Critical Race Theory


1. Critical Race Theory claims that Race is a fundamental principle in social organization. Marxists used to claim, and still do, that everything in society is based on capitalists versus working class. Marxists argued that all conflict is between the rich and the poor. Critical Race theory would seem to be an improvement over Marxism. Critical Race Theorists claim that ethnic identity is really important to people. Rich blacks sometimes make alliances with poor blacks. Poor whites sometimes make alliances with rich whites. This would seem to be a more accurate characterization of American politics than the claim that the rich always fight the poor.

2. Critical Race Theory claims that white prejudice against blacks is fairly widespread. Different social scientific studies have disagreed about the extent to which American whites are prejudiced against blacks. But clearly, at least some whites are prejudiced.

3. Critical Race Theory does not claim that all white people are prejudiced against all black people. Not all people of any group have the same culture or the same ideas. Not all whites think the same thing. Not all blacks think the same thing.

4. Critical Race Theory admits that even prejudiced whites can be even-handed or pro-black. People have a multitude of gears and modalities. The same person can be serious on one day and silly the next day. That same person can be open to all people of all origins on one day, and downright exclusionary the next day.

5. In my opinion, on-again/off-again discrimination is present in all people of all ethnic groups. We all have in-groups we like and out-groups we learn to work with. People regardless of race, are not always on their best behavior. People are also not always on their worst behavior, either.

6. Critical Race Theory argues that whites tend to under-estimate the degree to which they are actually prejudiced. This argument has substantial support. Joe Feagin has done studies in which white college students are given notebooks and asked to record the actions and statements of the whites around them. The white students note far more racism than they ever had ever previously observed.  Bonilla-Silva has done a fascinating double measure study where he gives a “racial attitudes” survey to white respondents.  Most respond to the survey with non-prejudiced “everyone-is-equal” answers to the questions. He then puts the individuals who gave racially egalitarian responses into rooms with other whites. The all-white groups are invited to talk informally about other ethnicities. In this looser setting, all sorts of politically incorrect responses emerge. Ethnic jokes and complaints about ethnic behavior become the order of the day. The respondents involved don’t see themselves as being racist. They are generally “just relaxing”.

7. In my opinion, Critical Race Theorists vastly over-estimate the degree to which racial attitudes can be changed by teaching anti-racism in schools and universities. Because critical race theorists are often professors at universities, they like to think that the teaching of a progressive agenda to their students will have a positive impact in reducing future discriminatory behavior by students in their courses. There are studies that show anti-racist education changes attitudes. In the very short term, you can get students who have just received lessons to parrot back the content of those lessons. But how enduring are these changes really? The students go to other teachers, other classrooms, other peer groups, and later in life, other work groups, other political groups, other neighborhoods and other settings. They receive ethnic content from much more than their “anti-racism” classes. It is those other peer groups, work settings and organizational settings that will determine the behavior of those children as adults. Politically correct classes cannot compete with the immersive settings where adults live their lives.

8. My critique of Critical Race Theory: Critical Race Theorists underestimate the economic motivation behind people’s views on race and ethnicity. When it is economically rational for them to be inclusive, they learn to get along with other people. When it is economically rational for them to conserve opportunities for themselves, they find reasons to not like other groups. When jobs are scarce, and people are struggling to find whatever employment they can, people do not appreciate competition from rival ethnicities. It is no accident that hostility to illegal migration and support for white nationalism is rising in the depressed and de-industrialized Northeastern and Midwestern states. As jobs die off in Upper New York State, in Wisconsin and in Michigan, white men who are seeing their economic prospects dwindle resent jobs going to Mexicans and blacks. Matthew Lange writes about toxic ethnic relationships between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, and between Buddhists and Tamils in Sri Lanka. This ethnic hostility derives in large part from massive unemployment and a stagnant economy, causing ethnic groups to fight each other for whatever opportunities are available.

9.  Should the teaching of Critical Race Theory be banned? That position would seem to be hard to justify from the point of view of scientific accuracy. The theory claims that whites are prejudiced. The data shows that whites are prejudiced. The theory claims that white prejudice is common but variable. The data show that white prejudice is common but variable. The fit seems pretty good.

10. There are more and less acrimonious ways to teach about race relations. There are professors on the left and professors on the right who teach in an extremely combative fashion being completely intolerant of other points of view. This is abrasive, unnecessary and ineffective.

11. However, there are also students who have made up their minds about race relations before they have heard any evidence for either side. Systematically blocking out left wing arguments or systematically blocking out right wing arguments is willful ignorance. No social problem has ever been solved by willful ignorance.

Fore More Information

The classic statement of Critical Race Theory is Joe Feagin’s White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter Framing. (Routledge, 2010). The study of white students keeping notebooks is discussed in greater detail in Leslie Houts Picca and Joe Feagin, Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and the Front Stage. (Routledge, 2007).

On the inconsistency of white’s survey responses and their informal discussions in all-white groups, see Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Racism Without Racists: Color Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021)

One study of anti-racist education that showed short term effects in reducing prejudicial attitudes is Julie Huges, Rebecca Bigler and Sheri Levy’s 2007 article in Child Development “Consequences of Learning About Historical Racism in European American and African American Children.” (pp. 1689-1705)

On the relationship between economic self-interest and discriminatory attitudes (in this case attitudes concerning gender), see my own Race, Gender and Discrimination at Work. (Routledge, 2018)

On the Cyprus and Sri Lanka cases, see Matthew Lange, Educations in Ethnic Violence: Identity, Educational Bubbles and Resource Mobilization. (Cambridge, 2011)