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By Jon Kay, July 21, 2022

If you’ve ever gotten into any kind of argument online, you’ll know that a common debating tactic is to declare oneself exasperated with the other side’s ignorance, and then instruct the alleged ignoramuses to go “educate” themselves. I’ve sometimes been on the receiving end of this kind of manoeuvre, especially when I express any kind of skepticism about progressive positions regarding identity politics. In one recent discussion about an Ontario school board’s lurch into dubious “critical-consciousness” pedagogy, for instance, I was dismissed as a lowly yob who “lacks the proper background to offer critique.”

But the truth, which may surprise some of my critics, is that I was studying Critical Race Theory (CRT) as far back as in the mid-1990s, when I was still a student at Yale Law School—not so long after the term was first popularized by Roy L. Brooks and other leading black scholars. In the year I graduated, Yale held a ground-breaking conference on the subject, headlined by such CRT luminaries as Kimberlé Crenshaw (now Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw), Mari Matsuda, and Derrick Bell. In the lead-up to the conference, several of the presenting scholars appeared as guest speakers in my small seminar class on Critical Legal Studies (this being the umbrella “crit” term under which CRT was often classified).

In the progressive idiom, CRT and associated ideological movements (intersectionality, anti-racism, decolonization, etc.) often are approvingly described as inflicting “discomfort” on conventional, bourgeoise thinkers such as myself. And it is absolutely true that I initially found CRT discomforting—though not in the way readers might imagine. For a certain kind of young adult, one of the attractions of law school is the conceit that the complex social contract governing our lives can be reduced to legal doctrines, defined rules of logic, and important-sounding Latin phrases. The problem I had with CRT wasn’t so much that it took aim at my “whiteness” (to cite the more modern term of abuse), but that it called out my neat-and-tidy law-school worldview as flawed: While the law may appear race-neutral on its surface, CRT informs us, the real-life workings of the system serve to systematically perpetuate an oppressive power relationship between whites and blacks.

Conservatives now routinely denounce CRT as “radical,” which may be an apt description of the doctrine’s later development in the age of Twitter and Black Lives Matter (more on this below). But I think it’s important to point out that the original version of Critical Race Theory that was taught to me at Yale actually contained a persuasive critique of the US legal system.

One oft-cited example was the more severe criminal laws governing crack cocaine versus powdered cocaine: Nowhere was it explicitly stipulated by legislators that black drug users and dealers would be given harsher sentences than their white counterparts; but since the crack trade disproportionately centered on poor black communities, while the powder trade catered more to upscale white users, that was the result. Stringent bail rules also disproportionately affected (and continue to affect) black defendants. And as Boston University law professor Jasmine B. Gonzales Rose notes, ostensibly race-neutral rules governing witness testimony can produce racist outcomes when jurors systematically discount the credibility of non-white witnesses.

I remain skeptical of apocalyptic pronouncements to the effect that every nook and cranny of our societies is contaminated by insidious forms of systemic racism (in the vein of Ibram X. Kendi and Dr. Robin DiAngelo). But many of the CRT concepts I learned a quarter century ago not only came to strike me as plausible, but also as useful for understanding America’s race-obsessed character.

In some cases, this older, less radical version of CRT has informed my work as a writer. Earlier this year, I published a book on the history of film exhibition that included a case study from Richmond, Virginia—whose Jackson Ward neighbourhood once was described as “the Harlem of the south.” As I note in the book, these historically black parts of town subsequently fell on hard times in large part because the areas were gutted by newly constructed freeways. Richmond’s (initially) all-white city council didn’t explicitly announce a racist intention to destroy black neighbourhoods as a means to create traffic amenities enjoyed principally by white people. But it’s hardly “radical” to conclude that racism played a big part in how these decisions were made, and that the legacy of that racism continues to profoundly affect people to this day. If that kind of thinking makes me a Critical Race Theorist, then that’s what I am.

Or at least, that’s what I was. While the version of CRT I learned about in law school typically focused on the real ways in which black people (and other groups that regularly experience discrimination) were disadvantaged by systematically racist laws, policies, and norms, the 2022 version of CRT has a harder, more personal edge. When I took that CRT course, the bacillus of racism was typically presented as being lodged in America’s institutions. Today, on the other hand, one often sees CRT and related doctrines invoked as a means to condemn individual white people for racist thoughtcrimes they didn’t realize they’d committed.

Back at law school, certainly, I never observed the (now constant) fixation on this or that person’s “white fragility,” “internalized whiteness,” and “white-savior syndrome”—a vocabulary of accusation that’s begun to crowd out discussion of black welfare (the thing we were all supposed to care about in the first place), and which sometimes channels a paranoid and even conspiratorial frame of mind. Ironically, the same movement that demands the “de-centering” of white perspectives now has made white malignancy its starring attraction.

It isn’t easy to identify with precision when this shift began to occur. (Even in earlier days, Prof. Gonzales Rose notes, CRT was always difficult to define “because of the variety of perspectives and approaches taken by scholars.”) But my sense is that a big factor has been the rise of anti-racism training programs as a growth industry. This kind of training is often based around role-playing exercises, personal self-evaluations, and rituals of introspection—activities that lend themselves easily to guilty self-recrimination. Moreover, diversity consultants have a natural incentive to weaponize CRT against individual employees or students (who represent a vulnerable captive audience) rather than go after the institutional decision-makers—companies, school boards, government agencies—that pay the anti-racist consultants’ bills.

In nominal terms, CRT remains an academic doctrine. But after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish academic theories of anti-racism from the pop-psychology varieties peddled on Twitter, Instagram, and clickbait websites (“Ten Signs Your Boyfriend Isn’t Adequately Intersectional,” etc.). During the last few years, there’s been a mashing up of jargon and professional roles among celebrity anti-racists, with Kendi, in particular, preaching to us not only as the director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, but also as book author, social-media sensation, and $20,000-an-hour public speaker. Anyone paying that kind of money for a speech probably expects that audience members will hear dramatic and life-changing exhortations that they can apply as a means to correct their own (presumably very racist) behaviour, and not just a bunch of abstract academic jargon. Not surprisingly, when recordings of these sessions are leaked to the broad public, they can seem more like cultish indoctrination sessions than legitimate academic insights.

Defenders of CRT’s current formulation will say that this kind of negative public reaction is simply a symptom of “how much work is left to do,” as the expression goes. But it’s important to remember that even CRT’s original theorists generally didn’t regard themselves as social-justice priests who could exorcise racist white demons through grandiose acts of consciousness-raising. They were simply intellectuals offering an analytical tool that could help us more fully capture the effect of race in American life. And at the risk of centering my own white opinion, I’d suggest that their more modest approach is one worth revisiting.

Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is a Quillette editor and podcast host, a National Post op-ed contributor, and a member of the FAIR advisory board. His books include Among the Truthers, Legacy, and Magic in the Dark.