What is Critical Race Theory?

When i discuss critical race theory, I feel like some people on this board are talking past one another.

I think critical race theory started off as a fringe legal concept that turned it’s back on logic and traditional analysis in favor of anecdote (lived experiences) and storytelling (narratives) and has somehow metastasized into other areas to explain racial disparities that defied explanation using traditional analysis.

It has some value in helping us explain some issues involving race but it should not be a core philosophical concept and I think for some people it has become the central philosophy of their world view.

I think in brief:

The important thing about CRT is that it grants insight into the fact that racism is not just the overt and deliberate actions of individuals, but that white privilege and racist assumptions are pervasive and habitual in our society.

The “lived experience” storytelling approach is valuable, but the problem is that it’s not just seen as a way to gain additional insight. With its postmodernist roots, CRT goes much further than that. It rejects most of the values of traditional liberalism. It adopts the preposterous postmodernist perspective that Enlightenment rationalism and the entire enterprise of science is arbitrary and unreliable since it’s just part of the white power structure. This perspective is not just wrong, but reinforces racial sterotypes, as though rational enquiry and reasoned argument is something only white people do.

So, like most of postmodern social theory, I think it’s a strange combination of extremely valuable insights and utter bullshit. And the bullshit parts are presented in a manner that is completely unfalsifiable; disputing any of its claims sets you up for the Kafkatrap.

I don’t understand how it’s illogical to add in lived experience and narratives of people who have not been heard when the narrative underpinning of our society is based mostly on one groups viewpoint. It seems to me that logic would demand having more data points in order to construct a proper narrative underpinning of society.

Because our society runs off narrative themes. And our values and focii are based on the stories we tell. So, yeah, it makes a lot of sense to bring in other stories (for example, if we did so earlier maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long to remove Confederate flags from statehouses in the US).

I would argue that just as with our Atheism debates there are strong postmodernists and weak postmodernists. Your example definitely exists, but there are also those postmodernists who say that science and the scientific method is real, important, and useful but the focus of scientific research is all too often done in the service of the dominant group. And scientific experimentation can be misused, often against those without power. Basically not a broadside against science itself but the way it is used.

Critical race theory is not incompatible with scientific viewpoints.

That stupid “the plural of anecdote is not data” misquote people love throwing around must be partly to blame. Actually, anecdotes are data, and dismissing them out of hand is the unscientific approach.


This. Especially in a white supremacist legal context, such as exists in the USA and other Western countries (and South Africa, too)

In most fields data can be challenged. Historians, for example, will challenge primary sources such as personal narratives in a variety of ways including comparing them to the narratives of others or against other sources. A big part of CRT is the narrative aspect, the storytelling, used by the oppressed to define their own experience. But these narratives can’t be challenged as doing so is typically seen as an attack, an attempt at erasure.

The point about that truism is that a plurality of anecdotes does not necessarily constitute data about the claim being made. It will always be data regarding the number of people undergoing an experience or holding a particular belief and may point to further research paths, but the number of anecdotes does not necessarily add weight to a specific claim.

A claim with no hard evidence behind it but a dozen anecdotes does not become any more true if that number is increased by ten, a hundred or a thousand times. e.g. yetis, loch ness monster, UFO’s

The best example of this is religious claims. e.g. The world over people will give anecdotes of faith healing and point to a definite link between a deity and healing. The fact that there are millions of these anecdotes does not increase the likelihood that this is true. The only that does is applying the scientific method which seeks to interrogate an anecdote in the hope of turning it into hard data and so develop a hypothesis, a model, a theory.

If all there is, is an anecdote with no means of further inquiry, then yes, it can be dismissed no matter how many there may be.
The saying is merely a rough reminder to us that just because a lot of people say or believe something does not make it so.

I’m not sure I agree with the premise. When I studied Critical Race Theory, the use of data was a significant part of the philosophy. Books like When Affirmative Action Was White and John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom are grounded in research on historical social and economic disparities. This is a theory that values lived experience, yes, but it buttresses that experience with historical facts and research supporting systemic discrimination.

Not that I think this is a perfect theory or anything, but it doesn’t have to be in order to be someone’s Core Philosophy. Philosophy is often just someone pulling an idea out of their ass and rationalizing it as much as possible. Do you think Nietzche’s insane ramblings were backed up by science? Did Hume prove the existence of God?

Another way to say this is that the human brain is naturally extremely good at forming hypotheses, but extremely bad at rejecting them. When walking at night, every time the wind rustles the leaves in the bushes we so easily imagine something fearsome stalking us. Our brains are tuned to accept a high rate of false positives, because it’s important that we have few false negatives.

We’re naturally very imaginative, very good at creatively forming ideas and hypotheses about the world. The importance of Enlightenment rationality and the development of the scientific method was not that it made us more creative. It was that it gave us a methodical approach to test and reject hypotheses - a reliable way to discard the bad ideas and thus retain and build on the really good ideas.

Here’s an example. Derrick Bell is widely recognized as one of the founding intellects behind Critical Race Theory. He told a story that the white hegemony would readily sell all black people to visiting space aliens.

When postmodern social theory rejects rational enquiry and the scientific method and proposes storytelling as an equally valid route to truth, how should we decide what to make of such a story? Is it a valuable insight? Is it utter bullshit?

Race theory isn’t like chemistry or physics, where there is some objective answer to most questions. When the point of your theory is to better understand the perspectives of different groups through history and society, how else would you structure it but through firsthand narratives?

If your hypothesis is that history is biased towards oppressors, why would you trust the data gathered by your oppressors? We can’t even do the census right in 2020, or count votes sanely, or be honest about body counts from cops or viruses, or be realistic about the actual threats to society from Muslims vs Republicans, or accept black imprisonment as legalized slavery. We have more data than ever but our morals haven’t changed, nor have our primate instincts and in groups. If you don’t look at it through a critical lens you’re just accepting the white man’s world view. It’s not that the scientific method isn’t valuable, but that scientists are as biased as anyone else, and it takes active effort to recognize and address those biases, whether it’s picking research questions (how much crime is committed by black people? Vs how much poverty affects black people?) or contorting p-values to fit your agenda or just plain old sampling biases because you don’t know where to look for representative data because you’re too white and detached.

Accepting and addressing those biases head on is a way to address the blind spots in western white male science. It’s not just in race theory… the other day there was a study about how many new female songbirds were described once a coalition of female ornithologists teamed up to challenge the orthodoxy that most singing birds were male.

Of course minority narratives can be challenged. Always could. What’s new is that challenging minority narratives doesn’t automatically shut them down like it used to.

Of course, PoC pushback will be seen as claiming erasure without cause. This is also nothing new - that kind of White fragility hasn’t been a surprise since the word “uppity” was current.

It’s not a truism. It’s a bullshit misquote that Whiteness has weaponized.

And your examples of UFOs and religious woos are so off the mark that it’s almost insulting - we’re not talking about fairy stories here, but people’s narratives about their lived experience of their mundane daily PoC lives. People in courts aren’t talking about being abducted, they’re talking about being stopped for DWB - and the old narrative would say that’s just their word against the officer’s, of course they ran a stop/had mud on their plates/were driving too fast/were driving too slow/were driving too perfectly. That’s the kind of thing CRT is talking about when it talks about narrative, and yes, the plural of all those DWB stories is data, and it does lend weight to the claim. It’s not absolute proof, but there’s enough other supporting evidence that the weight of it also can not be dismissed as mere myth. Contrast with abductions, or satanic ritual abuse or any other offensive comparison you care to make - no hard evidence there.

I don’t see anything bullshit about it. The only weirdness is the involvement of space aliens. In the real world, whiteness doesn’t need even that justification for the slaughter and subjugation it’s enacting right now.

Explain to me how we are supposed to assess the veracity of his claim that modern white people would gladly sell black people to aliens. Or his claim that the civil rights movement was entirely driven by whites selfishly realizing that supporting civil rights was in their own interest. He presents no evidence; he just tells stories.

Many in this thread seem to be under the impression that all we’re talking about here is the valuable idea that we should listen to the lived experience of PoC in their daily lives. If that were the case, there would be no dispute here at all. But if you think that’s all CRT is about (and yes, I mean mainstream CRT), you are mistaken. The term was adopted by Bell and others as a derivation of Critical Theory. It doesn’t just seek to add personal narrative and storytelling as a means to gain additional insight. It directly challenges the validity of rationality, reasoned argumentation, evidence, objective truth.

Your reference suggests that Faces at the Bottom of the Well is a good representation of Bell’s body of work. I don’t think it is. I’ve read Faces at the Bottom of the Well and it’s presented as a thought experiment rather than a pathway to some objective truth. Bell was a constitutional law scholar. He taught law. He wrote some science fiction on the side.

As observed, researched, presented, and recorded by at-times irrational, non-objective, biased, almost always white, male, and European researchers. Sometimes science can be an extension of Manifest Destiny.

Is this theory suitable as the One Sole Source of Truth™? Probably not. Doubtless there are practitioners who treat it like a religion, as with any other philosophy. But IMO, those things are best used a la carte, mixing and matching into a semi-coherent worldview.

It’s useful as an analysis of the weak spots of the status quo. It doesn’t have to be the single thought system you use to inform your place in the world.

And therein lies the problem with it. Its intellectual roots lie in Marxist analysis of society - power structures, inevitability, the individual is irrelevant. CRT becomes dangerous when it becomes authoritarian, when it embraces the Kafkatrap: if you disagree with our dogmatic view of the world, you are enabling the racist hegemony.

Again, I’m not saying CRT has nothing to offer. Of course it does. I’m pointing out the dangers - and these are not just theoretical dangers. There’s is a very real and disturbing tendency toward authoritarianism and dogmatism in the modern intellectual Left, a move away from traditional liberal values.

Where does the modern intellectual Left live? Are you talking about some particular ivory tower? Or a populist cesspool like Twitter?

I’m not much an intellectual, but I do read some left-leaning magazines. I don’t see a disturbing trend towards authoritarianism; that seems more like of run of the mill projection from the right. Dogmatism maybe, if you’re referring to things like single payer healthcare or the desire for racial justice. But the specific claims in those realms are easily falsifiable, and should be, and sometimes are.

Where is this bogeyman that wants to enforce leftist rightthink or else? Who the hell would even listen…?

The success of the modern Civil Rights movement did require enough of those making up the existing establishment coming to the realization that supporting civil rights IS in their own best interest, to influence policy in that direction. Just about every peaceful success in the direction of liberation happens because enough members of the Former Opressor cohort realize it is actually in everyone’s best interest, to influence a change in policy.

Now, if we’re going to adopt a position that “their interests” are inherently detrimental to ours, that equality and justice is somehow NOT in everyone’s interest – or that “interests” are by definition suspect, yes, that makes things hard.

But I don’t think anyone that matters is claiming that if a white cis-het-male person looks out the window in a squall and says it’s raining, he’s perpetuating opression.

On what basis do you exclude unselfish moral reasoning as a motivation?