Sunday, June 19, 2022

2020's Woke-ism & CRT

This content was originally prepared for the option3 podcast.  I added an Update below on why I even approach this subject the way I did.

Critical Theory

Freedom would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices.

This blog is in some ways for my own edification.  I largely support CRT.  What I find interesting is the fuss it creates? That is what I try answer here. Many people think the BLM movement, which began around 2013, created critical race theory. The opposite is more true. And there were many steps involved.

According to wikipedia, Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical if it was “ to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”.  Horkheimer was a member of the Frankfurt school and published his greatest works before 1950. He is not THE progenitor of CT. He is among a network of key players.


"The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy distinguishes between Critical Theory (capitalized) as the product of several generations of German philosophers and social theorists of the Frankfurt School on the one hand, and any philosophical approach that seeks emancipation for human beings and actively works to change society in accordance with human needs (usually called "critical theory", without capitalization) on the other”.  Nothing here is too subversive unless you are an entrenched and entitlement White male in a Western nation.

Derrick Bell

We live in a system that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained.
        Derrick Bell, American lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist

Again we consult wiki, the building blocks of critical race theory began with the legal scholarship of Derrick Bell, who wrote a book titled Race, Racism, and American Law. Among other things, he took a critical view of desegregation - shifting the emphasis away from integration towards simply better education for black students. There were other relevant founders and innovators in the 1970’s but he was the center of gravity then.

This network of thinkers challenged notions of rationality, objectivity, and judicial neutrality.  They played a central role in bring prior academic ideas into a practical field of law.  They were critical of both the Left and the Right. That would continue under next generation of thinkers.

Critical Race Theory

[It] was our job to rethink what these institutions were teaching us…and to assist those institutions in transforming them into truly egalitarian spaces.
        Kimberlé Crenshaw, American lawyer, professor, and public intellectual

People first attribute CRT to Kimberlé Crenshaw.  The term itself originates from a workshop organized by Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, and Stephanie Phillips at the University of Wisconsin in 1989.  This cadre of thinkers began to build a larger critique of institutions themselves.  Those thinkers also include Angela Harris, Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams, according to the Middle Tennessee State University’s First Amendment Encyclopedia, which also emphasizes how CRT has today cross-pollinated fields such as education, political science, American studies, and ethnic studies.

This is 90’s woke-ism. My first interaction with these ideas was in Ed 40 in summer 95, a class that Professor Pedro Noguera designed.  He is now the Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.  It was my first class on the UCB campus.  Although these ideas call for deep structural reform, they don’t rely on hand-waving or irrationality.  

So what made CRT such a problem for people? Three factors I argue: Trump’s channeling of White male fear, BLM’s emphasis on the matters at hand, and the question of intersectionality.  Trump's bitterness and Neanderthal inspired openness of thought have intensified factors 1 and 2.  But intersectionality is even more unsettling for Trumpers.


Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.

Intersectionality was evolving idea in the 80’s.  Crenshaw formally coined the term in 1989. It looks at identity, discrimination, privilege, advantage, disadvantage, and countervailing balances between intersecting and overlapping identities that may empower or oppress an individual.  In practical terms, feminism was where one might apply intersectionality in its earliest years. Intersectionality does not simply accumulate prejudices but also help to determine if a compound prejudice or third intersectional prejudice may exist as Crenshaw saw Black women had faced in the 70’s.

As such and in conclusion, intersectionality is a precise sociological, legal, and philosophical tool through which to consider economic, moral, and legal injuries. That, in conjunction with the hot-button racial frameworks, is an emotionally charged third rail for people. When you add LGBTQIA protections and principles, you have a big and complex idea that very well may touch upon their own sexuality in a subconscious fashion.  Some people are not psychologically and linguistically evolved beyond being a 14th century teenager.  It becomes a complicated landscape for them. That is why I think people have such difficulty with CRT.

For me, CRT has a place among other methods to interpret social truth.  It's not a panacea but it's earned a place at the power table and need not threaten anyone who hasn't confronted their own inequity.


Questions of Lineage [An Update on 9/9/22]

There are five major components or tenets of CRT: (1) the notion that racism is ordinary and not aberrational; (2) the idea of an interest convergence; (3) the social construction of race; (4) the idea of storytelling and counter-storytelling; and (5) the notion that whites have actually been recipients of civil rights legislation. 
       Nicholas Daniel Hartlep, 

This morning or yesterday morning I was driving on 20 East to Atlanta to go to class - possibly my literary theory class - which covers essentially Lacan but spills into Afropessimism, Franz Fanon, and bell hooks and other non-White and sort of non-European subject and thinkers.  I was thinking to myself: did I error in connecting critical theory to CRT.  If I read the assessment of education Professor Hartlep at Berea College or that of philosopher and Professor Brian Leiter at the Uchicago Law School,  I might be mistaken.  But I will persist.  

While Hartlep omits the connection and Leiter directly discourages it, I cannot unwed critical theory and CRT.  Leiter does properly distinguishes deep differences - under the listings I to IV in his post - and says effort to connect them is 'blather in the humanities and social sciences'.  Points I and II reflect his deep training and capacity.  I would also agree that CRT is less ambitious philosophically but sometimes a knife is sufficient when an entire army is not.  

Why did I really revisit this subject?  Because I think it's strange that people don't more often recognize the Frankfurt school here.  It bespeaks a wound too recent to reveal.  People do not want to admit how strongly European ideas impact every single component of modern thought.  The next step in this trajectory IMO is the unification of Western and real African and real Indigenous ways of thought, speech, and being.  Asian thought, a most loaded term, is impacting global culture more.  It could take hundreds of years for a hybrid system to emerge; change is certainly coming.  And they may not unify in a Hegelian synthesis.  Western ideas may simply subside.

Note to Self: As wiki put it, Bell “employed three major arguments” regarding “constitutional contradiction, the interest convergence principle, and the price of racial remedies.”