There has lately been some buzz in the evangelical world about Critical Race Theory (CRT). It tends to appear alongside terms such as Marxist, neo-Marxist, postmodernist, liberal, and social justice warrior (SJW) as a label for people and organizations accused of exchanging the gospel of Jesus Christ for a commitment to solving social problems, usually various forms of discrimination. The difference between CRT and these other epithets is that most Christians, like most people in general, have probably never heard of it at all, much less know anything about it.
CRT is just that, a theory. We all have theories about why the world is the way it is. Sometimes these theories are personal beliefs, other times they are larger systems of belief to which many people adhere. Oftentimes, we hold to different belief systems at once. For instance, you might be a Christian and a capitalist or a socialist with a deep commitment to democracy. CRT is a complex system of beliefs that emerged in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s to call attention to and redress the subtler forms of racism that replaced the overt racism made largely unacceptable by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and its two major legislative victories (The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965), many Americans believed that the solution to the persistence of racism moving forward was to adopt a colorblind theory of race. In other words, many believed that the best way to right the wrongs of oppression and discrimination was to pretend not to see color at all. But one does not fix a four-hundred-year-old problem by closing one’s eyes and pretending it is no longer relevant. And while the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement were beginning to bring about positive change, the effects of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow did not simply disappear in 1965.
New and more insidious forms of racism (mass incarceration, “broken-windows” policing, tearing down social safety nets) were taking the place of the blatant forms that had become socially unsavory. These subtler forms of racism were often the result of legislative and judicial action carried out under the banner of colorblindness, but which disproportionately affected people of color. CRT emerged in the worlds of political activism and academic legal studies in response to this idea of colorblindness to offer an alternative theory of race.
I first encountered CRT while in graduate school earning a PhD in English. After its birth in the late 1970s, CRT quickly became an interdisciplinary field of study. In the last few decades it has captivated scholars of law, literature, history, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines. Anyone interested in how race has shaped their field will find in CRT fascinating explanations of what race is and how it works. When I took my current job at an evangelical institution in 2012, I left a scholarly world where at least some people knew something about CRT and entered one in which very few had heard the term.
Imagine my surprise, then, when several Southern Baptist institutions, including my own, were recently accused of promoting CRT. I laughed aloud alone in my office. But I also began to think about this claim more seriously. It revealed two important truths. First, the accusation suggested that CRT was entirely evil and unredeemable. To be associated with CRT in the minds of those who use it as an epithet is to be associated with something bad. Second, it suggested that CRT must not be well understood in evangelical circles. As with any belief system, there are tenets of CRT with which any reasonable person would agree. But just because two people share some values does not mean that they will necessarily agree on enough to identify with the same philosophy of life.
CRT is something that Christians should understand, both because it is influential in our culture and because we should test all things to see if they comport with or distort the gospel. In this series of posts, I will answer the following questions about CRT: Where does it come from? Who are its proponents? What are its core beliefs? How do people use it? Perhaps most importantly, is it un-Christian? That last question is the main motivation for this project: Can CRT and Christianity occupy the same space, or are the two mutually exclusive? Can we learn some important lessons from it, or is the whole thing contrary to Christianity? I will begin to answer these questions in the next post with a brief history of the origins and key figures of CRT.