Thank God for Critical Race Theory (Part 1)

There’s been a lot of concern within the evangelical community about ‘Critical Race Theory’ (CRT) in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Some are sounding the alarms over ‘cultural Marxism’, calling it incompatible with Christianity; some suggest that it even undermines Western civilization itself. In some ways, it reminds me of our collective concern about postmodernism in the early 2000s. Others offer more specific critiques about things like “cancel culture”.

While I share some concerns, I’m actually grateful for the the insights that CRT has given us—especially Derrick Bell, its founder. And while I’ve read a number of evangelical critiques of CRT attempting to be ‘balanced’, I’m concerned that our attempts to be balanced are giving us cover to feel like we’ve done the hard work of thinking about racism in America while mostly maintaining the status quo. As people of the Word who believe that righteousness and justice flow out of the very character of God, particularly in America, we’d benefit by listening to the insightful criticisms that CRT makes.

So what is CRT? CRT seeks to answer the question: If legalized racism is over, then why are Blacks still worse off?

Derrick Bell tells the story of how his career began. An eminent Black federal judge asked Bell what he planned to do with his life. “Become a civil rights lawyer,” Bell told him. The judge laughed. This was right after the Supreme Court banned school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. “Son, you were born 15 years too late.” The judge’s esteemed legal opinion—reflected in broader society—was that with the end of segregation came the end of racism.

Bell would go on to have a prolific career in civil rights, working for the Justice Department and the NAACP, supervising over 300 school desegregation cases. And yet after desegregation, he looked back on his early life’s work only to see that the plight of Blacks was actually worse off. Black schools were closed, teachers were fired. Blacks were usually integrated into the worst White schools. And where integration happened, it tended to lead to White flight. Bell came to realize how wrong he was, “We thought that segregation was the enemy, the evil. We came to recognize tardily that it was just the manifestation of the evil, just the symptom, and that the real evil was racism—the determination of White America to remain dominant over Black America.”

And so CRT is first and foremost a hermeneutic of suspicion. Like postmodernity, it’s a deconstructivist lens for looking at racial progress in America. (This is probably why most solutions—especially ones sloppily lumped under the umbrella of ‘CRT’—are rarely satisfying; prophets rarely make good architects.) CRT is a sleuth’s magnifying glass, helping us see why after a slew of civil rights victories, dramatic racial inequalities not only persist, but can reincarnate in worse forms. CRT asks critical questions like:

  1. Counter-Storytelling: What stories are racially marginalized communities telling about this? Black communities shared stories about greater disparities after desegregation. But now, they had no more legal recourse.
  2. Interest Convergence: How might this advance White interests more than the racial minorities it’s supposed help? Segregation was finally banned not in response to its injustice, but in response to Communist critics during the Cold War. Also, many were afraid of how Black veterans would respond if they came back to segregation after fighting for “Freedom” abroad.

    (‘White’ here doesn’t refer to one’s ethnic identity, but a social label given to those at the top of our country’s racial caste system.)

By digging deeper, CRT uncovers the less visible, but often more insidious forms of racism.

As Christians, we know God’s disdain for injustice. The prophet Micah spells out the ways Israel failed to shine the light of God’s justice to the nations:

Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
    you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
    and distort all that is right;
who build Zion with bloodshed,
    and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,
    her priests teach for a price,
    and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
    “Is not the Lord among us?
    No disaster will come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you,
    Zion will be plowed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
    the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets. (Micah 3:9-12)

And for those who think Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom shifted away from justice merely to “souls”:

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. (Luke 11:42)

But how can we address injustice if we can’t even see that it exists?

Like many, I also was raised in the belief that after Emancipation, Civil Rights, and even the election of the first Black president, that racism was mostly over; it still exists, but mostly in hurt feelings; its worst forms mostly in certain corners of the country. But CRT has helped me see what most of our Black (and Latino and Indigenous) neighbors have known all too well—that racism is alive and well, still oppressing communities of color all over America, even if it isn’t as obvious to mainstream society. By asking more critical questions, CRT has helped me step outside of my own limited and privileged perspective to see the experience of race from the perspective of the oppressed. And if there is one perspective that the Scriptures are written to and from, it’s the oppressed.

And so because of CRT, we’re able to see that while we no longer have segregation, we have an even worse education gap; while we no longer have slavery, we now have mass incarceration; while we now have affirmative action—the net result is (a) greater resentment towards Blacks but (b) even greater advantages for White women; and so on.

In short, CRT has given me “eyes to see” the less obvious, but no less insidious incarnations of racial injustice. And in seeing it more clearly, it’s helping me live out my vocation to love God and my neighbor more faithfully as I seek His Kingdom. CRT helps me see the truth more fully. And for that, I thank God.

Up Next: CRT and the Permanence o Racism

13 thoughts on “Thank God for Critical Race Theory (Part 1)”

  1. “[I]f there is one perspective that the Scriptures are written to and from, it’s the oppressed.” What do you mean by that?

    1. I mean between powerful/privileged v. oppressed — the Scriptures generally are written by and for the oppressed (fugitives, immigrants, exiles, poor, persecuted, etc).

  2. That’s what I’m asking: can you be more specific about the Scriptures being written by the oppressed, for the oppressed?

    1. Moses, David, many of the prophets, all the Apostles were fugitives and/or exiles. Israel was either enslaved, foreign, in exile, or a tiny/weak nation. Jesus spent most of his time with the marginalized. The church was persecuted throughout the entire NT period.

      1. I think I’m getting it. So how did you come to that particular conclusion–namely, the unifying theme that connects these various authors and audiences is the shared experience of oppression?

      2. I think I see what you’re asking. I probably worded it poorly — what I meant is that between the two poles of power v. oppression, generally, the Bible’s written by/to the oppressed. Obviously, the greater unity they share is faith in God.

        But regarding the generally shared experience of oppression — I came to realize rather slowly over time. My time with believers in the majority world (via global missions) helped me see how much more deeply they connected with certain aspects of Scripture more than I did — and rarely spiritualized things like freedom from sickness, oppression, hunger, imprisonment, etc. John Piper & other mission-minded teachers have helped me see that persecution was normative for NT believers — and saw that confirmed with believers in non-Christian countries. Daniel Carroll (Wheaton) helped me see how normative migration/exile was for many in the OT. Bob Ekblad (Reading the Bible with the Damned) whose church is largely in prison and of former convicts shared how those in imprison connected with the fugitive/criminalized aspect of people like Jacob, Moses, David, etc.

      3. I still think I might be missing something… In your perspective, what is the relationship between faith in God and oppression? How much do these realities overlap?

      4. My point was more that being oppressed generally shortens the hermeneutical distance between reader and Scripture. Of course, other things can too do that too (my guide in Israel was a Palestinian Christian—oppressed by Israelis, but minority among Arab Muslims, naturally well versed in the culture, history, geography — he had great advantages over me). I’m any case, we’d do well to listen to how the oppressed hear the Scriptures witness.

  3. Hey Brian, thanks for this thoughtful post. I really appreciate the heart you have for the poor and vulnerable. In the midst of a time where it feels like I need to be against this or that (and where I have thus spent most of my energy), you have reminded me what I need to be for. To be honest, I feel paralyzed by the magnitude of these issues and the warring ideologies around them – what to do practically, locally, and while living in a new city no less. But I’m grateful for the conviction that continuing to seek opportunities to serve is vitally important.

    1. Hey Daniel,

      Your heart for Christ always comes through, even when you’re struggling — which is why I trust your reservations about CRT; they aren’t being used to absolve you of our calling to be a neighbor to the vulnerable and oppressed. And your thoughts spur me to learn more too.

      I feel you on the sense of magnitude. My next post on CRT actually will address that issue to some degree.

  4. […] In my previous post, I said I thank God for CRT because it’s given me “eyes to see” the less obvious, but no less insidious incarnations of racial injustice, which has helped me better live out my vocation to love God and my neighbor. In this post, I will share the second insight I thank God for, something that is not so ‘insightful’ to most Black people: that racism is permanent. […]

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