By Eugene R. Schlesinger
A bit over a year ago, America watched a man be murdered by the police. George Floyd’s murder was preceded, of course, by the death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police, and the hunting down and killing of Ahmaud Arbery by a couple of “concerned citizens,” and by the deaths of so many other people because of the perceived threat of their dark skin (Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, and Trayvon Martin are names whose stories have deeply affected me, but they remain just the tip of the iceberg). As we watched in horror, many of us were awakened from a “dogmatic slumber” of sorts (the dogma in this case being white supremacy, which I’ve become persuaded is part of the air we breathe within American society; more on that later), and realized: this is serious; something’s got to change; I’ve got to educate myself about this.
Fast forward to the present day: as I write this, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States is waging a civil war over “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), while numerous state legislatures pass laws to ban its teaching in public schools. There’s a straight line to be drawn from the collective horror of so many of us at the rampant extra-judicial killing of Black people and our determination to educate ourselves and take action, and the attempt to ban CRT. This is a factor that should not be ignored as we assess the landscape.
Particularly within conservative Christian circles, CRT is a Rorschach test and a bogeyman. Onto it are projected a host of ideas and fears (it’s anti-white, it’s Marxist, it’s only going to make racism worse, etc.). The more I learn, though, the more convinced I become that these criticisms are all grounded in misapprehensions and misunderstandings. (A possible exception here is the charge of Marxism, but even there, we should probably sub-distinguish between Marxian analysis and critique and Marxist solutions. “Marxist” is its own Rorschach bogeyman.)
I’ll say it as clearly as I know how: I have yet to hear a single critique CRT that is not premised on a misunderstanding of it.
This is not to say that there are no such critiques; I’ve just not encountered them. (I anticipate responses to this essay that will hew rather closely to this trend.)
What I want to do in this essay is very specific and can be thrown into relief by my specifying what I’m not trying to do. I don’t intend to argue in defense of CRT at any particular point (neither its choice of vocabulary, nor its particular claims). Nor am I trying to persuade you, dear reader, to adopt CRT in your own thinking or ministry (hence, you’ll find no citations of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, or Patricia Williams, et al.). Those are worthy enough tasks, which I hope will be taken up on this blog, but not ones that I feel qualified to undertake, and certainly not in this forum. Instead, my goal is twofold: to plead for us to do the work of actually understanding CRT, and to signal where the real threat is, relative to it (viz., our own complicity with white supremacy).
I begin with my plea for understanding. That I am in favor of understanding should come as no surprise. I’m a Thomist, by way of his modern-day interpreter and transposer, Bernard Lonergan. My ilk tend to think that understanding is a good thing, one that we should try to do (along with being attentive, reasonable, responsible, and, by God’s grace, loving).
Folks who are nervous about CRT often note its rhetoric about “whiteness,” and fear that it would seek to enshrine an anti-white racism in place of anti-Black racism. Whiteness is associated with a host of social ills, and we are told it needs to be dismantled, that those of us who inhabit and perform it need to repudiate it or repent of it, and so on. You can understand the discomfort to which this leads, but the negative reactions this rhetoric gets tend to proceed as if the critique of whiteness is a critique of white people, as if whiteness is an ethnic trait. If that were the case, we’d be right to be concerned, but that’s a big if, and it’s also not the case. CRT holds that race is fictive, that it’s a socially constructed category, the definitions of which tend to shift with dynamics of power. We can even trace its historical development. There were times when, variously, Swedes and Italians weren’t “white,” for instance. So when CRT writes against whiteness, it cannot possibly be writing against an ethnic identity, because this sort of race-essentialism is precisely one of the things that CRT means to deny.
Similarly, when CRT speaks of white supremacy or suggests that the United States is a racist nation, they mean this in a technical sense. Our commonsense understanding of racism reduces it to “personal bigotry” against other races. And when we hear of white supremacy, we think of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses, or of Neo-Nazis (who, for the record, are not “very fine people”) descending upon Charlottesville. But, again, this is not what CRT means by the terms. Racism is a set of structures and systems, and white supremacy is a particular system designed to keep “white” people (whomever might fall into that category at a particular point in history) in a position of social and cultural dominance. In fact, if Ibram X. Kendi is right (and I think he is), the sort of hateful attitudes that we tend to think of as racism arise quite a bit downstream from policy decisions that create inequities between the races.
So when CRT rails against whiteness, it’s not decrying white people, but rather calling for a change in the social situation so that there is genuine equity between the races. When America is identified as racist, this is not an assertion that America is filled with bigots. It’s a description of policies that advantage some racial groups and disadvantage others.
Now, none of that resolves the following issues: (1) is CRT right or wrong in its diagnosis of the problems?; or (2) are these technical meanings, which so many people seem to misunderstand, a good way of talking about those problems? In other words, you could disagree with my answering both of those questions in the affirmative, while also affirming else I’ve written so far. One might disagree with CRT’s conclusions, but unless that disagreement proceeds from an accurate understanding of those actual conclusions, it’s neither intellectually nor morally responsible.
Or one might reasonably suggest that other terminology would be better. Fair enough, but this is the case any time we utilize theoretical language, and it cannot be used as an excuse to avoid the first question altogether. If there’s better vocabulary to use, that’s great, but in order to be able to make that claim, one must first actually do the work of understanding the terms as they function within CRT. Substituting your own preferred definitions or citing your confusion about the variance between CRT’s usage and your preferred definitions won’t do the trick.
My vocation as a Christian theologian makes me especially sympathetic to the use of technical vocabulary, and I want to discuss this with reference to the central mystery of the Christian faith: the Holy Trinity.
The Scriptures are full of language about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but, particularly within the context of the monotheism Christianity inherited from Second Temple Judaism, making sense of this language proved to be a challenge. Yes, “in the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God” (John 1:1-3), but we’re also told that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). In order to resolve tensions and ambiguities, the bishops gathered at Nicaea in 325 had to shift to a theoretical register, adopting the term homoousios as a technical term to affirm the unity between the Father and the Son.
Nicaea’s use of homoousios was able to resolve the Arian controversy: Jesus is just as much “God” as the Father is “God,” but it was adopted in the face of some protestation: folks were worried that it lent itself to modalism (a fair concern, since the term had been utilized by the modalists to obscure the distinction between Father and Son). Similarly, at a subsequent stage of development, the Church settled on the term hypostasis to name whatever it is that there are three of in God. And they did this despite the fact that, before this, hypostasis had been a synonym for ousia. In fact, the Creed of Nicaea (from 325), anathematizes those who would say that the Son is of a different hypostasis from the Father.
The point of all of this is to insist that when we shift to a technical register (and sometimes we must, because technical problems require technical solutions), we must be careful to grasp what meaning is intended by a term’s use. In 325 someone who said that the Son was a different hypostasis than the Father would be an Arian heretic. After the Cappadocian fathers and the Council of Constantinople, someone who denied it would be a modalist.
And, of course, language can always be refined. Recognizing the ambiguities of Nicaea’s language of homoousios, what Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes have called “pro-Nicene” theology adopted the framework of inseparable operations in order to uphold Nicaea’s commitments in a framework less prone to ambiguity. But while Pro-Nicene theology seeks to improve upon the terminology, it does not do so by repudiating Nicaea. In fact, when we recite the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the liturgy, we confess that the Father and Son are homoousios without any reference to inseparable operations.
To return to our presenting issue of CRT, it may be that in view of the terminological ambiguities better language could or should be found, but if that’s the case, it needs to happen by carrying the conversation forward, rather than just insisting that it’s a bad conversation, because that’s the way knowledge gets advanced.
Finally, I want to advert to what I think is the real threat in all of this. Clearly there are folks who perceive CRT to be a threat, else the attempts to ban it would not be underway. As I mentioned, there are Christian circles where CRT is viewed as a particular threat to the gospel. At this point, you’ll not be surprised to learn that I don’t think this is the case. CRT is a set of tools, which I believe can be helpful in describing, analyzing, and addressing social dynamics, though I certainly don’t suggest that anyone ought to uncritically adopt any such tool wholesale: they all have assets and liabilities.
I think, though, that the real threat that Christian churches face is ongoing complicity with white supremacy. This is a threat in at least two ways. First, because we shall all finally be judged by God, who in the Scriptures declares himself to be the God of the oppressed, who will judge between sheep and goat on the basis of what we’ve done to the “least of these” (i.e., society’s marginalized), and who suggests that some very pious folks will be surprised by this judgment’s outcome (“Lord, Lord…”).
Second, because to the extent that we position ourselves against the cause of racial justice, particularly as our own historical complicity in structures of oppression becomes evident, we will continue to hemorrhage credibility. This lost us Malcom X and James Baldwin and many others since and still now.
To address this history of complicity, I redesigned my course, Catholic Theology: Foundations around a thesis that the foundations of Catholic theology provide a resource for anti-racist conviction and action. Guided by M. Shawn Copeland, we surveyed the major theological loci with an eye towards themes of liberation from oppression from white supremacy (and its intersections with other structures of oppression). I’m writing this essay just after submitting grades, so it’s fresh on my mind.
For their final project, students surveyed these loci and argued for their own position about whether the Catholic tradition was up for the task of anti-racist work. Most students gave some version of a yes (whether out of conviction or because they assumed this is what their professor wanted to read, I can never tell). One student, though, took a different view, arguing, in the best essay of the lot, that, while Jesus himself is a profound source of anti-racism, the Catholic Church, because of its past and so much of its present, cannot be.
This conclusion haunts me. I hope she’s wrong. When I survey the landscape of fear and misunderstanding surrounding CRT, I fear she’s not. It’s my intention to work towards a Church where the answer to that question need not be in doubt.
Whatever our ultimate conclusions about CRT, we owe it to ourselves, and to young people like this student, and to our Lord, who by proclaiming himself as the truth, enjoins us to follow the truth, wherever it goes and however uncomfortable it makes us, at least to do the work of understanding it before we align ourselves against it.
Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D. is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and editor of Covenant.