Critical Theory

02-06-2021Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

One of the drivers that has been framing our country’s current discussion on race is Critical Race Theory (CRT). If you’ve noticed that the talk about racial justice doesn't sound much like Dr. King’s teachings on moving towards a society where content of one’s character is the measure of judgement and that the power of non-violence best disarms oppression, that’s because CRT frames the issue and the solution very differently.

Critical Theory in general can be applied to any number of issues or topics. Marx applied it to class. For Marx, every issue, every cause of discrimination, oppression or injustice was caused by a society’s class structure. You can take the idea of class and substitute race, gender, sexual orientation and you get Gender Theory, Queer Theory and Critical Race Theory. Critical Theory in general can yield some insights into the cause and context of power imbalances in a society or in relationships. Its weakness is that it really doesn't offer much of a lasting solution other than constant struggle.

Critical Theory can yield a better understanding of how privilege and power work in a society. Let’s use the example of school choice. Some parents in our society chose to open and operate their own schools completely separate from the control of the local school district. These parents choose the type of education, curriculum and disciple that their children will be taught under. These parents also operate and maintain these private schools. Critical Theory would examine that and conclude that these parents have the privilege and power to do so while other parents lack that same privilege and power. Critical Theory would also help identify why some parents have the power and privilege to open and maintain their own school separate from control of the local school district. It might be because of their socio-economic status, race, gender or sexual orientation which confers on them certain privilege and power. And that creates an imbalance or oppression in a society.

So, what is the solution? Here is where I think the difference between MLK’s approach and CRT’s approach is most apparent. CRT would say that the power and privilege of parents who open private schools should be dismantled since they have an unfair advantage over other parents. Parents who lack this power and privilege are oppressed when it comes to making the same choice for their children. MLK’s vision would suggest empowering those parents who lack the power and privilege to open their own schools and raise them up to the same level of the other parents. This could be done by offering school choice, vouchers, tax credits etc. so that all parents have the same power and privilege to education their children as they choose.

If words like white supremacy, white guilt, white privilege, equity (as opposed to equality), antiracism, white fragility seem new to you, it is because they come right from CRT. CRT was developed in the 1970’s primarily as a legal theory. It starts with the premise that the US is rooted in white supremacy and that this white supremacy is written into the Law. This inherent racism is considered the explanation and cause for any disparity in outcome, such as why incarceration rates are higher for minorities. As a legal theory it sought to address the more subtle forms of racism that the Civil Rights Act did not address.

The challenge however is that while we must constantly examine the law and should change the law so that all forms of racial and unjust discrimination are eliminated and enforce the law against unjust discrimination, ultimately racism lives in the human heart. Critical Race Theory addresses the structures that keep racism going but unlike Christianity it does not address the ultimate root cause of racism.

In 1958, Rev. King wrote: “Along the way of life, someone must have the sense enough and the morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.”

In the end, while CRT can offer helpful insight into the causes and context of racial discrimination as well as injustice in general, only Dr. King’s vision can offer a lasting solution to what ails the human condition.