Posted on July 17, 2021

How Critical Race Theory Led to Kendi

Aaron Sibarium, Washington Free Beacon, July 14, 2021

In 1976, two decades after Brown v. Board outlawed segregated schools, the critical race theorist Derrick Bell published an influential critique of the decision. Bell, a former civil rights attorney, did not object to the ruling in principle but rather to how courts were construing it: In the name of equal opportunity, schools had been ordered to achieve a racial balance that reflected the demographics of their surrounding district—even when doing so hurt black students.

“Low academic performance and large numbers of disciplinary and expulsion cases are only two of the predictable outcomes in integrated schools,” Bell wrote.

His cynicism would grow as the years wore on. By 1980, he had become convinced that Brown was never really intended to help blacks but instead was aimed at managing global perceptions of the United States, where segregation was damaging the country’s reputation as it fought the Cold War. It was also damaging the Southern economy, where industrialization had lagged since Reconstruction. For a brief moment, Bell wrote in the Harvard Law Review, the interests of blacks and whites converged. When that moment passed, racial progress predictably stalled.

Bell’s articles helped jumpstart the legal movement now called “critical race theory” (CRT), which has become the latest battleground in America’s culture war. Among conservatives, the term now functions as a synonym for pop “antiracism” and the diversity gurus associated with it, particularly Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.

As red states consider laws banning critical race theory from public schools, critical race theorists have responded with one of two contradictory arguments: that CRT is an obscure academic theory that will never find its way into K-12 classrooms, or that it just means teaching about slavery and Jim Crow. {snip}

There are indeed some differences between critical race theory and the new racial orthodoxy. But there is also a direct link between them. The main premises of pop “antiracism”—all racial disparities are illegitimate, unconscious bias is everywhere, racist speech is violence—all stem from critical race theory, which is essentially a synthesis of Kendi and DiAngelo. Though neither figure is a critical race theorist, each has helped to popularize CRT’s underlying worldview, one in which structural and subconscious racism are intimately intertwined.

Kendi’s critique of standardized tests, for example, has clear roots in CRT’s argument that race-neutral policies perpetuate oppression. And DiAngelo’s work on “white fragility” owes a great debt to the critical racist theorist Charles Lawrence, who argued that whites supported race-neutral policies because of their unconscious biases.

Critical race theorists did not reach these conclusions through Marxist theory but through a revisionist reading of landmark civil rights cases, which they argued had been interpreted too conservatively.

By the mid-1970s, segregation was gone, but disparities in jobs, housing, and education persisted. The reason for this, critical race theory charged, was that civil rights law remained wedded to a colorblind ideal that made redressing racial inequality impossible. {snip}

The critical race theorists thus urged courts to adopt a more outcome-oriented approach to civil rights. “Institutions or practices oppressive in their effects,” Freeman wrote, should have to “justify themselves as legitimate.” He pointed to Griggs v. Duke Power Co. as a rare example of the Supreme Court taking that approach. In Griggs, the court forbade employers from using intelligence tests that disproportionately disqualified black applicants, unless the tests were “significantly related” to job performance.

This argument assumed that the lion’s share of racial disparities were rooted in racism, a position only slightly more moderate than Kendi’s. “When I see racial disparities, I see racism,” Kendi told the New York Times in 2018. {snip}

Such results-based reasoning poses a slippery slope of which the critical race theorists were well aware: Many race-neutral policies, from bridge tolls to sales taxes to licensing laws, have a racially disparate impact of some kind; what was to stop courts from declaring much of modern government a civil rights violation?

Critical race theory’s answer was implicit bias: Disparate impact was necessary but not sufficient for racism, CRT said; race-neutral policies were only racist if whites subconsciously supported them because of their disparate impact, which served to reinforce white dominance. {snip}