WHAT IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY, AND WHY WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS DEBATE

July 14, 2021

By Patricia Sohn


There is a movement afoot today against critical race theory.  There are books that take their titles from the name, critical race theory.  The vitriol, for and against, is spoken both loudly and in whispers.  The effort to quash it is causing fear and concern among some academics, some of whom, still today, have lived through more frightening forms of ideological constraints as found in places such as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union (or, people among their mentors have lived through such periods).  It makes these issues disquiet our worry-bones.  Nonetheless, I do not think that we are heading toward such extremes.  To the contrary. 

To my mind, there is little reason for conflict over what is, at its most basic, a wide range of theories, empirical studies, and analyses in social sciences, humanities, arts, literature, history of science, etc.  For people who are not part of the academic world from which these theories emerge, very much as in the sciences, it must be emphasized that theory is theory.  That is, it is the best analysis that we have at the moment based upon the empirical and other types of information available to us at the moment. 

Theories change.  They can be better and worse in terms of validity and accuracy.  Distinguishing better and worse among theories requires a high degree of methodological training.  Scholars who have spent their lives in such training argue and debate among themselves regarding some theories.

To my understanding, critical race theory runs parallel – sometimes overlapping and sometimes not – with multicultural and post-colonial theories in international context.  I do research in international context, whereas critical race theory is based upon research and analysis in domestic, national, U.S. context.  There are moments in which these two large bodies of scholarship cite the same people as foundational thinkers in social theory.  More often, we cite different foundational thinkers.  But there are important parallels in the overall analysis in my view.

The goals of the wide range of scholarship that is, today, coming under the banner of critical race theory run tandem, to my understanding, with some of the goals of multicultural and post-colonial theories in international context, that is: inclusiveness; empirical accuracy regarding both existence and sources of ethnic, racial, and other distributions of power; honesty regarding histories of despotism so that we do not repeat them in the current or coming generations; and an effort to eschew significant bias in scholarship and analysis, themselves, that allowed large populations to believe themselves innocent of despotism while their leaders misled them. 

Another point about multicultural and post-colonial theories:  most of them relate to relationships between Europe and other parts of the world.  We were not part of most of those processes, although we were part of helping to unravel some of their dynamics with the establishment, led by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, of the League of Nations (followed by the United Nations, which replaced it).  Europeans have very active programs of social theory that stand on the vanguard of grappling with issues of multiculturalism and post-colonialism, and some of their countries were directly involved in endeavors of colonial extraction during the period of colonization, roughly 1492 to 1950.  (Some scholars end it with the onset of nation-states, globally, after World War I; while others end it with the Battle of Algiers [1954] and the withdraw of the UK from India [1947]).  That is, we have an easier time in multicultural and post-colonial context where it relates to Africa, Asia, etc.  We get criticized during the Korean War era and afterward on slightly different grounds in the Cold War context; and we are lauded by many as a leader in helping to unite the international arena in multi-national efforts since 2003.  Much of multicultural and post-colonial theory engages the likes of Frantz Fanon, who brought our attention to the plight of the colonized in Africa and elsewhere, the violence of the colonizer, and the almost inevitable violence of the colonized to remove the colonizer (and to regain his and her formerly colonized humanity) as a result. This body of research, by my read, tends to emphasize an inquiry regarding how to exit the colonial endeavor (preferably peaceably); how to put an end to colonial extraction; how to change those economic and former governmental relationships into productive, syncretic, and diplomatic ones (or, in some more extreme cases, how to enforce total separation); and how to identify and avoid potential domestic and regional hazards of post-colonial dynamics in Africa, Asia, etc., in the latter half of the 20th century.  They are about a different topic and usually different periods altogether, although some do address colonialism in the Americas, Asia, or Africa after the Spanish Expulsion.  The U.S. colonies are usually treated separately, something that some Europeans – and, perhaps, some Native Americans – may find amusing.  That is – none of us gets a pass in multicultural and post-colonial theories; all of us are seeking to do better, to arrive at a balance that is good for our countries, to do good for all to the extent possible, and to find alternatives as means to circumnavigate the more bitter and violent among cross-cultural confrontations of previous eras.  Nor is there any continent of human dwellers that is without its moments of (sometimes extreme) misuses of power.  But, in my opinion, there have been societies that have lived peaceably; we are endeavoring to do so and are doing a great job of it today.

These are complex issues.  The training required to parse and unravel them involves high levels of critical analysis.  Scholars engaged with these issues train themselves in a variety and range of methods from (at least) discursive, hermeneutic, interpretive, ethnographic, cultural, philosophical, religious and secular, ethical, theologically-related, international (see also here and here), literary (see also here and here), legal theory (see also here and here and here and here and here and here and here), dramaturgical and phenomenological, feminist theory (see also here), multicultural theory, race and feminist analysis, and other forms of qualitative analysis and field methods to research design to survey construction, distribution, and analysis to philosophical and symbolic logic to a variety of statistical forms of analyses (some basic definitions here) (e.g., often related to surveys). 

That is, it is probably Ok that some U.S. states have asked that critical race theory not be taught, per se, in elementary and secondary education.  Read on if you think I mean that as a way around those new laws – I do not.  The impact of the range of theoretical and empirical work in this wide research program on young minds of differing developmental stages is – unknown at best.  It can cause unintended consequences.  One of those is putting together the empirical and theoretical ideas from “critical race theory” into a formula that ends with the supposition that the U.S. is a bad place in world historical or any other terms.  I would suggest that is not a good analysis.  But it is probably not a surprise that it would emerge.  It might emerge among politicians who are trying to balance the needs of many constituencies at once.  It might also easily find its way into the minds of children who feel injured by the historical memory from any part of the spectrum of social experience. 

For example, was the U.S. an Apartheid regime under slavery?  No.  South African Apartheid did not, formally, include slavery in its legal framework, and it only lasted from 1948-1994; its culture and polity was Calvinist, formally patriarchal, nepotistic, and distributed goods, resources, and jobs by race and by both public and private support for the dominate ideology of the Nationalist Party, a Christian Afrikaner party.  Nonetheless, slavery was worse in many places while it existed, as it included many of these components, plus slavery. Such was particularly the case after the 1662 Virginia Colony law that made slavery a formally inheritable state; it functioned to separate children from parents, spouses from one another, etc.  Does that make our country a bad place in world historical terms?  No.  Slavery was abolished in the U.S. by constitutional amendment in 1865, and it was followed by one hundred years of civil and human rights debates, legislation, landmark decisions, and international treaties and conventions.  That is, the country was always divided on the issue; never was there a moment in which slavery and racism were supported by the entire European-descended population here. Most Americans did not own slaves at the dawn of the Civil War. To the contrary. People of all colors came together to fight it, to fight for the vote, to fight for rights, etc. Was Jim Crow an Apartheid system? In some places, in comparative terms, I would say, Yes. It checks off many of the boxes of the components that made up the Apartheid system in South Africa, the system that coined the term and by which we define it in international law. Does it make us like South Africa was under Apartheid?  No.  Today we have become a world Light to the Call of civil and human rights as a result of battling these demons in our own midst.  That is, most Americans, at some point, could no longer stomach the despotism they saw around them in some pockets of the country (which directly affected many African-Americans and indirectly affected many others), and the human suffering that it was causing. So, we worked to change it, and we are still making those corrections from formal rules to everyday practices. That is a normal social and political process in comparative terms. Slave owners were far outnumbered – the most violent of them even more so – and they lost; translating that into an appropriately balanced social field takes more extended efforts. And it is possible. And it is what we are doing now in these debates in my opinion. We are an exemplary country. We are not the only type of political system that works for all peoples in my strongly held opinion (I say so as someone who studies states and societies in international and comparative context, although there are plenty of comparativists who disagree with me on it). But we are an exemplar of pluralism, rights, and freedoms. (Afrikaner populations in South Africa decreased after power-sharing became required; however, some white former South Africans have returned to South Africa to be part of it.)  Do we still have problems to address?  Yes.  Some of those demons are still here – I am suggesting, as a citizen non-specialist on U.S. politics (my research is centered in the Middle East/MENA), that they lay primarily at the micro-level among social actors.  Our debate today is an indicator that we are addressing our problems correctly, using our allowable institutions of free speech and public discourse to argue our differences in the public arena.  And we are doing it very well in most places.

Do six-year-olds, or even fifth graders, need to be charged with parsing out, making sense of, and correcting these issues?  I do not think so.

On other hand, as someone who lives and grew up in the American South (from eleven years old), I have been told, face-to-face, by certain persons that Confederate law is a living thing that local people (under the “local autonomy” of “states’ rights”) have the right to implement despite and against state and Federal laws; and that I, as a person of color with heritage from the Philippines, Spain – and the “multi-ethnic” contexts of Prussia, Ireland, and Holland (??!) – count under Confederate law as a Black person, which means that my legal status is, today: Slave (since I have no papers proving my emancipation).  That means, by their Confederate legal code, that I am not a citizen of the U.S.  My beautiful blue passport belies their claim.  My birth in Alaska further problematizes my status for such thinkers, as I was born only eight years after Alaska became a state of the Union.  It was not a state during the Confederacy, which makes my status questionable on grounds of birth in their Confederate legal code as well.  These are the sort of vigilantes who are still fighting the Civil War, which, they remain convinced, did not end in 1865.  They persist. They are a small but vocal and active minority, as I understand it, who function as a set of veto players.  (Not all veto players are bad, but, in my view, these decidedly are; and they are out of step with the wider population even in the South.)

I have literally been told that the Confederate General who signed the Surrender Order to the Union did not have sanction to do so by the Confederate States Congress, and, therefore:  the Civil War is still on, ladies and gentlemen!  Hurrah!  That is, there is no one in the American South who does not live under some amount of pressure from the constituency that still makes this argument – lay person or politician of any background.  In my opinion, it affects where people live; it affects what they can say in public.  It is time to make sense of all of that and to set it to rest.

I make this note just to remind those living in parts of the country where such reference to Confederate law is not common that it remains an issue.  And, if you think that it does not affect the daily lives of people of color, it is a dream world that we inhabit, those of us who are lucky enough to live outside the ambit of such Confederate legal system advocates.  This problem is very real.

Moreover, I have been told by some Southern advocates of constitutional Originalism that Originalism means:  all women, and people of color, do not, legitimately, have regular citizenship rights because it was not in the “original” Constitution.  So, by their Confederate analysis, as a woman, I am also not a U.S. citizen with citizenship rights – that is, the Constitution does not apply to me, qua person.  I am being literal, here, again, not figurative or metaphorical in any way.  (Nor am I suggesting that their analysis is correct.) For them, any “citizenship” or “rights” that might accrue to me come only via a man to whom I might be married, or my oldest male relative, should either deign to grant them to me. That includes property ownership in their view; my property does not belong to me, but to such man as is in charge of me. (I am not making this up, for those who are uninitiated to the comparative greatness of this philosophical school [sic].) I am only a resident unless I have an appropriate male relative and Patron, as we would call it in some other comparative contexts. Politicians suffer from it as much as lay people – they come under undue pressures from it.  They protect us from it to the extent that they can.

These ideas are housed not in libraries but in individuals who implement them in their various social contexts.

That is, the notion of “institutionalized racism” refers not to some inherent racism in our institutions, qua institutions, as those institutions are constructed in place.  As I have argued in another blog piece, our institutions are perfect.  The political design of our institutions is perfect.  They do not require change, reform, etc.  They are perfect.

“Institutionalized racism” refers to laws and practices within our political institutions that were and/or are implemented in individual offices in racist ways against other individuals.  That is, it is people who err, not institutions.  If people working within our institutions practice as those institutions demand, the outcomes will be correct.  It is people who implement their own racist attitudes (or misogynist, or anti-ecumenical, etc.) that cause the problem.  And, it must be said that some laws have been in place that are inherently racist and misogynist.  To say otherwise is putting our heads in the sand.  To correct it, we have changed many of those laws.  That is, we have changed notably, substantially, and in the correct direction.  Some remain to be corrected, informally and/or formally, in various places – and not only in the South.

None of this suggests that our increasingly perfect Union is a bad place.  It remains among the best of our imperfect human world.  I make this statement as someone who has traveled, lived abroad, and done research abroad fairly extensively.  Efforts to make our practices better correspond to the practices that our institutions demand, and to ferret out vigilantism among social actors, is only a sign of patriotism among those who love our Civic Nation.  That is most of us in my opinion.

For some scholars of ethnicity and nationalism, for example, the U.S. does not count as a “nation” because “nation,” in its emergence as a late-modern concept in 17th and 18th century Europe, was inherently tied with ethnicity, and, every ethnic nation should have its own state; hence, France, Germany, England, etc.  The U.S. was always multi-ethnic, so for many, it does not fit the original late-modern theory of nationalism.  (Rightly or wrongly, theories or references to “nation,” empirically or in literary sources, prior to the mid-1650s are treated under a different theoretical framework as primordial forms of identity, social or political organization.)  However, we have a shared Idea.  That Idea is, in fact, an always multi-religious, multi-ethnic Civic Nation (e.g., built upon the principle of religious freedom, and “In God We Trust,” with a broadly unifying ancient Egyptian emblem, not built upon one religion or one ethnicity) joined through civic institutions that allow for transparent, public, written laws and rules to which we are all bound and limited; and in the construction of which we are all responsible and included.  We have perfect institutions, representation, and, thereby, consent of the governed.  Without any of the above, including perfect institutions followed in practice, we no longer have consent of the governed – and then we would have a problem.

Scholars in our country who grapple with these issues do so with a long-term time-horizon in mind.  We grapple with them as patriotic citizens of a country that we love.  And we work on them at a level of analysis that is above the everyday.  That is not an insult or accolade to anyone; it is simply a matter of choice of profession.  Scholarship is just a choice of profession; we spend our lives thinking, researching, teaching, and working on matters that will have a long-term impact upon our society and our world in various ways.  Thinking is a little bit like swimming; almost everyone does it, but not everyone is an Olympic swimmer.  Our scholars are great, and we should grant them more respect than we do as a society.  Not everyone wants to spend their days training their minds to rise in the ladder of analysis.  We have our professional division of labor.  Scholars do their work so that others can spend their time working in other areas that they care about and love.  Scholarship is a devotion and a contribution to our social good.  It is a life of service.  I think I can say, in general, that most scholars want to avoid repeats of past injuries, past oversteps of power, past forms of despotism in our own ambits of expertise; and we want to encourage repeats of what worked well, what was done well, and what caused greatest social cohesion and empirical successes.  In order to do so, we must define and identify each; and none of that is a given. Not every scholar will discover that the Earth revolves around the Sun (or the reverse!), but every scholar will contribute something important to the world of scholarship.  Scholars work in a world of theory and empirics where both theories and empirics change over time, particularly in the human social world.  Theories are to be respected, and also known to be unfixed over the course of centuries (and sometimes decades).  But they are the best that we have in a given moment.  We do the best that we can.  And, sometimes our theories irritate certain social constituencies in the moment.  There are more conservatives among us than we tell you.  Take it from me.  We are not stary-eyed.  Many of us have been to places and seen things that we will never tell you in order to make our small contribution to our ever-increasingly perfect Union. 

I am proud of us for the debate that we are having in the press today.  It is a worthwhile debate that, I hope, will make us engage our social history of racism, misogyny, religious persecution of or resistance to minority religions, and the like.  I believe it will make us live together more peaceably as the multi-ethnic and multicultural Union that we have always been.  In my view, our problem with these issues today lies almost exclusively at the micro-level, and primarily among social actors.  And our beleaguered politicians are striving to keep us from strife.  I do not envy them their work, and I think they are doing an excellent job of allowing vociferous debate while maintaining our Union.

Should some of these theories be taught at the elementary and secondary levels?  Should a six-year-old child be forced to confront and grapple with histories of racism?  At some level, No.  At some level, I would say, in all earnestness, allow children to be children and to live in fairy tales for as long as possible!  Let them have some Joy before they are forced to face such dark human truths.  I can remember crying my eyes out in college upon learning some of them (e.g., Kafka – and slavery is like Kafka for those subjected to it).  It is important that we learn them.  But children do not need to know some of these things so young; nor should we lie to them and claim (always) to be (or to have been) perfect.  We have a violent racial history in some parts of the country, and not in others.  We all know it.  Education should be about joy and eye-opening wonder for as long as humanly possible.  Such education at the early childhood level, in my opinion, is unlikely to change future despots, and it is likely to harm peaceful children.  Among future despots, it is more likely to be used as a how-to learning curve against kids in the playground.  We can teach the future despots that their means and methods are unloved in college. 

At some level, to the extent that children must be taught to live together despite what their parents may be teaching them at home in terms of racial politics, small amounts of awareness that we had a negative history that we have overcome (and continue to work to overcome) is probably fine in small doses, and in those states that allow it.  For anyone considering going against their state laws in order to teach critical race theory in the public schools – I would say, Do not do it.  It is not worth it.  Better that our states let us know what is allowable so that we can follow it.  Let the public debate work itself out; it will be Ok in the end.  Our polity is that mature.  But, where allowed, those teaching those lessons should be highly trained specialists with special, high-level certifications and experience, both topical and in child development (for example, a Ph.D. in psychology with specialized training in child development who has trained in American history and ethnic & racial politics), who teach small doses at developmentally appropriate stages.  That is only my opinion.  These are dangerous lessons that can easily result in important, harmful negative dynamics – between children and in society and polity.  They can also be misused in the wrong hands in a myriad of directions; and it is nearly impossible to know which might be the wrong hands in advance.

Could it be depressing and developmentally harmful for a six-year-old child, a person of color of some form, to have to confront these issues head-on?  It could be.  For some individuals, (1) it might make him/her view the world as unfriendly, unwelcoming, and a pointlessly impossible place in which to have any hopes of success; and that any efforts at friendship across ethnic and racial lines will result in harm or danger to the Self or to one’s family.  To others, (2) it might cause lasting and high degrees of anger, and even dissidence.  In a few, (3) it might energize them to work hard and to succeed despite it all.  My concern would be that most children would fall into the first two categories rather than the last.

Could it be depressing and developmentally harmful for a six-year-old child, a person of Anglo-American heritage, for example, to have to confront these issues head-on?  It could be.  For some individuals, (1) it may cause feelings of guilt that he/she is not developmentally equipped to handle or to understand in appropriately contextualized form (e.g., no six-year-old American is responsible for acts conducted in 1662 Virginia, or in 1850 Mississippi).  It might (2) cause feelings of hopelessness, for example, that any endeavor to do well will cause harm, or be seen as causing harm by taking an opportunity away from others; and that any efforts at friendship across ethnic and racial lines will result in harm or danger to the Self or to one’s family.  In a few, (3) it might energize them to work hard and to succeed despite it all. Again, my concern would be that most children would fall into the first two categories rather than the last.

Few people can live without Hope – of professional achievement, friendship, or a peaceful society – without damaging results at some level, individual, social, or political.

The critics of critical race theory are varied.  They have varied concerns.  They are right that we are teaching our children to be suspicious of one another, to differentiate among one another by race, and to remain segregated.  In the hands of some, critical race theory can be used to suppress rather than to uplift children who are people of color from rich to poor; it can also be used to suppress rather than to uplift children who are Euro-American constituencies from rich to poor.  In the hearts and minds of some children, it can be interpreted to encourage segregation rather than a joining in friendship.  It may cause fear rather than the overcoming of the history that we are all meant to want to surpass (emphasize, surpass, not suppress). We can do better.  We have to believe it.  The critics of critical race theory are wrong to the extent that they claim that our racialized history did not happen (very few people make this claim to my knowledge); or that we do not continue to have some degree of everyday despotism among social actors at the micro-level because of it (some do make this claim).  But, either way, let the adults grapple with those problems.  Let the children live in peace. 

The few parents who teach Confederate racial law to their children today – for example, that people of color and non-Christians are not legal citizens of the country by Confederate law, should not be allowed to vote by Confederate law and should therefore be blocked from the voting booth today, that miscegenation is illegal under Confederate law and therefore they should personally make every effort to block inter-ethnic and inter-racial marriage and dating, etc. – are, in my opinion, inciting insurrection. The Federal Government is the U.S. Inciting against it is – a problem. Teaching insurrection against the Federal Government is just a different form of teaching hatred of our country and its people. Marching to mobilize to raise awareness of your agenda concerns is allowable and appropriate free speech as I understand it, and under most conditions. Few in the political center talk about the plight of economically disadvantaged European-descended Americans. To the extent that they were taken from farming fields and put in factories as laborers in the 19th and 20th centuries, I have great empathy with them. Talk about that, please; not about resisting the Federal Government. I grew up on a small farm surrounded by large farms; the lack of empathy and (safety net) support, public services such as busses, and other public services for people who would rather live in a rural context has long been an irritation to me. These choices in environment and sub-culture are part of the freedoms that we should all enjoy.

When I say that we can do better, we have to believe it, I may begin to sound stary-eyed to some.  I would like to remind us all that this Union is a stary-eyed Idea that has worked for many years.  What we have written on paper is what we need to be in practice.  What we have written on paper is perfect.  Let us live it to the best extent that we can.  Debate – and a deliberative legislative process – is built into our system and is a critical part of maintaining the consent of the governed.  Not everyone wins in every debate.  Some days you win; some days you lose.  Sometimes, in retrospect, you find out that you were wrong even by your own measures.  That is also consent of the governed.  Be persistent against individual self-maximizing, rational actors; they will never change.  We are not a majoritarian democracy.  Nor are we a democracy of Argument by Invective.  We are a republican democracy with a constitutional correction to avoid majoritarian despotism. 

We are a great Union.  We can handle this debate.


Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of religion and politics, courts and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level & ethnographic, and grassroots analysis of state and society. A prime example of the American melting pot, she has heritage from Prussia, the Philippines, Spain, Ireland, and Holland.
Note: The views herein represent only myself, not my employer. –PJS

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