Today almost any disparity is treated as racism, while other factors such as class, culture and socio economic circumstances are barely considered. So this, the fourth in a number of synopses of a critique of postmodernism, is very timely.
This chapter is from Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Swift Press, 2020.
The first synopsis, which covers the early period of postmodernism, is here, the second on queer theory and its influence on postmodernism is here, the third on Butler and Sedgwick is here. The synopsis below is written by Daphna Whitmore.
Ending Racism by Seeing It Everywhere
Critical race Theory is, at root, an American phenomenon. It holds that race is a social construct created to maintain white privilege and white supremacy. Well before postmodernism W.E.B. Du Bois argued the idea of race was being used to assert biological explanations of differences that are social and cultural in order to perpetuate the unjust treatment of racial minorities, especially African Americans. Indeed, despite some real physically observable average differences in human populations, there is not enough significant differences to divide people into groups called “races”. Biologists don’t, they talk of populations which may be identified through genetic markers due to differing evolutionary heritages.
Nor is there compelling evidence that the idea of “race” was significant in earlier periods. The Bible, for example, written over two thousand years ago in the Mediterranean, where black, brown, and white people were to be found, is filled with moralistic tribalism, but makes almost no mention of skin colour. In late medieval England, references to “black” people often simply described the hair colour of Europeans now regarded as “white”.
It wasn’t until the Atlantic Slave Trade and European colonialism that the emerging forms of scholarship, which came to be called the social sciences, were the ideas of race constructed. Oversimplified, overreaching, and self-serving scientific categorisation led to extremely low-resolution categories being black and being white to which value judgments were soon attached. Enter racism as we understand it today. Even after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, when discrimination on the grounds of race became illegal and attitudes about race changed, longstanding narratives of white racial superiority didn’t disappear. Critical race Theory (CRT)was designed to pick at, highlight and address them.
CRT formally arose in the 1970s and was aimed at continuing to work on the racism that remained after a series of profound but imperfect legal changes against racial discrimination had been won. Racism was less clearly demonstrable and as a result the critical race approach was divided into at least two parts – one materialist and the other postmodern. Materialist race critics theorise about how economic, legal and political systems affect racial minorities. Postmodern Theorists, by contrast, were more concerned with linguistic and social systems and therefore aimed to deconstruct discourses, detect implicit biases, and counter underlying racial assumptions and attitudes.
The progenitor of CRT is Derrick Bell the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School. He considred “progress in American race relations is largely a mirage obscuring the fact that whites continue, consciously or unconsciously, to do all in their power to ensure their domination and maintain control”. Bell denied the possibility that any moral progress had been made since the Jim Crow era. His cynical pessimism included asserting that white people had introduced desegregation, not as a solution to black people’s problems, but to further their own interests while suppressing black radicalism during the Cold War and at other times.
Of course simple legal equality is not sufficient to resolve all social inequalities. The materialist critical race theorists frequently advocate Black Nationalism and segregation over universal human rights and cooperation. They tend to cherry-pick and generalise from the worst examples to support their claims that racism and discrimination are not decreasing at all.
Though the materialists’ pessimism persisted, their approach did not. Materialists dominated the critical race movement from the 1970s to the 1980s; but, from the 1990s, postmodernists were increasingly in the ascendant.
Over time, the postmodernists came to focus on microaggressions, hate speech, safe spaces, cultural appropriation, implicit association tests, media representation, “whiteness”, and all the now familiar trappings of current racial discourse. This change owes much to the influence of a number of female critical Theorists who gained prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s and promoted radical black feminist thought, including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins. They blurred the boundaries of scholarly disciplines while arguing passionately about both patriarchy and white supremacy in ways that mixed the legal with the sociological, literary, and autobiographical in specifically gendered ways.
Significantly, they complained at length about the “whiteness” of feminism. They set the stage for another wave of influential Theorists: scholars like Patricia Williams, Angela Harris, and Kimberlé Crenshaw – a student of Bell who helped him create the term Critical Race Theory. This produced a highly layered, “sophisticated” analysis of identity and experience, which included social, legal, and economic factors. By looking at multiple systems of power and privilege and situating experience as the source of knowledge within them, they moved away from materialist analysis and towards the postmodern.
Positionality is a key concept in CRT. It’s the idea that one’s position in society, as determined by group identity, dictates how one understands the world and will be understood in it. This concept of a “positional” self is a socially constructed identity that occupies a particular location within the privilege/oppression landscape.
While the language of postcolonial and queer Theories is obscure and ambiguous it is not the same with CRT. The tenets of CRT according to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic is “Racism is ordinary, not aberrational”. A “unique voice of colour” exists and “minority status … brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism”. This is a standpoint theory. These core tenets unambiguously assert that racism is present everywhere and always, and persistently works against people of colour, who are aware of this, and for the benefit of white people, who tend not to be, this is their privilege.
Critical race Theory has become part of the campus culture in many universities, most commonly at the elite institutions. Intersectionality is central to this culture and has also taken on a life of its own outside it.
In her book Mapping the Margins Crenshaw critiques two ways of understanding society: (universal) liberalism and (high-deconstructive) postmodernism.Crenshaw proposed that an entirely new way of thinking was needed, one that accepted that complex layers of discrimination objectively exist and so do categories of people and systems of power – even if they have to be socially constructed. Crenshaw’s intersectionality rejects universalism and favours group identity.
The concept of intersectionality has expanded hugely over time. The number of axes of social division under intersectionality can be almost infinite – but they cannot be reduced to the individual because the theory relies on the notion of group identity.
Because of its internal complexity and single-minded focus on oppression, intersectionality is riddled with divisions and subcategories, which exist in competition with each other. Some insist that straight black men are the “white people of black people”. Gay men and lesbians may be considered transphobic for not being attracted to the opposite sex trans people, and Asians and Jews may be stripped of their marginalised identities due to comparative economic success.
The attempt to “respect” all marginalised identities at once, as unique voices with the inherent, unquestionable wisdom connected to their cultural groups, can produce conflict and contradiction. We saw this when criticising black rap musicians for lyrics about murdering gay people was seen as racism. Similarly when ethnic minority beauticians were sued for refusing to wax the testicles of a man who identified as a woman. Rather than uniting oppressed groups as intersectionality claims is its aim there is unending argument and division.
There is a virtual caste system based on Theorised states of oppression. Social Justice in the contemporary sense is therefore markedly different from the activism for universal human rights that characterised the civil rights movement. These liberal, egalitarian approaches sought and seek to equalise opportunities by criminalising discrimination, remedying disenfranchisement, and defeating bigotry by making prejudice on the grounds of immutable characteristics socially unacceptable.
Intersectionality has gone viral and rapidly taken on new applications, especially in activism. In 2017, Crenshaw herself observed that intersectionality had both expanded beyond her intended scope and also become a way of talking about complicated intersections of marginalised identity, rather than doing anything to alleviate oppression.
The beliefs that the decline in racist attitudes has largely been a mirage and that white people only allow people of colour rights and opportunities when it is in their interest to do so can produce profound paranoia and hostility, especially among activists, on college campuses, and within competitive workplace environments.
Critical race Theory’s hallmark paranoid mindset, which assumes racism is everywhere, always just waiting to be found, is extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it. Always believing that one will be or is being discriminated against, and trying to find out how, is unlikely to improve the outcome of any situation.
Noble ends, terrible means
Critical race Theory and intersectionality aim to end racism by making everyone more aware of race at all times and places. There is an assumption that racism is normal and permanent and the problem is primarily that people – particularly white people are failing to see, acknowledge and address it. For CRT proponents like Robin DiAngelo the question is not “Did racism take place?” for that is to be assumed, but rather “How did racism manifest in that situation?” That is, we are to assume that racism is always taking place and our job is to examine situations for evidence of it. This follows from the belief that “all members of society are socialised to participate in the system of racism, albeit in varied social locations” and that “all white people benefit from racism regardless of intentions”.
The core problems with criticical race Theory are that it puts social significance back into racial categories and inflames racism, tends to be purely Theoretical, uses the postmodern knowledge and political principles, is profoundly aggressive, asserts its relevance to all Social Justice, and – not least – begins from the assumption that racism is both ordinary and permanent, everywhere and always.