Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 11/04/22
Are there any redeeming qualities at all about Critical Race Theory (CRT)? Can it stand up to thoughtful and scientific criticism? According to noted Catholic philosopher and prolific author Edward Feser the answer is a resounding no. He explains why he views it as “utterly incompatible with Catholic social teaching” In his latest book, All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory (Ignatius Press), he explains why he views it as “utterly incompatible with Catholic social teaching.”
JWK: What are your thoughts on Critical Race Theory and what is the Church’s position on it?
Edward Feser: The Church itself has not spoken in any sort of official way on Critical Race Theory itself but, as I argue in the book, what the Church has taught about a number of matters – socialism, liberation theology, the relationship between the classes and groups that make up society and so forth – all have clear implications for Critical Race Theory. So, one of the arguments of the book is that when we examine the main tenets of Critical Race Theory on the one hand and the relevant teaching of the Church on the other, we’ll find that there’s a clear incompatibility between them.
JWK: What is that incompatibility?
EF: You have, for example, what I would regard as the central claim of Critical Race Theory which is that racism extends well beyond the things most people think of when they hear the word racism. When most people hear the word they think of things like segregation, overt discrimination on the part of one racial group against another and that sort of thing. Critical Race theorists, however, claim that racism goes far beyond that. In fact, it goes so deep in Western society – and in American society in particular – that even if all overt of racism of that kind were completely eliminated we would barely have scratched the surface. Their claim is that racism is inherent in all the basic social structures, cultural practices and so forth of society – and, in fact, goes so deep in the assumptions and the thinking of the average person that even people who consciously think of themselves as opposed to racism are, in fact, really racist.
Critical Race Theory claims, for example, that even the traditional civil rights movement and political liberalism which has, of course, allied itself with that movement – that all of these things are actually not only not effective remedies against racism but themselves presuppose what are basically racist ideas. You find Critical Race theorists, for example, claiming that the whole of idea colorblind public policy – that the laws and institutions of a society should not pay attention to the color of the citizens – is, in fact, a smokescreen for racism, that it really upholds white supremacy. You find Critical Race theorists arguing that the whole idea of appealing to neutral objective standards of rational argument and so forth to settle disputes between citizens is really a manifestation of white supremacy and racism. You find them claiming that the whole idea that all discrimination is bad is itself a racist idea. Critical Race theorists often defend discrimination and argue that government policy should be color conscious rather than color neutral and that anyone who disagrees is, in fact, upholding an essentially racist system. So, it’s an extremely radical claim about the alleged racism that pervades society. It goes well beyond what most people think of when they hear that term.
Now, one reason why this is incompatible with the teaching of the Church is that you have, for example, the teaching of the popes who when they were commenting on movements like socialism and communism condemned the idea that society is made of inherently hostile classes. In the context of socialism and communism these classes were understood in economic terms – the property owners versus the proletariat or the working class, for example. The popes have consistently condemned this idea that one class is inherently at odds with another or their interests are inherently opposed. Instead, the Church has always insisted that we have to see society as a partnership between different groups in society rather than as essentially in rivalry with one another.
Critical Race Theory basically takes this idea – originally associated with socialism – that society is made up of inherently hostile classes and translates it into racial terms. Critical Race theorists typically hold that whites – given the very nature of what they call “whiteness” – are inherently racist, are inherently hostile of people of color and so forth and that they must constantly be called out on this and to come to see their complicity in oppression and so on and so forth. You get, as a result, the idea that racial groups are inherently hostile to one another or at odds.
Again, you can’t reconcile that with the Church’s teaching that the groups that make up society are to be seen in partnership rather than at odds with one another.
JWK: It seems to me they talk a lot about the idea of a “reckoning” which, to me, is at odds with the Christian concept that our advancement lies in forgiveness and grace – not a “reckoning.”
EF: Right. There are a couple of problems with (the idea) that there must be a reckoning. First of all, what Critical Race Theory claims there must be a reckoning for – as what I said a moment ago indicates – is not what most people have in mind when they talk about redress for past injustices. Most people have in mind things like slavery and its legacy, segregation and its legacy and so forth. Critical Race Theory claims that racism goes far deeper than those things – and really that its legacy is something that only those with training in Critical Race Theory can really understand. There’s a deep level of subjectivism in the whole theory. These claims are made about the alleged racism that permeates all of society and the thinking of every member of society. (They) are not testable.
How exactly are you supposed to determine that this alleged racism is real? There’s no clear empirical evidence of this. You have, for example, in Critical Race Theory the idea of “implicit bias” and the idea of “microaggressions.” What (are they)? Well, “implicit bias” is said to be bias that runs so deep that the person who has it isn’t even aware that he has it. “Microaggressions” are claimed to be racist acts that are so subtle that the person committing them isn’t even aware that he or she is doing it. So, it’s only Critical Race theorists who could even see these alleged acts of racism…What are we supposed to have a reckoning or a redress for? It turns out to be pretty much anything the Critical Race theorist wants to label as racist. So, that’s one problem.
The other related problem is that when you define racism so broadly, and how to detect racism ends up being such a subjective affair that only the Critical Race theorist gets to decide what counts as racism, then that’s just a recipe for recrimination and endless ferreting out of alleged racism and invention of grievances. So, the so-called “reckoning” can never end and it will only lead to further conflict between the groups that make up society rather than leading to any sort of resolution.
JWK: Did you happen to catch the now-viral exchange between CNN’s Don Lemon and the British commentator who responded to his question about whether Britain owes the descendants of slaves reparations?
JWK: Her basic point was that the Africans also played a large role in slavery – including as the first link in the supply chain by rounding up those who were sold – and that, if you’re going to talk about reparations, you need to look at the whole picture – including Britain’s role in ending the slave trade. What are your thoughts on that?
EF: Yeah, I did see that. She makes a very good point and this is another problem with Critical Race Theory which is that it’s very selective in the kind oppression – or alleged oppression – that it calls attention to. You find in the history of the human race that every group, every ethnicity, every race, every society has oppressed others. There have been injustices in every society. That even includes slavery.
As the lady you’re referring to pointed out, the slave trade that the British did so much to end involved, in part, some Africans selling other Africans into slavery – but nobody ever talks about that. The problem here then is that it’s only certain people – namely Europeans, say, or whites – whose past injustices are ever talked about, as if they were somehow uniquely horrific or uniquely evil and as if the injustices that were perpetrated by other groups were somehow nonexistent or, at least, not as bad. This is just an assumption that writers on Critical Race Theory tend to make – typically without commenting on it – but it affects the validity of the whole analysis. It’s got a kind of selectiveness to it which is not justified.
JWK: Are you familiar with the controversy over the recent film The Woman King?
JWK: The movie purports to tell the true story of a group of female warriors who fought for the African Dohemy Kingdom against European slave traders. The problem is that critics – including African-American podcaster Antonio Moore – have pointed out the inconvenient fact that the kingdom itself was ruled by slave traders who apparently continued the practice even after the Europeans gave it up. I haven’t seen the film and am not an expert on the history but it seems to me that you could basically say the movie is lie. Obviously slavery is a vile and awful thing – but what harm does Hollywood do when they spin history like this?
EF: I have heard of the movie you’re referring to though I don’t know a whole lot about it beyond what you already said. In general, I would make the point that what you find in media portrayals of these matters of history is, as you suggest, a very selective and one-sided description. So, yes, there were definitely atrocities and injustices committed and those are often represented in movies, literature and the news media in general and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course – but what’s not represented typically are, first of all, the similar injustices and oppression that occurred in non-European contexts. That is sort of glossed over as if somehow European civilizations were somehow uniquely evil in this regard.
JWK: The pyramids weren’t built by unionized workers, I don’t think.
EF: Exactly right. So, that’s one problem but the other problem is that they leave out all the positive elements in the history of European civilization. The fact for example that, as you noted, the British Empire did a a lot to end slavery. You’ll also find – and this is something that I discuss in my book – that the Catholic Church and the popes have officially taught for five centuries now that the kind of slavery that was practiced in the New World and the kind of slavery represented by the African slave trade was intrinsically evil. The popes condemned this consistently from the beginning. Now, it’s true that there were a lot of people who simply ignored the teaching but that was indeed the teaching. People often have this false impression…that somehow the Church is a late comer to this. Well, no. In fact, the Church has been consistently condemning what’s called chattel slavery – or the treatment of other human beings as if they were mere pieces of property or as if they were animals or something – for centuries even if the teaching was, again, often ignored. That’s another part of this story that’s simply glossed over.
JWK: On that point, Bill Maher is a liberal guy who has been critical of Critical Race Theory. He did a commentary on his show recently talking about what we’re talking about here basically – but, even he, after essentially agreeing with a lot of the things we’ve been saying, said – while conceding, of course, that history is full of racism – that “The Holy Bible is a practically an owners manual for slaveholders.” What would you say to that?
EF: What I would say to that is a couple of things. First of all, what you find in the Old Testament is not the active promotion or approval of slavery but, basically, the toleration of it. It’s a practice that, unfortunately, existed in the ancient world. So, what you find in the law of Moses are principles that attempt to mitigate it, soften it and make it less onerous than it had been. Unfortunately, it took a much longer time for it to be abolished altogether but, nevertheless, you don’t find in the Old Testament sort of the active approval of it. That’s one point.
Another point to make though is that people often fail to draw a distinction where slavery is concerned between different types – different things that have been called slavery. What people usually think of is what’s called chattel slavery which involves the claim to own another human being the way you would own a piece of property or the way you would own an animal or something. That’s the kind of thing that was practiced in the American south prior to the Civil War. That sort of thing has never been approved by the Church and that’s not the sort of thing that’s reflected in the Scripture either.
(Then) what you have are lesser forms of servitude which are still problematic but they’re not the same thing as chattel slavery, one of which is known as indentured servitude which involves one person owing a prolonged or even lifelong commitment to work for someone else such as in the payment of a debt.
Then you have what’s called penal servitude which is service to another as punishment for some offense, some crime. Often this idea was used to justify taking slaves in wartime then arguing that “Well, somehow, these people we’ve taken slaves are guilty because they fought an unjust war against us.”
Now, those practices are highly problematic and the Catholic Church eventually declared them to be so morally hazardous and problematic that it’s better just to abolish them altogether – but they’re different from what’s called chattel slavery which involves this complete ownership or control the way you’d have control over a piece of property. So, when people talk about slavery in The Bible they often fail to make that distinction – that what people usually think of as slavery is not what was actually permitted – but, even then, what was permitted was merely permitted and not approved of.
JWK: Do you think the answer is simply telling the whole story – that every group has blood on its hands if you go back far enough? Even to present one side of perpetual victims is not psychologically healthy to them. Of course, it’s also not good to be told you’re an oppressor at birth and you’re always going to be an oppressor. I mean this stuff isn’t good for anybody. Are we better off that admitting that every society and group has got crap in its background?
EF: Yeah, I would say so. Defenders of Critical Race Theory often say these days that all Critical Race Theory is really about is just teaching the history of racism and so forth. If that were the case then, of course, nobody could have any objection to it – but there are two problems. First of all, it’s not just the teaching of history. It’s the teaching of this rather paranoid and extreme version or interpretation of what counts as racism and then reading that into history. So, one problem is that Critical Race Theory is committed to these extreme claims of the kind that I referred to earlier.
The second problem is that it’s a very selective teaching of history. It’s not teaching everything that happened but only those elements that are seen to uphold a certain narrative (while) ignoring other elements..as if, again, there weren’t elements in the history of European civilization that worked against slavery and against racism and as if other groups, other ethnicities, other nations and so forth didn’t have problems that were just as bad as those that have existed in European civilization.
JWK: It also goes beyond history, doesn’t it? I’ve heard it said that math is racist.
EF: That’s right. That flows from this basic commitment that racism is somehow so all-prevalent in society that it’s invisible even to people who claim to be opposed to racism. The word racist ends up being defined so broadly that it amounts in practice to little more than an epithet flung at anything that the Critical Race theorist doesn’t like. Ironically, that really gives aid and comfort to genuine racism because if you make everything racism then nothing is racism. The word ends up being emptied of all meaning. I can’t see how that can do any good in eliminating genuine racism.
JWK: So, what is the way out of this?
EF: The first step is to inform oneself about what is really going on. A kind of rhetorical tactic has now been adopted by defenders of Critical Race Theory. They say things like “Critical Race Theory is just about teaching history” or “Critical Race Theory is just an abstract legal theory” that would only ever be taught in a graduate school department of law to law students and has no relevance to anything being taught in grade schools and high schools and so forth. These are just rhetorical tricks. Frankly, they’re lies. For one thing, it’s true that Critical Race Theory did start out as a technical theory or a technique for interpreting law in law schools among legal theorists but, as Critical Race theorists themselves – when you read their actual work – acknowledge, it soon spread far beyond that and went on to have an influence in departments of education, in all the humanities and social sciences and in political activism well beyond the academy. So, you find the ideas end up percolating downward into current school curricula, into what’s being taught to employees by human resource departments in corporations and so forth. It’s simply disingenuous to pretend that Critical Race Theory has not relevance outside of the graduate school seminar room…So, the first step to dealing with the problem is for people just to inform themselves about what Critical Race Theory actually has to say. So, in my book, I devote a lot of space to just setting out quotations from the actual writings of Critical Race theorists so that people can see in the words of these theorists themselves just how extreme their views actually are.
JWK: How does the issue of school choice play into this? One thing that came of Covid and all the remote learning was that parents actually got a look at what was being taught to their kids and many of them didn’t like it. How important is it to have parents involved in the education process?
EF: I think it’s absolutely crucial that, first of all, parents inform themselves. Again, that’s one reason why I wrote the book. As you suggest, after they’ve informed themselves (they need) to have some power to determine whether or not their children are taught these ideas. Policies like school choice are crucial to that. You need some mechanism by which school boards, teachers and so forth – if they’re teaching these things that parents object to – that parents can make a change, can decide that we’re gonna pull our kids out of this school and send them elsewhere. We’ll have the funds to do that if you have school choice policies. That’s just a matter of basic justice. Traditional Christian teaching is that the right to educate one’s children belongs first and foremost to parents and that when teachers teach children they’re simply doing so with authority that’s delegated to them by the parents.
So, you had one of the candidates for the governorship – Virginia where Youngkin won – the other candidate McAuliffe notoriously said that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach. Well, parents are the ones who have the fundamental right to decide what their children learn. They have, in fact, the primary right to determine what is taught in the schools. So, if schools and school policy are not set up in such a way as to allow parents to have an influence on the curriculum, then you have a basic social injustice. It’s directly contrary to the fundamental right of parents to determine how their children are educated.
JWK: Sometimes it seems as though they’re forgetting who’s working for who.
A family-friendly Father Stu. Back in April, when I reviewed the Mark Wahlberg biopic about larger-than-life amateur boxer-turned aspiring actor-turned priest Stuart Long (also starring Mel Gibson) I wrote “While it’s refreshing to see a major Hollywood film about priests that isn’t about pedophilia (I’ve known many priests over the years who definitely don’t deserve that broad-stroke slur), in an understandable not to be labeled another saccharine faith-based movie, Father Stu tries very hard (too hard) to earn the adjective gritty. It does so largely through crude language (much of it spoken by Gibson) that is a tad over the top and not necessary to convey the essence of the characters or the story.” Maybe someone at Sony was listening to me because the company has announced that Father Stu: Reborn, a re-edited cleaner-language PG-13 version of the film, is due to hit theaters on December 9th.
John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11