Ethnicity

How the Church Can Use Critical Race Theory | RELEVANT

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There was a lot going on in November of 2020. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and a White House administration stoking baseless claims of a stolen election, you could be forgiven for missing a joint letter signed by all six presidents of the nation’s Southern Baptist seminaries. The letter stated definitively that Critical Race Theory and “any version of Critical Theory” is “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”

There’s an old joke about how many Baptists it takes to screw in a lightbulb. Hundreds, goes the joke, to form all the various committees and subcommittees needed to approve the lightbulb’s replacement. There’s truth to that, so it’s fairly remarkable that six Southern Baptist presidents were able to agree on such a decisive, sweeping statement. It’s a little less remarkable when you realize that all six men are White. 

The fallout to the letter was swift and disastrous. Several Black pastors very publicly left the Southern Baptist Convention, including prominent faith leaders like Chicago, Illinois’ Charlie Dates, as well as Ralph West and John Onwuchekwa, both of Houston, Texas. 

The laboriously named Council of Seminary Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention attempted to backpedal a little in January, expressing regret that the “statement inadvertently caused significant hurt among some Black brothers and sisters” while standing by the “genuine concern about what we see as dangerous ideologies.” But for many, the damage was done.

For Kyle Howard, it made no sense. “Somehow the Gospel is so feeble, so anemic, that some legal theory is going to somehow circumvent the Church and overthrow it?” he asks, incredulous. “And it’s going to prevail over the kingdom of God while the gates of hell won’t. It’s the most preposterous thing that I can ever imagine.”

Howard is a public theologian who helps Christians who’ve experienced spiritual abuse and racial trauma in the Church. He says he thinks many Christian CRT critics are ignoring more important conversations. 

It was among the first microcosms of the American Church’s monumental struggle with the subject of Critical Race Theory, a once-obscure field of legal scholarship that has become a flashpoint in the culture wars. The whole thing has resulted in a number of contentious dustups that speak not just to a historically consistent pattern regarding the Church’s fumbling of racial justice issues, but whether or not the Church will be seen as a viable champion of justice by younger generations for whom racial equality is a core principle. 

Defining CRT

To think sensibly about Critical Race Theory, we have to first understand what Critical Race Theory actually is. That’s easier said than done, since there’s a lot of misinformation out there about CRT. 

For many Americans, CRT has become a catch-all shorthand for all things racially “woke” (which has itself become a catch-all shorthand for various strains of social progressivism). This bad faith flattening of CRT is deliberate, and can largely be credited to Christopher Rufo, a political activist who has helped engineer a moral panic around CRT. He got his start stoking fears about the negative implications of workplace diversity training and by late 2020 found himself on Tucker Carlson, asking then-President Donald Trump to sign an executive order “abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government.” 

Within days, Rufo got his wish. Trump issued an executive order banning any federal program from teaching that the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

On the surface, such a ban sounds benign or even commendable. But critics warn that such bans are being used to censor accurate teachings of American history. For example, a proposed CRT ban in Texas schools would remove Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” from the mandatory curriculum. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick defended the legislation, saying “parents want their students to learn how to think critically, not be indoctrinated by the ridiculous leftist narrative that America and our Constitution are rooted in racism.”

Rufo has publicly admitted to intentionally distorting the concept of CRT, tweeting that “the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” 

“We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans,” he continued. 

It’s a clever plan and it has been, by all measures, spectacularly successful. Elected officials in at least 16 states have introduced legislation “seeking to limit the teaching of critical race theory within public institutions,” according to InsideHigherEd. Another 11 states have already passed such legislation. Education Week notes that in Tennessee, school districts found to have “knowingly violated” state guidelines around the teaching of “systemic racism, White privilege and sexism” will be levied fines starting at a million dollars. Matt Hawn, a teacher in Bountville, Tennessee, was fired after assigning his high school students an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

On the other side of the culture war, you find some would-be advocates for CRT who flatten the concept in a different direction, assuring critics that Critical Race Theory is simply talking about racism, no more and no less. These people are doing more harm to their cause than they think, since CRT is far more complex than that. 

At its core, Critical Race Theory was first introduced around 40 years ago as a way of explaining how the injustice in the American legal system disproportionately affects Black Americans. Legal scholars like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado were among the first to introduce CRT as a social structure in the late ’70s and early ’80s. 

CRT rests on a few basic premises. First, racism is both real and relatively unremarkable in the U.S.

That is to say, while CRT does not necessarily argue that the country is fundamentally racist, it is premised on the belief that racism is fairly ordinary. 

Second, racism exists for a reason. CRT proposes that the legal system sorts American citizens into various striations of power and privilege, and that White supremacy was a major (if not the major) factor in how citizens were sorted. Therefore, racism still serves a purpose of keeping White people in positions of power and privilege. This remains true even for White people who despise racism. They might very sincerely loathe the idea of racism, but CRT proposes that they don’t have a lot of incentive to get rid of it because they benefit from it, whether or not they’re consciously aware of it. 

Finally, but crucially, CRT argues that race is a construct with no basis in genetics or biology. There is some debate in CRT circles about whether the construct is primarily social or economic, but the key point is that there is no material difference between a person from Beijing, a person from Nairobi and a person from San Francisco. That’s important, because if race is a construct, then the construct can be changed to suit the needs of the majority. Irish immigrants in the U.S., once an oppressed minority, can be subsumed by the ruling class if it suits them. 

Taken together, this theory of race can be used to explain various legal injustices. As just one example, taken the government’s literal red lines around real estate they considered to be a bad financial investment. Those lines were often drawn explicitly because of the racial makeup of the areas in question. This “redlining” meant banks refused to offer loans to the Black people who lived in those neighborhoods, largely barring Black families from the tide of upward mobility experienced by White families in the country’s post-war boom. 

This is just one example. Historians can also point to inequality in how the G.I. Bill was administered, or federal laws around allowing Black families to buy homes in White housing developments, as ways racism embedded itself at a systemic level in the American legal system that had enormous impact on Black livelihood today. The average Black household has about a tenth the wealth of the average White household, and CRT draws a line…

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