Over the last 30 years, especially since the spring of 2020, Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its accompanying obsessions with “whiteness” and “white privilege” has almost overwhelmed discussion about race and racism in Western society.
CRT “recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society,” declares a definition from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. A useful outline of the ideas involved is found in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s textbook Critical Race Theory, which is generally considered authoritative and has the virtue uncommon among CRT exponents of being clearly written. Slightly compressed here, Delgado and Stefancic list CRT tenets as:
1. Racism is ordinary, not aberrational.
2. Racism serves an important purpose. It provides “psychic or material” benefits for the dominant group in society.
3. “Race and races are products of social thought and relations [and] categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.”
4. Intersectionality. The idea that everyone has potentially conflicting overlapping identities based on gender, class, and especially on race.
Additionally, CRT emphasizes that “voices of color,” or the views of nonwhites, have a special value. CRT rejects equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law. Considering that Delgado and Stefancic are lawyers, this is a remarkable statement!
above: cover of the textbook Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Other than Delgado and Stefancic, notable exponents of CRT include Ibram X. Kendi, Derrick Bell, and Nell Irvin Painter, as well as Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility is a poisonous mixture of error, arrogance, and self-abasement, and possibly the single worst product of the CRT school of thought.
An obsession with whiteness as inherently negative is a prominent feature of CRT ideology. “A positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist,” DiAngelo writes. “White people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.” Or, as Michael Eric Dyson puts it in his foreword to White Fragility, “in the equation of race … whiteness is the unchanging variable.”
Apart from the interesting results should “black” or “blackness” be substituted for “white” and “whiteness” in such comments, we shall see just how wildly off these remarks are in relation to the history of ideas about race.
That there are many problems with CRT is obvious. Just a few are its hyperemotional, even hysterical, character; its presentism, reaching the level of utter inability to grasp the difference between past and present; and its constant guilt-tripping: whites are racist, until proved otherwise, and maybe not even then.
CRT advocates generally write in an appalling jargon, in which terms such as white supremacy, racism, equity, diversity, etc., are twisted and given a peculiar new meaning. They often employ pompous, dehumanized, bureaucratic language such as “people of color” for nonwhites (or more often only blacks) and “enslaved persons” for slaves.
Anyone who disputes CRT theory is painted as a racist; a particular evil is, amazingly, so-called color-blind racism, or the contention by whites that they don’t judge people according to race, which is a particular target of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism without Racists. Anything deemed critical of the culture or attitudes of minorities is deemed “cultural racism.”
For CRT writers, racism must be everywhere. Where it is unobvious, they must repeatedly construct racist straw men to destroy. For them, race and racism is a monomania, with the familiar result of monomania: the monomaniac ends not only in being unable to see anything else but in being unable even to see the object of his obsession clearly, either.
CRT also includes the assumption that Karl Marx cribbed from Auguste Comte: that of a “necessary relation between all possible aspects of the same social organism.” In this way, CRT substitutes racism for the economic foundation posited by the more rational Marxists. The basic fallacy of all such thinking was observed by Karl Wittfogel in the 1950s: a comparison of the German part of Switzerland with Hitler’s Germany shows that societies can share many important features and yet be worlds apart in social structure and moral values.
Yet there is a basic flaw in the logic of CRT that has hitherto been little noted. Nominally, as we saw Delgado and Stefancic allude to, CRT sees race as a social artifact. Race does not really exist according to CRT. It is just a concept, a false consciousness that exists only in people’s heads. There is something to be said for this, as I will show. But in practice, CRT writers actually jettison this notion, treating race not as an ordinary, changeable idea but as a rigid, permanent part of the social structure. Worse, their presentism and grotesque telescoping of lengthy and sometimes complicated processes of historical development obscure the true history of the monstrous evil that they are so fixated on.
We will not be talking here about biological race, or race as a description of the actual physical differences between human groups, but the social definition of race—people’s perceptions of the differences between groups and their beliefs about the importance of those differences. The two must not be confused.
Many people nowadays get hysterical about using race as a biological classification. Actually, it seems that what we may call the family tree of humanity does split into five or six branches that fit moderately well into the traditional physical anthropological classifications of race: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Australoid, etc.
But that is not what we are discussing here. There is in fact a good reason for getting rid of the term “race” entirely, though it seems an impractical goal. But that is not because, as seems to be widely believed, it has a single evil meaning that will cause us all to run around eating each other. The problem is that the word “race” has acquired too many different and confusing meanings over time, ranging from a synonym for nationality, ethnicity, and even social class, to a biological or pseudo-biological classifier.
Here we will discuss race as a social classifier, which often differs drastically from such biological classifications, and indeed from place to place, as well as over time. This is a point that, I have found, is something even quite intelligent people sometimes find hard to grasp.
A good example of this is given by looking at the example of a person not uncommon in our society, someone largely European in descent, but who obviously has some sub-Saharan African ancestry. An anthropologist, or at least a traditional anthropologist, would say that such a person is of mixed race, or a blend of Caucasoid and Negroid. But in America, they would ordinarily be described rather absurdly as a “light-skinned black.”
Elsewhere they would be classified quite differently. In the English-speaking Caribbean and in South Africa, such a person would be neither black nor white, but “colored.” That was the original meaning of “colored” in English—it was coined to describe people who were mixtures of European and African. It was not synonymous, as it was later, with “nonwhite.”
In Brazil, however, such a person would be viewed as white—albeit a special sort of white, a “white of Brazil” or a branco do tierra (“white of the land”). So when we talk about race in a social context, we are often dealing with a slippery, changing thing. That is worth keeping in mind.
There are two other possible traps in dealing with (socially defined) race that CRT writers can fall into. One is to project the attitudes and situations in the American South and South Africa onto other, past societies, especially onto the relationship between European rulers and their subjects in the empires of the 18th through the 20th centuries. Racial feelings, to use an unsatisfactory term, were less intense in places where Europeans were temporary sojourners, such as in Nigeria or Burma, than in places where different racial groups spent their whole lives side by side, such as the United States and South Africa.
The second trap is thinking that race relations involve something totally different from other hierarchical relationships between human groups, which can be dehumanizing in a comparable way. Feudal class distinctions, for example, could be as oppressive as racial ones. As a medieval German rhyme put it, “A peasant is just like an ox, only he has no horns.”
The CRT School’s thinking about the history of racial prejudice draws heavily on an older series of misconceptions, which is often described by its critics as the 1492 thesis, also called the UNESCO thesis because it has been spread by the UN’s Economic and Social Council. It runs roughly as follows:
1. Up to 1492 or 1500—roughly the beginning of modern Western oceanic expansion—there was no such thing as racism in the Western world. This is usually, though not always, coupled with the idea that there was no such thing as racism outside the Western world, either. (That is false, but as we are dealing with Western ideas and attitudes, we’ll ignore it here.)
2. Racial beliefs then suddenly popped into existence. Racism developed toward all “nonwhite” groups, and was part and parcel of Western expansion.
3. Racism was “functional” in that it served the interests of people engaged in trading and owning slaves, the rulers of the European overseas empires, and white settlers coveting native lands. As Delgado and Stefancic solemnly explain, “Antiblack prejudices sprang up with slavery and capitalists’ need for labor. Before then, educated Europeans held a generally positive attitude toward Africans, recognizing that African civilizations were highly advanced with vast libraries and centers of learning.”
4. Racism is uniquely horrible and a cause of worse evils than, say, religious or political or class hostilities.
Aside from a grain of truth within the third item, these ideas are all false, or must be so qualified as to be almost meaningless.
It should be noted that some CRT writers, notably Theodore Allen, author of The Invention of the White Race, and Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White, hold a more parochial American version of such ideas. As Allen puts it, the white race was “invented” as a “ruling class social control formation in the late 17th/early 18th century Anglo-American plantation colonies.” It was, in other words, just a device to split the white and black working classes. The full absurdity of this particular notion will become clear; we need merely point out here that the status of blacks as slaves was fixed by the 1640s, long before there was a lower class in America to split. Also, the number of slaves in early America was tiny until after 1675—in midcentury Virginia, there were just 300 slaves among 15,000 English.
In any case, the chronology of the 1492 thesis is wrong at both ends. Prejudice against some groups long predated 1492. In other cases, prejudices did not develop for centuries after 1492 and were a product, not a driver or accompaniment, of European domination. Above all, it is mistaken because the way Europeans saw or classified most non-Europeans in late medieval and early modern times differed greatly from how they did so later. Contrary to both the 1492 thesis and Allen’s claims, Europeans saw themselves as “white” long before the 17th century.
The belief in the inferiority of black Africans appeared in medieval Europe long before the Age of Exploration. We are not quite sure of its origins, but it seems to have been picked up from the North African Arabs, for whom blacks and slavery were associated much earlier than for Europeans. Later, the black race became associated in the minds of European Christians with Muslim enemies. This can be seen as early as The Song of Roland (written down about 1245) where the blacks are the worst of the Muslim foes of the Franks, and in the antiquated English and German words for “Negro”: “blackamoor” and “Mohr,” respectively.
It’s important to note that medieval Europeans did not necessarily think about black people the way a Kentucky slaveowner thought of his property in 1850. Some had very different ideas, as in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, one of the greatest works of medieval literature, and the few Europeans who had contact with Christian Ethiopians often had a high opinion of them. In fact, most of the slaves medieval Europeans encountered were white Muslim prisoners of war, people from the Caucasus, and Asians brought from the East via caravan. The close association of black Africans with slavery formed only later on.
In early modern times, when Europeans encountered other peoples from North Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, East and Southeast Asia, Polynesia, and Northern India, they did not perceive them as racially inferior because they did not perceive them as racially different. All these groups were originally regarded as white. Europeans noticed that Amerindians and East and Southeast Asians looked a bit different from them, to be sure, and sometimes described their skin color as “tawny,” but still viewed them as white. East Asians, by the way, were not described as “yellow” until about 1800.
Over time, European racial views changed. After starting out with respect for Chinese and Japanese, Westerners came, for a variety of reasons, to have a lower opinion of them. As a result of wars and the Spaniards’ easy domination over the Amerindians they conquered further south, they increasingly despised them as either vicious enemies, or as easily pushed around. Early on, the Spanish conquerors intermarried with the upper classes of the conquered Aztecs and Peruvians, and their offspring were accepted into the Spanish and Italian aristocracies, but such relationships tended to die out.
The designation of Amerindians as “Indians” has a strange and twisted career that has little to do with race. The word originally meant anything and anyone in Asia east of Iran. But thanks to the confusion of Christopher Columbus and others, it came to be applied to practically any newly found peoples. That usage was ridiculed as early as the 1520s, but continued, expanding so that in the 1760s even such brilliant observers as Captain Cook and his chief scientist, Sir Joseph Banks, referred to Polynesians, Melanesians, and Australian aborigines as “Indians.”
In the 16th and 17th centuries the English and French generally avoided “Indian” as a label for the natives of the Americas. They generally referred to the natives as “savages” (usually spelled “salvages”) which then meant merely “primitive.” The connotation of viciousness came later.
It was also widely believed by Protestants that at least some of the natives were actually of Jewish descent, whose ancestors came from the 10 lost tribes of Israel. A variant of this notion remains the doctrine of the Mormon Church. Alternatively, they were thought to be descendents of the survivors of the lost continent of Atlantis—or that the Americas were actually Atlantis itself, which had not sunk but had just been lost. Some also held that some Amerindian groups were descended from the Welsh colonists supposedly brought to North America in the 12th century.
above: The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie A. Brownscombe, oil on canvas, 1914 (Museum De Lakenhal/public domain)
Most Europeans of the period were attached to the notion that the Amerindians were closely related to Europeans. There was a remarkably stubborn resistance to the idea that they descended from Northeast Asian migrants, although some suggested that even in the 16th century.
English description of Amerindians as “red” did not exist until the 17th century and was not a description of their skin color. It came from encountering groups that painted themselves red when waging war.
None of these facts about the history of Amerindian and European racial relations are exactly compatible, to put it mildly, with the CRT School’s idea that Amerindians were seen as a different race, or that racial ideas were developed to suit the needs of evil settler colonialism.
Many have confused or ignored the real history of racial relations in the European conquest of India and other parts of Asia. In 18th century Bengal, the British often behaved ruthlessly, but they did not care about the color or race of Indians. They associated with their Indian collaborators socially, often marrying local women. As time passed, the British became increasingly arrogant and held themselves apart from Indians. Intermarriage became almost unthinkable.
By the 19th century, some of the great British families in India tried to hide their Indian ancestry. Only the lowest class of British men in India married Indian women, and their children were treated rather contemptuously. The changes that took place were paralleled and reinforced by the development of modern racial classifications starting in the late 17th century.
Eventually, especially in the latter part of the 19th century, there was a notable tendency to “shove down” some groups that had earlier been thought of as distinctly superior, and bracket them with the despised blacks. A tendency developed to degrade some groups earlier regarded as white, such as North Africans and Middle Easterners, and even Italians—or at least Southern Italians—and consider them as not white, or not quite white But they were never relegated to any other distinct category, either.
The idea that racial prejudice was “functional” was the only element of the 1492 thesis that had some validity, but even that is only partially true, and it is hard to make a clear connection between such ideas and those who profited from them. It was certainly “functional” for people dealing in slaves, for example, to convince everyone, including themselves, that their property was inferior.
However, it is more than doubtful that this was true in the European empires in Asia and Africa, especially in British India. No European empire ever officially justified its right to rule on the grounds that its subjects were racially inferior. The bigger empires—British and French—had substantial numbers of subjects who were white even by the most narrow-minded 19th century standards, the French Canadians and Maltese, for example. And few people, if any, believed that most of the peoples who came under European rule were inferior when those empires were acquired.
Furthermore, many at the top of British society perceived, quite early, that the offensive way the British colonials tended to treat Indians did not serve and sustain British rule, and was utterly disastrous. It could only speed and intensify the alienation of Indians, especially the educated ones. Historical research on this subject, by both British and Indians, has shown that they were right. In the imperial context, racism was a disaster for both sides. It was decidedly dysfunctional.
The 1492 thesis and the even cruder formulations favored by many CRT writers are, among other things, a classic case of telescoping the long, historical process that created racial prejudices into a short, artificially simplified formula. They are such a grotesque example of this common historical error that it is hard to understand why the CRT School has not gotten a much rougher academic reception than it has. Historians should have been automatically suspicious of it simply because in the real world, systems of ideas just don’t develop that way.
Curiously, the decline of racial prejudice since the 19th century is sometimes belittled and is rarely properly treated. It also suffers, probably for political reasons, from telescoping, so that, again, a long process is squeezed into a short one and pictured as starting later than it did. The decline of racial ideas seems to have started in the 1890s and, though slow, was already noticeable by World War I, especially in the anthropological profession and among liberals and socialists. In the interwar period the decline of racial prejudice accelerated and still more so after World War II. Despite this, the postwar period is sometimes portrayed dishonestly as the beginning rather than the decline of racial prejudice.
Critical Race theorists are unable to deal with the actual historical development of racial ideas. The entire “scholarly field” of CRT is rather reminiscent of the old scholarly joke, “The inaccuracies must have required tremendous research.” Or, perhaps, none at all?