A long answer

The origins of Critical Race Theory
Dr Anthea Jeffery


  • Origins
  • Core tenets
  • CRT and ‘cancel culture’
  • What CRT demands
  • The importance of CRT in South Africa

CRT traces its origins back to the ‘critical legal studies’ that began in the US in the mid-1970s. In this initial phase, CRT’s main task was to question and discredit the sea-change in the legal rights of black Americans that the civil rights movement of the 1960s had helped to bring about. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and various other laws and executive orders had terminated Jim Crow segregation, prohibited racial discrimination, and instituted wide-ranging affirmative action programmes for black people in employment, federal (and state) procurement, and university admissions.

So comprehensive were these gains that CRT at first had little choice but to acknowledge and applaud them. Soon, however, CRT began to play down the importance of these policy shifts by claiming they had never made much difference in practice and were now being reversed. In keeping with this thesis, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic – authors of a CRT primer entitled Critical Race Theory: An Introduction – described the 1970s as a decade of disillusionment. It was becoming increasingly apparent, they claimed, that ‘the heady advances of the civil rights era had stalled and, in many respects, were being rolled back’. Overt forms of racism might have been curbed, but ‘subtler’ varieties were on the rise and could not be left unchecked.

Since those early days, CRT has greatly developed its ideas and vastly strengthened its clout. It has become part of the curriculum in many law schools, giving it significant influence over the legal profession and the judiciary. It has expanded its ambit too, spreading from the legal field into education, political science, and ethnic studies, where it has helped develop a new focus on the evils of ‘whiteness’, as further outlined below.

Though CRT’s initial focus was on race, its offshoots now deal with many other groups regarded as similarly ‘marginalised and oppressed’: including those identified by gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and disability. Overall, write Delgado and Stefancic, CRT has developed extensive influence over the ‘national discourse’ in the US and is changing the way that people think about affirmative action, poverty, class, crime, and hate speech. It is also helping to unveil the many evils in the ‘rampaging capitalism’ that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 helped to unleash.

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Core tenets of CRT

Any analysis of CRT must begin with its five core tenets. These are: (1) racism is ordinary, ever present, and inescapable; (2) whites never make concessions to blacks unless it suits them and there is a (temporary) ‘interest convergence’ between the two groups; (3) race is a social construct that reflects and perpetuates the domination of whites over people of colour; (4) the ‘lived experiences’ and ‘narratives’ of people of colour are vital ‘ways of knowing’ that are more authentic than science and supposedly objective fact; and (5) classical liberalism and many of the core principles of Western democracy perpetuate racist oppression through their damaging focus on such ineffective shibboleths as equality before the law, colour-blindness, and incremental reform.

Proponents of CRT clothe these five concepts in language that may seem persuasive, even compelling. Yet CRT is deeply flawed in its ideas and profoundly destructive in its outcomes – as a brief examination of three of its core tenets suffices to show. (The other two tenets are damaging too, but cannot be canvassed here given time and space constraints.)

Core tenet 1: Racism is ordinary and ever-present

Delgado and Stefancic (Delgado for convenience hereafter) put it thus: ‘Racism is ordinary, not aberrational – “normal science”, the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of colour in this country’. This ‘ordinariness’ makes racism all the more difficult to identify and overcome. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a CRT analyst in the education sphere, adds that racism in the US is so deeply enmeshed in the very fabric of the social order that no one even notices it very much. Instead, people brush over its significance – and the enormous harm it does – because it seems so ‘natural’ and is such an everyday occurrence.

As Delgado puts it, ‘lynching and other shocking expressions of racism are less frequent than in the past’, while some whites have even developed friendships across racial lines. Yet ‘racism continues to blight the lives of people of colour’ at all levels of society. Blacks seeking loans, apartments, and jobs are more likely to be rejected than similarly qualified whites. The prison population is largely black, poverty is still concentrated among black people, and black families have ‘on average, about one-tenth of the assets of their white counterparts’. People of colour have less schooling, worse medical care, and shorter life expectancy. These disparities confirm the persistence of racism in American life – and give CRT the vital task of exposing the evil that would otherwise go unchallenged.

This first core tenet of CRT helps focus attention on many valid concerns. Racism has not been eradicated in the US or elsewhere, while black:white disparities in employment, home ownership, and other spheres continue and still need to be addressed. There are nevertheless major fallacies and enormous dangers in this element of CRT.

CRT overlooks the limited skills, pervasive family breakdown, and other barriers to upward mobility that often hold black Americans back. Instead of seeking practical ways to overcome these barriers, it exaggerates the impact and pervasiveness of racism by sedulously seeking to uncover it in every interaction, relationship, and aspect of life. It also claims that any failure to identify and root out the racism it assumes to be all-pervasive is racist in itself. CRT thus requires a constant focus on racial identity and a never-ending search for the racism that supposedly blights every situation.

One of the great triumphs of classical liberalism was to reduce the importance of racial identity and emphasise the common humanity of all individuals. But CRT is determined to re-racialise society by making race and racism the key defining features of every person and every interaction. This is extraordinarily polarising, and is likely to poison race relations.

CRT also distorts the usual meaning of racism, expanding this far beyond intentional or even systemic discrimination. Its expanded concept of racism has been well captured by one of its foremost apostles, Ibram X Kendi. Kendi is the founder of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, the recently appointed holder of the prestigious Andrew W Mellon Professorship in the Humanities at Boston University, and the author of a best-selling book (published in 2019) on How to Be an Anti-Racist.

Kendi claims that his definitions of racism and anti-racism are both ‘lucid’ and tangible. In his view, there is no need to burden people with complex and redundant concepts such as ‘institutional’ racism, ‘systemic’ racism, or ‘structural’ racism. This is because racism in all these guises can be identified by a simple test.

Kendi puts it thus: ‘Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas’. Racial inequity is present ‘whenever two or more racial groups are not standing on an approximately equal footing’ on measures such as home ownership, income, and employment.

A racist policy, Kendi adds, is any law, regulation, or procedure that ‘produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups’. A racist idea is ‘any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way’ and so tries to explain away the ‘racial inequities in society’.

Anti-racism is essentially the opposite. ‘An anti-racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between groups’. An anti-racist idea is one that sees ‘racial groups as equal’ and identifies ‘racist policies as the cause of racial inequities’. Any attempt to blame inequities on factors such as poor schooling or family breakdown is thus racist in itself, says Kendi.

Core tenet 3: Race is an artificial ‘social construct’ used by whites to perpetuate their domination

According to Delgado, there is no ‘biological or genetic reality’ behind the division of people into different races, for any discernible differences in skin colour or hair texture are insignificant compared to the characteristics that all humans have in common. Hence, ‘races are categories that society invents, manipulates or retires when convenient’.

Because race is a social construct, some people assume that racism is evident only in prejudiced ‘thinking, attitude, and discourse’. But ‘realists or economic determinants’ recognise that racism goes far beyond such prejudice. At its core, ‘racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status’. It is the hierarchy established by racism that ‘determines who gets tangible benefits, including the best jobs and the best schools’.

Since whites are always the people elevated to the top of the hierarchy, it is vital to put the white race under the lens and explore how ‘whiteness’ contributes to white privilege, white supremacy, and white systemic power. It is not enough to analyse the sufferings of people of colour, as black studies have long done, because it is the problem of ‘whiteness’ that primarily demands to be interrogated.

The ramifications of this third tenet are far-reaching. First, CRT declines to treat people as individuals, instead seeing them solely as representatives of their socially constructed racial groups. It therefore has no basis on which to recognise people’s differing strengths and weaknesses. This helps to sustain the first of its core tenets – that unequal outcomes derive solely from racism – but is profoundly inaccurate.

Second, CRT sees America’s root problem as ‘white systemic power’. As CRT explains it, whites persist in oppressing people of colour because their institutional power over society enables them to do so. It is their systemic power that allows whites to impose their world view on others: and to control the ideas, political rules, and ‘discourses’ that everyone is socialised into regarding as normal, natural and necessary.

White systemic power, adds CRT, is what shapes and defines every possible social interaction. One of CRT’s key aims is therefore to ‘problematise’ any given interaction so as to uncover the systemic power being exercised within it. It applauds those with the capacity to recognise the impact of white systemic power, saying they have put aside the false consciousness induced by their socialisation and become ‘woke’ (woken up) to the hegemony that whites enjoy and are determined to maintain.

Core tenet 5: colour-blind policies and incremental change perpetuate racism

According to this fifth core tenet of CRT, colour-blind policies and incremental change perpetuate racism and must be rejected. The colour-blind approach, says CRT, bars the law from taking account of race even where this is necessary to remedy historical injustice. It is also so narrow that it recognises only the most blatant of racial harms: a decision to hire a white high school drop-out instead of a black PhD, for instance.

CRT insists that a colour-blind approach can neither identify nor overcome the racism that (in Delgado’s words) is ‘embedded in our thought processes and social structures’, as well as in ‘the routines, practices, and institutions’ of society. Racism of such a pervasive and persistent kind can be terminated only by ‘aggressive, colour-conscious efforts to change the way things are’.

CRT is also deeply suspicious of the civil rights movement and the incremental reforms that it promoted. On this approach, says Delgado, ‘rights are almost always procedural (for example, to a fair process) rather than substantive (for example, to food, housing, or education)’. This results in a flawed legal system which ‘applauds affording everyone equality of opportunity, but resists programs that assure equality of results’.

The very notion of progress through incremental reform is pernicious too, Delgado adds, for rights accorded at one point in time are soon rolled back to suit the interests of the powerful. The civil rights approach thus cannot succeed against the racism deeply embedded in the US and must be replaced by a single-minded focus on radical and fundamental change. In Delgado’s words: ‘Everything must change at once, otherwise the system merely swallows up the small improvement…made, and everything remains the same.’ But changing everything at once is, of course, a recipe for revolution.

Moreover, it is not simply the colour-blind ideal and the idea of incremental progress that CRT rejects. Underpinning both these concepts is the principle of equality before the law and the Western belief in the importance and autonomy of the individual. In Western thought, all individuals are unique and cannot simply be subsumed within some identity group. In addition, all are equally entitled to the protection of the law against the overweening power of the state. But CRT declines to accept these concepts as fundamental to liberty and democracy. Instead, it dismisses them as nothing more than mechanisms to keep the marginalised in their place. In Delgado’s words, CRT ‘questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law’.

What this also means, of course, is that CRT can never be proved wrong by ‘Enlightenment rationalism’ or informed reasoning of any kind. Yet a determined refusal to recognise objective reality and the evidence underpinning it is unlikely to achieve much in the real world. This is another reason why CRT demands cannot in practice be fulfilled – and why constant fruitless efforts to meet them are sure to generate polarisation, demoralisation and mounting racial hostility.

CRT and ‘cancel culture’

CRT’s revolutionary aims make it deeply intolerant of moderation and dissent. Its core interim goal is to establish a ‘counter-hegemony’ of the Gramscian kind, which it recognises as an essential pre-condition for upending the existing order. To achieve this counter-hegemony, CRT must gain decisive influence over vital opinion-forming institutions and ensure that its orthodoxies become deeply entrenched. One way to achieve this dominance is to silence influential dissenting voices – for this is a potent means of consolidating a new ‘groupthink’ from which no deviation is permitted.

CRT’s first core tenet – that racism is all pervasive – helps it to attain this aim. Social condemnation of racism in the US is so powerful that the ‘racism’ accusation levelled against any individual or institution has long carried enormous weight. What is new is that the penalties for alleged racism have increased considerably, thanks to CRT.

In the charged environment that CRT has helped create, people who have been tarred with the racist brush commonly face an upsurge in manufactured outrage, especially on social media. This outcry is generally accompanied by demands to boycott their work, retract their invitations to speak, cancel events at which they remain scheduled to talk, and dismiss them from their posts. In this way, ‘problematic’ individuals, as Lindsay writes, are ‘subjected to public shame, forced to apologise, and then shamed further’, while in many instances they are also removed from their high-status jobs.

Sometimes the racism for which people are ‘cancelled’ takes the form of what CRT calls ‘micro-aggressions’. These are the slights, snubs, and other insults (many of them unintended) that people of colour are deemed constantly to confront as part of the oppression that is their daily lot. More often, however, people are cancelled simply for contradicting CRT perspectives, even in oblique and peripheral ways.

Cancel culture is only part of the problem, however. Also important is the way in which social media act as echo chambers for people’s preferred views, even as they insulate them from encountering contrary perspectives. As veteran journalist Andrew Sullivan (and many others) have pointed out, people who largely rely on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for their news coverage have for many years been shielded – by algorithms that recognise their ‘likes’ and respond by giving them more of the same – from ‘alternative views, unpleasant facts, discomforting arguments, and contextualising statistics’. The market place for the exchange of ideas and information has been divided up into separate bazaars, where the preferred beliefs of people on both sides of the CRT divide are constantly reinforced and become ever more ‘fixed and self-affirming’.

Adds Sullivan: ‘If you watch video after video of excessive police force against suspects, for example, and your viewing habits are then reinforced by algorithms so you see no countervailing examples, your views about the prevalence of such excessive force will change, regardless of objective reality…. [And if you watch] countless videos of BLM protestors attacking cops, or assaulting bystanders, or hurling racist abuse, this will equally distort [your] understanding of the ubiquity of such incidents and their salience’.

Social media coverage is sufficient to distort, divide and bring about ‘web-induced mass hysteria’, as Sullivan puts it, without any help from CRT. However, add in the CRT determination to suppress dissent and the potency of its cancel culture – and contrary views and necessary balance become even more difficult to find. Writes Sullivan: ‘In the past, we might have turned to more reliable [mainstream] media for context and perspective. But journalists and reporters and editors who are supposed to perform this function…are perhaps the ones most trapped in the social media hellscape…where any small dissent from groupthink is professional death… Point out missing facts or context, exercise some independence of judgement, push back against the narrative – and you’ll be first subject to ostracism and denunciation by your newsroom peers and then, if you persist, you’ll be fired.’

What CRT demands

CRT’s ultimate goal is the overthrow of the entire US system, from its capitalist economy to its democratic institutions. This is necessarily a long-term project. In the interim, CRT aims to achieve a number of intermediate goals, all of which are expected to contribute to the final objective.

Anti-racist measures for ‘equity’ in every sphere

As Kendi has explained (see core tenet 1, above), the adoption of ever more ‘anti-racist’ policy is an immediate core objective, for it seeks to bring about ‘equity’ or equal outcomes in every sphere. This approach, says Kendi, ‘cuts to the core of racism’ far better than the usual concept of racial discrimination can do. [Hole, ibid, pp1-2, 3]

Racial discrimination is not in fact a particularly helpful concept, adds Kendi. What matters is not whether discrimination is present or not, but rather whether the discrimination in issue is ‘creating equity or inequity’. ‘If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.’ [Hole, ibid, p2]

The correct kind of racial discrimination – that which creates equity – must be maintained at all times, says Kendi. ‘The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.’ [Hole, ibid, p2]

According to Kendi’s analysis, ‘anti-racist’ policies are urgently required and must ensure that whites and blacks have the same outcomes in every sphere: from the neighbourhoods in which they grow up to the schools they attend, the grades they acquire, the universities at which they study, the degrees they attain, the public and private sector jobs to which they are appointed, the incomes they earn, the pensions they build up, and the houses and other assets they acquire.

As even this relatively brief list makes clear, the extent of the social engineering required in trying to secure equal outcomes in every sphere is mind-blowing. Nor can it be assumed that the results of what Kendi calls ‘a kind of political chemotherapy’ will be beneficial. In reality, equal outcomes between whites and blacks simply cannot be attained, not even by the most totalitarian of governments. Individuals differ in too many key respects – from aptitudes and interests to capacities for hard work and self-discipline – for this supposed ‘norm’ ever to be achieved.

These individual differences are sufficient in themselves to explain why the Kendi goal of equal outcomes in every sphere simply cannot be attained. Yet CRT ideology pretends that this is not so. In doing so, it sets impossible objectives that can never be fulfilled – and then blames unavoidable failures on racism alone. This is likely to polarise society into ever more hostile ‘black’ and ‘white’ groups perpetually engaged in a zero-sum conflict. It also demands ever more state intervention in every sphere in the pursuit of its impossible goals – which is, of course, a key element in the CRT strategy.

An end to Western democracy and the capitalist system

CRT is a revolutionary movement which rejects the core principles of Western democracy the Enlightenment helped develop. As William Voegeli, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute points out, the Enlightenment gave impetus to Western democracy by recognising the inherent equality and dignity of all individuals; developing the concepts of fundamental civil liberties and binding constitutions; and advocating for ‘tolerance, pluralism – and governments that derive their just powers from the consent of the governed’. But CRT ‘opposes and threatens liberal democracy by rejecting such principles, along with institutional pillars like a free press and independent courts, as devices that perpetuate and legitimate the oppression of the oppressed’.

CRT is also deeply hostile to capitalism and seeks to bring it to an end. This intent is also evident in Kendi’s book, which claims that the only way to end racism is to end capitalism as well because ‘racism and capitalism…are conjoined twins’. They are ‘two sides of the same destructive body… Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist. They were birthed together from the same unnatural causes, and they shall one day die together from unnatural causes.’ The only way they will survive, he adds, is if ‘activists naively fight the conjoined twins independently, as if they are not the same’.

Kendi makes no attempt to substantiate his claim that ‘capitalism is essentially racist’ and that ‘racism is essentially capitalist’. Yet the link he asserts is far from self-evident, notes Coleman Hughes, a fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and contributing editor of its City Journal. There are various historical examples in which businesses have resisted racial segregation. The Plessy v Ferguson case, for example, arose when a railroad company joined with a civil rights group to challenge segregation on the trains, which required extra carriages to be added at significant cost. Privately owned bus and trolley companies in the Jim Crow era in the South often opposed segregation too and for the same reason.

However, much of the CRT challenge to the capitalist system is not as overt as Kendi’s analysis and not so obviously flawed. The more insidious threat lies in the way that CRT reframes classic Marxist doctrine in its bid to discredit both Western democracy and the free-market system vital to individual freedom and limited government.

In the words of Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, few people understand the Marxist roots and anti-capitalist aims of CRT because CRT activists and advocates ‘do not use the technical jargon developed by 19th century Communists’. They do not talk about the class struggle or the conflict between the proletariat and the capitalist bourgeoisie. But their analysis nevertheless follows the Marxist formula for understanding and then ending oppression through ‘a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large’.

In CRT’s reshaping of Marxism, the oppressor group which owns and controls US society is framed in racial, rather than class, terms as the white population with its systemic power, privilege, and overarching supremacy. The oppressed group is, of course, the black one, which is endlessly exploited so that it cannot advance. Both groups are socialised into an axiomatic acceptance of the status quo, so as to sustain the false consciousness that obscures the systematic oppression taking place. The only solution for the oppressed is to cast aside their false consciousness and bring about the violent overthrow of the oppressors. Once the oppressed have taken control, all exploitation and suffering will end – though how this is to be achieved remains obscure.

The way in which well-known Marxist theories of class conflict have been reshaped as race conflict should be easy to discern. However, two factors impede this recognition. First and foremost is the widespread belief that the Marxism disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. This is wrong, writes Hazony: ‘A mere 30 years later, Marxism is back and making an astonishingly successful bid to seize control of the most important American media companies, universities and schools, major corporations and philanthropic organisations, and even the courts, the government bureaucracy and some churches’. The second factor is the nature of the terminology in which the race struggle is being clothed. Concepts such as ‘progressivism’, ‘social justice’, ‘anti-racism’, and ‘black lives matter’ are used to win broad popular support, and are effective in evoking sympathy and concealing CRT’s revolutionary goals.

The importance of CRT in South Africa

CRT is generally given little public attention in South Africa outside of academic, and largely legal, circles. Here, the ideology has been used for more than two decades to encourage judicial activism and a focus on ‘transformation’ as the overarching constitutional imperative – even though the Constitution contains no reference to this concept.

When it comes to policy, however, CRT – with its emphasis on creating ‘equity’ between blacks and whites, as Kendi puts it – has been a lynchpin of EE and BEE policies ever since the political transition.

These policies demand demographic representivity among all public and private employees at board, managerial, professional, and other levels. Increasingly, they also demand demographic representivity in the ownership of companies and in the procurement contracts of both public and private entities.

Demographic representivity is now being demanded too in the appointment of judges and magistrates; the staffing of universities, colleges, and schools; the admission of students and pupils; the employment of journalists; the accreditation of lawyers and other professionals; the composition of independent professional organisations; and even the appointment of sports teams. Increasingly, demographic representivity is also being sought in the ownership of land, minerals, and water resources.

Demographic representivity is the equivalent of the core CRT concept of ‘equity’. As earlier noted, the SACP/ANC alliance demands this kind of ‘equity’ in every sphere because it helps advance the NDR by weakening the established middle class and hobbling the capitalist economy. The alliance also sees the growing influence of CRT in the US as helping to sway the global balance of forces in favour of its NDR goals.

CRT is particularly helpful to the NDR in its demand for equal outcomes in all spheres. But CRT it is no less useful in:

  • its disdain for free speech, the primacy of the individual, equality before the law, and other principles of Western democracy;
  • its endorsement of revolutionary rather than incremental change; and
  • its constant claim that racism is the most pressing problem in the US and all other white-and-black societies.

This last is entirely in line with the ANC’s abiding claim that racism is South Africa’s most urgent and pervasive problem. Though most black South Africans disagree – and have repeatedly and consistently identified unemployment, crime, corruption, and poor housing as far more pressing challenges – CRT ideology nevertheless lends some credence to the ANC’s view.

CRT also provides a useful foundation for explaining away what the majority of South Africans think. According to CRT, the widespread public view that joblessness is a far greater problem than racism simply reflects the ‘false consciousness’ flowing from white supremacy, white privilege, and white systemic power. This argument should be more difficult to sustain in South Africa, where whites (unlike in the US) make up less than 10% of the population and have no vestige of state power at the crucial national level. But the white minority still has economic clout and generally far better skills – which means the CRT perspective can nevertheless be used to discredit the common sense views of most South Africans.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020, the SACP/ANC alliance used the upsurge in angry protest to launch a new ‘struggle’ against racism in South Africa. According to the ANC, all South Africans must endorse and participate in this campaign if they are to avoid complicity in racism. ‘If you are silent on racism, you are actually perpetuating it’, says ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte. This statement comes straight out of the CRT playbook in the US.

CRT thus uses essentially the same methods and pursues essentially the same goals as does the NDR. The NDR seeks a socialist future and aims also at destroying capitalism. It too uses the supposed fight against racism to silence alternative views, demand equal outcomes, hobble growth, worsen poverty, entrench dependency, and bend society to its destructive goals.

CRT and the NDR have been clad in different camouflage in the US and South Africa, so as to take advantage of the images and analysis likely to resonate the most strongly within each.

But CRT and the NDR are simply different means towards the same collectivist and socialist goals. Both seek to eradicate the core Western principles that put the interests of the individual before those of the group, encourage voluntary exchange via the market, promote the free flow of information and ideas, limit the overweening dominance of the state – and have brought about the greatest liberation from poverty the world has ever known.

Socialist hegemony is not what most Americans want, any more than it is what most South Africans seek. But it may nevertheless be what both countries in time confront unless the anti-racism mask is constantly stripped away to reveal the underlying anti-capitalist intent.

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