This is a question that has been directed at the organisation I work for, the Institute of Race Relations. CRT, we have been told, is an obsession of the political right in the United States. It is a contrived bogeyman for South Africa. It is invoked – both in the United States and in South Africa (by ourselves) – as a pushback against just and necessary political change. Taken a step further, to raise the alarm against CRT hints at racism.
In addition (and according to the perspective of the individual critic), properly understood, CRT is either self-evidently applicable to the issues of the day, a sort of best-practice intellectual framework, or – in stark contrast – it is an esoteric idea confined to academic debates among a professorial community.
How does one respond to this?
One needs firstly to have a sense of what CRT is. As with any idea, there is scope for interpretation, and there is probably some merit to the charge that its opponents attribute rather too much to CRT.
Probably the most cited definition reaches into the 2001 work of American legal academics Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An introduction. They argue that ‘racism is ordinary, not aberrational’ and that it functions to maintain both the ‘psychic and material’ interests of the dominant (white) group over the (dominated) black groups. They add that CRT is emphatically not a mere academic endeavour, but one that seeks to change the conditions it critiques. Hence: ‘Although CRT began as a movement in the law, it has rapidly spread beyond that discipline. Today, many in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists … Political scientists ponder voting strategies coined by critical race theorists … Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension.’
Another powerful voice in CRT was the late Prof Derrick Bell. On the theme of challenging racism, his argument was that this was only possible with ‘interest convergence’, where interests of the dominant and dominated (most likely momentarily) aligned. School desegregation in the US, for example, was possible because ‘white’ interests supported it – racial segregation harmed the country’s global interest in the Cold War. This raises questions about the extent to which any moral appeal to the dominant is useful, or whether any existing institution, or legal or constitutional guarantees, will be effective.
Thus, Tommy J Curry, an African-American philosopher and academic – and CRT scholar – has written that CRT goes further than other intellectual engagements with the issue in how it responds to racism:
Because racism is taken to be permanent, CRT maintains that very different strategies be utilized to combat whiteness. It should be clear by now that these means of combat do not rely on either ethically combating whites’ racist dispositions or claiming that deconstructive elements of discourse can remedy racial biases. Instead, CRT’s contributions lie in its ability to confront whites as whites—and nothing more—not as their potential to be better humans, not as their idealization to be more than racist, not even their intentions to be seen as individuals and not part of a colonial heritage. In practically every regard, Critical Race Theory is distinct from the philosophical variety more adequately called ‘critical theories of race.’ … Unlike ‘critical theories of race,’ CRT articulates and acts upon the centres and practitioners of white supremacy without the perpetual emergence of the conflicted white individual—constantly trying, but unable to attain an antiracist disposition. While critical theories of race may possess some latent theoretical contributions, they remain impotent to challenge racism in its social, political, and systemic manifestations.Tommy J Curry, African-American philosopher, academic and CRT scholar.
This is, it should be noted, not an affirmation of biological determinism. CRT does not posit that people’s race is genetically determined, but rather that the sociological significance that has been built around the notion of race means that racism is omnipresent. The impact of one’s racial identity would – it seems to me at any rate – function rather as though this was an inherent biological trait, in the sense that it is always a consideration, if not the prime consideration, in any social interaction.
But this is an American thing, right?
Not entirely. CRT was conceived in the US, and was aimed at the US context. But the global reach of American culture and intellectual life ensures that what was born in the US will likely intrude into other societies.
In a very readable contribution published in October last year, ‘Please Stop Imposing American Views about Race on Us’, London-based writer Tomiwa Owolade commented: ‘When asked to analyse the experiences of black people in the United Kingdom, we now talk with an American accent.’ This could be taken as a comment germane to much of the world.
This is something that would be familiar to South Africans too. It is notable that demonstrations for justice of casualties of our own lockdown were sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis – a city I’ll wager most South Africana couldn’t find on a map – not the 50 or so deaths that had occurred in South Africa. President Ramaphosa chose to use Floyd’s death to launch a campaign against racism. As for those South African security officials responsible for abuses in South Africa, well, he said, they had let their enthusiasm get the better of them.
Columnist Gareth van Onselen, a former colleague of mine, remarked acerbically that ‘the death of Collins Khosa and others only became a cause célèbre because of what is happening in the US, the land from which we take our social justice cues.’
There is also no real question that CRT has established a base for itself in South Africa. Leading thinkers in the field have received an enthusiastic audience. Robin DiAngelo, whose ideas on ‘white fragility’ have achieved pride of place in the CRT canon, for example, was hosted in South Africa in 2019 (one acquaintance offered to buy me breakfast to accompany him to one of her talks, as he felt this would be both an intellectual and moral education for me). The works of scholars and activists associated with CRT are widely quoted and recommended in ‘anti-racist’ work. ‘Anti-racism’, incidentally, has increasingly come to displace ‘non-racism’ as an aspiration to which behaviour is exhorted – the term anti-racism being intimately associated with CRT.
Indeed, journalist Marianne Merten last year wrote approvingly that CRT had become ‘the prevailing approach in academe and public discourse’.
But the recognition of the concept of CRT is less important than the ideas that it embodies. These had taken hold long before CRT was a broadly recognisable idea in South Africa. Already in the 1990s, the notion that white racism was all-pervasive and probably the central challenge to the country’s future had become a powerful one. While overt racism was relentlessly decried (at times legitimately, at times rather opportunistically), intent was no longer necessary for racism to be present. Policy demanded demographic representivity as an end goal.
An important vignette showing the early influence of CRT thinking (even if the concept may not have been recognised) and its confluence with official policy was on display at the 2000 National Conference on Racism. President Mbeki quoted Alan David Freeman (another CRT scholar) in differentiating between a ‘victim’ perspective and a ‘perpetrator’ perspective. Essentially to argue that racism was about intent and actions rather than structures was to stand in the ‘perpetrator’ perspective.
The focus on ‘structural racism’ or ‘institutional racism’ is central to the CRT narrative. It allows racism to be discerned even when no clear or overt racism can be identified. It has also arisen repeatedly in South Africa, as both a description of and explanation for racially defined divergences.
From the idea of structural racism, it is a short step to a demand for demographic representivity in all things. Aspiring to ‘representation’ in accordance with a given group’s share of the populations (whether that be working age, or regional or national is a constant source of debate) is a central plank of official policy. This has dominated thinking on employment policy in particular. State and parastatal bodies could align their demographics rapidly – having deep taxpayer-funded purses to make this possible, and political protection to defer any adverse consequences – while the private sector would be ‘encouraged’ to follow suit through affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment policies. There was an internal logic to all this. Accepting that racism conditions all interactions, and that all disparities signify ‘racism’, and that racism didn’t really need racists – but could nevertheless identify ‘perpetrators’ by the terms of their intervention in public debate – it followed that an aggressive state posture was needed. The standard applied was whether any action produced or institution reflected an ‘equitable’ racial composition.
Indeed, Ibram X Kendi – whose book, How to be an Antiracist – has been extraordinarily influential in the CRT movement, has proposed that the US adopt a constitutional amendment that would effectively place all policy under the effective control of a Department of Anti-Racism, and outlaw all disparities above some sort of level. A hyperbolic version of what exists in South Africa, certainly, but one with enough similarities to be recognisable.
So, CRT is here in the manner that makes a difference: its ideas. And perhaps differentiating CRT from the race thinking that had earlier held sway, it brings with it an uncompromising zeal and totalising claim on analysis. For even while splitting discussants into ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ in his 2000 speech, Mbeki also felt it necessary to call for debate. One wonders just how sincere or open that may have been, but doing so nevertheless acknowledged the possibility of legitimate disagreement. It’s difficult to see this (nominal) willingness to debate in CRT as it manifests itself today. Within the CRT frame of reference, its axioms must be accepted, and once accepted, all understanding is driven in a particular direction.
Clevis Headley, American philosopher and (another) CRT scholar, has written:
Critical race theory is best construed as being a relentless and restless advocate for justice such that, to the extent that race remains a permanent feature of social reality, there must be constant vigilance for justice. There can be no determination of the absolute arrival of true racial justice; its advent forever deferred, its pursuit reaches no termination. Consequently, the insomniac career of critical race theory is one without end.Clevis Headley, American philosopher and CRT scholar.
In this, there is an intellectually certainty, fortified by moral righteousness and without a limiting principle. This is, to say the least, problematic for discourse in an open society.
It is a difficult proposition when applied to policy making too. In the second part of this analysis, I will explore the implications of CRT for South Africa’s efforts to tackle its socio-economic malaise.