Tom Gilson

So You Think Critical Race Theory Is a Useful Analytical Tool?

I was with my new friend Howard that afternoon, and he was pumping me with questions about some of my projects so he could do some graphic design work. That’s still in process, and you’ll see the result when we’re done with it. We have a lot of opinions in common, including thoughts on critical race theory. I was just leaving his office when he brought up a mutual friend who has to deal with CRT at work all the time. “What he keeps hearing,” Howard told me, “is that even if you don’t agree with CRT’s answers, we should at least learn from what it can tell us as analytical tool.”

I practically jumped out of my skin. It’s a good thing the two of us are friends. It’s a good thing I wasn’t with someone who actually believes it’s a useful analytical tool. “What? Analytical tool? There is no such thing!”

That was a bit abrupt. And incomplete. So I went on to explain what I meant: “You’ve been asking me questions, right?  Did you notice they had an effect on me? That I actually learned something? Your questions weren’t just neutral information-gathering: They actually changed me!”

You Can’t Ask Without Communicating

I’ve heard this “analytical tool” question before. The idea seems to be that even if CRT has false worldview foundations, and we don’t think much of its theories of structural racism or white guilt, we can still learn from it as a neutral analytical tool. That’s where it falls off the rails, off the trestle, and into the drink a hundred feet below. Because when it comes to people and social groups, there is no such thing as a neutral analytical tool.

I learned this in my earlier work in organizational psychology, where I built, delivered, and analyzed several organizational surveys. My first question to the leaders I worked with was always, “What do you want to measure?” My second question was, “What do you intend to communicate?” They expected the first question, but the second one usually caught them off guard. “Communicate? I’m not communicating, I’m asking questions!”

Then I would tell them how the two are inseparable. “Suppose we put in four or five questions about communications in the organization. You’re not just asking them how we’re doing at communicating. You’re telling them you care what they think about it. And suppose your survey uncovers a deep level of discontent over corporate communications, and then six months later your employees notice you haven’t done a thing about it. You know what they’re going to think: You only pretended to care. It wasn’t real. You might as well have come out and lied about it.”

If You Ask a Big Question You Communicate a Big Point

Of course I’d keep this all very hypothetical, because I wasn’t about to tell a leader he was a liar, especially since he hadn’t done any such thing at that point. It was enough to get the point across. When you ask a question, you’re saying you’re interested in the answer.

Now, suppose you announced a grand, huge, organizational survey. Suppose you made such a big deal about it, everyone knew it was going to influence your company’s culture for years to come. And when you  had 20 questions on it, and ten of them were about communications and nine more were about tech support. You’d very soon have your employees asking each other, “Is that all they care about? Is this even real?”

That’s more or less the situation with critical race theory as an analytical tool. It’s got itself built up as the answer to America’s cultural problems, or I might even say America’s cultural problem, because it seems at times that whatever the issue is, it’s racism. Or as I said at The Stream, “It sounds like a squirrel to me, but I’m going to say racism.” Critical race theory is supposed to analyze the race problem. And it’s almost like the company that communicates it only cares about two things.

CRT Communicates What It Considers Important: Power

In CRT’s case, those two things are money and politics, and in the end they boil down to one: power. CRT analyzes blacks’ and whites’ status with respect to economics and political power. (The two collapse into one when talking about persons’ positions on the job. Organizational leadership is a form of political power.)

CRT claims to measure racism, or systemic racism, or racial injustice, or some such thing. It produces information on how differently blacks and whites experience life in America, and so on.

What it actually measures — because this is central to CRT’s view of reality — is discrepancies in blacks’ and whites’ economic and political circumstances. It’s a power measurement. How much economic and political power does each group hold, and in particular, how are whites using their power advantage against blacks?

It Mis-Communicates What Life Is Really About

The answers could conceivably useful if the analysis  were positioned as what it is: a measurement of how much economic and political power each group holds, and how whites may be using their relative advantage to disadvantage blacks. Instead it’s put forth as a measurement of justice, or “social justice,” which is a travesty of real justice.

CRT assumes that justice is reducible to current circumstances, without regard to whether a group’s beliefs, habits, customs, and actions — its own culture, in other words — have played any role in their current circumstances, or whether they may be receiving something like a just return for their labors, habits, customs, and so on. Justice for CRT is a matter of outcome, disconnected inputs. The one grand exception to that is the idea that outcome (justice) for blacks is a matter if input (injustice) by whites.

As a theory of justice this is incredibly distorted. As a measure of quality of life it’s even worse. It ignores everything from quality of relationships, to aesthetics, to virtue, to spiritual life (relationship with God). Its narrow focus allows it only to measure narrow living.

There Is No Neutral Analysis

So it doesn’t really measure what it claims to measure. That’s problem one. The second problem is the one I started with here. It communicates a theory of justice, of right living, of quality of life, and more, that depends entirely on money and power. That’s a very flat view of life. So flat, I’ve called it today’s flat earth theory, and just as believable as the original one.*

It’s a flat view. It’s a dangerous one, in view of its focus on power; for power always tends to grow into the abuse of power. It’s a deadening view, being so uninterested in most of what makes life rich, rewarding, and enjoyable. It’s a spiritually fatal view, in that it pays no attention to God, or even to human virtues.

And that’s the view that CRT’s analytical method communicates. Don’t let anyone fool you. There is no such thing as a neutral analysis.

 

*Side note: I got pushback on that article from a reader who objected to the comparison. It was a flat-earth theorist trying to convince me his view was right. I’m keeping that one for my upcoming “Bizarre Moments in Ministry” video series.

Image Credit(s): Scott Graham/Unsplash.

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10 thoughts on “So You Think Critical Race Theory Is a Useful Analytical Tool?

  1. I ever so respectfully disagree with you on the issue of critical race theory (CRT), Tom. I disagree based on my understanding as a life-long Christian of the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Please allow me to explain, First, Jesus said in John 8:31-32 1 “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” If we are commanded by Jesus to seek the Truth, how can we reject any tools of logic and reason that are useful for knowing the truth? I think that you have not recognized what CRT is and how and by whom it is used. CRT is a form of analysis used by lawyers and law students to examine the motivations behind certain laws. The theory that CRT operates from is that some laws made by human beings in any/every society have as their purpose to privilege certain groups within a society over other groups. These are what sociologists call the “ingroup” or the group that holds power and the “outgroup” or the group(s) that are subordinated in a particular society. CRT focuses on analyzing how outgroups, subordinated groups, are often identified and subordinated because of their race and how laws are formulated, passed, created to effectuate and perpetuate their subordination.

    In other words, CRT is based on a theory of sin, the sinfulness of societies in which some people abuse their power to make and enforce laws for purposes other than justice for all. Social justice is justice within a society. “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Another word for justice is righteousness. It is unrighteous and unjust for people with power in a society to use/abuse that power to subjugate those who are less powerful. Ergo, God’s intervention to free the Hebrews from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt…

    And allow me to point out what a theory is. A theory is simply our best guess as to how something works. Theories don’t communicate anything. They are ideas, possible explanations that are subject to critique and examination using evidence and argument. I do not reject a theory about the dominance of white people in the USA and many other societies where whiteness is highly valued and racial minorities experience oppression and discrimination.

    I am a white woman and upper middle class, the daughter of two attorneys. I have experienced white privilege all of my life. I never start my day with concerns about what danger I might be in if I run a stop sign and get stopped by the police. But my black and brown friends do. I know that white privilege exists because I experience the differential treatment white people like me, especially white males who have even more privilege than I do, experience in our society. I don’t resent this, but I believe, as a Christian, that when the power that we white folks derive from our whiteness is abused, that is a sin against God, who commands us to pursue justice.

    Let us reflect on these words of our Lord Jesus Christ regarding the law:

    Matthew 5:17 Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the Law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.

    Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    Thank you for considering my arguments, which are offered in pursuit of the truth and of justice.

  2. Pingback,

    Quite frankly, as a Christian I find this angry attack on scholars and others who find Critical Race Theory to be a useful tool of analysis of the morality of laws intended to establish and perpetuate racism to be very unseemly for my fellow Christians of good will to be engaged in. There is no lie at the heart of CRT, any more than there is a lie at the heart of the Big Bang Theory or the Theory of Evolution. Theories are not assertions of fact. They are speculation, hypotheses, attempts to explain a phenomenon. Theories aren’t statements of values, or a worldview, or an ideology. What are you folks so worked up about?

    God gave the ancient Hebrews the Torah. The meaning of the word Torah is the Law. God gave the the Hebrews the Law of Noah, which applies to all humankind and the Law of Moses (aka, the Ten Commandments), which applied to those who chose to be in Covenant with God. Does it really come as a surprise to you that many humans not only don’t follow the Law that God gave the Jews, but that they/we make laws of our own with sinful motivation in order to impose our will on our fellow human beings, in contradiction and defiance of God’s Law. Isn’t that the very reason that God gave us Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to teach us and to empower us to fulfill God’s Law, to pursue justice, and to bring about God’s Kingdom, not our own human kingdoms. Don’t you agree that for us to fulfill God’s law, we must seek out the many ways in which our own law making does not coincide with God’s Law and His will for us?

    If you are really intent on convincing your fellow Christians and those who are seekers of knowledge about Christianity that Critical Race Theory is a “lie” or “wrong” or “stupid”, you will have to do the following:

    1. Provide evidence that racism doesn’t exist, keeping in mind that any evidence of its existence nullifies the argument that it doesn’t exist.
    2. Provide evidence that white privilege doesn’t exist, keeping in mind that any evidence of its existence nullifies the argument that it doesn’t exist.
    3. Provide evidence that racism is not in contradiction to God’s will for humanity and that human laws motivated by racism do not contradict God’s Law (specifically, the Law of Moses, the Law of the Torah).

    I await your response, as a fellow Christian who views CRT as a valuable scholarly pursuit and analytical tool.

  3. Wow.

    Quite frankly, as a Christian I find this angry attack … to be very unseemly for my fellow Christians of good will to be engaged in.

    You might examine yourself here. Your comments attempt to hit me hard, though they have all missed, since you really appear not to have read what I wrote here, as I’ll go on and explain. You should expect a hard answer in return, because of how seriously you’re accusing me, and how far from the truth you are.

    There is no lie at the heart of CRT, any more than there is a lie at the heart of the Big Bang Theory or the Theory of Evolution. Theories are not assertions of fact. They are speculation, hypotheses, attempts to explain a phenomenon. Theories aren’t statements of values, or a worldview, or an ideology.

    Apparently you haven’t read any crits. They are not as, shall we say, responsibly and carefully tentative as you think they are. Not even close. That’s an understatement.

    I’m not even sure you read what I wrote here. I am not ignorant of what I am talking about. I have written and studied much on CRT, and you’d better believe there’s a worldview attached to it. You won’t like the title on this one, but read the content. There’s a worldview there. Try this one, too. And don’t just throw empty assertions at me as if I didn’t know what I was doing.

    Don’t you agree that for us to fulfill God’s law, we must seek out the many ways in which our own law making does not coincide with God’s Law and His will for us?

    That’s a strange question. I never implied otherwise. What I said was that CRT is based on a lie. You’re not getting anywhere trying to convince me that I’ll follow God’s laws any better if I follow what I think is a lie. You kind of, ya know, need to start by addressing whether it’s a lie or not. Which you haven’t done very effectively.

    1. Provide evidence that racism doesn’t exist, keeping in mind that any evidence of its existence nullifies the argument that it doesn’t exist.

    What?! Are you kidding????!!!! Of course racism exists!!!!! Did I say it didn’t???? My goodness, the eisegesis you’ve committed here, not to mention the false, outrageously wrong suggestion that I’m stupid and bigoted enough not to think racism exists. That was wrong of you, Jenna, in many ways. I didn’t say it, you’re wrong to suggest that I said it, you’re wrong to suggest that I might say it, and you’re wrong to suggest I’m a man of such horrific character that I might deny racism exists. You need to re-read what I wrote, you need to re-think what you’re suggesting about me, and you need to correct yourself. Seriously.

    What I said was, CRT analysis focuses on money and power, and that it represents that analysis as what really matters, that instead it is incomplete and therefore seriously distorted. How did you get from that to some suggestion that I don’t think racism exists? Did you read some actual bigot’s article and mistakenly put your comments under mine instead?

    Further: Do you even know what critical race theory is about? That its chief writers recognize that the U.S. has been battling racism, that they are impatient with that battle, that they want to change the subject from “racism” to “systemic racism”? That the question in CRT therefore isn’t racism, as you’re banging on here, and which has a painfully obvious, everybody-knows-it answer, but rather systemic racism, a poorly defined construct and one which somehow removes any sense of individual culpability for the sin (read your Bible on that!) of racism and places it on skin color-defined groups instead? Do you have any awareness how unbiblical that is???

    2. Provide evidence that white privilege doesn’t exist, keeping in mind that any evidence of its existence nullifies the argument that it doesn’t exist.

    Did I mention white privilege? This is about neutral vs. biased analyses. Does CRT have a neutral, unbiased analysis of white privilege that you can offer me as evidence that I’m wrong about this? Does it include a full range of human experience, beyond the materialistically restricted range of merely money and power (which was the topic of this post)?

    3. Provide evidence that racism is not in contradiction to God’s will for humanity and that human laws motivated by racism do not contradict God’s Law (specifically, the Law of Moses, the Law of the Torah).

    See my answer to your #1. You have got to be kidding.

    Now let me go up to your first comment for some additional responses:

    The theory that CRT operates from is that some laws made by human beings in any/every society have as their purpose to privilege certain groups within a society over other groups. These are what sociologists call the “ingroup” or the group that holds power and the “outgroup” or the group(s) that are subordinated in a particular society.

    Right. Everyone knows that. What you’ve ignored here is the very topic of my entire post here: that CRT’s ingroup/outgroup analysis looks only at money and power, that it emphasizes those two factors to the virtual exclusion of everything else, and that this is false, misleading, and incorrect. So what you’ve done here is to “school me” on something I don’t disagree with, while ignoring what I actually said.

    Your anger (see my first quote in this comment) has blinded you to what I wrote here, and it has caused you to read into it things that I did not. You have badly misrepresented me as a result. I’m calling you out on it. Apologize and correct yourself. And if you’re misreading and misrepresenting other CRT opponents this badly, you need to resolve to listen well, read well, and if you disagree with them, make sure it’s them you are disagreeing with, and not some bigot you’ve invented in your head.

  4. Tom,

    Apparently we do agree that Critical Race Theory is a theory. No theory is intended to be a complete hypothesis that explains every phenomenon. The Big Bang Theory does not attempt to explain why sin exists, for example. So to criticize CRT for focusing only on money and power is IMO a questionable approach. CRT as a theory finds evidence of racism in the disparities of wealth (money) and economic well-being in a particular society associated with (correlated with) race. As a theory, CRT examines disparities in power, primarily political power, that are correlated with race. So where is the “lie” in the evidence that this theory examines? I am an academic. A researcher. When I conduct a research study based on a particular research question with a particular theoretical orientation, my colleagues do not scold me for focusing only on my particular factors that my research question addresses “to the exclusion of everything else.”

    So perhaps you are right that I don’t understand what you are saying. You appear to question the concept of “systemic racism”, which for me is something akin to cultural hegemony. If you had cited a particular CRT theorist, then yes, I could point out how I agree or disagree with his/her analysis and conclusions through the lens of Christianity. But you didn’t. You lumped them altogether and attributed a common, atheistic, and “bigoted” ideology to all of them. So I have had a problem discerning what You are arguing from a theological perspective as opposed to attribute to them.

    Perhaps we can tone down this discussion and focus on how we see this issue from the perspective of our interpretations of the grand narrative of the Christian faith. I am a great fan of Oxford University Professor Allister McGrath’s narrative apologetics.

  5. “So perhaps you are right,” you say, “that I do not understand what you are saying.”

    That’s really lame, Jenna, considering the verbal bombs you were throwing at me. To think that this answer from you is adequate? I asked before, and the question still applies: Are you kidding?

    Your answer here constitutes no reasonable basis for going forward in discussion, considering the extreme misinterpretations and accusations you communicated in your earlier comments.

    Not only is this a failure on your part to acknowledge your own egregious mistakes, the fact that you ignored virtually everything I wrote signals quite clearly that you’re willing to ignore what I write. Why would I bother writing it, then?

    If you want to tone down this discussion without apologizing for igniting it with a verbal Molotov cocktail, I say, no, thanks. That move isn’t mine to make. It’s yours. You’ll also need to convince me you will actually listen, rather than ignoring.

    I’m not going to engage in this discussion with you unless I have good reason to engage in it with you. You’re a long, long way from showing me any.

  6. P.S. If you want an answer to your question, ” So where is the ‘lie’ in the evidence that this theory examines?” please re-read the original post. It’s there. It’s not hiding. It’s right there in plain view.

  7. No, I am not kidding. I read your articles before making my first post and I have reread your articles in light of your responses. After my first reading of your post, titled “So You Think Critical Race Theory Is a Useful Analytical Tool?” I wrote to say that Yes, I think that CRT is a useful analytical tool and I attempted to explain why I do. The reality is that people who are using CRT as an analytical are probably legal scholars and law students who are studying the Constitution in approved courses that are part of a curriculum, probably an elective, in a law school. I have an interest in legal scholarship and analysis because I come from a family of legal scholars and professors of law, so I posted my response to the challenge you posed in your blog article. I don’t think that I am unjustified in sensing a high degree of disapproval on your part toward people who believe that CRT is a useful analytical tool. This is what I don’t understand. To claim that CRT is a “lie” is not consistent with viewing it as an analytical tool.

    I can’t say whether or not you have a good reason to engage with a fellow Christian whose views disagree with yours on an intellectual and controversial question. That’s up to you. I apologize if I have misinterpreted your arguments and if I have offended you. May God bless you in your ministry.

  8. You apologize “if”?

    The question wasn’t whether I would have good reason to engage with any person who disagrees with me on an intellectual and controversial question. You’ve commented here 715 times since early 2014. You already know I am most willing to engage with people who disagree with me. You may not know the full extent, but I checked once via sampling, and I’ve written more than a million words in comments, engaging with people who disagree with me.

    No one would need any of that background, though, to know that this business about engaging with people who disagree is disingenuous and borderline dishonest. In my comment #6 I gave you my reasons for wondering about continuing to engage:

    Your answer here constitutes no reasonable basis for going forward in discussion, considering the extreme misinterpretations and accusations you communicated in your earlier comments.

    Not only is this a failure on your part to acknowledge your own egregious mistakes, the fact that you ignored virtually everything I wrote signals quite clearly that you’re willing to ignore what I write. Why would I bother writing it, then?

    I don’t take time to communicate with people who give me the kind of verbal abuse you did in your first two comments, and I don’t do it, either, with people who ignore what I write. Your sidestep to “fellow Christian whose views disagree with yours” is another instance of ignoring what I wrote.

    This has been my policy for a very long time, and I think for very obvious reasons. See numbers 8, 9, 10, and 12 here. We’re done now.

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