Rhetorical choices define our options in life. What you see conceptually is, in a sense, what you can aim at in terms of strategic behavioral choices. And so, in this era of so-called “Critical Race Theory,” I say we lay bare the choices the theorists are making. It’s time to “deconstruct,” or be critical of, critical race theory.
But first, what is critical race theory?
It’s much in the news of late, especially here in Connecticut, where local school board officials in Guilford have become the focal point of a roiling debate about what to teach school children about our nation’s past and present.
There’s no single definition of the movement. But there are some basic tenets: racism is endemic in American life, and has been since long before the founding. It’s deeper than intentional acts of discrimination. It pervades the very structure of our lives, hence the term “structural racism.” Put simply: the life chances of people of color are diminished as compared to white folk. Hence the term “white privilege.” And no class of persons is quite so privileged as the white male.
Social justice requires leveling the playing field. That starts with learning about structural privilege, and, if you are white, “checking” your privilege. The most prevalent form privilege checking, or virtue signaling, is seen among member of the white middle class chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Your neighbor’s lawn sign spouting that mantra singles their social consciousness.
All this talk of structural racism and white privilege leads in one direction, and one direction only: social and political change designed to promote a vision of equality defined not so much as equal opportunity, but as equality of position. Critical race theory is foreplay to the consummation known as reparations. The only way to right history’s wrongs is to dismantle the structure that promotes racism, and that means to redistribute resources.
Just beneath the surface of the critical race theory discussion is the demand for race-based transfer payments. The brave new world we are invited to inhabit is one in which social justice scoring will determine how much you pay for goods and services, or what life chances you enjoy. An example: Because people of color disproportionately fail the bar examination – a necessary prelude to becoming a practicing lawyer – there are calls to dismantle the bar examination as “racist.” That will level the playing field, in a manner of speaking, by lowering the standards for admission to the bar. Would we consider the same thing for licensure examinations for physicians? I hope not.
It’s a noxious form of Orwellian gibberish.
Thirteen percent of the American population is African-American. Some significant percentage of them are middle class or better. Are they entitled to transfer payments from their less affluent white, or recent immigrant, working class fellow citizens? I am a first generation American on my father’s side. When he came here from Crete, sneaking into the country as an illegal immigrant, he got nothing but scorn for the color of his skin. Am I to pay for the sins and omissions of previous generations? My father came here looking for equality and opportunity, not a new form of servitude.
I smell a shakedown coming. Hence, my desire to deconstruct critical race theory.
One of the principal exponents of their stuff is Ibram X. Kendi. I picked up a new book of his the other day to try to understand the tsunami of racial rhetoric descending upon the land, Four Hundred Souls, A Community History of African America 1619-2019. It’s a collection of essays by black scholars and intellectuals, each author focusing on a five-year period.
I stumbled across the following sentence early on, this written by a woman named Ijeoma Oluo, a woman whose mother is white and whose father, apparently, is black: “I am Black because in 1630 a Virginia colonial court ordered the whipping of Hugh Davis, a white man, as punishment for sleeping with a Black woman.” (Note her use of capitalization, black is capitalized, white is not.)
As a piece of creative writing in an undergraduate English course, the essay is well crafted. She researched, selected, chose and then identified with a character she never met, and to whom she has, most likely, only the most tenuous relationship, if any relationship at all. But what she did with rhetorical choice was to recast her identity in terms defined by this distant marker. She ends by saying: “Until the systemic functions of whiteness that began with the whipping of Hugh Davis are dismantled, I cannot claim whiteness.” She’s re-imagined her life, and her place in the world, in light of events not almost 400 years old.
That’s her right.
But consider how tenuous the claim would look were I to say something similar: “I am Greek because in the seventeenth century Ottoman Turks enslaved my people. My father came here to escape the crippling legacy of ethnic and religious bigotry.” It’s sort of a non-sequitur in terms of whether I should be given a tax credit, preferential treatment in admission to a college program, or preferred treatment to federal benefits.
We each have histories that we inherit and histories that we make. Using what we’ve inherited from the distance past to make a new identity is specious form of grave-robbing. And it’s dangerous. Does Ms. Oluo really expect me to forge a new golden link into the chains she imagines binding her?
Equality before the law is part of the American creed. That we’ve never fully lived up to that creed and that it remains an aspiration to be achieved is a sign of something like sin. The original sin in American history is not slavery. That’s a form of special solicitude, a rhetorical device, that creates a sense of present-day entitlement. The original sin in American history is the same sin that pervades all history: every time the pot complains to the potter and says “Why makest me thus” a new form of idolatry takes rook.
Forgive me if I am not worshipping new black idols. That’s just the same old boss in a different colored coat.