Guest post: The Negro Subversive on Critical Race Theory

My friend The Negro Subversive (henceforth “TNS”) is a blogger, writer, and former grad student who tweets and also blogs at his Substack, The Negro Subversive. He’s a pan-Africanist and socialist, so as you can imagine we’ve had many lively and interesting discussions over the years.

I asked TNS to do a guest post, and for his topic he chose Critical Race Theory. CRT has been in the news a lot, though no one can seem to agree on what it actually is. Some declare that the term “CRT” should only apply to the original (rather obscure) academic theory, while others seem to use it to mean “any discussion of racism whatsoever”. Most people’s intuitive perception of the term’s meaning is probably somewhere in between. Opinion polling on the issue is all over the place, with some polls showing parents strongly against the teaching of “CRT” in schools, while other polls showing them strongly in support. The hopeless confusion about the term’s actual definition is probably a big reason for the confusion of the debate itself.

In this post, TNS attempts to cut through that confusion by explaining CRT not as a theory about racism or a collection of historical facts, but as a way of doing social science. Basically, he conceives of CRT as being an analysis of social science through the lens of racial power dynamics — basically, discarding objectivity as a hopeless goal, and analyzing research by assessing the racial interests of the researchers themselves.

I should note that I pretty strongly disagree with this idea. I’ve already written why I disagree, in a May post entitled “Why politically guided science is bad”. In short, I think giving up on the pursuit of objective truth robs us of lots of useful understanding, even if the goal of perfect objectivity is impossible.

But there are certainly powerful arguments on the other side of that question, and TNS is someone whose perspective I have learned never to discount. So read on…

If you ask the average person where the Western social sciences came from, they’ll probably look at you puzzled, then mumble something about how the triumphs of the “scientific revolution” led certain people in certain places to seek a “science of society.” As with all common oversimplifications, they’d be right in a sense, but they’d be ignoring most of the story. More particularly, they’d be ignoring why a fault line of that story is core to the current “debate,” over critical race theory.

There are today three things floating around under the name: “Critical Race Theory'': The first is the original intellectual framework out of legal academia; the second is educational theorists applying this intellectual framework to the study of education; the third and most recent is a buffoonish ploy by Republicans seeking to win back Congress. Critical Race Theory being used to study education goes back to 1995, and didn’t become a point of public controversy until it was weaponized by political operatives. The buffoonish ploy relies on rhetorical pungency to generate moral hysteria, but even it draws on something real and, from the standpoint of most American Conservatives, sincerely threatening. So, while I recognize the importance of reserving to the legal framework its prerogative of actually being Critical Race Theory, we must recognize that there is more than simply the adoption of a scary name at play.

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory’s founders sought to understand how a society that had officially disowned racism managed to continue being racist. Academically, Critical Race Theorists departed from Critical Legal Studies (CLS), which arose from legal thinkers realizing that law and the courts existed in the same sociological, economic, historical and political reality as the rest of society. Therefore, to understand how law impacts society, we must understand how law exists in society, which means applying insights from the fields that study society: the social sciences. One key insight of CLS is that law is not just an outcome of statutory authority, nor is it a system of deductive reasoning leading objectively to one “right,” outcome; but that the way it is applied, enforced and interpreted is an outcome of social power. This insight made Critical Legal Studies a logical jumping off point, within legal academia, for those seeking to understand law’s application as an outcome of racial power.

Civil rights lawyers using legal scholarship to pursue justice in legal academia, and racial justice-minded law students demanding law schools give them the resources to continue the work of generations before them, created Critical Race Theory out of Critical Legal Studies. 

Derrick Bell, the acknowledged progenitor of Critical Race Theory, who started his legal career with the NAACP’s legal department working under Thurgood Marshall, pioneered the study of law as an instrument of racial power. Law student, now professor, Kimberele Crenshaw and her comrades built on Bell’s insights to create an activist-intellectual movement. This is Critical Race Theory’s dual genealogy: Social science perspectives informing the study of law meets the quest for racial justice as a framework for studying the law. 

What all three social objects under the name “Critical Race Theory,” have in common is the idea of politicizing the allegedly apolitical. The fear of politicizing the apolitical has generated the recent backlash, its commitment to hyperbole notwithstanding. That the allegedly apolitical is actually always already political motivates both the legal academic framework and its application to understanding schools as social institutions. It’s notable that both sides of the recent debate claim to fight in the name of objectivity. Both claim to fight for the schoolhouse as a place of training and learning for the betterment of society. That last part, “the betterment of society,” is important, because while both sides claim to be preserving the integrity of American education in the name of facts, they also draw on a vision of what society should be. We find this explicitly in a critique of “critical race theory” by Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts, who said he wanted schools to teach things that would “bring us together as Americans.” We find this in a Tweet from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “Critical Race Theory doesn’t bring us together, it further sows divide in our country.” We see this all over the Conservative side of the discussion, the idea that Critical Race theory, the 1619 project and anything in their vein, are inaccurate as well as divisive. It may seem that the social sciences must sit quietly on the sidelines of such nakedly political wrangling, facts held demurely in hand for whichever side will be bothered with them. To the contrary, this is their fight and always has been.

It’s easy to forget that the tools we use to understand the world are a part of the world; that history has a history, sociology a sociology, economics its own economics, political science its own political science etc. They are not bracketed off from the world behind a stone wall of objectivity, any more than courts occupy some lofty place away from the influence of the powerful. The Western social sciences emerged from curiosity about how society functioned; but this curiosity became more common among the elite, and was influential, funded and listened to, because of the role it could play in the social and political life of its time and place. 

The roots of social science in the West

The time and place was 18th and 19th century Europe. Let me first free what I'm about to narrate, in brief, from any claims of inherent universal significance. Western history has global significance only because Europeans and European colonists once seized power across most of the earth. 

Out of social forces many call modernity, came the pattern of thought called “classical liberalism." Classical liberalism, in brief, hinged on a belief in human equality, and that social order should rest on this premise; that individuals are equal before the law and politically equal. It goes without saying that this had many exceptions in practice, and that its philosophers routinely sold-out the rights of humanity to bourgeois profits. Nevertheless, new regimes built on these ideas emerged; and a new class of rulers found that, having done away with feudalism’s intellectual chains forged from scripture, they needed new mental fetters that would bind the masses to new states and a new social order. The nation and nationalism answered this call. While the nation as an idea had been around for centuries; in the West’s so-called age of revolutions, leaders found it useful to emphasize, expand and deepen the national idea into something called nationalism. Though royalty and nobles had long swapped Europe’s lands and peoples back and forth like private property, now, revolutionary commoners could claim they belonged to captive nations crushed under the boots of foreign rulers to justify revolution, to justify union into larger states and to dissolve great powers. Ernest Gellner defines nationalism as the idea that the state and the nation should be identical. Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, three of the most well known scholars of nationalism, agree that a nation is a social group made up of people who think they’re a nation, or as Anderson would put it, who “imagine,” they are. The new social sciences helped this process along, through new information about the collective pasts of groups with common soil, common customs and common tongues. They offered grand theories about what it means to be a nation, how nations come into being, how they triumph and how they fall. In turn, the new nation-states made use of this deep understanding for justifying, creating and preserving social cohesion.

"Nation," and "race," formed in the same womb. The easy explanation for why the peoples of the earth had different customs was that they were fundamentally different. This also helped explain why, at that moment, Europeans were conquering much of the globe; that it was just the natural order of things. Scientific racism was “scientific,” precisely because it claimed to be “social science,” and if we define social science as what social scientists do, it frequently was. One major explanatory schema of the early social sciences was “Social Darwinism.” In fact, the phrase “survival of the fittest,” was coined, not by Charles Darwin, but by an early, now widely discredited, social scientist, Herbert Spencer; who believed that progress came through the superior triumphing over the inferior. This schema worked for dominant classes against the classes they exploited; colonizing states against the peoples they colonized; nation-state majorities against the minorities they terrorized and; of course, exploiting, colonizing, terrorizing, colonizing races against the races they exploited, colonized and terrorized. 

The social sciences therefore rose in the midst of various national projects and served to justify them. Their (very incomplete) transition away from this heritage has traced an arc similar to their growth toward greater objectivity. The legacy of this transition continues, as the social sciences both reflect and condition how the public thinks about society. The fault lines of the critical race theory “debate,” reflect the fault lines early social science practitioners faced as they developed their disciplines out of “social philosophy,” into social science. Recognizing that these faults still condition our thinking about the social world is crucial to recognizing what’s at stake right now.

Pioneering social scientists W.E.B. Du Bois, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber did their work and made their contributions in the midst of three different national projects. Du Bois worked amidst a nation that had lost its founding social institution, chattel slavery; to a civil war, and was now reforging its “bonds of affection,” over the battered bodies of a Black “nation within a nation.” A captive population that, while legally included in the nation, was functionally excluded in all areas of its societal life. Weber did his work as Germany was willed into being out of a melange of German speaking states, forcing him to grapple with the basic “stuff,” of nationality. Durkheim was a French Jew whose French nationalism was challenged by an affair that brought ardent anti-semitism forth out of the center of French nationality.

Just 24 years after the creation of Germany, in addressing a “Polish question,” around the economic displacement of Germans by Polish migrants, Weber argued that social scientists should analyze economic problems with an eye to upholding the well-being of the society they live in, for “reasons of state.” He argued Poles were an “inferior race,” that was able to outcompete civilizationally superior Germans because Poles were naturally accustomed to lower standards of living. While leaving room for Polish assimilation, provided not too many crossed the border at once, he yet argued that the ultimate end of German economic policy should be ensuring that the Germans have descendants who resemble them. This was textbook Social Darwinism. Later, particularly after consuming the work of W.E.B Du Bois, and a 1904 visit to the United States where they met, established a correspondence, and secured Du Bois’s commitment to publish an article on the “Negro problem,” in a journal Weber edited; Weber came to see race less as an objective reality and more as an unscientific way of justifying human hierarchy. 

Weber’s shift is interesting, because he remained a German nationalist throughout. We may ask, what is scientific about economists and sociologists deliberately serving “reasons of state?” Weber’s model of scientific objectivity deals with this in part by making a distinction between “ends” and “means,” the goal you set and how you meet it; he argued that you may choose whatever end goal you like; the social sciences are to judge if you’ve chosen the best way to meet it, they aren’t to tell you what goal to pursue.

Weber was able to draw heavily on Du Bois’s work, because Du Bois had grappled full-time with the problem of difference within nation-states. The Black American sociologist started off accepting that races existed, but insisted that they were more historical and sociological than biological. As early as 1897, in an address titled “On the Conservation of Races,” he argued that the evidence gave no quarter to a biological taxonomy of racial groups; that whatever precise physical badges of race one found, variation within races immediately rendered false. He therefore accounted for observed cultural distinctions, without quixotic flights in search of tell-tale skull measurements. He further argued that nothing about racial differences prevented groups living side by side within their own cultures, or as Du Bois put it, their own “ideals of life,” so long as they shared broad national ideals. Unlike other social scientists, he saw nothing wrong with a group functioning as a distinct social organism with its own institutions, while also receiving full equality in the larger society. Du Bois identified the lack of such peaceful co-existence as a “social problem;” a term he used to describe a society failing to live up to its own ideals. Du Bois’s response was: Objectivity. 

He established the first school of scientific sociology in the United States as a professor at the predominantly Black Atlanta University. From his pioneering study of Black Philadelphia, to yearly conferences gathering together the best research and data on the so-called “Negro problem,” Du Bois invested his boundless energy and mighty intellect into wielding facts against the lies of White race-mystics. Overtime, however, Du Bois saw that he was not dealing with a simple failure of mass information, but the raw expression of racial power. If Du Bois, ever the scientist, needed evidence that he dealt not with a sedate republic of reasoners, but a frenzied bloodthirsty, power-mad mob, it would’ve been piled upon him, year by year, day by day, murder by murder, massacre by massacre. In response, he turned to activism, helping to create the NAACP. Eventually, Du Bois was forced to leave the NAACP because of his increasing belief that organized, voluntary separation was a superior effort to integration in the face of violent resistance. 

France, through the French Revolution and Napoleon’s empire building, played a central role in the rise of both Western social science and nationalism. The French were the first on the continent to throw off feudal shackles, and many of classical liberalism’s chief theorists were French. The idea of France as a beacon of liberty and reason to a world groping its way out of a repressive, superstitious past, was central to its national identity. One ardent believer in this French exceptionalism was Emile Durkheim, another founder of sociology. Durkheim was a secular Frenchman of Jewish heritage, who originally argued that the collective consciousness of society arose out of its economic relations, and that therefore, a society organized along modern industrial economic lines would no longer have room for the divisive prejudices of its past. The Dreyfus Affair, and the wave of riotous antisemitism it unleashed, undermined this belief and convinced him that the nation had to be deliberately created if it was to be rational and inclusive, and that a productive national consciousness could only come about through education. We may say he ended up where Du Bois started, and as Du Bois but not Durkheim would live to see, in terrible revelations out of the Nazi death camps, and as we can see in today’s fascist resurgences; the problem is not nearly solved, not in America, not in Europe, not anywhere within the global Western excrescence.

All three men grappled with what a nation is; whether it was an organic growth out of common biology or a structure of human constitution. Du Bois and Durkheim discovered the relative impotence of their ideas and research for making social change, when up against the captivating power of folk understandings built on racist mysticism and pseudo-social sciences.

Weber’s grappling with objectivity helps us think through this impotence. It’s worth noting that he is the only one of these three who is not of a persecuted minority group, so perhaps he felt less of a stake in trying to redeem Western society from itself. Weber’s idea about means and ends, that only means can be objective, not ends, sheds light on the current critical race theory “debate,” as more than a buffoonish ploy, as a true and even informed opposition to the goal sought by the intellectual framework Critical Race Theory. 

“Objectivity” hides a simple power struggle

Conservatives and Liberals both seek national cohesion, but differ on how to achieve it, because they want it for different reasons. Conservatives seek to preserve the nation-state on behalf of the racial nation, what they see as the European founding stock; while liberals seek to preserve it as an abstract legal idea which anyone can join, and whose ideals any population can exemplify. With these two differing "ends," the differing “means” make more sense. For a Social Darwinist, social inequality results from certain groups: classes, races etc. failing to compete effectively, therefore, all society and the law owes them is an even playing field on which to keep being defeated. Even past injustices are simply less polite examples of the fittest surviving, so if the playing field is unequal because of that, it's just more proof of ancestral superiority. 

One major critique Critical Race Theory makes is of “equality before the law,” as justice. These theorists argue that because law is the outcome of social and racial power, “equality” ultimately ends up reproducing the status quo. A Social Darwinist perspective holds that the status quo should be reproduced, because it has demonstrated its excellence by virtue of being in a position to impose itself. The best concession this worldview makes to the human rights of those who lose in this war of all against all, is that they are lucky to live in victorious societies, where they can eat their betters' leftovers. Social and nation-state cohesion, in this telling, require that they accept their places with humble gratitude and a slight chance that by playing the game as the victors have laid it out, they can earn one of the few spots reserved for “exceptions.”

Considered this way, the anti and pro-CRT camps are equally objective in their claims. They want American education and law to do different things because they want to achieve different things with them. Even if you could convince those of a Social Darwinist view that human groups are all equal and the West hasn’t conquered through genetic or cultural superiority, you still wouldn't necessarily convert them to the CRT, pro-racial justice camp. Why? Because wanting the White race to be dominant and thinking it deserves dominance is no no less, and certainly no more, objective than wanting the United States to survive at all. To want the existing global liberal order to survive is no more or less objective than wanting a fascist White ethnostate to rule Europe and the Western hemisphere while enslaving the rest of the globe. These are all choices we as human beings make and fight for or against.