Talking about critical theory—and critical race theory

See update for July 1, 2021, at bottom of post.


I’m a critical theorist—it’s an important part of Human Science—but I am not a critical race theorist; they’re related and there are overlaps but they’re not the same. If I were to be involved with a program to identify bias, discrimination, and power relationships, I’d actually want several scholars along with me, at least one from each of these related fields, including critical race theory, women’s studies, ethnic studies, queer theory, and others I haven’t heard specifically labeled. None of us would catch everything. But between us, we’d catch more, and we’d learn from each other in the process.

And yes, the case of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr., and defense attorney Milton Raiford[1] is absolutely a topic for critical race theory. Much of what Raiford was talking about, the embedded white supremacy and systemic racism of the criminal injustice system,[2] is what critical race theorists talk about and explore,[3] and it’s important to note that Zappala never satisfactorily responded to those charges.[4] It’s only in the context of a court of law, with laws and procedures enacted by a group consisting overwhelmingly of wealthy white males,[5] that Raiford really appears out of bounds and now faces humiliation.[6]

That’s not to say that Raiford was, himself, doing critical race theory. Critical race theory, like critical theory, like women’s studies, like all those other related fields, is as Michael Harriot put it, a “lens,”[7] a way of looking at social phenomena. It’s not even a methodology, though there are critical theory methodologies—I used a subset of discourse historical analysis in my dissertation.[8] And it isn’t anything like a set of conclusions such as those Raiford has reached,[9] though most critical race theorists, most critical theorists, and even most critical theorists of other specializations would probably agree with Raiford. Critical theory—any critical theory—is a part of inquiry; it precedes conclusions like those Raiford has reached.

Which is why what conservatives are all up in arms about and are calling critical race theory[10] isn’t actually critical race theory but rather a caricature of critical race theory. When scholars talk about any critical theory, we’re talking about inquiry, and as Harriot notes, it’s certainly not taught in schools at the primary or secondary level in part because, again as Harriot notes, it is inherently a subjective approach,[11] depending on a perspective from a social location the inquirer is well able to account for—it demands a certain scholarly maturity more often found at the post-graduate (post-Bachelor’s degree) level.

But in the U.S., we live in a profoundly anti-intellectual society. Many here don’t value inquiry and certainly don’t value any challenge to how they want to see themselves. So the caricature is an accusation and that accusation diverts from the important work of trying to make this a fairer society.


Update, July 1, 2021: Nikole Hannah-Jones has won tenure after a conservative donor had opposed granting it to her because of her work on the “1619 Project.”[12]

That deeper story, the one [University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill is going to have to continue to wrestle with, could be heard ahead of the [Board of Trustees] vote in the pleading voice of a young Black student, who swore at the board through a megaphone before she was forced out of the room with her fellow protesters. It could be heard, too, in the softer voice of an older Black woman, who stood with the students in solidarity, recalling how her grandfather, as an employee of the inn, had been called “Boy.” Most viscerally, that story could be heard in the silence of a Black police officer, who, removing students from the room, said nothing as one of them asked, “You enjoy being their slave?”[13]

What needs to be understood here is that whatever one thinks of Hannah-Jones’ work, this is not really about critical race theory,[14] but rather about history and how we interpret the past. Where CRT comes in is in the choice of that lens and in its application. The difference may appear nuanced, but from a scholarly perspective, the conservative misunderstanding puts the cart before the horse.

Conservatives really object instead to being informed that the wealthy white males who have predominated among the ruling class in the U.S. since its founding have much to answer for[15] (and not just on race[16]). The denial of racism is its confirmation.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Stephen Zappala’s resignation would be nowhere near enough,” Not Housebroken, June 11, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/06/03/stephen-zappalas-resignation-would-be-nowhere-near-enough/
  2. [2]Ryan Deto, “Pittsburgh politicians call on DA Stephen Zappala to be removed or resign from office,” Pittsburgh City Paper, June 2, 2021, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/pittsburgh-politicians-call-on-da-stephen-zappala-to-be-removed-or-resign-from-office/Content?oid=19583745; Paula Reed Ward, “Allegheny County judge halts plea deals amid questions surrounding DA Zappala,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 2, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/allegheny-county-judge-halts-plea-deals-amid-questions-surrounding-da-zappala/; Paula Reed Ward, “Zappala: No plea deals to Black attorney who called his office ‘systematically racist,’” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 2, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/zappala-no-plea-deals-to-black-attorney-who-called-his-office-systematically-racist/; Paula Reed Ward, “DA Zappala says office halted plea deals with Black attorney to avoid ‘false claims of racism,’” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 3, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/da-zappala-says-office-halted-plea-deals-with-black-attorney-to-avoid-false-claims-of-racism/; Paula Reed Ward, “Zappala updates policy on how prosecutors should deal with discrimination claims; rescinds policy against Raiford,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 7, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/zappala-updates-policy-on-how-prosecutors-should-deal-with-discrimination-claims/; Paula Reed Ward, “Black attorney demands apology from DA Zappala, calls Allegheny Co. courthouse ‘cesspool of white privilege,’” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 9, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/black-attorney-demands-apology-from-da-zappala-calls-allegheny-co-courthouse-cesspool-of-white-privilege/
  3. [3]Michael Harriot, “Why White People Hate Critical Race Theory, Explained,” The Root, March 30, 2021, https://www.theroot.com/why-white-people-hate-critical-race-theory-explained-1846578811; Michael Harriot, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, June 11, 2021, https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1403281202338013184.html; Barbara Sprunt, “The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory,” National Public Radio, June 2, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/02/1001055828/the-brewing-political-battle-over-critical-race-theory; Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “What Do Conservatives Fear About Critical Race Theory?” New Yorker, June 10, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-inquiry/what-do-conservatives-fear-about-critical-race-theory
  4. [4]Paula Reed Ward, “Black attorney demands apology from DA Zappala, calls Allegheny Co. courthouse ‘cesspool of white privilege,’” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 9, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/black-attorney-demands-apology-from-da-zappala-calls-allegheny-co-courthouse-cesspool-of-white-privilege/
  5. [5]David Benfell, “On the pretense of ‘law and order,’” Not Housebroken, September 11, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/11/on-the-pretense-of-law-and-order/
  6. [6]Paula Reed Ward, “Attorney Milton Raiford apologizes for leaving client’s case during Zappala dispute; seeks to be restored,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 10, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/attorney-milton-raiford-apologizes-for-leaving-clients-case-during-zappala-dispute-seeks-to-be-restored/
  7. [7]Michael Harriot, “Why White People Hate Critical Race Theory, Explained,” The Root, March 30, 2021, https://www.theroot.com/why-white-people-hate-critical-race-theory-explained-1846578811; Michael Harriot, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, June 11, 2021, https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1403281202338013184.html
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  9. [9]Ryan Deto, “Pittsburgh politicians call on DA Stephen Zappala to be removed or resign from office,” Pittsburgh City Paper, June 2, 2021, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/pittsburgh-politicians-call-on-da-stephen-zappala-to-be-removed-or-resign-from-office/Content?oid=19583745; Paula Reed Ward, “Allegheny County judge halts plea deals amid questions surrounding DA Zappala,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 2, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/allegheny-county-judge-halts-plea-deals-amid-questions-surrounding-da-zappala/; Paula Reed Ward, “Zappala: No plea deals to Black attorney who called his office ‘systematically racist,’” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 2, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/zappala-no-plea-deals-to-black-attorney-who-called-his-office-systematically-racist/; Paula Reed Ward, “DA Zappala says office halted plea deals with Black attorney to avoid ‘false claims of racism,’” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 3, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/da-zappala-says-office-halted-plea-deals-with-black-attorney-to-avoid-false-claims-of-racism/; Paula Reed Ward, “Zappala updates policy on how prosecutors should deal with discrimination claims; rescinds policy against Raiford,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 7, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/zappala-updates-policy-on-how-prosecutors-should-deal-with-discrimination-claims/; Paula Reed Ward, “Black attorney demands apology from DA Zappala, calls Allegheny Co. courthouse ‘cesspool of white privilege,’” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 9, 2021, https://triblive.com/local/black-attorney-demands-apology-from-da-zappala-calls-allegheny-co-courthouse-cesspool-of-white-privilege/
  10. [10]Barbara Sprunt, “The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory,” National Public Radio, June 2, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/02/1001055828/the-brewing-political-battle-over-critical-race-theory; Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “What Do Conservatives Fear About Critical Race Theory?” New Yorker, June 10, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-inquiry/what-do-conservatives-fear-about-critical-race-theory
  11. [11]Michael Harriot, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, June 11, 2021, https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1403281202338013184.html
  12. [12]Jon Allsop, “On NHJ, UNC, and CRT,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 25, 2021, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/nikole_hannah_jones_unc_tenure.php; Jack Stripling, “‘What the Hell Happened?,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/what-the-hell-happened; Jack Stripling, “‘Look Us in the Eye,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/look-us-in-the-eye
  13. [13]Jack Stripling, “‘Look Us in the Eye,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/look-us-in-the-eye
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Talking about critical theory—and critical race theory,” Not Housebroken, June 11, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/06/11/talking-about-critical-theory-and-critical-race-theory/
  15. [15]Jon Allsop, “On NHJ, UNC, and CRT,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 25, 2021, https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/nikole_hannah_jones_unc_tenure.php; David Theo Goldberg, “The War on Critical Race Theory,” Boston Review, May 7, 2021, http://bostonreview.net/race-politics/david-theo-goldberg-war-critical-race-theory;Michael Harriot, “Why White People Hate Critical Race Theory, Explained,” The Root, March 30, 2021, https://www.theroot.com/why-white-people-hate-critical-race-theory-explained-1846578811; Michael Harriot, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, June 11, 2021, https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1403281202338013184.html; Barbara Sprunt, “The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory,” National Public Radio, June 2, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/02/1001055828/the-brewing-political-battle-over-critical-race-theory; Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “What Do Conservatives Fear About Critical Race Theory?” New Yorker, June 10, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-inquiry/what-do-conservatives-fear-about-critical-race-theory
  16. [16]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003).

2 thoughts on “Talking about critical theory—and critical race theory

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.