One year ago, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a controversial three-word slogan surged in prominence and popularity: Black Lives Matter.
Although Floyd’s death followed many previous high-profile cases of police officers killing unarmed Black men, from Eric Garner to Oscar Grant, this case seemed different. The grueling video of Floyd’s slow-motion homicide was shocking enough to move the needle on the national conversation — to occasion a kind of national moment of clarity.
For a time, at least, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” made sense to more Americans than not. There was hopeful talk of a “racial reckoning.”
Pushback against the slogan, though, came quickly and was sustained. In the summer of protests and unrest that followed, the hopeful moment soon passed. Within months, overall support for Black Lives Matter faded while trust in police rose, until the status quo was more or less restored.
“Critical Race Theory” becomes a household word
Today, discussion around race is characterized by an even more contentious three-word phrase: Critical Race Theory. As with BLM, polemics around CRT are dominated not only by criticism versus defense, but arguments over the significance and scope of the very words and the right to define them. To a real extent, substantial discussion is buried under contention over language.
With the slogan Black Lives Matter, where progressive advocates generally saw a minimal affirmation of the equal dignity of Black Americans, many conservative critics saw a Marxist Trojan horse: a seemingly benign platitude masking a radical agenda advocated by the founders of the BLM Global Network. Some Black leaders, including Black Catholics, argued that the Black Lives Matter movement and slogan was bigger than one organization, but their voices weren’t always heeded by critics.
Other critics challenged the very implication of the words, contending (unpersuasively enough) that the very act of highlighting the significance of a particular group of lives implicitly devalued other lives. This conceit was encapsulated in the alternative slogan “All Lives Matter,” but contradicted in other competing slogans, including “Blue Lives Matter” and “Unborn Lives Matter.”
The very different debate over Critical Race Theory has been driven more by attention from opponents than use by advocates. Although CRT has been an influential academic and activist approach for decades, in recent months it’s become a household term under increasingly strident cross-examination from partisans, pundits, and politicians.
Instead of conversations about historical or ongoing racial injustice, vast amounts of ink and oxygen are going to debates about whether CRT entails, for example, the claims that an individual’s race or sex means they may bear “responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” or may be “inherently” racist, sexist, or oppressive — language invoked in anti-CRT legislation in states including Idaho, North Carolina, and Texas, drawn from prohibitions against “race or sex stereotyping and scapegoating” in a 2020 executive order signed by President Trump.
In Loudon County, Virginia, weeks of loud public debate over CRT in schools — from a recent school board meeting where parents complained about their children being trained “to be social justice warriors” to an “Education, Not Indoctrination” rally at which activists accused the school system of promoting principles from Marxist ideology — recently led to arrests over increasingly unruly behavior. Loudon County officials deny that the district is teaching CRT.
In Nashville, debate over CRT loomed large at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting, which took place in the wake of the resignation of Russell Moore, the long controversial president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a critic of the SBC’s failure to deal with racism in its midst.
In a pair of leaked letters, Moore described attacks on his family by White supremacists and suggested that SBC leaders’ alleged concerns about whether Moore’s ERLC was promoting CRT were linked to misgivings about his hiring Black staff.
The SBC issued a cautious warning about CRT in 2019, labeling it “insufficient” and subject to “misuse.” Last year SBC seminary presidents more forcefully rejected CRT as “incompatible” with Baptist beliefs.
SBC voters, though, ultimately rejected a strong anti-CRT statement advocated by the rightwing Conservative Baptist Network and elected a president known for promoting racial reconciliation, Ed Litton, over a rival CBN-backed candidate. There’s no sign, though, of debate over CRT waning in the SBC any time soon.
“Not like that”
Nor is it just the term CRT itself.
Conservative Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson, at his blog Legal Insurrection, recently highlighted a “handy guide” from activist Wenyuan Wu on “How to Spot CRT,” calling out “pleasant-sounding yet ambiguous” terms allegedly linked to CRT — suspect terms ranging from “racial healing” and “critical self-awareness” to “systemic racism” and “anti-racism.”
The term “antiracism” is today most closely connected with historian Ibram X. Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist), who does not identify with CRT. But Kendi’s brand of antiracism has issues of its own, from his binary principle that all ideas and policies that are not antiracist are racist to his insistence that all racial disparities are per se the work of racism, and that the “only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”
Serious critiques of Kendi, CRT, and other models of engaging racism are a fair part of a healthy national discussion about race. For example, in academic circles CRT has been critiqued, among other things, for its reliance on subjective experience and anecdotal evidence. Kendi has been critiqued for cherry-picking his data as well as for the rigidity of his ideas.
Yet focusing exclusively on the shortcomings or objectionable elements, real or perceived, of models of engaging racism eventually becomes a way of short-circuiting all meaningful discussion about racism — a tacit defense, in other words, of the status quo on race.
“Not like that” is a recurring rebuttal from critics of every form of activism against racism, from taking a knee to marching on Selma. Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. bitterly paraphrased his critics in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods.”
“Everyone hates racism and wants to address it,” is a nutshell version of a platitude one will encounter fairly regularly. It isn’t true. Virtually everyone disavows racism these days, but not everyone wants to see it addressed, or addressed helpfully.
Among Christians, a troubling divide on racism exists between Black believers and White believers. Black Christians consider opposing racism to be essential to their faith and consider topics such as race relations to be a priority for preaching — but most White Christians are against preaching about race or at best consider it unimportant.
The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Or, at least, the good enough. Reservations about vocabulary are not a good enough reason to forgo necessary conversations about the realities of racial injustice.
Whatever we make of CRT, Catholic Social Teaching — known by the similar initialism CST — is neither ambiguous when it comes to the existence — and persistence of “structures of sin” nor ambivalent regarding our shared duty to dismantle and replace them as we are able. In light of CST, Catholics should be able to talk about “systemic racism” without fear of somehow smuggling Marxist concepts into the discussion.
Fair criticism includes constructive as well as destructive elements. It also requires critics to place points of agreement, and to recognize when an interlocutor has a point. Critics of Kendi should be able to acknowledge, for example, that he has a point when he says it’s not enough to be “non-racist.” Even members of White nationalist groups claim to be “not racist.”
Once systemic racism is recognized as a reality, a positive, active stance against racism is necessary — and “antiracist” is too natural and powerful a term for this to allow either advocates or opponents to link it exclusively with one scholar’s ideas, especially in the absence of equally good or better alternative language.
John McWhorter, a Black scholar and a critic of CRT and Kendi, characterizes Kendian antiracism as “third-wave antiracism.” Once we recognize different “waves” or forms of antiracism, it becomes possible to appreciate the term’s power to speak to viewpoints beyond Kendi’s particular ideas.
Catholics should not be afraid to identify as “antiracist” or to frankly acknowledge the reality of “systemic racism.” We should not squint suspiciously at anyone who affirms that “Black Lives Matter.” We should be able to see how efforts to quarantine all these phrases and others besides serves ultimately to suppress efforts to address racism in any way — which, of course, is what some people want.
Either we have discussions like this, at any rate, or we suspend efforts to foster productive discussion about racism until the hypothetical arrival of some perfect, universally agreed-upon ideological framework for talking about it.
Or the next George Floyd, and the next national moment of clarity.
Steven D. Greydanus is a permanent Deacon of the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ.
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