Critical Race Theory is Not the New “Civil Rights Movement.” Quite the Opposite.
June 6, 2021
By Kenny Xu and Christian Watson
Critical Race Theory is quite prominent in contemporary American political discourse. Several state legislatures have advanced measures to ban Critical Race Theory from public schools. Apologists for critical race theory, however, have issued stark rejoinders of their own in defense of Critical Race Theory. The oddest defense thus far likens Critical Race Theory and its methods with the venerated Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Indeed, such a defense was launched by the American Bar Association, the nation’s most powerful legal organization through which all legal professionals are legitimized. The American Bar Association writes that Critical Race Theory “provides a lens through which the civil rights lawyer can imagine a more just nation.”
But these defenses, however convenient and rhetorically effective, are profoundly incorrect. Critical Race Theory (abbreviated: CRT) seeks to undermine the intellectual and moral foundations of America. The Civil Rights Movement, meanwhile, was based upon a hopeful and optimistic vision of the American founding that recognizes its inherent goodness. The Civil Rights Movement and Critical Race Theory, therefore, could not be any further from each other.
The American Bar Association describes CRT as a “practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society.” This description implies that CRT can be used to root out racism with a thorough analysis (critique) of societal systems, regardless of any particular or concrete instance of racism.
From this short description, it is rather easy to emotionally connect critical race theory to the cause for Civil Rights. The Civil Rights movement was a struggle against both prejudiced minds and the Jim Crow laws they produced. Critical Race Theory claims to pick up where that movement left off and eradicate the remnants of Jim Crow mentalities from American institutions. This artificial connection between the two movements is bolstered by many civil right’s organizations’ defense of critical race theory. When President Trump signed an executive order to rid federal agencies of CRT, over 120 Civil Rights Organizations – including the illustrious NAACP – signed a letter condemning his initiative.
But these alleged connections do not tell the whole story. The Civil Rights Movement, as represented by Martin Luther King and his contemporaries, is a complete and utter rejection of Critical Race Theory’s pessimism and an embrace of American optimism.
Critical Race Theory views society, and essentially the world, as solely constituted by systems of power and privilege. In essence, critical race theory believes society is inherently oppressive to particular individuals, and non-oppressive towards others – not merely by virtue of mentalities, but because systems are inherently racist. This worldview is expressed neatly in Critical Race Theory’s understanding of racism. Influential Critical Theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic claim the idea of racism is a tool maintained by the “white elites” and the “working class” to keep certain individuals oppressed. For the Critical Theorist, racism is simply power. Racism as a means of power – and not as an individual mentality – is essential to another culturally popular idea: Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racism. Kendi defines racism as the following. “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.”
In that one statement, Kendi has tied racism primarily to policy and outcomes, regardless of the intent of either. This reflects the Critical Race Theory view of political and social reality.
The Civil Rights movement harbored a radically different worldview from CRT. Martin Luther King Jr did not seem to view racism in the same light. In a speech titled at the University of Newcastle in 1967, King remarked that “there can be no separate black path to power and fulfilment that does not intersect white routes and there can be no separate white path to power and fulfilment short of social disaster that does not recognise the necessity of sharing that power with coloured aspirations for freedom and human dignity.” Critical Theorists reject King’s suggestion for a unified struggle against racism by separating Americans into binary power dynamics: oppressed and oppressor. But this dichotomy clearly does not work for King. In the presence of King’s support for unity, concepts like White Fragility or Kendi’s anti-racism, which assumes individuals have problems simply because of how they look, are thoroughly rejected. They are everything that King stood against.
Unlike Critical Race Theory, the intellectual foundations of the Civil Rights Movement are rooted in an aspirational vision of America. In his speech, the Negro and the Constitution, King paid an ode to America – seeing it beyond the very real problems it had at the time. He believed America was being “reborn” in the spirit of great leaders to overcome Jim Crow, not that America was foundationally oppressive and inaccessible by African-Americans (a viewpoint held by many Critical Theorists.)
King even recognizes that slavery was a “paradox” that ran athwart of America’s founding principles, demonstrating his continued faith in the Constitution. In fact, King believed so much in the Constitution and the constitutional process that he wanted to amend the Constitution to enshrine what he called a “natural right” to destroy human and economic poverty. Regardless of how one approaches that issue, one thing is certain: King believed America was better than it’s shortcomings. America was not a pinnacle of oppression, but a country besieged by ills that he believed could be fixed by transcending racial dichotomies, not by using them to “analyze” society.
Others concurred with King through their actions. The Civil Rights movement consistently scored key legal victories in their quest to destroy Jim Crow. For example, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts lead to Browder v. Gayle, which compelled the court to declare racial segregation on public transportation illegal. Or the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which effectively ended Jim Crow laws de jure. If the Civil Rights Movement hated the Constitution or America, why use it to beat injustice? These actions suggest a deep respect for the Constitution by many Civil Rights leaders – another stark difference from Critical Theorists.
The Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, a leading Civil Rights activist and one of King’s closest confidants, spoke out against Critical Race Theory in 2015, before the outbreak of the ideology in our mainstream culture:
“Today, too many “remedies” – such as Critical Race Theory, the increasingly fashionable post-Marxist/postmodernist approach that analyzes society as institutional group power structures rather than on a spiritual or one-to-one human level – are taking us in the wrong direction: separating even elementary school children into explicit racial groups, and emphasizing differences instead of similarities.”
Ultimately, the Civil Rights message of unity and optimism is clearly distinctive from Critical Theory’s deconstructive pessimism. The difference is not small: One movement believes America can transcend Her mistakes, while the other uses its own errors to narrowly scold the country. One side actually makes progress, while the other digs its own hole. It’s easy to see to which one Americans ought to pay heed