Review of On Critical Race Theory, by Victor Ray

The year is 2000. Extraterrestrials arrive on earth. They offer the United States gold, safe nuclear power, and several other technologies that will obliterate poverty and violence. In exchange for these commodities, the aliens want every Black citizen in the country. The United States government has five days to make its choice.

This is the beginning of Derrick Bell’s 1992 short story called “The Space Traders.” It’s a story that has lost neither its capacity to offend nor its potential to awaken White Americans to the realities of systemic racism in White American culture. In the story, both the White government and the general population lean toward accepting the terms of the trade.

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Some modest resistance springs up, especially in the American Jewish community. But that resistance is quickly suppressed by the FBI. The Supreme Court upholds the legality of a national referendum to decide the issue. The referendum will amend the United States constitution to induct Black citizens into a “special service” – a draft.

The referendum takes place by telephone vote. It passes with a seventy percent majority. Black citizens are captured by US military forces. They are herded into the alien ships. The extraterrestrials deliver the promised goods in exchange. The story ends with twenty million Black men, women and children leaving on the alien ships – bound by chains and each wearing a single undergarment.

Victor Ray rehearses Bell’s story in his 2022 book, Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Ray reminds us that Bell’s account is a testimony to the systemic, enduring, and deadly character of racism in the United States and the Western world. “Bell’s aliens have always been here,” Ray writes, “It is only a slight exaggeration (and a fair one at that) to say that the history of American public policy can be told as a series of trades on the value of Black life” (page 70).

Ray notes that he wrote the first draft of this work “in a three-month sprint, attempting to outrun the anti-critical race theory laws spreading across the United States” (page 125). While Ray didn’t win that race, he has produced a concise, readable, and contemporary summary of the axioms and conclusions of CRT. If you are someone who would like to know what CRT actually is (as opposed to what it is often portrayed to be), this book will be a helpful read.

I find Ray’s discussion especially timely in our current political moment. Public conversation is consumed these days with talk about the potential “death of democracy.” I don’t think these concerns are exaggerated or overblown. However, Ray’s work reminds me that this death of democracy, if it happens, will not affect all citizens equally. This disparate effect is a direct outcome of systemic racism and can be predicted based on the tenets of CRT.

Ray quotes Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their book, How Democracies Die. They remind us, as Ray notes, that “the periods of greatest bipartisan agreement in the United States happened during eras when Black rights were explicitly suppressed. America has been a functioning multiracial democracy,” Ray continues, “only since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Prior to that,” he observes, “the American political system was, at best, selectively democratic” (page 68, my emphasis).

“Selectively democratic” – this is the most likely outcome of any death of democracy in the United States in the near term. If history is a guide, then democracy is unlikely to die for white people. Instead, we are likely to witness some real-world application of “The Space Traders.” Will we privileged White people hand over Black, Brown, Asian, Jewish, and/or Queer citizens in order to keep our own privilege? That was the outcome of the three-fifths compromise in the United States constitution. It was the foundation of the Jim Crow regime. These data points predict that it could be the outcome once again.

I am sure this sounds stridently alarmist to many White readers. Yet, if CRT is an accurate analysis of American history and practice, this is what we White people have been doing in one way or another for five centuries. That analysis stands at the heart of CRT. And that is why it is treated with such panicked disgust by many White people.

“Critical race theory doesn’t want to destroy America,” Ray writes, “but it does want to squarely reckon with the way American racism has destroyed lives” (page xxvii). CRT is not Marxism smuggled into American classrooms. It is not a way to teach White students to hate themselves or their heritage or their country. It is not a way to engage in “reverse racism” and to “persecute” the innocent White minority. It is not ideology dressed up in historical fiction.

These are criticisms lodged against CRT in the popular press and in state legislatures. The goal of these criticisms, however, is not protection of “The Truth,” no matter what proponents might say. The goal of these criticisms and the initiatives they represent is the sustaining of white ignorance of racial history and reality.

“Racial ignorance is central to the current moral panic,” Ray writes, “but as a number of scholars have shown, some white Americans work hard to maintain their ignorance of racial reality…” (page xxv). That should not be a controversial or controvertible statement. I have lost count of the number of times, for example, that my pastoral colleagues and I have been told that we have no business mentioning race from the pulpit or in Bible studies.

Efforts to address White racial ignorance are met (by our White parishioners) with suspicious pushback and active resistance. This pushback is not a morally neutral action. Instead, Ray argues, “Ignorance of American’s racial history and the causes of present-day racial inequality is a primary weapon in the current attacks on critical race theory” (page xxv). As Ray demonstrates repeatedly, this militant White ignorance of racial history produces and supports the ongoing White ignorance of racial reality.

When White people are forced to acknowledge that racial reality, we tend to adopt the “perpetrator perspective.” This perspective “evaluates racism based on the individual culprit’s intent. Rather than seeing racism as purely individual,” Ray writes, “critical race theorists argue that racism is structural” (page 18). This violates the White ideological commitment to individualism, however, and is thus rejected.

The perpetrator perspective gives us, for example, the “one bad apple” theory of ongoing police violence. Despite the systemic patterns of that repeated violence, White people evaluate this behavior as the cruelty or mental illness or bad judgment of the individual in question. That analysis allows me as a White person to keep my distance from the actor and the behavior. CRT points out, however, that apples fall from trees, and that trees are systems with roots and branches.

“Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray argues. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). Ray reminds us that this is the goal of systemic racism – the unequal allocation of resources in a society, based on the constructed meanings of skin tone. Structural racism is a system of distribution that is based in constructed racial inequality and then reproduces that inequality in that resource distribution.

We are watching in real time as another policy tool used to dismantle systemic racism. The United States Supreme Court is likely during this term to outlaw the last vestiges of Affirmative Action college placement policy. Ray reminds us of the importance of the Bakke decision a generation ago in this discussion. That decision “recognized that universities had a compelling interest in using race to diversify their student bodies but outlawed the use of race to ameliorate the harms of slavery, Jim Crow, on ongoing discrimination” (page 46, my emphasis).

That decision made the use of race to repair harms just as “racist” as the used of race to inflict harms. Amelioration and reparation were, therefore, outlawed as reasons to use Affirmative Action in college placement schemas. The only permissible rationale was to increase “diversity.” Now we see that this rationale is under attack and is likely to be outlawed.

Under this legal theory, attacking racism through policy is “racist.” This is the legal outcome of what Ray calls “colorblind racism.” This is the “I don’t see color; I just see people” school of racism. “Colorblind appeals also allow their users to claim their opponents are bringing race into otherwise race-neutral situations,” Ray writes, Colorblind racism effectively denies that structural racism is a political system while using racist appeals to gain power” (page 38).

This is why I cannot take part any longer in conversations where the complaint is, “Why does everything always have to be about race?” Regardless of the questioner’s intent, the outcome of that question is continued support for systemic racism and White supremacy. As Ray argues, “Colorblind language is an ideological shield for structural racism, entrenching racial inequality through laws, politics, and practices that are race neutral in name only” (page 35). I would refer you to Clyde Ford’s Of Blood and Sweat, for the receipts on that assertion.

“Bell’s aliens have always been here.” Now we are facing real referenda on whether we will hand over Black, Brown, Native, Asian, Jewish, and Queer bodies to protect White supremacist “democracy.” I wish I could be more optimistic about how we will decide.

Note: I found a copy of Ray’s book at my local library. I’m grateful for such efforts to inform the public conversation. A dramatized version of Bell’s short story can be found here.

If 1850 Comes Again, We’ll be Ready

Presidents of the six Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries have issued a statement rejecting Critical Race Theory (CRT) as antithetical to Baptist Christian faith and doctrine. The seminary leaders met together recently to affirm the doctrinal and confessional status of the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” a document that, according to the statement, “unites and defines Southern Baptist cooperation and establishes the confessional unity of our Convention.”

Notable in this statement was the direct and unequivocal rejection of “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory” as “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” The report of the SBC house organ, Baptist Press, can be found here along with the full text of the statement. Particularly objectionable to at least some of the presidents was the association of CRT with Marxist analysis. The presidents associate Marxist analysis with atheism and rule it categorically out of bounds for Baptist Christians. Yonat Shimron reports for Religion News Service on the details of the statement.

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CRT developed out of critical legal studies and, most notably, the founding work of Derrick Bell. CRT has five “tenets”: counter-storytelling; the permanence of racism; Whiteness as property; interest conversion; and the critique of liberalism. I have found a series of youtube.com videos to be the most effective and concise description and application of CRT. The videos are entitled, “What is Critical Race Theory…Really?” Click on the title to get the first session and go from there.

The SBC presidents land, as do many other critics, on the last tenet as the most problematic. CRT offers a cogent and cutting critique of political liberalism (not to be confused with “liberal” in the current partisan sense) as a system that promotes hierarchy under the guise of equality of opportunity. More to the point, this critique calls into question the role of western capitalism as the source, partner, and beneficiary of race-based chattel slavery, beginning in the 1500’s. Marxist class analysis plays a role in this critique as a tool, but not as an ideology. So, for my money that criticism of CRT is a red herring.

Instead, we can apply the “white evangelical cultural tool kit,” as described by Robert P. Jones in White Too Long to the SBC statement for a clearer understanding. It’s helpful to rely on Jones for this since he grew up in the SBC and spends a large part of his book assessing the racist history, legacy and continuing policy of the denomination.

Jones relies on the work of Emerson and Smith (2000) for the identification and description of the white evangelical tool kit. “Specifically, Emerson and Smith discovered that the white evangelical cultural tool kit contained three main tools that are all interconnected by theology,” Jones writes, “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism.” (page 97).

In sum, freewill individualism asserts that there are no structures and institutions, no larger social movements, no cultural or social constraints, nothing bigger which controls or influences individuals. People are responsible for their own situations and accountable for their own freely chosen actions. Relationalism builds on this by asserting that poor relationships between individuals are the root of all problems rather than any systems or institutions.

Antistructuralism, then, is the necessary result of the first two tools. It “denotes the deep suspicion with which white evangelicals view institutional explanations for social problems, principally because they believe invoking social structures shifts blame from where it belongs: with sinful individuals” (page 98).

CRT demonstrates the role that communal realities play in determining individual behaviors. It sees systems and institutions as embodying and underwriting racism in our society. It describes “whiteness” as a role people are trained to perform and then claim as inherent to themselves. And it sees the individualistic bent of liberalism as a tool for those in power to maintain their privilege and position. In Christian terms, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

What strikes me is that the SBC arguments have the same odor as theological pronouncements made at the founding of the denomination in the 1850’s. Jones describes that theological history in precise detail. The SBC was founded in the fervent belief that Christian theology supported and even required race-based chattel slavery. For the representatives of that denomination now to attack a theoretical framework that continues the anti-slavery fight is just too rich for words.

It’s so easy, for me as an ELCA Lutheran, to throw stones at the SBC folks. That’s not my biggest concern. Instead, I am deeply troubled by a sentence from White Too Long. “Over the last two decades,” Jones notes, “there is increasing evidence that this cultural tool kit, developed primarily in the context of white evangelicalism, has become embedded across white Christianity more generally” (page 98). He notes that the three parts of the white evangelical tool kit have become embedded in large parts of white American Christianity in general.

In the mid-1800’s, old line Protestant denominations in the North were, I think, quite content to allow their southern counterparts to do the theological heavy lifting when it came to the scriptural and doctrinal underpinnings of Christian white supremacy. This had the virtue of allowing the northerners to continue occupy the moral high ground without sacrificing any social, economic or political power. Even many abolitionists in the North were white supremacists in their social theory and theology.

That has not changed for 150 years. Northern white churches did not, for the most part, release attack dogs to keep blacks out of their buildings and services. But the effect was equally as powerful. The documentary, A Time for Burning, demonstrates how that worked among LCA Lutherans here in Omaha in the mid-1960’s. Lest you think I am again name-calling, ALC Lutherans were even less engaged in the issues.

After that time, white flight and de facto segregation solidified the process to the point that white Lutherans in most of the Omaha metro don’t have to think about race (or ethnicity or poverty or class) ever — unless it happens to pop up in unflattering terms in the local paper. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is a powerful report on how that has worked out every in this country. It is, with notable exceptions in some of our east Omaha ELCA congregations, a chapter of history left unnoticed and un-discussed.

CRT challenges the assumptions of the white evangelical tool box. That’s a good thing. CRT is much closer to the analysis we find in the prophets and in the Sermon on the Mount than anything we might find in the Baptist Faith and Message or in most mission statements of ELCA congregations. It won’t happen, but I do wish that our denominational leadership would state publicly that CRT is not contrary to Lutheran theology and social teaching.

After all, if you want to find a critic of capitalism, you need look no further than Martin Luther. He was no friend of rich people and no naïve advocate for greed. Of course, that element of Luther’s writing is typically suppressed. I did not hear about it in my seminary training and was surprised to discover it later on in life. So, our Lutheran theological heritage has resources to analyze and critique modern (neo)liberalism, if only we put them to use in order to attack our own institutional racism and reject our capitalistic understandings of mission and service.

The alternative is to hope that 1850 comes around again. Because if it does, boy howdy, are we ever ready!

Reference: Jones, Robert P.. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.