“No social theory is helpful unless it contains truth.”
David French is an evangelical Iraq War veteran and Harvard Law School graduate who has fought for religious freedom. In the last few years he has attacked pro-Trump evangelicals. More recently he has gone after those on the right who reject Critical Race Theory (CRT) as unchristian and unworthy of classroom study. His most current charge is that by dismissing CRT, Christians betray “fundamentalist” ways of thinking, neglect a helpful tool for exposing systemic racism in America, and deprive students of their need to examine competing ideas. He also derides Tennessee’s new law on race in the classroom.
Too much debate about CRT fails to explain CRT’s basic lineaments. So I will first use CRT advocates’ own words to lay out its most important assertions. Then I will ask whether it is the helpful tool that French claims. Finally I will look at the Tennessee law and a related controversy at Grove City College that French dismisses as unnecessary. For further explanation of the next few paragraphs, see my three-part series that starts here.
One of the best primary sources for CRT is Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, eds., Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rdedn. (New York: New York University Press, 2017). In this volume Delgado and Stefancic argue that racism is ordinary, pervasive, and systematic in America. It is “ordinary . . . . the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. . . . Racial hierarchies determine who gets tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools, and invitations to parties in people’s homes.” Racism is so “embedded in our thought processes and social structures” that the ‘ordinary business’ of society . . . will keep minorities in subordinate positions.”
Delgado and Stefancic also insist that people of color have presumed competence when talking about race and racism. “Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.”
Neutrality in law and the merit system are rejected: “CRT questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law. . . . [the merit system] is far from the neutral standard that its supporters imagine it to be . . . [hence] it is unfair to rank people according to [these] mechanical scales.”
CRT insists that color-blindness is a tool of oppression, and whites are necessarily racist. “Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery.” Opponents of affirmative action who think it is reverse racism do so because they assume “innocence on the part of the white displaced by affirmative action.” But this “assumption characterizes whites as innocent.” Since “racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained . . . then no white member of society seems quite so innocent, [for every white participates in] the interplay of meanings that one attaches to race; the stereotypes one holds of other people; the standards of looks, appearance, and beauty. [These, plus] the need to guard one’s position all powerfully determine one’s perspective. . . .White people benefit from a system of favors, exchanges and courtesies from which outsiders of color are frequently excluded, including hiring one’s neighbor’s kids for summer jobs, a teacher’s agreement to give a favored student an extra-credit assignment that will enable him or her to raise a grade of B+ or to A-, or the kind of quiet networking that lands a borderline candidate a coveted position.”
CRT also claims that race has no grounding in “biological or genetic reality.” Today’s biologists and geneticists agree. For example, genetic background studies are now showing that millions of whites share biological background with blacks and other minorities. But this claim demonstrates CRT’s incoherence. If racial distinctions are social and not biological, and if racism is therefore learned socially, how can CRT know that millions of whites have not learned socially to be color-blind? If race is merely social, why does CRT treat all whites as determined by their white skins to be racists?
So let’s take stock. CRT asserts that America is systemically racist against minorities, that minorities are better at understanding racism than whites, that we should dispense with legal neutrality and merit-based systems because they are used against minorities, that whites are intrinsically inclined toward racism, and yet race has neither biological nor genetic bases.
Is CRT opposed to orthodox Christianity? I have argued that it is. French suggests it need not be because it can help Christians—especially white Christians–better understand racism and therefore how to better love their neighbors.
Which begs the question, Is CRT a helpful tool for analyzing racism in America and therefore how Christians can better love their neighbors? Most Americans would say that any perspective that judges others by their skin color is decidedly unhelpful, and in fact returns us to the very racism that CRT pledges to eradicate.
Many would also point to affirmative action programs since the early 1970s (a half century) that have favored minorities and discriminated against white men, and ask if that has not been racist. Since George Floyd these programs have metastasized in nearly every domain in America. To anyone without ideological blinders, it is clear there is now systemic racism that favors minorities.
No social theory is helpful unless it contains truth. What truths are taught by CRT? I can detect only three—that racism is evil, that racism can be systemic, and that race is a social construct.
I have just pointed out that CRT is incoherent on the last truth. And we don’t need CRT to know the first two. Scripture and church tradition have already taught us that racism is evil, and we already know from slavery and Jim Crow that racism can be systemic. Sure, Christians have failed in these matters, but there was a widespread consensus about these truths long before CRT became a byword.
Does the new law in Tennessee deprive students of the opportunity to examine competing ideas? In a word, no. In fact, it says that teachers are not prohibited from “the impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” or “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.”
The law never mentions CRT. It prohibits the inclusion or promotion of materials that teach that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” or that an individual “by virtue of the individual’s race or sex” is “inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”
In other words, the law prohibits the promotion of racist and sexist teaching materials but permits the discussion of historic racism in an “impartial” way. This sounds like what academics have long championed as academic freedom, teaching problems and perspectives without bias.
On the face of it, a teacher could present Delgado and Christopher Rufo (an anti-CRT researcher) as contrasting perspectives on a “controversial aspect of [recent] history.”
Does this law limit instruction about some of Martin Luther King’s writings, as French proclaims? Again, there is no reason to think so from the language of the bill. For a teacher can present anything King wrote as discussion of a controversy in history, which the bill explicitly allows.
Finally, French criticizes Grove City College faculty disturbed by recent events at the school for “closing Christian minds to thoughtful voices” with “competing ideas.” These anonymous faculty (their anonymity is understandable at a school that does not grant tenure) pointed to a chapel program of speakers, a new course recently repeated, and Resident Assistant training—all of which were imposed without faculty vetting and featured one-sided presentations of a woke perspective. Any good academic would recognize that this is decidedly opposed to the best practices of a liberal arts institution, and, as these profs admonished, contrary to Grove City standards. They were protesting not competing ideas but the uncritical appropriation of competing ideas that challenge Grove City’s foundational commitments.
All in all, I remain unpersuaded by French’s principal assertions—that CRT is a helpful analytical tool to understand race and American society, and that Christians are wrong to oppose its use in schools and churches. There are far better ways to discuss race, racism, and American history in our schools and churches. Why use a theory that is itself racist?
First Published in Patheos, reprinted with permission.