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A Summary and Analysis of Key Themes in Critical Race Theory

Despite about a decade as a student of racial issues and a practitioner of multiethnic ministry, I had not heard about Critical Race Theory (CRT) or Intersectionality (I) until a few years ago. And I have had no desire to read or write about CRT, saying off-hand a number of times that I do think this moment will pass, much like the brouhaha about the emerging/emergent church fifteen years ago. That said, we are still in this moment, and I have felt compelled to engage more deeply than I initially wanted. After pastoring a majority-black church for almost a decade and writing a dissertation about the multiethnic church in light of the Trinity, I still feel passionate about the issues surrounding “the CRT conversation.” Ultimately, my passion does not flow from my experience. My passion flows from Scripture. I believe that the Bible and the gospel beat with the heart of divine desire for the reunion of a new human family with God in Christ. Whether I like it or not, “the CRT conversation” has become a part of the larger cluster of issues surrounding this theme, so here we are.

Race and Racism

Summary. For hundreds of years, race has been assumed to be a biological reality based on any number of physical features, most notably, skin color. At its heart CRT argues that race has actually functioned as a way of defining persons and groups in terms of value compared to other persons and groups. The primary historical mode of this construction has been the “white-black binary.” Black has been defined as “not-white” and white has been defined as “not-black.” Thus CRT envisions identity as something people and groups with power make of themselves and others. For example, “blackness” exists because powerful white people defined blackness, along with certain negative aspects, such as being legally enslaveable or intellectually inferior.

White, Whiteness, Blackness, White Privilege, and White Supremacy

Summary. CRT argues that our culture has created the construct of “race,” in which certain people (“white” people) are superior and in which certain other people (historically, “black” people) are inferior. Whereas in European history, peoples and groups were Anglo, or Saxon, or French, or Spanish, or Italian, or Russian, or Scandinavian, our culture took one aspect of people of various European heritage and put them all in a category called “white.” This construction was based on a general sense of a certain color of skin tone, a certain heritage (broadly European), and a certain cultural context (again, broadly European). Those without these features, specifically physical features, were bucketed into other categories or “races,” such as “Indian” or “black.” In such a context, “white” basically meant someone could not be legally enslaved and “black” meant that someone could be legally enslaved, with something like a spectrum between white and black (including Native American, Latino, and Asian). Of course, this also entailed ideas of superiority and inferiority, and normality and abnormality.

Intersectionality

Summary. Intersectionality arose as a distinct black female voice within CRT. Most notably Kimberlé Crenshaw argued that mainstream feminism privileged white women and mainstream racial justice initiatives privileged black men. This, then, left black women in a position of subjection to both prevailing narratives, having to identify with either the feminist cause of white women or the racial cause of black men. Instead, Crenshaw and others highlighted the notion of “multiple consciousnesses” or intersectional identity. A black woman would be doubly disadvantaged, as both a woman and as a black woman.

Truth and Worldview

Summary. CRT is a movement self-consciously working from the “left,” and from a generally postmodern epistemology. In light of the abuse of universal claims about “whiteness” and “blackness,” many here see any universal claims as dangerous. It defines the “truth” as contextual and socially defined by either communities or individuals. Related here are the continued advisements in CRT discourse to listen to voices at the margins or the voices at “the bottom” (to quote a famous article from Mari Matsuda). In one example Charles Lawrence relates the story of a woman who finds a certain collection of assigned reading materials offensive. She sends this memo to her colleagues: “I am offended. Therefore, these materials are offensive.” Additionally, the CRT movement tends to employ playful ways of writing, including narrative, parable, hip-hop, and other genres traditionally seen more as creative rather than as legal discourse. Proponents argue that such modes of discourse convey the “truth” of a given community more helpfully than any empirical legal analysis could do. Moreover, in its analysis of texts, CRT posits a creative and transformative reading of documents like the Constitution (Matsuda) and Scripture (Cook).

Exhaustion, Despair, and Hope

Summary. If you listen to the tone and content of pioneering voices in the CRT movement, you hear notes of both exhaustion and despair. This lack of hope for redress and change seems to pervade the literature, such that it takes a largely cynical and resigned posture. For example, Derek Bell, a black Harvard law professor and the pioneering voice of CRT, after outlining centuries of subjugation, commends these summary words from an older black woman named Biona McDonald: “I am an old woman. I lives to harass white folks.”

Conclusion

I am on record as finding the analogy of “eating the meat and spitting out the bones” to be a helpful one as it relates to Christians engaging non-Christian or even anti-Christian sources. Using this analogy, it may be helpful to realize some voices in CRT have relatively more or less meat and relatively more or less bone. Some of the meat may likewise be expired. There is also room in this metaphor to ask a question about what is the essential characteristic, the meat or the bone? The anti-woke crowd clearly finds the bone to be the essential characteristic, saying that all the meat is rancid. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with CRT, or with any non-Christian or even anti-Christian source. Think about a human body. What is the essential? Is it the skeleton or the muscular system? The answer, of course, is neither and both. They form a cohesive whole. As it relates to this literature, the question is not the essential characteristic, meat and bone, but rather for our purposes can we separate the meat from the bone, and if so how? In other words, what are we required by Scripture to reject and what are we allowed by Scripture to use for God’s good purposes? I have attempted to provide something of a summary and analysis in answer to such questions here. I look forward to a continued discussion, for God’s glory and the furtherance of the gospel in the world.

Walking with Jesus, @LauraSlavich, our kids, and the @CrossUnitedSFL fam in the warm breezes of sunny SoFla