Arguments against teaching anything that smacks of critical race theory (CRT) are largely based on a misunderstanding. Perhaps this short primer will help calm the waters. Critical theory, in general, argues that behavior within institutions is shaped by structural elements that are not immediately conscious to the actors, and leads to harmful unintentional consequences. For CRT, the argument focuses on the continuing “enslavement” of Blacks by the activities of many social institutions, such as criminal justice, labor markets, housing, health care, etc. Critics of teaching CRT argue basically, that the acceptance of the systemic features of CRT points the finger of “racist” at white-skinned people.
That the structure of institutions contains beliefs and norms is uncontroversial. Sociologists generally agree about this. For example, the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens, claims that institutional behaviors are the result of four structural elements: beliefs, norms, power ordering, and the technologies or tools available to the actors. These elements are embedded in a metaphorical collective brain, and maintained over time as the actors routinely perform their respective roles.
Such institutional behavior produces both desired outcomes, but also, importantly, unintended consequences, such as prejudicial or unfair treatment of individuals or classes of people. One of the best know examples of this parallelism is the marketplace that, if left relatively unconstrained, is presumed to maximize economic efficiency and growth. At the same time, the complexities of the market, not captured by theory, create inequality. We look critically at this all the time, as the impoverishment of fellow citizens is a key concern of political and academic debate. There is little or no stigma attached to blaming the wealthy on the outcome, based on arguments that they make the rules and exercise unfair economic power. Rather, arguments about the unfairness of the American economic system are front and center in the public arena and elsewhere.
Institutional structure develops over time and reflects the beliefs and norms of the past, in some cases, going back to the beginnings of the Nation. Originalists on the Supreme Court argue that they can detect the meanings of many of the laws that were put in place at the time of the founding. Whatever these laws were would have reflected the dominant beliefs and procedural norms of the time, for example the three-fifths rule regarding census-taking, and the white male only suffrage rules. Many changes have occurred over the history of the United States, but others lie hidden or, at least, unquestioned and continue to produce outcomes that are unfair or contrary to the presumed aims of the institution.
Such outcomes are not the intent of normal actors, nor appear in the “mission statement” of the institution, and are very difficult to avoid in any institutional setting as complex as the US economy, political system, educational system, and so on. But if they do and are serious enough to merit public discussion, as does racism, then it is necessary to examine these institutions critically to penetrate the structure sufficiently deeply to root out the causes of the persistent, unintended consequences.
Systemic racist outcomes of the present are undeniable. Blacks have shorter lives, lower incomes, less homes, higher rates of incarceration and too many more instances. All are systemic because no single or simple cause can be attributed to them. They are the outcome of “normal” behavior within the highly interconnected public and private institutions that constitute the United States as a polity, as a nation. Any critical examination of these institutions will almost certainly discover that white Americans were “responsible” for the structural elements that continue to produce unwanted outcomes. But this is a historical fact, not the placing of blame on the present population. Without uncovering the root causes, almost always multiple and interconnected, trying to remedy the harms after the fact will leave them in place. If we, the citizens of the United States are serious about eliminating structural (or systemic) racism or any other persistent unintended consequence, then a critical look at our institution is essential.
To put it another way, the institutions have to unlearn the hidden parts of their structures, just as individuals have to unlearn whatever underlies their bad habits. Our own bad habits, the outcomes of our actions that run opposite to what we claim are our intentions, are analogies to the unintended consequence of institutions. If they are sufficiently serious and persistent, we may seek the help of some kind of therapist to get at the cause. While they may not call their methodology a form of critical theory, as long as it seeks to uncover hidden reasons, that is what it is.
Human beings are complex systems, just as institutions, and, just as institutions may produce racist outcomes with being overtly racist, so may individuals act in racist or otherwise prejudicial manners without being deliberately racist or otherwise prejudiced. As individuals, we produce unintended consequences that may appear opposite to what we say our intentions are but not because we are hypocrites (although some may be), but because, as we are now learning, that is the way our brains work.
The divided-brain model of Iain McGilchrist, found in his book, The Master and his Emissary, posits that the two sides of the brain attend differently to the world out there, present two different inner worlds to us and, consequently create two distinctive actors. The left-brain is disconnected from the outside and contains a repository of beliefs, facts, norms, stereotypes . . . it has abstracted from past experience. Only the right side is connected to the present world of the moment. Its actions are shaped by the particular context-rich present, but may and does draw on the generalized knowledge stored in the left hemisphere.
McGilchrist argues that the left-brain has become excessively dominant in our modern cultures, so that we tend to act on the basis of its abstract, stereotypical contents, rather than design our acts to fit the moment. Most of the time we behave like private institutions, using the knowledge we have “learned” from the past. Only when the right is the master do we act out of empathetic connections to whatever or whoever is in view. That connectedness allows us to shape our actions to reflect the unique, personal context-dependent aspects of the encounter. The stereotypes that cause “isms” of all sorts are suppressed.
Who we say we are usually describes a persona that reflects the contents of our right brain—the spontaneous, creative, unprejudiced, caring self we think represents our values. True, but in many situations, that self is overtaken by the “institutional” self of the left-brain. One instance is the case of Amy Cooper, who, while dog-walking in Central Park, called the police, falsely claiming that a Black man had threatened her. The evidence does not suggest that she is overtly racist, but that hidden, historically based beliefs tucked away in the left-brain took over. Ironically, Cooper was asked to attend counseling sessions at the Critical Therapy Center in Manhattan.