Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What is Critical Race Theory Really About, Anyway?

Given that CRT is the latest culture war hot topic, I’ve outlined some thoughts on what the fuss seems to be about below.
CRT has its roots in legal studies, not the social sciences or economics. Defenders/supporters argue that CRT is merely about pointing out how the law is not a neutral enterprise that functions in a value-free vacuum. Laws reflect the interests of the powerful, and can often be used as instruments of oppression. That much ought to be non-controversial. More controversial is the idea that even “colorblind” or ostensibly race-neutral law can be “racist” in the sense of having a disparate impact. Ironically, gun control might be an example of this, although one many progressives would be inclined to overlook. Drug prohibition is another. Even more controversial is that CRT undeniably has Marxist influences, at least on the periphery, although the Marxist influences are derived from Western-Marxism (the Frankfurt School, etc.)  more than classical Marxism (Marx himself and his early collaborators and followers) or Marxism-Leninism (“Communisms”).
Much of what gets called CRT in terms of its alleged influence on contemporary academic curriculum is merely about the general narrative of racial oppression and racial conflict in US history, along with racial discrimination or allegations of discrimination in the present day. Some of this can also trend “far-left” (like the Howard Zinn interpretation of American history or an emphasis on privilege-checking, intersectional theory, microaggressions, etc) but that stuff is not CRT per se. And not all perspectives on US racial history/race relations from a conflict theory perspective are necessarily that extreme.
The real conflict comes down to the battle between civic nationalism and identity politics. Most critics of CRT (excluding extremists like white supremacists) would argue that the best approach to race relations is to argue that, yes, minorities got dumped on in the past, and some problems may still linger, but the solution is to integrate minorities into a colorblind civic framework where everyone has the same rights and responsibilities. CRT proponents would tend to argue that’s not good enough. Instead, specific policies have to be crafted for the purpose of rectifying past oppression or perceived present-day oppression. The specific details vary but critics argue that the implication of CRT is basically an illiberal tribal/identitarian spoils system that involves defacto racial separatism. It’s like the argument over affirmative action, only writ large. But it’s important to recognize that not everything that gets labeled CRT is CRT. For instance, you can argue that racial discrimination against minorities is still a serious problem in the US without being a CRT. You can even be extremely “politically correct” in many ways and not be CRT. The focus of CRT is narrower than what is often claimed.
Much of what is often described as CRT is not so much critical race theory specifically as much as contemporary “anti-racism” ideology generally (and related concepts like privilege theory, intersectionality, “whiteness,” etc.), or at least branches of it. John McWhorter and others have pointed out how the “anti-racism” ideology postulates the implicit notion of an “anti-racist” elect idea that is more derivative of Protestant sectarianism than Marxism, although I suspect such concepts may have at least subconsciously influenced many of the CRTs because black American culture is so deeply marinated in Protestantism. For example, Cornel West (I’m not sure he identifies as a  CRT as he wasn’t one of its founders) exemplifies “leftism as Protestantism” or vice versa.
While conservatives are right that actual CRT (again, not what is often mislabeled as CRT) has its roots in critical theory, which was originally developed by the Western-Marxist tradition formulated by the Frankfurt School, the irony of it all is that a serious Marxist could have a field day with this stuff.
Consider this: a change in material conditions (invention of the microchip) spurs an economic revolution (digital capitalism) which causes an older ruling class (industrial bourgeoisie) to decline and be superseded by a new ruling class (tech oligarchs, managerial elites, newly rich, bobos, PMCs, ideas industries, green energy, minority elites, etc.) that jettisons the ideological superstructure of the previous ruling class (bourgeois-liberal patriotism, Victorian family/sexual norms, etc) in favor of a new ideological superstructure of their own (woke progressivism). This is Marx 101.
Because critical theory is traceable to the Western-Marxist tradition (and not classical Marxism or Marxism-Leninism), it is really a revision of Marxism. Obviously, not the same as the “revisionist” perspectives that emerged in the post-Stalin, post-Mao East, but a form of Western revisionism that inverts the relationship between the materialist base and the superstructure, or at least between class and culture. Hence, the constant reference to “cultural Marxism” on the right. But the great irony is that when you abandon class/economic/technological determinism, and focus instead on culture, you no longer pose any threat to capitalism, because capitalism is fluid enough to incorporate any cultural framework into its superstructure. Hence, US corporations present one cultural outlook in their US and European marketing and advertising, and other cultural outlooks in their Middle Eastern markets (like the Gulf States). “Cultural Marxists” end up being useful idiots for the capitalists they supposedly oppose (like their “free-market but culturally conservative” counterparts on the right).

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