Critical race theory has its limits


The election of Donald Trump in November 2016–a result that surprised most political observers–has proven a lightning rod attracting and channelling the rage of many Americans.

When combined with several very prominent cases of police use of lethal forces against black men, debates about the removal of Confederate statues–and the list goes on–has catapulted critical race theory to prominence both in the usual constituencies of progressive evangelicals and mainliners, but also into evangelical denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Notions of “racial reconciliation” have given way the language of “white supremacy” a term central to the intellectual project of critical race theory but–at least in my opinion–inherently divisive in light of its close connection with the concept of militant organizations like the Neo-Naziism and the Ku Klux Klan. 

As with most important issues, opinions vary. And its important not to rush to judgment against those whose views are askance to our own.

A group of framers recently released a document entitled, Theological Declaration on the Christian Faith and White Supremacy.

Styled on the Theological Declaration of Barmen the statement seeks to take aim at the idol and ideology of “white male supremacy,” “fascism,” and “colonialism,” which its framers argue has co-opted or compromised the Christian gospel in the North American context. In a sense, it’s (almost) a movement to take the Christian community back to the “pure faith of the early church,” if that were possible.

Adherents suggest that critical race theory provides an appropriate lens through which to understand the history of oppression against people of color in the United States.

Critics suggest that it inserts an alien philosophy into Christian theological reflection and thus produces at least some level of distortion. Scholars and pastors in the Presbyterian Church in America have produced the following statement elucidating their concerns, Critical Race Theory and the Unity of the Church

This statement–yes, statements abound in a fragmented world–argues that in adopting the presuppositions, methods, and means embodied in critical race theory American Christians are displacing theological methodology rooted in Scriptural reflection and replacing it with an (alien) intellectual theory rooted in modernist philosophy.

Others argue that the ascendancy of CRT has come at the cost of the free exchange ideas. What’s Wrong with Critical Race Theory? [Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 1987] offers a brief history of the development of critical race theory in the legal academy of 1980s and 1990s.

The rapid ascendancy of this movement has been produced, in part the author argues, by its ability to sideline its critics’ voices. An important presupposition that has advance the CRT agenda is that non-minority voices ought not to have the chance to give voice on the issue of race:

“[Whites] may believe that their opinions and judgments about race are as fully in- formed and cogent as those of victims of racism. In this circumstance, something approximating a lack of standing to speak exists because the insight gained by per- sonal experience cannot be duplicated-certainly not without careful study of the oppression under scrutiny”

[Source: Trina Grillo & Stephanie Wildman, “Obscuring the Importance of Race: The Implications of Making Comparisons between Racism and Sexism (or Other-isms),” in Critical Race Theory, at 564, 569].

It’s important that the North American church avoid the twin perils of uncritically accepting critical race theory or uncritically rejecting it.

CRT offers insight into the experience of oppressed classes in American law and culture, including the church.

At the same time, it is a perspective and its one that makes rather significant claims to be able deconstruct society, culture, and law. In many ways CRT is as “totalizing” as Marxism–a comprehensive understanding reality that is quasi-religious.

What do you think? Are there limits to CRT?


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