Prof Modiri’s straw-man defence of CRT

Ivo Vegter | Jul 14, 2021
Professor Joel Modiri, a critical race theorist in academia, claims attacks on critical race theory are marked by aggression, bad faith, racist anxiety and ignorance. They aren’t, but his defence is.

The need to take racism seriously can no longer be ignored, writes Joel M. Modiri, associate professor and acting head of the Department of Jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria. This, apparently, is a revelation.

‘Attacks on critical race theory (CRT) intellectuals and ideas,’ he writes, ‘are marked by aggression, bad faith, racist anxiety and ignorance – a toxic mix not easily appeased by facts or argument.’

As if to demonstrate those exact qualities, he begins by describing a ‘ferocious right-wing onslaught’ and ‘viral online conservative screeds decrying the pervasive influence of CRT and “identity politics”’, in which ‘white people increasingly, and without irony, claim to be the greatest contemporary victims of racism at just the time black people’s protest and critique against racial inequality and racial violence is gaining greater political visibility and impact’.

I recently wrote critique of CRT on Daily Friend, and the Institute of Race Relations has recently published a detailed report by Anthea Jeffery attacking CRT. Marius Roodt has written in these pages that racism is a problem in South Africa – but it is not the problem, and John Kane-Berman has written against ‘race hustlers’ who claim that racism remains ubiquitous and systemic in South Africa.

I can only suppose that Modiri is reacting in part to the IRR’s campaign on the subject when he refers to ‘right-wing conservatives’. Or perhaps the IRR is the ‘discomfited liberals’ to whom he refers.

His frequent use of such denunciatory labels suggests a level of aggression and bad faith that is unbecoming to a professor, but not surprising in a critical race theorist.

The IRR’s position

The Institute for Race Relations is a classical liberal institution, founded in 1929. It has the explicit objective to combat racism, promote equal human rights and non-racialism (which is the same policy that the ANC has always promoted) and to improve relations between South Africa’s races.

The political ideology it upholds, classical liberalism, is neither right- nor left-wing. Some of its economic views are more consistent with right-of-centre politics, while most of its social policy views are very much left-of-centre. It is certainly not conservative, although some of its members may be.

For most of its existence, the IRR was denounced as a left-wing organisation by the Apartheid state. Pigeon-holing it with ‘right-wing conservatives’ is a malicious lie.

Modiri has great disdain for anyone who isn’t a fellow-academic (although I have no doubt he would also disdain academics who disagree with him).

Here he is on CRT’s critics: ‘The degree of caricature, dishonesty and hysteria displayed by opponents of CRT illustrates that they do not even have a basic grasp of this field of academic study – developed over decades through careful analysis and critique of case law, legislation, literature and archival records, blending law, history, philosophy, psychology and sociology, to theorise race from a critical and emancipatory perspective.’

We, in our passionate ignorance, are not worthy of assailing Modiri in his ivory tower.

This would have been a great opportunity for Modiri to enlighten us mere mortals about the glories of CRT and what it really stands for, but unsurprisingly, he makes no such attempt. Perhaps he is not in possession of the facts or arguments to ‘appease’ the critics of CRT and answer the substance of their critiques.

‘We also know that, historically, lack of knowledge has rarely restrained white people from exercising the prerogative to impose their reality on the rest,’ he says. ‘So, the demonisation of CRT by an increasingly global network of white conservatives and liberals is not about intellectual debate and contestation of ideas. It is, as many commentators have pointed out, a full-scale, well-co-ordinated and well-funded political project against any form of racial equality and racial justice.’

Straw man

That’s a glaring straw man and an artful dodge. Modiri doesn’t want it to be about intellectual debate and contestation of ideas. CRT, after all, rejects things like facts and reason as instruments of white supremacy. In Modiri’s polarised world, the only answer for critics of CRT is that they’re hopeless, ignorant, white supremacists.

I, for one, and I’m sure I can speak for the entire IRR, do absolutely not oppose racial equality. We also don’t claim to be victims of racism, nor do we deny that racism is a problem.

The IRR’s view, documented by numerous surveys representative of South Africa’s population, is that addressing racism is not a top priority for most people, including black people. That is not ‘white reality imposed on the rest’, that is the lived experience of black people as expressed by black people.

To further shatter Modiri’s cheap caricature of CRT critics, when I wrote about the racism and the social justice movement five years ago, I explicitly acknowledged having benefited from Apartheid, albeit through no fault of my own. I also acknowledged that I continue to benefit from so-called ‘white privilege’ in many ways, but that I feel no personal guilt about this, though I do feel a sense of responsibility not to exploit that privilege, to empathise with people who don’t enjoy the same, and to do what I can to promote the ideal of a free, non-racial society.

Must learn from history

I also believe we ought to teach the history of racism, slavery, xenophobia, and all other manifestations of bigotry and oppression in schools. It is as critical that we learn from American slavery and Apartheid as it is that we learn from Nazi Germany, slavery in non-Western societies, Cambodia’s killing fields, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the USSR’s Holodomor. History is full of lessons that we ought to heed.

But CRT does not merely advocate this. Even though I denounce racism, my anti-CRT position will be denounced as inherently racist by Prof Modiri; after all, how can I not be racist when I’m white? However, to the neutral reader, I trust that my views do not appear to be those of some kind of arch-conservative or right-wing extremist.

The late Walter Williams, Bob Woodson, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell all disagree with CRT’s basic tenets. Woodson founded, and Shelby is a supporter of the 1776 Unites movement, which was created by black academics to counter The 1619 Project, which seeks to rewrite history through the ideological lends of CRT. Sowell described CRT as ‘revenge society’ and ‘racism under new management’.

Dismissal of black critics

Modiri, however, glibly dismisses black people who disagree with CRT’s basic tenets as ‘black junior partners’ of the aforementioned ‘right-wing conservatives’.

This is a typical slur critical race theorists aim at critics. If you’re a white and refuse to support CRT, you’re an unreconstructed racist and white supremacist. If you’re black but you don’t share the left’s obsession with identity politics, you’re either ignorant or a race traitor.

His ‘black junior partners’ dismissal is an inch away from saying ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘house n*****r’, slurs which critical race theorists have certainly used against black critics.

If it sounds intensely patronising and arrogant, that’s because it is. CRT casts black people as victims of systemic racism by white people. It excommunicates as a race traitor any black person who refuses to accept perpetual victimhood status and instead believes in individual freedom and merit.

Modiri pretends that ‘CRT means no harm’, and that it merely seeks racial equality and redress for past wrongs. But that is a misrepresentation of what CRT really stands for. Not only does Modiri claim that laws and institutions remain systemically racist, CRT claims that it cannot be otherwise.

The paper by Prof Derrick Bell which Modiri cites in turn cites Prof Charles Lawrence, who Bell says ‘speaks for many critical race theory adherents when he disagrees with the notion that laws are or can be written from a neutral perspective’ (my italics).

He writes: ‘Lawrence asserts that such a neutral perspective does not, and cannot, exist –that we all speak from a particular point of view, from what he calls a “positioned perspective”. The problem is that not all positioned perspectives are equally valued, equally heard, or equally included. From the perspective of critical race theory, some positions have historically been oppressed, distorted, ignored, silenced, destroyed, appropriated, commodified, and marginalized – and all of this, not accidentally. Conversely, the law simultaneously and systematically privileges subjects who are white.’

There is not a shred of evidence that non-racial laws in fact cannot exist, or if they do, fail to be non-racial in their application. What’s worse, by ‘equally valuing’ all ‘positional perspectives’, CRT elevates subjective experience above objective empiricism as the superior, and perhaps only, valid form of knowledge. This is why CRT has such a problem with terms such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Because, that’s just your white supremacist opinion, man, and your opinion is oppressive!

Modiri entirely ignores one of the key critiques of CRT, that it is rooted in Marxist ‘class struggle’. In his view, one must assume, a perpetual conflict between the races is not only desirable, but necessary, in order to ‘take racism seriously’.

I, and I would wager most liberal critics of CRT, beg to differ. Conflict between races is what got us Nazism and Apartheid. One does not remedy conflict with conflict.

Yes, racism remains a problem. It should be opposed wherever it is found. Arguing that liberals deny this is the epitome of the ‘bad faith’ of which Modiri accuses critics of CRT.

But the future of peace and prosperity lies in promoting individual liberty, human rights, non-racialism and harmonious coexistence, not racial conflict and revolution.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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