Staying Calm About Critical Race Theory

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and subsequent protests drawing attention to our nation’s scandalously wide racial disparities, some American Christians appear to have become convinced that we must rise to meet an urgent threat: Critical Race Theory. Last week, for example, Southern Baptist seminary presidents issued a joint statement condemning racism but affirming that “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” It’s hard to know precisely why the presidents felt compelled to disavow Critical Race Theory (CRT) in particular, though Jason Allen, president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained that “Confusion abounds on [CRT], but one thing is clear: the closer you look into the history, advocates, and aims of Critical Race Theory the more troubling it becomes.” Dr. Allen is correct that confusion abounds, with vague accusations of “Marxism” at the core of many criticisms, so let’s take that closer look.

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, two CRT pioneers, explain that the wide-ranging and loosely organized movement is united by five key propositions. First, racism is “ordinary, not aberrational,” and so it is difficult to root out apart from the most glaring examples (i.e., we can end lynching, but it’s much more difficult to end employment discrimination). Second, because racism can advance the material and psychological interests of white people, there is limited incentive to eradicate it. Third, race is a product of social thought, not biology, and societies racialize different people at different points in history. Fourth, no person has a single, unitary identity, and “everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.” (This is intersectionality.) And finally, because of their different life experiences, people who are Black, Indian, Asian, or Latino/a may be able to communicate insights that white people are unlikely to know on their own.

A faithful Christian can disagree with one or more of these core tenets, but Christian orthodoxy does not compel disagreement with any of them. Are there particular arguments made by particular advocates who invoke CRT that are in tension with Christian beliefs? Yes, including arguments, for example, grounded in cynicism about the efficacy of free will or the possibility of objective truth. Occasionally statements are made implying that historically oppressed populations not only have important insights to offer, but a sort of moral superiority as a result of their oppression. However, suggestions that the entire school of thought holds zero educational value for Christians is unjustified. Indeed, CRT offers insights that may take Christian teaching more seriously than many Christians do. Consider, for example, the contentious issue of systemic racism. If the Fall tainted only individual choices and left our human-created systems untouched, that would be a surprisingly weak – and unbiblical – understanding of Genesis 3’s far-reaching effects.

Moreover, some Christians have rooted their opposition to CRT in what amounts to a radical individualist worldview – i.e., “I didn’t engage in slavery or Jim Crow, so what does racism have to do with me?” The Bible is filled with stories of sin’s collective consequences extending across generations, and the Christian understanding of the human person is rooted in mutual dependence. Those truths are not lost on CRT. Compare the Christian response to another school of legal thought that is arguably more influential than CRT: Law & Economics. Put simply, this movement has shown the extent to which the function of our common law system aligns with economic principles. These insights have helped us design legal rules that promote economic efficiency, which is, generally, a good thing. But when it comes to putting a price on a human life, for example, Christians will (and should) start to squirm. When Ford decided not to fix the Pinto’s susceptibility to rear-impact explosions because paying jury verdicts for the ensuing deaths would be less expensive, that decision is tough for Christians to defend given our commitment to human dignity. I have not seen many joint statements from Christian leaders making sweeping condemnations of Law & Economics. Such a condemnation, in my view, would also be imprudent. Here’s why: for Christians, no theory of society captures reality more fully than the person of Jesus Christ. Resting secure in that knowledge, though, does not mean that Christians have nothing to learn from human efforts to make sense of the world. Especially when our churches still meet during what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the most segregated hour in Christian America,” it is unfortunate that those who train pastors chose to condemn a school of thought that has emerged from the lived experiences of our black and brown brothers and sisters. We should be listening, learning, and discerning truth – even when the truth is incomplete. CRT is not a comprehensive Christian theory of the world, nor does it aim to be. It is also not a reason to panic.

Robert K. Vischer is dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The views expressed are his own.