Critical race theory and the paradox of the heap

There’s an interesting podcast at the NY Times today which partly boils down to an argument I see a lot of people on the left and right having about Critical Race Theory. The simplified version of the argument is that the right is attacking Critical Race Theory (trying to ban it in schools, etc.) but that maybe what they’re attacking isn’t CRT at all. Maybe CRT has just become a catchall phrase for conversations the right doesn’t want to have.

That’s basically the debate that played out in this podcast between host Jane Coaston and academic John McWhorter who, despite being on the left himself, has been a frequent critic of wokeness. I’m going to select parts of a longer argument for clarity but you can read the whole thing here if you’re so inclined.

Coaston: I’m Jane Coaston. I have some critiques of critical race theory. But I think what we’re really arguing about isn’t even critical race theory, especially when we’re talking about the use of CRT in schools. It’s a proxy war, not a genuine disagreement. An academic theory has become a weaponized catchall term for Republicans to rail against whatever they think “wokeness” is and retain the status quo. And for liberals, CRT is a chance to argue over Twitter about whether it’s a prerequisite for being an anti-racist, whatever that is, or an easy distraction from the real work of fighting inequality.

Columnist Michelle Goldberg, who was also part of the conversation, agreed with that take:

Goldberg: I think when we talk about critical race theory, we’re talking about now, besides this whole school of academic work, we’re also talking about the application of these ideas and the start of, in some cases, bastardization of these ideas in, like, workplace diversity training and education consultants. Some of which seems to be harmless. Some of which is maybe useful. And some of which is really kind of risible and embarrassing. But then there’s also another thing, which is that critical race theory has become, for large parts of the right, this, like, catchall term for wokeness, political correctness, Black Lives Matter…whole complex of ideas and social tendencies that they, like, despise and want to expunge from public institutions.

Meanwhile, McWhorter is really coming from a different perspective. He sees the ways in which CRT has evolved into whatever it is that is now plaguing so many universities and other institutions. There really isn’t a distinct name for it besides maybe wokeness, but while that’s not identical to CRT it does share some of the same core concepts.

McWhorter: Well, I would say that the essence of what’s going on now is a basic contention that battling power differentials and in particular, battling white hegemony should be the central focus of all intellectual, moral, and even artistic endeavor. That basic idea — even if it’s not put in that way. Usually, you can detect it by the way somebody uses the word power. That basic idea is one of the things that’s at the heart of CRT, whether or not the person who was wielding it, has read their Kimberle Crenshaw or their Richard Delgado. And then there’s the second part of it, which is that in the name of this movement, a person who’s not white can claim that they’ve been hurt or discriminated against in some way. And that it’s absolutely immoral, utterly beyond question that you question their particular claim because what they’re arguing is based on their identity as part of a historically oppressed group. And therefore, for example, the shorthand that we hear is that impact matters and not intent. Again, that goes right back to the classic CRT works. These things just evolve.

McWhorter’s area of expertise is language so he eventually makes a comparison to the development of one language into another, noting that this happens so gradually that no one involved really notices.

McWhorter: I would consider it to be part of a good education to learn the theory. And in general, what Michelle is saying about systemic racism, making that point about the Black communities relationship to the cops, all that is crucial. But I’m just thinking it’s like Latin and French. Latin very gradually became French at no point did anybody say French is here. But we’re dealing with French. Critical race theory is Latin. And by that, I just mean that things morph over time. And notice, I didn’t say devolve. I didn’t say evolve. Things just morph. We’re in a different world. It’s funny, I saw Derrick Bell talk to a group of students at a Black graduation. And in a way, he was in between Latin and French because part of the interpretation of critical race theory now is that often there’s a certain oversimplification, a kind of also often exaggeration of victimhood, which is not to say that victimhood doesn’t exist. Bell was a genius. But I remember his message to the congregation that day was that you’re going to get your butt kicked by racism when you leave this campus. Watch out for it. It’s going to be really hard. And I remember thinking at the time, is this the most constructive thing to be saying at this particular event? And are the butts in question going to be kicked that hard and that definitely? And I was not — I wasn’t very woke yet at the time if I may use the word. So I didn’t think about it very hard. But I look back, and I think to myself, even Bell, in a way, was taking it in a direction that I now find to be a transmogrification of what was originally meant.

Again, I think McWhorter is using an analogy from his field though in this case there’s a much older way of framing this (one I’m guessing he knows) called the paradox of the heap aka sorites paradox (sorites is Greek for heap). The basic idea is that you have a heap of sand and someone begins removing the grains from it one at a time. At what moment does it stop being a heap?

Wikipedia uses this color chart in its description of the paradox (image above). The large changes in the spectrum are easily distinguished, green to yellow, yellow to orange, orange to red. But the smaller changes are not. That’s the same concept as the heap of sand and removing one grain at a time. It’s hard to see where the heap stops being a heap because we just don’t have the words to define the small changes.

And I agree with McWhorter that the same sort of thing has happened with Critical Race Theory. What Derrick Bell developed in the 1970 or 80s has morphed over time into something new and significantly more powerful in the public sphere. So yes, calling it “Critical Race Theory” isn’t really accurate anymore but that’s partly because any single phrase or term to describe what is happening then or now is necessarily vague to start with.

And that’s why calling Critical Race Theory a “weaponized catchall term” is really a kind of dodge, i.e. a way to superficially criticize those using the term as ignorant when, in fact, they are pointing to the correct ideological antecedent of this new and as yet unnamed ideology (wokeness? cancel culture?) that seems to be spreading everywhere in the past half-decade. Put another way, the reason people are using a catchall term isn’t because they’re dopes, it’s because in the absence of a widely accepted label that’s all we have.

What I think some on the left (Coaston and Goldberg probably belong in this camp) want to do by arguing about the label is avoid acknowledging that, whatever you call it, this new ideology is very real and significantly more powerful than it was even 3-4 years ago. That’s something that McWhorter tried to bring up a couple times:

Frankly, I’m in the peculiar position of hearing from people — God, this is going to sound so portentous and it’s not something I ask for. I hear from people all day long every day — I hear from parents, I hear from teachers, I hear from principals, at least three or four times a day. And it’s happening all over the country. And most of the cases, of course, are not reported in the media. There needs to be a database of this to show that it’s a problem. Because I can only say this — and I want you two know that the newspaper that you two work for has been part of my daily life since I was 20 years old. It will be until I die. However, the current climate is why, at your newspaper, Don McNeil, Alison Roman, Bari Weiss, and James Bennet are no longer there. And I honestly believe that if we went back just three years, we would be mystified at why those four people no longer work for The New York Times. That is the culture we’re talking about whether or not critical race theory specifically is behind it.

The main point is that this is out there impacting people and institutions and until we have a better name for this demi-religious social movement, CRT will probably have to do.