Can We Be Critical of Critical Race Theory?


Normally, academia is like Cancun or Las Vegas. What happens there stays there (and there’s also a lot of partying in all three). But one of the academic festivities has recently made it into the popular media. This is “critical race theory,” associated with the late Harvard Professor Derrick Bell.

“Critical race theory” is one of the popular doctrines within contemporary academia. Its origins were mainly in the study of law, but professors in various disciplines across the humanities and social sciences adhere to its tenets and propagate these through their teaching and publications. The core of this doctrine is well-expressed by a paragraph from the “Critical Race Studies” page of the UCLA School of Public Affairs:

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege. CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

Note that the first sentence of this paragraph uses the verb “recognizes,” not “argues,” “maintains,” or “proposes.” This is one of the reasons that I identify this as a doctrine. Despite the name, it really is not a theory. It proposes no testable or falsifiable hypotheses. The proponents of this doctrine set forth the “marginalization of people of color” and “white privilege and white supremacy” as basic articles of faith.

When critical race theorists face the undeniable instances of “people of color” who have achieved great power, privilege, and wealth in American society, they usually sneer at these examples as individual exceptions that in no way challenge the pervasiveness of racism through all areas of American society. It does not matter that we currently have a black President and a black Attorney General, or that we have had two black Secretaries of State in recent memory. These are just accidental outliers or tokens in white supremacist America.

One of the problems with this doctrine, if we do treat it as an argument that can be questioned and not as an a priori certainty, is that all of the evidence indicates not just increasing opportunities for a few minority individuals, but structural upward mobility for members of minority groups in general. The figure below, which I generate from the Public Use Microdata Samples of the U.S. Census, can illustrate this point. Here, I present the average Socioeconomic Index scores of major racial groups (whites, blacks, Asians, American Indians, and others) from 1960 to 2009. The Socioeconomic Index (SEI) is a an indicator of status in American society, made up of rankings in occupational prestige, educational attainment, and income.

Source: Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.

This figure indicates that whites in general moved up on the American socioeconomic ladder mainly from 1960 to 1970. Since then, the scores of white household heads have been more or less constant. Black household heads, though, have moved steadily upward throughout the period, narrowing the black-white gap. So, it isn’t just that an individual with African ancestry has managed to get enough votes from Americans, including those supposedly privileged and supremacist whites, to win a Presidential election. Blacks in general have enjoyed a greater increase in opportunities in recent years than whites have. But the really interesting point is that Asians have been consistently at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, on average. I’m not going to argue that this means the US is a bastion of Asian privilege and Asian supremacy on the basis of this. I’ll leave the untenable claims to the critical race theorists.

Self-Educated American Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2011 Carl L. Bankston III.