Critical Race Theory

In a recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Argument, there was a discussion about the use of critical race theory in schools, with linguist John McWhorter taking the anti-CRT position, and Michelle Goldberg suggesting that the real problem was conservatives.

One point in favor of Critical Race Theory as an academic discipline is that it has resulted in useful understandings about things like the basic concept of structural racism. McWhorter suggests that something new has emerged that isn’t the CRT of the 1970s.

I usually don’t refer to all of this as critical race theory or CRT. I think that what’s happened today has evolved so far beyond those basic and interesting ideas that after a while, you have to start calling it something else, after a while what once was Latin has become French. The idea is that a movement now takes a page, maybe two pages from CRT, and instead has become a kind of punitive mob-like mentality that acquires disproportionate influence because most people are deeply afraid of being called a racist on social media. 

If the main dispute were that Critical Race Theory has useful observations about structural racism, and that the pushback against it will limit those discussions, that could be resolved by clearly identifying the theories that should be stopped, and coming up with a category for the thing that calls itself Critical Race Theory, but not. It seems to me that on the right, Critical Race Theory is essentially used as a catchall for stupid left-wing views on race, which can be inaccurate. But we can make sure that we’re only throwing out the bathwater by coming with different terminology. This isn’t the position I see from the Anti-Anti CRT people.

Goldberg said that academics she had talked to were more concerned about pushback from right-wing students than from being cancelled by the far left.

What I heard from them was enormous fear of getting on the wrong side of their conservative students, enormous fear that their conservative students were going to record something that they said and send it to the state legislature, or send it to college fix, or some kind of right-wing feeder media, it’s going to end up in Tucker Carlson. These are people who are, in often many cases, untenured. Some of them, adjuncts. They experience themselves as walking on eggshells. And I think it’s hard without some sort of rigorous study to see how widespread that sort of attitude is in conservative states where, again, you have both legislatures proposing laws banning both the 1619 Project and critical race theory from public institutions. And also, in the case, of Idaho, very specifically threatening their schools funding for doing things like expressing support for Black Lives Matter. I think the idea that there’s some sort of tyranny of progressivism in as much as that’s a reality for people, I think it’s really not clear to me whether that is just in certain sort of elite hothouse environments that we pay disproportionate attention to.

There may be academics worried that a student will record their lectures, and that there will be consequences from Republican legislators, but the discussion doesn’t mention what specific views would be considered objectionable. One concern with militant left-wing activism is that mainstream and defensible views are shouted down on campus. I suspect the progressive views that academics are worried about having recorded aren’t going to be shared by the wider population. People should still be free to discuss controversial or upsetting ideas. There is a difference in category and scale if progressives feel uncomfortable sharing opinions that are out of the mainstream, while academics on the center-left feel that there will be significant consequences if they reveal beliefs that are widely shared.

We can see major excesses from supporters of Critical Race Theory, or whatever you wish to call it. A Smithsonian (from the National Museum of African American History & Culture) exhibit on whiteness & white culture seems to share a similar view of white culture as white nationalists would have, suggesting that married parents, delayed gratification, the emphasis on the scientific method, planning for the future, valuing intent in legal matters are uniquely white. There was an infamous infographic used to present the position.

We should be able to avoid public support for this kind of garbage. It reflects the attitudes of higher-ups at the Smithsonian (the people who wrote it, and everyone up the chain of command who was in a position to veto it) who are presumably well-educated and carefully selected for their jobs, so it is worrisome how no one in the chain of command realized that this was a terrible idea. They use the excuse that it’s meant to facilitate discussion, but I’m not sure how that works as the text was informational rather than a conversation-starter. It’s certainly not done in a way that helps people of ordinary intellects and backgrounds have a discussion about sensitive topics. These are damaging ideas, and not conducive to equality in the workforce. If anything, it’ll discourage employers from hiring minorities, if the Smithsonian is saying what David Duke would say about which groups take time and effort seriously.

There could be a reasonable argument that positive attributes are wrongly associated with white people. The chart at the Smithsonian didn’t seem to be making it. Their argument is that these are attitudes that have been normalized and internalized, rather than these are virtues wrongly associated with white people. They’re combining things that are value neutral (children having their own rooms) and sometimes bad (an understanding that a person’s value is based on their salary, intolerance of polytheists) with some things they’re associating with whiteness that most people would consider to be positives. But there is one group that is overrepresented in American culture that may have different values.

Matthew Yglesias noted a problem with common norms from the antiracism training based on the work of Tema Okun. A claim that a need to measure results is symptomatic of White Supremacy Culture, provides a convenient cover if anyone asks to measure whether a particular type of antiracism training is effective. There have been a few projects that are ostensibly meant to be against racism and white supremacy that have a similar focus, and one question is whether this is about what appeals to white progressives rather than having anything to do with race, as they may be more likely to be against hierarchy and discipline.

She doesn’t put forward any evidence or arguments in favor of her claims (and indeed, “objectivity” is seen as a manifestation of white supremacy culture), but this is also not a lived experience argument. Instead she credits the second-hand wisdom of the late Kenneth Jones who was her co-author on the original version of the workbook that featured the list. And the reason it feels like an op to destroy progressive politics is that she’s pretty clearly not talking about race or racism at all. This whole document instead comes from a place of extreme characterological aversion to hierarchy and structure.

And we know from a range of evidence that if you look at the white U.S. population, being a Democrat correlates with the personality trait of openness to experience and being a Republican with the personality trait of conscientiousness. And indeed Christopher Frederico and Rafael Aguilera document that among the white population, having a high score on racial resentment batteries is associated with high conscientiousness and low openness.

In other words: if you filter the white people to find only the white people who are most fired-up about anti-racism, you will end up with a high-openness, low-conscientiousness group of people who are probably inclined to agree with Okun’s general sentiments.

But these are facts about white people.

White Democrats are eccentric because most white people are Republicans. In non-white communities, most people are Democrats and consequently, non-white Democrats are less ideologically left-wing than white ones and also have personality types that are closer to the broad population average. That’s why the ex-cop, tough on crime mayoral candidate in New York City is Black. That’s why religiously observant Democrats tend to be non-white. Generalized aversion to hierarchy and discipline is not a characteristic of people of color at all — it’s a characteristic of white leftists.

From any normal standpoint, the idea that “requiring people to think in a linear (logical) fashion” is racist is itself racist. People of all ethnic backgrounds can think logically! I promise. Go read my former professor Kwame Appiah’s intro to philosophy book, “Thinking It Through” and see for yourself. Obviously characterizing an emphasis on writing skills as “worship of the written word” makes it sound bad, but thinking that writing is important is not a distinctively white characteristic, as even a cursory read of the past several thousand years of human civilization would tell you.

This is an individual whose work is used to teach institutions how to handle sensitive topics. If a dollar of taxpayer money goes to support someone who thinks logical thinking is unique to white people, that’s a problem at a time when the country is paying more attention to reckoning with its racist past and present. It’s bad if companies, government entities or any other organizations pay crackpots money to pretend to be doing something about sensitive issues. It’s worse if people start believing untrue and stupid things.

We should all push back against this. We can do so without limiting discussion of things that reasonable people can believe.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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