Racism and Critical Race Theory Part 1 The Current Conversation
Volume 27, Issue 1, January 2021
Among the most pressing issues of our times are those surrounding systemic racism. I write this even in light of an extremely important Presidential election and being engulfed in the Covid-19 pandemic because, as important as these other two issues are, racism has become so divisive and explosive that it has the potential of shaping our world for years to come. Volumes have been written and spoken on this subject from every persuasion, and my comments will likely add little. However, as issues concerning racism are not only cultural but also spiritual, it is important that we examine how racial debates and disagreements are affecting Christians and the church. In trying to get a handle on the recent social unrest and the factors behind it, we will approach the subject in four steps:
- Examine the current conversation, including an understanding of terms being used;
- Present an overview of the Christian history leading up to the present unrest, including progressive views stemming from the 1960s and 1970s;
- Investigate the claims of Critical Race Theory, racism, and social justice in light of Scripture, including how unbiblical answers color our understanding of the gospel, the church, and the Scriptures; and
- Discuss appropriate biblical responses and actions going forward.
Examination of the current conversation
It is important to understand that what is taking place at this time in our society, and often within the church, is a clash of worldviews. A worldview is like a lens through which we view everything around us. How we perceive events, our communications, and our ideas are all processed through our worldview lens. There have always been numerous worldview options available at any given time. All of them, except for the biblical worldview, are to be challenged, exposed, and resisted (2 Cor 10:5; Col 2:8). The names and specific philosophies behind these worldviews change over time and in various cultures, but the basic solution remains the same.
Before we look at some particulars, we need to lay a foundation upon which to build, starting with the biblical mandate found in Scripture, and the example of Christ, to be fanatically anti-racist. Therefore, as those who draw our understanding of life, people, and God from the Bible, we know immediately that all forms of racism are wrong and must be condemned. We begin with the understanding that the Lord created only one race – the human race. There are people with pigmentation in their skin that differs from others, and there are different ethnicities, but there are not multiple races. All humans are made in the image of God, and none is inferior to another (Gen 1:26-27). The concept that there are multiple races of people is a human construct, not a biological fact or a scriptural teaching.
Yet human history since the fall has been filled with racism, with all of its repercussions. There is a natural, sinful, prejudice in the human heart against those who are different from us, whether that difference be in appearance, language, culture, traditions, dress, or lifestyle. In ancient societies, people expected and even encouraged such hatred, and it did not disappear the moment one became a Christian. This hatred was a serious problem for the first Christians, as the New Testament testifies. When the Lord created the church, He determined it to be one body composed of all believers regardless of ethnicity or other differences. Specifically, the Lord filled His church with a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, which pleased neither group. Jews had long looked down on Gentiles as inferior, morally repugnant creatures, and Gentiles despised Jews for their attitudes, stubbornness, and unique traditions and beliefs.
Ephesians 2:11-22 fleshes out the details. Paul reminded the Gentiles that they had been separated from Christ and from God, but “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). He reminded both groups that the Lord had broken down the dividing barrier and made them into “one new man, thus establishing peace” (vv. 14-15). As a result, they were “no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (v.19). In Galatians 3:28, Paul summarized the unity of the church by saying simply, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For Christians, these foundational truths should have abolished all forms of racism and attitudes of superiority once and for all. Unfortunately, far too many have ignored the clear teaching of the New Testament and absorbed ideas and worldviews contrary to Scripture.
To understand the social unrest that has risen recently to terrifying levels not seen since the Civil Rights Movement, we have to unpack the definition of several key terms. Some, like Critical Race Theory, have been floating around the academy for years but now have exploded into the streets, with many participants having little concept of what it means. Other terms, like “whiteness,” seem newly minted, at least in their present use, and “cisgender,” “intersectionality,” and the like, have entered the vernacular of most only recently. Most importantly, the meaning of racism has been radically changed to fit the progressive views of Critical Race Theorists. Part of our problem is that the definitions for many terms have been changed, often with little notice. As John Stonestreet of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview says, “It is no good having the same vocabulary if we’re using different dictionaries.”[i]
Critical Race Theory
God’s people have always battled opposing philosophies and worldviews. In Colossians, Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elemental principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (2:8). In this context, Paul was referring to Greek philosophy, mysticism, and no doubt, Jewish legalism, all teachings that are contrary to Scripture. Rather than be deceived by these false worldviews Paul proclaimed in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that “we are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Instead of being deceived by corrupt systems and thought patterns, the Christian is to challenge and battle these ideologies.
The specific worldview that has recently captured the minds and hearts of many Americans, including many Christians, is that of Critical Race Theory (CRT). According to Owen Strachan, “At its core, CRT is a system of thought that advocates for the reorientation of both worldview and world. Our current order is based, to a significant degree, on unjust foundations grounded in white privilege and systemic racism… CRT leans heavily on power dynamics, viewing society as the allotment of power.”[ii] Strachan claims that CRT is similar to Marxism, which sees power resting in unjust institutional structures (largely economical), that must be overthrown and replaced. Although there is overlap with Marxist principles, CRT’s focus is primarily racial.
The Apologetics Resource Center adds,
Modern critical theory views reality through the lens of power. Each individual is seen either as oppressed or as an oppressor, depending on their race, class, gender, sexuality, and several other categories…. Critical theory is associated with a metanarrative that runs from oppression to liberation: we are members either of a dominant group or of a marginalized group with respect to a given identity marker. As such, we either need to divest ourselves of power and seek to liberate others, or we need to acquire power and liberate ourselves by dismantling all structures and institutions that subjugate and oppress. In critical theory, the greatest sin is oppression, and the greatest virtue is the pursuit of liberation.[iii]
CRT also embraces intersectionality – the idea that powerlessness is more prominent in marginalized people groups identified by race, class, sexuality, physical disability, and/or gender. These groups intersect so that the more marginalized groups one identifies with, the more powerless he or she is because those in power, according to CRT, have suppressed the powerless. Joseph Backholm, from the Colson Center, explains the dynamics of intersectionality well:
Intersectionality seeks to measure someone’s level of oppression based on how these group identities intersect in someone’s life. For example, a black man is less oppressed than a black woman, who is less oppressed than a black lesbian. In critical theory, the degree to which you are oppressed determines your level of moral authority. The more categories of oppression someone identifies with, the more moral authority they have. As a result, the experience and perspective of a gay, black, woman are more valuable than the experience and perspectives of a straight white man, regardless of what they have to say. In the same way, the more oppressed someone is, the less moral responsibility they have for their actions.[iv]
“Social justice,” occurs, according to Strachan, “When such groups are given agency they previously did not have and thus led, effectively, to the head of the societal line.”[v]
Woke is a related term. The woke “are those who have awakened to the need for intersectional justice such that these different groups are given cultural voice and societal power that these groups have been previously denied.”[vi] To be woke is:
1) To gain critical awareness intellectually of the inequalities of our world;
2) To realize that the solution is to correct power imbalances by advancing the interests of disadvantaged people groups; and
3) To create a just society that is free from oppression.
Eric Mason, the author of Woke Church, defines being woke as “no longer being naïve nor in mental slavery… [it is] a term for being socially aware of issues that have systemic impact…[it] has to do with seeing all of the issues and being able to connect cultural, socio-economic, philosophical, historical and ethical dots.”[vii] A tall order to say the least. Mason sees the core of being woke for the church as involvement in the issues that face the black community. “The Woke Church,” he writes, “must be in the business of doing something to stem the tide of injustice in our nation.”[viii]
The philosophy of postmodernism also influences CRT. In classical postmodernism, there is no absolute, universal truth. Everyone is entitled to their own truth claims, which are largely based on personal stories. Each person’s experience is therefore self-authenticating. No one can argue with or refute someone else’s experience or narrative. CRT’s unique twist on postmodernism (perhaps we could coin this worldview as post-postmodernism) is that each group (or tribe) has its own truth claims. We see this perspective in the popular book White Fragility, in which the author states that the reason we do not understand the issues is because of “two key Western ideologies: individualism and objectivity. Briefly, individualism holds that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups. Objectivity tells us that it is possible to be free of all bias.”[ix] Traditional postmodernism likewise would challenge objectivity, claiming that universal truth is a myth, but it would welcome individual truth claims. CRT’s twist allows groups, rather than individuals to assert truth claims but not all group truth claims are equal. The truth claims of marginalized groups trump the truth claims of all others, especially of those who are privileged and presently hold the reins of power, primarily white males.
CRT’s form of postmodernism, similar to classical postmodernism, is also based on stories, narrative, and experience rather than logical argument or reasoned thought. But in post-postmodernism, the stories and truth claims of disadvantaged people have preference over the stories and truth claims of those in power. The stories of those who have embraced white privilege must not challenge what the minority groups claim is true.
One of the most inflammatory terms now in vogue is “whiteness,” which is essential to the concept of wokeness. To be woke is to claim that all racism hinges on white privilege, white power, white suppression, white advantage, white solidarity, and all things white. Whiteness is the problem, but solving the problem of whiteness is proving to be most difficult. Robin DiAngelo admits that whiteness may not even be true but she insists it is real because, as she sees it, “Societies and rights and goods and resources and privileges have been built on its foundation.”[x] As a matter of fact, the concept of race, which she argues does not actually exist but is rather a social construct, was created to protect white advantage.[xi] It logically follows then that only white people can be racist, for, while blacks can be prejudiced, they can’t be racist[xii] (we will see why when we understand the reimagined definitions for racism). Throughout her book, White Fragility, DiAngelo admits it is virtually impossible to make much progress in overcoming whiteness because it is built into our social fabric. The best she has to offer is that whites should listen more, be less defensive, read books (written by those who are woke), and feel guilty and uncomfortable enough to lead to action.[xiii] Beyond those prescriptions, DiAngelo offers little hope for change. She writes,
An antidote to white fragility is to build up our stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that we cause [yet racism is less a choice than a condition] …. As I have tried to show throughout this book, white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions… the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided. The messages circulate 24-7 and have little or nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement.[xiv]
Despite DiAngelo’s comments, CRT holds privileged people responsible for both current and past wrongs related to race. Those privileged by “whiteness,” (racism depends upon skin pigmentation more than any other factor), are ordered to repent for their personal racist-related sins and injustices and also for the wrongs of others in the past. Not only should the privileged repent, but they should also take active steps to reorder their individual lives, community and country to atone for past wrongs – a perspective that drives the issue of reparations.
These definitions finally brings us to the subject of racism itself. There is probably nothing related to this subject that causes more anger, division, and resistance than calling someone a racist. It is the whole premise behind DiAngelo’s White Fragility which chastens whites to be less fragile, less defensive, and more open to CRT. It is at this point that a serious bait and switch takes place – advocates of CRT have changed the definition of racism to fit their theories and ignore the fact that the majority of people are still operating under the original, traditional, standard definition. By the time-honored description of racism, relatively few are racist, and thus rightly are defensive and angry to be accused of such. But by the definition of CRT, all whites are racists and no people of color can be.
Let’s take a closer look, first by turning to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary for a standard definition:
The belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.
A racist then, is one who looks down on others because of their skin color, nationality, ethnicity, and the like, and correspondingly viewing themselves as superior. By this definition DiAngelo views few people (including whites) as racists. But Scripture does not let us off the hook so easily. We are all systemic sinners, and build into our spiritual, fallen DNA, is the propensity and the natural draw toward all sins, racism included. Racism is a sin which must repeatedly be recognized, repented of, and by God’s grace rejected by the followers of Christ.
Returning to DiAngelo, we are astounded to read her admission that she will not attempt in White Fragility to prove that racism exists, nor to provide a solution.[xv] What she does do is change the meaning of racism to fit her unproven assumptions. Racism in the past, and as understood by the vast majority of people today, she states, is “intentional acts of racial discrimination committed by immoral individuals.”[xvi] DiAngelo claims in the post-civil rights era Americans have been taught that, “Racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race, racist are immoral.”[xvii] By this she means in the past some individuals (and these individuals were bad people) discriminated against others along racial lines and that was considered racism. Further, racism traditionally has included prejudice, which DiAngelo rejects in her definition: “To understand racism, we need to first distinguish it from mere prejudice and discrimination.[xviii] Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs… All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it.” If racism no longer involves mean-spirited individuals hating, looking down on, discriminating against, or being prejudiced against people of other races (which she admits does not exist but is socially constructed), then what is it and what can be done to change it?
The new definition, as articulated by Omowale Akintunde and quoted in White Fragility is, “Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality.”[xix] DiAngelo clarifies, “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors… Racism is a structure, not an event.”[xx] By this definition only whites can be racist because while “people of color can also hold prejudices and discriminate against white people, they lack the social and institutional power that transforms their prejudice and discrimination into racism; the impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual.”[xxi] Therefore, “only white people are in the position to oppress people of color collectively and throughout the whole of society.”[xxii]
Putting all the pieces together, the CRT definition of racism is “socialization engrained in Western whiteness in which white people have all the power, legally and institutionally, so that whiteness dominates every aspect of life in America.” It has nothing to do with individual choices, prejudices, or acts of discrimination. Racist is simply who and what white people are. And on top of this, DiAngelo believes little can be done about such racism: “Telling me to treat everyone the same is not enough to override this socialization; nor is it humanly possible. I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of color…. Most would not choose to socialize into racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that “choice.”[xxiii] The way forward, according to CRT advocates such as DiAngelo, is difficult if not impossible because, while the “full weight of responsibility rests with those who control the institutions,”[xxiv] there is precious little progress possible with this definition of racism and whiteness. Eric Mason would concur with these definitions but he calls on white Christians to “reach across the color line and begin building respect and trust for minorities. Minorities must respond with open arms and hearts to these efforts…. we would be light years ahead if minorities weren’t the only ones talking about racism.”[xxv]
Once CRT is accepted, it becomes the worldview lens through which all social justice issues are viewed. Only the woke will grasp the meaning of racism, intersectionality, whiteness, and all related concerns, and only by becoming woke is there hope for our society and churches. But before we examine whether CRT is biblical, we must first return to a similar time, a half-century ago, to discover that in many ways what we are experiencing now has deep roots in the past.
[i] As quoted in Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice by Scott David Allen (Grand Rapids: Credo House Publishers, 2020), p. 1.
[vii] Eric Mason, Woke Church, an Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018,), p. 25.
[viii] Ibid., p. 133.
[ix] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), p. 9.
[x] Ibid., p. X.
[xi] Ibid., p. 17.
[xii] Ibid., p. 22.
[xiii] Ibid., pp. 129-138, 146-148.
[xiv] Ibid., pp. 128-129.
[xv] Ibid., p. 5.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 9.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 13.
[xviii] Ibid., p. 19.
[xix] Ibid., p. 72.
[xx] Ibid., p. 20.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 22.
[xxii] Ibid., p. 83.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 69.
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 33.
[xxv] Mason, p. 163.