Critical Race Theory – A Primer For Bridge Builders

This document was originally written as a content post for the Be The Bridge Facebook Group in support of the Be The Bridge (BTB) racial reconciliation initiative. This unpacking of Dr. Uju Anya’s description of Critical Race Theory may be generally useful, so I’ve reposted it here.

Hey BTB friends, it’s time to talk about Critical Race Theory. Before you groan and grab your heads and roll your eyes, let’s establish a couple of baselines. 

First, Be The Bridge’s official statement on CRT can be found here: 

Executive Summary

Full Document

If you are concerned about how CRT impacts the organization, our full statement on it is articulated in that document.

Second, while we encourage dialogue about how CRT is or is not helpful for bridge building, we’ll ask that the conversation stay focused on the validity and applicability of the tenets to the work we have set before us, and that we don’t drift into arguing about their compatibility with the Gospel. There is no actual dialogue between CRT and the Gospel; CRT does not require the presence or absence of a religious framework for the model to hold. CRT’s accuracy or inaccuracy has no effect on what we at BTB would describe as your charge as Bridge Builders under the Gospel. 

Finally, yes, it’s called a theory, and we all learned in sixth grade science that a theory is by definition unproven, right? Not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that it’s a model that can be used to describe how things work. The fitness of a model is determined by how accurately it can predict outcomes in a system, not in whether it has found some objective truth. Newton’s theories weren’t “wrong”; they were an accurate enough model of how things work that we still use his equations to describe basic physics today, even though we know that they don’t accurately describe what happens on the quantum level.

Dr. Uju Anya lays out in clear language an overview of CRT in a Twitter thread that she posted, and which I’ve included images of at the bottom. I am using her definitions from said thread as a basis for this, and unpacking them a bit more in the context of bridge building. If your bridge building conversations are being derailed by accusations of CRT, this thread may be a useful place to begin dialogue.

Dr. Anya lays out six tenets of CRT, all of which are often misunderstood and used to discredit the theory. The primary misunderstanding about CRT comes from a radically individualistic view of society. Each tenet describes an aggregate set of societal trends and effects that are broadly demonstrably true, but may not apply to every individual in every situation. In what I like to call the “righteous man in Sodom” fallacy, the single cases where the theory does not hold as strongly are held up to discredit the larger societal effect. This is similar to stating that the lake is warm because you’re standing in a warm shallow in the sunlight, while the majority of the lake is being chilled by ambient temperatures, its own depth, and shade from trees prevents sunlight through. The lake is still cold, even if your spot is warm. Let’s look closer.

Observational Tenets

The first three tenets are what I would call “observational tenets”. They posit things about what’s happening in the world around us without passing judgment on them or making recommendations about what should be different. As we state in our position statement on CRT: “It is important to remember that these academic scholars are not inventing behaviors, but giving name to behaviors that are already in existence.”

ENDEMIC RACISM

Racism is deeply embedded in our thinking and institutions, such that we see any resulting unfair advantages as natural and unchangeable. 

It’s important to read this correctly. It is not saying that these advantages are natural or immutable, it’s saying that our society, in aggregate, treats them as if they are. We see years of unequal outcomes while operating in a culture of silence about racism, and we lose sight of the racist policy and thinking that produces those outcomes. This thinking produces books like The Bell Curve, written in the early 1990s, which asserts a correlation between natural intelligence and racial origin.

CRITIQUE OF LIBERAL MYTHS 

Equal treatment under the law is a myth, which means that meritocracy and colorblindness, the necessary ingredients, are as well.

This is frequently misunderstood as implying explicit and pervasive racist stances are being held at every level of the system, making it impossible for each individual Black person to catch a break. The evidence of fairness at any single point is used as a counterpoint, absolving the system of wrongdoing. In reality, this manifests in things like home appraisals being different based on whether the appraiser knows the race of the homeowner (still happening in 2021) or in people with names that correlate to a racial identity getting called for fewer job interviews despite qualifications.

WHITENESS AS PROPERTY

Whiteness is a commodity that provides benefits to those that possess it. 

This is frequently misunderstood as “everyone with white skin doesn’t have any problem and society treats them all like royalty.” It’s much more accurate to look at the fungibility of whiteness into protection, authority, and financial benefit, and the malleability of whiteness. Italians and Eastern Europeans were not always considered white. Anyone who is multiracial and is sometimes coded differently depending on the environment can also tell you about this difference and the things they have heard when people thought they were safe to discuss them. 

Positional Tenets

The second three tenets are what I would call “positional tenets”. These are arguments that I think the theory is making about how these power dynamics are affecting us and how the world around us can be changed.

INTEREST CONVERGENCE 

POC can only advance in US institutions or society when whatever benefits them also benefits white people. 

This is usually not addressed in the discourse because POC’s lack of advancement is written off as a series of personal failures rather than an inability to overcome a series of systemic barriers. An example of interest convergence in our society currently would be the expansive safety net measures COVID introduced around unemployment insurance. Decades of persistent Black unemployment, underemployment, and unequal pay did not inspire a desire for a better safety net, but when COVID put millions of white workers at risk, the country acted swiftly to put in measures that helped them and happened to help others in the process. The converse is also true: popular support for safety net programs on the whole has declined since the 60s in a direct correlation to the allowance of Black people into the workforce, and the anti-mask/return-to-normal sentiment spiked as the COVID numbers started to come in and POC seemed to be the most affected.

COUNTERNARRATIVE

We should listen to and center POC voices as legitimate alternatives to dominant voices that are usually white, male, and financially well off. 

This belief simply reflects the old maxim that the winners of history tell stories in their favor. Counternarrative asserts that we can only get a complete story by allowing multiple perspectives to weigh in and centering the ones that are not naturally amplified. However, this encouragement to find alternative voices is often weaponized, and dominant voices will find POC voices to lift and amplify that reinforce their narrative as a means of fighting the counternarrative of the majority. 

INTERSECTIONALITY

Multiple axes of power (race, gender, orientation, physical capability, neurotypicality, etc.) work together to produce different outcomes for different people from the same policies. 

As such, a policy to help women get more representation in management, for instance, doesn’t impact all women in the same way. White women who resemble the people who white men know and engage with may get unconscious support, while racial stereotyping may hold POC women back while being accused of not meeting supposedly objective criteria. This is often misunderstood as an “Oppression Olympics” scoreboard of privilege that is impossible to reconcile. 

However, we as bridge builders in particular should understand it as an opportunity to build empathy. For example, I can use my maleness and how it’s shaped my thinking to help me understand how whiteness could shape a white person’s thinking in our society. 


That’s it. That’s all the main parts of the theory. There’s one other thing I would like to cover, however, and that’s how white supremacy through the years has itself affirmed the observational tenets of CRT. Look at the things we’ve all learned about when studying race in America, from the language in the Declaration of Independence to the legal opinions that affirmed the non-humanity or non-citizenship of POC to redlining and deliberate thwarting of laws and treaties to favor white people or harm POC. Take this statement from Abraham Lincoln:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

https://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-may-not-know-about-lincoln-slavery-and-emancipation

This reinforces endemic racism, asserts that there should be no meritocracy or equal treatment, and defines whiteness as a commodity that gives certain rights and privileges, all in one sentence. Prior to 1965, people were pretty clear in their belief in racial difference and white superiority. The language about individual or local cultural defects was only introduced once language of natural racial traits went out of fashion. The CRT model accurately predicts this behavior, though you’d have to go deeper to get into how racism evolved after 1965 to adapt to changing moral and ethical trends. So any time you see a trend happening that someone asserts has an intersection with a power issue like race or gender, you can look at how it plays out up against the tenets above and see whether the model would predict the given result.

You can ask anyone who is critical of CRT in your circles to define it. If they can’t, you can share Dr. Anya’s commentary with them and ask them which parts they disagree with. If you are not presented with vague claims of socialism or anti-Christian rhetoric, the most likely complaint will be around its lack of accommodation for the individual. The refusal to process systemic injustice is one of the barriers you may be familiar with in your work thus far anyway. But just like I don’t need to understand quantum effects of time dilation to predict how long it will take you to drive to my house, whatever model we use doesn’t need to explain what’s happening to every atomic individual of a society to identify trends that should be of concern that we can address as a society.

Whether you agree or disagree with CRT as a model, it’s undeniable that many in the church and on the current political right have held it up as an insurmountable barrier to bridge building. I hope this post and Dr. Anya’s commentary in particular helps you feel better informed about CRT and able to assess to what degree the model is useful both in navigating this society and building bridges.

Original Thread

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