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Crumbs off the Masters’ Table: A radical critique of Critical Race Theory
There is a fundamental contradiction between the philosophical and analytical foundations of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its policy conclusions. This reveals the true historical role of CRT...
Written by Aldo Rustichini.
The thesis I develop here is that there is a fundamental contradiction between the philosophical and analytical foundations of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its policy conclusions. This contradiction perhaps reveals the true historical role of CRT.
CRT's analytical underpinnings can be traced back to anticolonial thought, which emerged primarily in the 1960s, and ideas associated with the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X are prominent figures representing these respective intellectual traditions. This system of thought had clear political implications: the total separation of the colonized from their colonizers. For colonized nations, the political agenda promoted swift and comprehensive independence, severing all ties with colonial powers. In Western countries like the United States, Black Nationalism arose as the counterpart to decolonization.
Black Nationalism, once a prominent movement, has largely faded into the past, whether as external emigration or internal statism. In today's practical politics, CRT-inspired proposals include a systematic and open transfer of wealth between groups, reassessing the justice system to introduce differential treatment based on race or gender, and implementing differential policies in hiring practices. The disparity between the analytical foundation, which advocates separation, and the actual political proposals embodies CRT's fundamental contradiction.
CRT often proclaims lofty ideals, such as "an ethical commitment to human liberation" (CRT Key Writings, page xiii), aligning with the fundamental values of Western civilization. However, these commitments are short-lived. When faced with real-world challenges, the political program narrows in scope, focusing on specific beneficiaries. For instance, consider the defense of affirmative action against color blindness (CRT, An Introduction, page 132). In essence, this program prioritizes making the most of forced cohabitation rather than pursuing true liberation. But why?
In tracing CRT's philosophical lineage, it is common to highlight its roots in revolutionary thought, particularly Critical Theory. A recent analysis identifies the first progenitor of CRT as Tupac-Amaru, who led an indigenous revolt against Spanish rule in Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Captured by the Spanish, he was forced to watch the execution of his wife and children before being mutilated, drawn and quartered, and ultimately beheaded. He was far from a mere community organizer.
The idea of continuity between CRT and past revolutionary thought is prevalent among both progressive and conservative thinkers. The former claim for CRT this tradition as evidence of noble revolutionary origins (one can see this development, step by step, in the annotated bibliography). The latter (see, for example, the analysis of Christopher Rufo, or the Cynical Theories book of Pluckrose and Lindsay) point to this heritage as evidence of damning links to a Marxist tradition.
However, these interpretations on both sides of the political divide may be too generous to the broader philosophical endeavor. CRT represents the culmination of an inward-turning evolution of black nationalism, shifting from an initial emphasis on pride, self-reliance, and confidence in black people's capabilities (as exemplified by early conservative leaders like Martin Delany, Alexander Crummel, Booker T. Washington, or WEB Du Bois' "The Conservation of Races" or "The Talented Tenth") to a narrative of victimhood and demands for compensation.
A comprehensive assessment of this history would necessitate an entire book. For now, we will concentrate on one of anticolonial thought's giants, Frantz Fanon, and his seminal early analysis, written when he was just 27. Fanon focused on the relationship between colonizer and colonized (or dominant and dominated) in "Black Skin, White Masks."
First and foremost, Fanon's work focuses on the phenomenology (analysis of lived experiences) of oppression. He doesn't dwell on wage disparities, achievement gaps, or residential neighborhoods. Instead, he steers clear of the statistical indices that form the backbone of modern critical thought. Fanon argues that domination begins when one group adopts the values of another, emphasizing the importance of groups' relative perceptions of each other. For instance, in the first chapter of "Black Skin, White Masks," he contends that language use reveals group preferences, as an Antillean may speak perfect French to impress their masters. Subordinate groups often attempt to mimic dominant ones.
Fanon also explores how oppression shapes the psychology of both oppressed and oppressor: "I am speaking here of alienated (duped) blacks and on the other of no less alienated (duping and duped) whites." Accepting these premises leads to an inescapable conclusion, which Fanon explicitly draws in The Wretched of the Earth. Violence is not just a tactical means to vanquish an enemy or defeat military forces; it has a cathartic value that purges lingering effects of domination from the colonized's mind and severs ties with the colonizer.
To a Marxist, black consciousness may seem like a simple substitution of "class" with "black," hardly a groundbreaking theoretical innovation. However, the political implications are evident. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon addresses the need for black consciousness to arise, specifically in the third chapter. He asserts that without raising the consciousness of colonial people, decolonization leadership would remain in the hands of the urban bourgeoisie, who only pursue their financial self-interest. Having observed the Haitian revolution, Fanon learned from its outcomes. His insights in this chapter are prophetic, as they predict the failures of post-colonial history in former colonies and attribute these failures to the corruption of their ruling classes.
Today there is very little left of this. The line derived from Bell's analysis is probably the closest to the political proposal of black nationalism. In Racial realism, Bell states:
Racial equality is [...] not a realistic goal. By constantly aiming for a status that is unobtainable in a perilously racist America, black Americans face frustration and despair. Over time, our persistent quest for integration has hardened into self-defeating rigidity.
However, one may wonder why there is a persistent emphasis on cohabitation in America. Is the purpose merely, as Bell suggests later on page 378, to "harass the white folks"?
A more recent concern is the rise of the concept of Critical Consciousness, particularly inspired by Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This paper explores the latest trend in progressive pedagogy development, called Critical Consciousness. James Lindsay seems to take Freire seriously, but perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to grant Freire a degree in Marxism. Freire wasn't necessarily a Marxist thinker, lacking both Marxism and critical thinking. For instance, Freire wrote and published his magnum opus (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968) in Spanish while working for the Frei government in Chile (Kirkendall, chapter 3), the same Frei who later supported the Armed Forces' intervention against Allende in 1973.
One might argue that a new proposal for black nationalism is no longer a credible or practical political solution for the contemporary United States. However, that is precisely the point. The logical conclusion of the analysis is no longer widely deemed relevant. Why was it considered a realistic political solution in the sixties but not now? What exactly has changed?
The fortunes of black nationalism in the United States have been inversely proportional to the condition of black people. As W.J. Moses has analyzed, the golden age of black nationalism occurred between one of the darkest moments for black people (the 1850 Compromise, particularly the Fugitive Slave Act) and Marcus Garvey's imprisonment. Therefore, it should not be surprising that black nationalism's fortunes are low today. Despite this, we see rhetoric seemingly preparing for its revival but failing to propose any form of independence; in fact, it insists on forced integration.
Has the separation project, in whatever form one might present it, become more challenging or easier compared to when Frantz Fanon was developing his analysis? Undoubtedly easier. Colonialism is dead and buried. Western countries have become weaker demographically, militarily, and economically. The USA has become more divided, and the power and influence of people of color have increased.
What is new are two factors: first, the poor performance of former colonies after independence; second, the persistent gap in all economic and social indicators across groups. In the biting definition given by Draper (in the article preceding his classic book), black nationalism was a fantasy in two historical steps: first, a creation of whites to get rid of blacks, and then a creation of blacks to get rid of whites. Perhaps black nationalism was, and even more so now, a fantasy.
In this situation, pursuing the crumbs that fall from the masters' table might seem like a convenient solution. However, it is not a program for fundamental transformation, which is what we were promised initially. And if this is the case, then it would be wiser to tone down the rhetoric suited to the heroic age of anticolonial and anti-slavery struggle without following up with the political implications. Even if the crumbs are worth five million per head.
Aldo Rustichini is an Italian-born American economist. He is a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota, where he researches, among other topics, decision theory, game theory, general equilibrium theory, and bounded rationality. He has degrees in philosophy, economics, and mathematics.