Critical race theory (CRT) has become the cultural wedge issue of 2021. An important question is what will be CRT’s effect on the future of freedom.
Because CRT assumes a finite economic pie and posits all economic interactions as zero-sum, the continuing adoption of CRT in American society will necessarily lead the US away from free markets and further down the road to serfdom.
Critical race theory is a subset of critical theory. Critical theory is the world view which holds that oppression along race, class, and gender lines is the distinguishing attribute of Western civilization, both currently and historically.
As a variant of critical theory, critical race theory emphasizes racism in the “intersectionality” of race, class, and gender exploitation.
CRT’s view of historical change stands diametrically opposed to that of libertarianism and historical liberalism (i.e., “classical liberalism.”) Libertarianism attributes recent centuries’ monumental advances in wealth and the standard of living to the protection of individual natural rights to life, liberty, and property.
Moreover, libertarians believe that economic freedom creates positive-sum exchanges among individuals and between racial groups and greatly expands a civilization’s overall economic pie.
Critical race theorists (CRTs) hold a fundamentally different perspective. CRTs believe that the world economic pie has mostly shifted, not grown, from the Third World to the First World since the advent of capitalism.
CRTs maintain that racial oppression in the form of slavery, segregation, imperialism, colonialism, and expropriation of indigenous lands explains, for example, why the US today, with 4.25 percent of the world’s population, possesses 29.9 percent of the world’s wealth.
Internationally, CRTs note that Western imperialism and colonialism extracted valuable resources such as slaves and oil from the Third World. To CRTs, imperialism and colonialism explain today’s Western economic prosperity.
And within the US, CRTs hold that wealth and economic power have been appropriated by whites from blacks and Hispanics through slavery and segregation, and from Native Americans through the confiscation of aboriginal lands.
The primary metric used by CRTs in differentiating oppressor racial groups from oppressed racial groups is each group’s overall wealth and income. Because whites possess a disproportionately large share of wealth, power, and privilege in the US today, CRTs view whites as the oppressor racial group.
Because blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans possess a disproportionately small share of America’s wealth, power, and privilege, CRTs view them as the oppressed racial groups. (Note that Asian Americans are highly inconvenient to the CRT orthodoxy since they significantly outearn whites.)
For example, because blacks comprise 12.4 percent of the US population, yet are less than 12.4 percent of America’s doctors, lawyers, and engineers, CRTs claim the US is “systemically racist” against blacks. Since Hispanics and Native Americans are also underrepresented in America’s white-collar professions, CRT makes the same claim for these two groups.
CRT believes that concepts such as white supremacy, white privilege, and institutional and systemic racism are valid and applicable to the US, both currently and historically. Systemic racism means that it’s primarily “the system,” and not necessarily individual racists, that makes America a racist society today.
Because whites possess a disproportionate share of economic power, in the form of resources and income, and since CRT downplays the creation of new wealth, “the racist US system” today works inexorably to perpetuate white privilege and social and racial injustices.
The economic disparities between whites and blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, according to CRT, remain locked in, and, short of robust affirmative action programs or even racial reparations, the racial playing field will never be leveled.
Along the same lines, CRTs either deemphasize the contemporary breakdown of the black family and urban black-on-black crime as reasons for black economic disparities or attribute the presence of these social phenomena to systemic racism itself.
Unfortunately for its credibility, CRT often utilizes systemic racism as a circular tautology, employing the concept of “systemic racism” to whitewash any weaknesses in its paradigm.
An additional corollary to CRT is that members of oppressed racial groups cannot be individual racists themselves. According to CRT, blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans lack the economic power relative to whites to be racist and discriminatory against whites.
Contrary to what most of today’s CRT adversaries claim, the ideas of CRT have been manifest since the 1950s. The Catholic Church’s liberation theology in Latin America beginning in the mid-1950s, the popular 1977 television miniseries Roots, Howard Zinn’s 1980 A People’s History of the United States, and protests against the 1992 quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America all employed CRT ideas.
Also, today’s affirmative action programs and racial reparations proposals are predicated on the assumptions of CRT. As early as 1965, in a commencement address at Howard University, President Lyndon Johnson spoke of using government to level the racial playing field because “freedom is not enough.”
CRT’s most noteworthy current venture is the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” The 1619 Project holds that racial oppression, in the form of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, is a feature, not a bug, of American history.
Within the last year, efforts to publicize CRT by prominent opponents such as Christopher F. Rufo of the Manhattan Institute have made CRT a household word.
Almost single-handedly, Rufo initiated successful efforts in nine Republican states to ban the teaching of CRT in public schools and to prohibit implementing the principles of CRT in government agencies.
Rufo’s remarkable achievements are largely due to his ability to equate CRT, not with the simple proposition that racial oppression is America’s distinctive characteristic, but instead with some of its most overzealous efforts.
For example, in his research Rufo found that Seattle Public Schools taught its teachers that American schools were guilty of the “spirit murder” of black children; third graders in Cupertino, California, were asked to “rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege’”; Sandia National Labs held a three-day camp for white males with the aim of “exposing their white privilege” and “deconstructing white male culture”; and the US Treasury Department hosted a training session in which employees were told that “virtually all White people contribute to racism.”
But the primary damage from CRT lies in its false assumptions about the source of wealth and power in America and the West, not the extreme examples Rufo cites above. Almost all Americans, including most CRTs, would disapprove of the measures Rufo has cataloged.
Yet many Americans today do believe that free, capitalist societies are dog-eat-dog, cutthroat states of nature, a false dogma derived in part from CRT.
Rufo correctly recognizes that the vast majority of Americans today are neither neo-Marxist, anti-American, supporters of affirmative action, or adherents of CRT. Yet Rufo greatly underestimates the extent to which racial tolerance is a salient moral value for a majority of twenty-first-century Americans.
Today’s Great Awokening is built to capitalize on this support; CRT benefits enormously from this reality. The $10.6 billion raised during the last six months of 2020 by “Black Lives Matter-related causes” is testament to this moral phenomenon.
Of course, liberty-minded people also support racial tolerance but understand there is not a conflict between racial tolerance and individual freedom.
On the other hand, many Americans are willing to sacrifice some fundamental freedoms, like free speech, due process, and property rights, and ostracize persons deemed insufficiently racially tolerant, to “level” the racial playing field. This is the basis of today’s cancel culture.
For these Americans, combating systemic racism is their overriding moral goal, which for them trumps all concerns for the freedom of individuals.
Rather than supporting the banning of CRT in public schools and federal agencies, Americans should promote outlawing the collection of individuals’ racial and ethnic information on government forms at the federal, state, and local levels, including the decennial census. Private companies should immediately follow this lead.
And before these efforts are complete, social media campaigns should be launched to discourage Americans from furnishing their racial and ethnic data to any government agency or private business.
CRT cannot survive without the voluntary compliance of Americans supplying the state with their racial classification.
A critical mass of 20–25 percent of Americans withholding their racial information on government paperwork would be the death knell for CRT generally and programs such as affirmative action and racial reparations specifically.
Americans need to recognize the grave threat that CRT represents to the future prospects for liberty. Because those Americans who accept CRT’s key moral conviction—that economic prosperity results from racial oppression, not individual wealth creation—will never fully embrace free minds and free markets.
This analysis originally published by Mises Institute.