Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founders of critical race theory (CRT), recently decried what she called the “war on wokeness” (by which she seems to mean a war on CRT). According to her, this “war on wokeness” is “the road to an authoritarian state that’s paved through the history of white supremacy.”
It’s true that the “war on wokeness” has taken on authoritarian overtones of late. Many Republicans are rejecting the ideas of pluralism and free speech that underpin the American ideal and pushing through broad laws aimed at banning the teachings of CRT. In their desire to stop “wokeness,” these laws often muzzle dissenters and are so broadly written that they can throw the baby out with the bathwater. Free speech advocates have roundly condemned these laws and for good reason.
But it’s also true that critical race theory has serious problems. You don’t have to be a “white supremacist” or trying to promote an “authoritarian state” to be skeptical of CRT.
First, prominent critical race theorists (“Crits” as they call themselves) lean hard into race essentialism. In their book Is Everyone Really Equal?, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo (of White Fragility fame) lay out some quotations that they disagree with. One such quotation is, “People should be judged by what they do, not the color of their skin.” Sensoy and DiAngelo dismiss this idea as “predictable, simplistic, and misinformed.”
It’s tough to overstate how inimical this concept is to modern-day American values. Martin Luther King Jr. famously proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” For Sensoy and DiAngelo, this dream is “misinformed.”
In another section, Sensoy and DiAngelo list traits (allegedly) held by members of the “dominant group” in society (white people, straight people, men, etc.) and contrast them with traits they claim are held by members of “minoritized groups” (black people, LGBTQ folks, women, etc.). Traits held by the dominant group include “presumptuous, does not listen, interrupts, raises voice, bullies, threatens violence, becomes violent.”
Traits held by the minority group include “feels inappropriate, awkward, doesn’t trust perception . . . finds it difficult to speak up, timid.” For Sensoy and DiAngelo, members of the majority group are angry bullies who don’t care about anyone except themselves, and minorities are timid children who can’t speak up or look after themselves. Is it any wonder that many minorities find this kind of rhetoric offensive?
A second reason to oppose CRT is that many Crits don’t admit that society can ever really get better. In the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado (another founder of CRT) and Jean Stefancic argue that American race relations don’t improve. They call many of the civil rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s—including Brown v. Board, the landmark Supreme Court case that desegregated schools across the country—“shams.” According to the authors, these gains are merely “hollow pronouncements issued with great solemnity and fanfare, only to be silently ignored, cut back, or withdrawn when the celebrations die down.”
For Delgado and Stefancic, meaningful social change is almost impossible. Unless all of society changes at once, “change is swallowed up by the remaining elements, so that we remain roughly as we were before.” This is an ideology that has little room for the gains of the Civil Rights Movement or the dramatic decrease in bigotry in the sixty years since. A foundational American story is that our society is imperfect but getting better, but CRT only has room for the first half of that statement.
Finally, critical race theory is explicitly opposed to the Enlightenment ideals upon which America was founded. Sensoy and DiAngelo say that CRT initially advocated “a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace)” but stress that it “quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism.” Values such as freedom and individualism are, apparently, not particularly welcome in Crit circles.
According to Delgado and Stefancic, “Critical Race Theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order.” CRT is opposed to “equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” If you want the law to treat people equally regardless of their immutable characteristics (i.e., race, gender), then, by their founders’ own admission, CRT is not for you.
Critical race theory isn’t all bad, and there are concepts like intersectionality that can help us to recognize the struggles and advantages of people who don’t look like us. But the field has deep problems, and more and more Americans of all ethnicities are picking up on this. Maligning critics as “white supremacists” is unlikely to fix those problems.