A critical moment in the history of Critical Race Theory

One of the key problems with the national discussion of Critical Race Theory is that the proponents of the theory tend to downplay the scope and significance of their own work as a way to discount public concern about it. That’s how you get CRT proponent Kimberlé Crenshaw on MSNBC saying anodyne stuff like, “Critical race theory isn’t so much a thing as a way of looking at a thing.”

Fortunately, prior to this moment in time, proponents of CRT have been a lot more open in their writings about just how revolutionary CRT really is. RealClearInvestigations published a story today about a key moment in the early history of Critical Race Theory. It happened at a conference held back in 1986. The story was captured in a textbook which Crenshaw co-edited back in 1995 titled “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement.

The 1995 book explains that CRT grew out of Critical Legal Studies, the “organizing hub for a huge burst of left legal scholarly production” in the late ’70s. At first the critical race theory advocates were part of the “crits,” as the CLS crowd was known. The “race-crits” (as the CRT advocates of color labeled themselves) participated in Critical Legal Studies conferences, where they traded countercultural strategies…

The race-crits’ insistence on seeing the world in black and white would soon lead the radicals to splinter.

The break came at a conference crits held in 1986 at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts. The white leftists invited “scholars of color” to organize some sessions applying radical analysis to the topic of race. The workshop proved to be less collegial than the crits had expected. They didn’t realize that the race-crits saw them as a “white” institution. The crits were surprised – and not pleasantly — to find that the workshop had been designed to show that the Critical Legal Studies advocates were themselves racists. The race-crits began the seminar by confronting the crits with this question: “What is it about the whiteness of CLS that discourages participation by people of color?”

Crenshaw, writing without irony, noted that the race-crits’ assault on CLS as a white institution “drew a surprisingly defensive response.”

I suppose Robin DiAngelo might argue this was also the first clear instance of “white fragility” in response to CRT. The RCI piece goes on to say that a fundamental aspect of early CRT was the rejection of colorblindness in favor of race-consciousness:

The academics who practiced critical race theory developed an ideology that rejected the old-fashioned liberal goal of integration. They argued that integration meant the loss of African American identity and culture and likened assimilation to genocide. They embraced color-consciousness and black nationalism; they dismissed the old ideal of color-blindness as a sort of false-flag operation, calling it “an ideological strategy by which the current [Supreme] Court obscures its active role in sustaining hierarchies of racial power.”

This is one element of CRT that you still see as it spread through corporations and schools. The old, liberal idea presented by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I have a dream” speech is considered a failure. Instead, Crenshaw and other downstream CRT proponents push an identity politics which is focused on group outcomes. As I pointed out last week, even some progressives have started to publicly criticize this focus on racial groups as they appear in Ibram Kendi’s antiracism work.

In insisting upon the ongoing relevance of racial hierarchy to social life, antiracism can sometimes stray into reinforcing the very invidious, fictional group identities that undergird such hierarchy.

I would argue that this happens more than “sometimes.” CRT may have been founded on the idea that race is a social construct but Kendi, DiAngelo and other leading anti-racists are making a living off the idea that racism is ever-present and inescapable. If there is a moment where people can be judged for the content of their character and not the color of their skin, it’s one that exists in a far distant future. For the present, the “race-crits” will just keep attacking anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100% as white supremacists. That’s where CRT started and it’s where their ideological descendants still are.