics developed elite-focused analyses. Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) comes to mind, with his The Power Elite (1956) which coined that phrase. Some of the super-elite’s own members have opened up about where they thought the world was going, or about the world they wanted to see. One example is Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017), who went from academia to co-founder of the Trilateral Commission to National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration. In the book that made his career, he wrote:
The nation-state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principle creative force. International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concepts of the nation-state…. Today we are … witnessing the emergence of transnational elites … they are composed of international businessmen, scholars, professional men, and public officials…. These global communities are gaining in strength and … it is likely that before long the social elites of most of the more advanced countries will be highly internationalist or globalist in spirit and outlook….
…. More directly linked to the impact of technology, [the threat to liberal democracy] involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled and directed society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite whose claim to political power would rest on allegedly superior scientific know-how. Unhindered by the restraints of traditional liberal values, this elite would not hesitate to achieve its political ends by using the latest modern techniques for influencing public behavior and keeping society under close surveillance and control. (Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era, 1970, pp. 56, 59, 252-53)
David Rockefeller Sr. (1915-2017), another Trilateral Commission cofounder (the third was Henry Kissinger) who, for decades, sat at the helm of Chase-Manhattan Bank and the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, offered this succinct and, one would think, obvious case for a super–elite analysis:
For more than a century ideological extremists at either end of the political spectrum have seized upon well-publicized incidents such as my encounter with Castro to attack the Rockefeller family for the inordinate influence they claim we wield over American political and economic institutions. Some even believe we are part of a secret cabal working against the best interests of the United States, characterizing my family and me as “internationalists” and of conspiring with others around the world to build a more integrated global political and economic structure — one world, if you will. If that’s the charge, I stand guilty, and I am proud of it (David Rockefeller Sr., Memoirs, 2004, p. 405).
Rockefeller thus admitted openly to being a key member of what I am calling a super-elite, working “to build a more integrated global political and economic structure”: centralization, a consequence of which is control over our lives is significantly reduced.
Both Brzezinski and Rockefeller have gone to their eternal reward (or something like that). Klaus Schwab has stepped up in their place. He originally founded the influential World Economic Forum which in a typical year meets each January in Davos, Switzerland. At WEF confabs, invited members of the global billionaire class foreseen by Brzezinski plan “our” technologically and globally integrated future, the future they see for the world. Recently Schwab wrote reflecting on some of the advances corporations have made, only intimating the technocratic uses to which they could be put:
Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies will not stop at becoming part of the physical world around us — they will become part of us. Indeed, some of us already feel that our smartphones have become an extension of ourselves. Today’s external devices — from wearable computers to virtual reality headsets — will almost certainly become implantable in our bodies and brains. Exoskeletons and prosthetics will increase our physical power, while advances in neurotechnology enhance our cognitive abilities. We will become better able to manipulate our own genes, and those of our children. These developments raise profound questions: Where do we draw the line between human and machine? What does it mean to be human? (Klaus Schwab, Shaping the Future, p. 42).
Why are we quoting such authors in the context of a philosophical discussion of CRT? To emphasize that there is a much larger picture here, and CRT misses it completely!
Note what is not here: no Illuminati, or reptilians or space aliens; nothing about us not going to the moon or the Earth being flat and NASA hiding it. Not even QAnon or pedophiles or Elvis being alive. None of the things currently being held up to malign “conspiracy theorists.” What we are saying: (1) there is, and for quite some time now has been, a super-elite; (2) it has risen with, and is part and parcel with, centralized and monetized industrial civilization, continuing into the information age; that (3) its members are interested in “a more integrated global political and economic structure,” i.e., globalistdomination, using whatever technology is available and serves their purposes; and that finally, bringing us back to CRT, (4) they allow, through educational institutions and media corporations, narratives that function as mass distractions while they do their work of building a technocratic and neo-feudal order based on surveillance and control.
This is the power system that eludes CRT, and always will, as long as its leaders continue swinging at windmills made of “whiteness.”
Those of us who found ourselves developing super-elite analyses of civilization have ended up on the margins of the intellectual world. We discovered critical theory, drawing attention as it did to structural features of the industrial and information age political economy that affect perceptions and knowledge via narratives (e.g., about “liberal democracy”). But we didn’t stop there. For we figured out that what matters is where money flows, because where money flows, power flows; and super-elites have spent billions on projects they wanted.
Sometimes CRT and its offshoots (Black Lives Matter comes to mind) have benefited from these money flows, via corporate dollars, to divert attention from what is really happening and ensure that whatever activists do, however disruptive they become (or are perceived as such by others as being), they will never threaten real power.
I thus stand unconvinced that CRT in anything like its present form is going to do anything to advance the standing of African-Americans or other minorities, and for a very simple reason: the super-elites do not care two iotas about the interests of ethnic or other minorities. What are they concerned with? Building that consolidated world structure, a system to cage us all within invisible bars of surveillance and control, many of them marketed and accepted willingly.
Take the above authors at their word. They are basically soft Platonists, with their vision of where the world should go.
There have always been people who believed themselves most fit to rule, or (like Plato) believed they had some idea of the Ideal Ruler (the “philosopher-king” of his The Republic). So in a sense, nothing I’ve said in this section ought to seem surprising, and in a more rational society, none of it would be controversial. Corporations and governments are tools of super-elites. Mass media’s primary role is to shill for approved narratives and keep the various populations — the “unwashed masses” of whatever ethnicity or gender identity — enticed by an outrage factory and entranced by whatever other local, national, or global hobgoblins (H.L. Mencken’s term), real or manufactured out of whole cloth, are available. The real shame is that so many professional educators, including philosophers who ought to know better, have fallen for it.
CRT: A Weapon of Mass Distraction?
We’ve gone deep in this essay. CRT ultimately fails at one level because it sees groups as abstract collectives or actual tribes, and thus misses where the locus of power in Western civilization really is: not with white people or “whiteness” (whatever it’s supposed to be).
In missing the real locus of power, we see a deeper failure: it fails to see how super-elites, who have the real privileges, both shape civilization and are shaped by it.
Its advocates may see super-elites who are clearly not hiding and see only “whiteness.” In which case, by placing the real purveyors of domination in the same abstract group as the white guy struggling to pay his mortgage and keep the lights on, the latter becomes angry because being told he has “white privilege” insults his intelligence.
In this case, it matters less what CRT is and more what it does? Some might even call it a Weapon of Mass Distraction, and ultimately a dangerous one. It has parents and school board members flying at each other’s throats, just as it has inflamed hostilities between blacks and whites.
If we’re all looking at one another, laterally, with suspicion at best and alert for outbreaks of violence at worst, none of us, of whatever ethnicity, will look up and see what is occurring at the top!
What would I have CRT’s advocates do? I’d ask, might they be willing to incorporate super-elite analysis into their worldview, perhaps noting for starters that the one actual group to derive breathtaking monetary benefits from Captain COVID was the billionaire class, the most visible members of the American super-elite (Bezos, Gates, et al.)? Now billionaires with global-hegemonic leanings may all be white people (or not, I have no idea), but are we really to attribute to “systemic racism” or “white privilege” their not letting go to waste a crisis that destroyed the livelihoods of millions of white people as well as millions of black people?
Does that even make sense?
How about introducing a new concept: super-elite privilege?
CRT’s advocates wanted a “lens” or “approach” to view society as it really is, and they take the construction of race to have been fundamental to American legal structures. If we analyze industrial civilization from its origins down through our time, during which it has morphed into an information civilization grafted onto industrialism’s financialized base, we see chattel slavery along the way but should find it impossible to see as truly fundamental. There have been other forms of involuntary servitude, most not so obvious.
The point is, most fundamental basis of a lordship versus bondage system has not been that of straight white male people over everyone else. It is the difference between those who control the levers of global finance from the top versus those who don’t, and whose lack of such knowledge automatically works against them.
And so — hoping this doesn’t sound like an afterthought at this point — how should we respond to CRT on the ground, at least until we can have a conversation about these points?
Here is what one defender, a professional philosopher who brands himself a “philosopher of race and racism” no less, says CRT does not assert:
It does not assert that:
- One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex:
- An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
- An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex;
- An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex;
- An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
- An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.
Great! I say, let’s hold CRT to this, while we do what we can to draw attention to the real places of power, and those in them.
Recall the old saw, that there are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and the majority who wonder what the hell happened.
We might as well accept that none of us is going to join that first group. But if we can begin to move more people from the third to the second, in numbers large enough to form a critical mass, maybe we can assume more control over our lives and our communities, however we self-identify. We may find that our commonalities exceed our differences, however much elite-sponsored narratives try to divide us. Then, by talking to one another, hearing one another, seeking out and learning from people not beholden to the present power systems, doing what we can to get inside each other’s heads and hearts, alleviating pain where we can, then maybe — just maybe — there is still time to do something to make this world a better place for us all.
*This writer has chosen not to adopt the new mass media convention, which seems to have begun after the George Floyd riots, of capitalizing black to refer to an African-American person. Capitalizing African-American made sense, because the hyphenated words are normally capitalized apart from one another. Capitalizing black makes no sense and accomplishes nothing. It does not change a single law, provide any black person who needs it with work or assistance or life or hope, and is probably one of many of the subtle micro-aggressive measures we’ve seen that drives us apart, especially as no one in mass media capitalizes white to refer to a white person.
STEVEN YATES’s latest book What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory is being published by Wipf and Stock.