The past year has witnessed a growing outcry against something called Critical Race Theory (CRT). The alarm has come especially from the right, including media outlets and politicians, and it’s resulted in confrontations between right-wing members of Congress and leading military figures.
The opposition is prominent — indeed, it may have originated — in the White evangelical world. Over twenty states have passed laws banning CRT from public education along with other pieces of legislation targeting CRT. Southern Baptists constitute the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, by far, and the controversy has contributed to deep division within that already conservative body. Southern Baptist seminaries now prohibit faculty from teaching CRT.
Many Americans, particularly White Christians, probably hadn’t heard the term “critical race theory” until quite recently. I imagine many people, and many pastors, could simply use an introduction to the movement. The conversation has been around for decades, and I think it’s helpful to lay out what CRT is and what it is not. Take fair warning: I am no expert in that field, nor do I conduct primary research in it, but I have read a shelf of books and articles, and I have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express at least once.
Critical Race Theory is not an idea or set of ideas but a diverse field of research.
It seeks to understand the dynamics of race and racism in the United States and around the world. Like all fields of research, it hosts diverse points of view and critical points of disagreement. Folks who contribute to the conversation come from all sorts of academic fields and other professions: lawyers, journalists, sociologists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, educators, and theologians among them. Speaking personally, I have benefitted greatly from my encounters with this research.
Let’s consider some of the questions this research tries to tackle:
... How have the laws and policies of federal, state, and municipal governments created racial inequities in the United States, and what is the current impact of those realities? For example, Black Americans and other persons of color have often been prevented from accessing housing and related financing, creating generations of wealth disparity. Anti-drug legislation has punished crack cocaine, which was prominent in Black communities, more severely than powder cocaine, again with generational effects through mass incarceration. How could we possibly calculate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow?
... How do people become aware of their own race and the race of others, and how do we progress in that understanding? Almost everyone has a story about the first time they became aware of racism, and many of us have experienced predictable stages in coming to terms with that reality. These processes shape our attitudes and behaviors. This area of study is known as racial identity development theory.
... Most White people condemn racism, so how do we understand our own racist behavior? Study after study shows racial disparities in how we treat one another, realities that persist to this day. Drivers pass by Black pedestrians at crosswalks more often than they do White pedestrians. African Americans and Asian Americans who mask their race on resumes have better success getting job interviews. Black patients are less likely to receive adequate treatment for pain than are White patients, and White medical students are likely to believe Black people are less sensitive to pain.
... If almost all of us reject racial prejudice, why does our society feature such racial disparities in education funding, life expectancy (including vulnerability to Covid-19), and local environmental hazards? If we’re not racists, why do we have racist social outcomes?
... How can we improve our institutional cultures so that racial minorities will know they are included, welcomed, affirmed, and treated with equity? The very words I’ve just used reflect White institutions that desire to “welcome” people of color rather than institutions in which we all share ownership. How can educators improve our practices so that all students flourish?
... How do we account for complicating factors like intersectionality, the ways race interfaces with other factors like gender, ability, class, and sexuality? Or how do we understand the dynamics experienced by mixed-race persons and persons society assigns to a racial group they don’t identify with?
... What are the roots of racial and racist thinking in our culture? If we have assigned stereotypical characteristics to Black, Latinx/Hispanic, and Asian American people and cultures, how do we come to terms with whiteness? For Christians, how do we come to terms with racism in our own traditions?
All these are important questions. Researchers bring different philosophical and ideological assumptions to the work. Not everyone who does this work uses the language of Critical Race Theory. Not all agree on the analytical categories we should use and the language we should apply. Some folks are more optimistic than others concerning our potential for progress. Nevertheless, the questions I’ve sketched here are deeply grounded in history, in data, and in personal experience. Critical Race Theory aims to help us understand them and to build a more equitable society.
Rarely do the opponents of CRT give the impression that they’ve engaged this research in any serious way. Frankly, I’m skeptical of their motives. Many of these people trade in fear professionally. They had folks all worked up that Sharia law might take over our cities, that a “gay agenda” would ruin our marriages, and so on. Those people have instilled fear among others of good faith.
But if we’re willing to peer through the fog of distortion, we can see that we all have lots of work to do.
Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an active layperson in the United Church of Christ. His books include studies of apocalyptic literature, the parables, the Gospel of Luke, and the ethics of biblical interpretation. His most recent books are Stories Jesus Told: How to Read a Parable and Using Our Outside Voice: Public Biblical Interpretation. In addition to serving on multiple editorial boards, Greg chairs the Professional Conduct Committee of the Society of Biblical Literature and serves on the Leadership Team of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ.
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