Last Friday Andrew Sullivan published a piece on Substack about Critical Race Theory. This piece is really an attempt to summarize what CRT is in the most fundamental sense. As Sullivan describes it, CRT isn’t just a new wave of social justice reform that seeks to expand what gets covered in textbooks, but an ideology that is at base hostile to liberalism, i.e. the philosophy of individualism, democracy, free enterprise, etc.
The genius of liberalism in unleashing human freedom and the human mind changed us more in centuries than we had changed in hundreds of millennia. And at its core, there is the model of the single, interchangeable, equal citizen, using reason to deliberate the common good with fellow citizens. No ultimate authority; just inquiry and provisional truth. No final answer: an endless conversation. No single power, but many in competition.
In this open-ended conversation, all can participate, conservatives and liberals, and will have successes and failures in their turn. What matters, both conservatives and liberals agree, is not the end result, but the liberal democratic, open-ended means. That shift — from specifying a single end to insisting only on playing by the rules — is the key origin of modern freedom.
My central problem with critical theory is that it takes precise aim at these very core principles and rejects them. By rejecting them, in the otherwise noble cause of helping the marginalized, it is a very seductive and potent threat to liberal civilization.
CRT places liberalism into a grand narrative about oppression, i.e. the majority’s effort to maintain power at any cost. And because that narrative is deemed to be the only absolute truth, claims of truth are now seen as merely demands for power. Meanwhile, claims made by the oppressed are automatically legitimate because they challenge power based on “lived experience.” Sullivan points out how some of these elements made their way into the 1619 Project:
The 1619 Project is a case in point. It doesn’t just expose some of the hideous past we’d rather forget. It insists that “white supremacy” is the definition of the United States, that its true founding was therefore 1619, that its core principle from the get-go was not freedom but slavery, that slavery is the true basis for American wealth, that the police today are the inheritors of slave patrols, that only black Americans fought to end slavery, and so on. It insists that the Declaration of Independence was “false”, not merely imperfectly implemented, and designed to obscure the real project of racist oppression. And its goal is the dismantling of liberal epistemology, procedures, ideas and arguments in order to revolutionize what cannot by definition be reformed.
Because of its insistence on this oppression narrative as fundamental, CRT is ultimately not compatible with any other theory. Liberalism might want to view CRT as just one more set of lenses with which to view things, but CRT refuses to be seen as just another alternative. CRT is evangelical in the sense that it actively seeks to win converts to its claims about oppression, i.e. the thing which people will see once they are woke. As Sullivan puts it, “Critical theory is therefore always the cuckoo in the academic nest. Over time, it throws out its competitors…”
Sullivan concludes that the demand by Ibram X Kendi and others that everything be categorized as either racist or anti-racist is really a demand that they embrace CRT’s oppression narrative over the messy process of liberalism: “This debate is not about whether you are a racist or an antiracist. The debate is about whether, in your deepest heart and soul, you are a liberal or an anti-liberal.”
It’s a good argument but you already know what Robin DiAngelo would say about it. Any attempt to deny the oppression narrative as fundamental is just further proof of guilt. There is no room for debate about those fundamentals in CRT. After all, debate itself is one of the “master’s tools,” i.e. a part of the liberalism that CRT would like to shrug off.