The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the “Traditional Civil Rights Discourse”

The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.
(Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory, p. 3)

Dear fellow White Christians,

As a layman, I find that learning a subject through its actual historical milieu helps me not only remember the right words, phrases, and concepts, but, more importantly, helps me understand them. And it is understanding which seems most lacking in evangelicalism when it comes to Critical Race Theory (CRT). As such, I hope over the next few posts, in the most conversational manner possible, to not only provide the nuts and bolts of this broad ideology as presented by its chief advocates, but to also, as it were, tell the story of CRT, before moving into any critical assessment.

It seems to me that the first step in telling this story, if Delgado and Stefancic are correct in their above assessment, is to understand what exactly the “traditional civil rights discourse” was, in order to see what has been taken up by CRT and what modified or even discarded.

If you are anything like me, you grew up believing that the primary discourse of the civil rights movement culminated in something like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” taken to mean something like, ignore skin color in everything and the problem of racism will continue to disappear. I would have continued, had you asked, to declare that though once common in the South, true racists are now few and far between, discrimination is now outlawed anyhow, that racism was only ever personal prejudice based on skin color (maybe even requiring hatred to actually qualify), that racism has been a pretty natural in-group/out-group dynamic throughout human history, and that everyone, by and large, has an equal chance to succeed in our meritocracy, so long as a few discriminators here and there (the “bad apples”) can be identified and corrected—specifically with Christianity. (We will discuss these frames in more detail in later posts as they present a very specific social philosophy.)

But this is far from the historic discourse.

A Survey of the “Traditional Civil Rights Discourse”

Sticking with Dr. king—given his general appeal and universally understood importance to the historic movement—we see something quite different from what I assumed to be the Civil Rights discourse. In his final book before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King asks, “What is racism?” “Dr. George Kelsey,” he answers, “in a profound book entitled Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man, states that:

Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry… In its early modern beginnings, racism was a justificatory device. It did not emerge as a faith. It arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself.” (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 73)

This is what many White sociologists used to pejoratively call the “exploitation theory of racism,” hoping to marginalize it with the specter of communism. But whether we like it or not, this was undoubtedly the traditional Black abolitionist and civil rights view of racism (or, of course, “color prejudice” or “race prejudice” prior to the 1930’s).

A few elements are essential to and distinguishable in this “theory” of racism as espoused by Dr. King:

First, racism is not a natural human in-group/out-group, like prefers like, dynamic; it is a very specific and historically conditioned social relation. Second, “color” itself has little to do with racism and only tangentially to do with its creation. Third, racism was not the cause of African slavery and exploitation, but rather the result. Fourth, racism, with its accompanying systems and ideas, was manufactured to justify African slavery and then to justify continued group-based exploitation. Fifth and last, we must make very clear that racism, according to the tradition, is at bottom “the myth of inferior peoples” (Dr. King, p. 75);
… and to crown the whole of this catalogue of cruelties, they tell us that we the (blacks) are an inferior race of beings! (Walker’s Appeal, p. 74)

That is, racism is the belief or assumption that any race is inferior to any other, as a group, including all ideas, ideologies, words, actions, and policies which either assume or promote the same. Again, King:

Racism is a doctrine of the congenital inferiority and worthlessness of a people. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 49)

A few examples from the tradition, I hope, will show the currency of this understanding throughout the tradition.

First, Frederick Douglass spelled this all out brilliantly in his 1881 article, “The Color Line”:

During all the years of their bondage, the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the Negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. … Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line. It is broad enough and black enough to explain all the malign influences which assail the newly emancipated millions to-day. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 652)

We see much the same succinctly stated by early American sociologist, founding member of the NAACP, and creator of Crisis magazine, W.E.B Du Bois, in 1940:

I think it was in Africa that I came more clearly to see the close connection between race and wealth. The fact that even in the minds of the most dogmatic supporters of race theories and believers in the inferiority of colored folk to white, there was a conscious or unconscious determination to increase their incomes by taking full advantage of this belief. And then gradually this thought was metamorphosed into a realization that the income-bearing value of race prejudice was the cause and not the result of theories of race inferiority; that particularly in the United States the income of the Cotton Kingdom based on black slavery caused the passionate belief in Negro inferiority and the determination to enforce it even by arms. (Dusk of Dawn, p. 65)

Economist and sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox likewise wrote in his magisterial, Caste, Class, and Race (1948), that,

If we had to put our finger upon the year which marked the beginning of modern race relations we should select 1493-94. This is the time when total disregard for the human rights and physical power of the non-Christian peoples of the world, the colored peoples, was officially assumed by the first two great colonizing European nations. Pope Alexander bull of demarcation issued under Spanish pressure on May 3, 1493, and its revision by the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), arrived at through diplomatic negotiations between Spain and Portugal, put all the heathen peoples and their resources—that is to say, especially the colored peoples of the world—at the disposal of Spain and Portugal.

This, then, is the beginning of modern race relations. It was not an abstract, natural, immemorial feeling of mutual antipathy between groups, but rather a practical exploitative relationship with its socio-attitudinal facilitation—at that time only nascent race prejudice. (Loc. 8548)

Cox even distinguished “race prejudice” proper from “social intolerance,” arguing from the historically conditioned nature of this specific oppressive relation:

[S]ocial intolerance, which attitude may be defined as an unwillingness on the part of a dominant group to tolerate the beliefs or practices of a subordinate group because it considers these beliefs and practices to be either inimical to group solidarity or a threat to the continuity of the status quo. Race prejudice, on the other hand, is a social attitude propagated among the public by an exploiting class for the purpose of stigmatizing some group as inferior so that the exploitation of either the group itself or its resources or both may be justified. (Loc. 10083)

And, finally, to return to Dr. King:

It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 76-77)

Thus, according to the “traditional civil rights discourse,” racism is not a “natural antipathy,” a law of nature, a simple fact of human nature—like prefers like and rejects the dissimilar. As Douglass argued in “Color Prejudice” (1848), Homer, Herodotus, and the Greeks were human, but they did not display this “law of nature” when describing the great beauty and majesty of the Ethiopians, of Minerva, and or of Memnon? Pythagoras and Plato traveled to Ethiopia to learn wisdom. Black Euclid was received as the most brilliant mathematician of the ancient world. What about black African Hannibal and black poet Terence? Their peers did not seem to know this “law of nature,” argued Douglass. And, he asked, were “Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, Augustine, Clemens, Alexandrinus, and Cyril” required to sit in the “negro pew” in the early churches?

A law of nature, being a part of nature, must be as old as nature: but perhaps human nature was created by piecemeal, and this part was overlooked in the early editions, but supplied in a later revisal. Well, what is the date of the revised edition? We will save our readers the trouble of fumbling for it, by just saying that this “law of nature” was never heard of till long after the commencement of the African slave trade; and that the feeling called “prejudice against color,” has never existed in Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Italian States, Prussia, Austria, Russia, or in any part of the world where colored persons have not been held as slaves. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 100)

Therefore, even skin color is not in itself anything, according to the traditional civil rights discourse, but the socially constructed mark of those chosen and demarcated for misuse and exploitation; also Douglass:

[T]his prejudice really has nothing whatever to do with race or color, and that it has its motive and mainspring in some other source with which the mere facts of color and race have nothing to do. … The office of color in the color line is a very plain and subordinate one. It simply advertises the objects of oppression, insult, and persecution. It is not the maddening liquor, but the black letters on the sign telling the world where it may be had. It is not the hated Quaker, but the broad brim and the plain coat. It is not the hateful Cain, but the mark by which he is known. The color is innocent enough, but things with which it is coupled make it hated. Slavery, ignorance, stupidity, servility, poverty, dependence, are undesirable conditions. When these shall cease to be coupled with color, there will be no color line drawn. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, pp. 653-654)

As it became increasingly clear to the colonists invading the New World that Africans were not only capable farmers, but also in abundant “supply,” with the trade in humans itself quite profitable, efforts were made to separate this group of people from those of European descent, cobbled together from many tribes, nations, and tongues, a people with no previous sense of Pan-Africanism.

The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is [as they think] of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. (Walker’s Appeal, p. 5)

By offering protections to indentured servants from “Christian” nations and removing protections for those from “pagan” nations, leaders were able to quell organized rebellions by peeling the European poor away from those with whom they’d formerly worked side by side, and ultimately accorded life-long servitude to those of African descent alone—they and their children. A class to be exploited, stolen from Africa, separated from family, religion, and hallowed soil, the “Negro” became the, comparatively, ideal subject of colonial exploitation. At first this was justified by the distinction between “Christian” and “pagan”; later it would be by phenotype, “proving” them uniquely suitable for heat and toil; then it would become their supposed stupidity, lack of culture, and need of white fathers; then the so-called Curse of Ham, the example of the Patriarchs, and the writings of the Apostle Paul; then the development of the pseudoscientific field of racial biology, including categorization according to assumed historic development through climate, separate creation, or evolution.

Finally, this intentional marginalization was perpetuated through insidious racial stereotypes developed as justifications, including common tropes like the hyper-sexualized black male with a penchant for pure white women, seductive black women preying on white men, child-like “negro” mental capacities causing both intellectual dullness and erratic fits of rage, inborn laziness due to centuries in the jungle, and other such insipid fabrications.

In 1829, David Walker wrote of the ideas and justifications for keeping men and women in bonds in his own day:

We would be injurious to society and ourselves, if tyrants should loose their unjust hold on us!!! That if we were free we would not work, but would live on plunder or theft!!!! that we are the meanest and laziest set of beings in the world!!!!! That they are obliged to keep us in bondage to do us good!!!!!!–That we are satisfied to rest in slavery to them and their children!!!!!! … That if we were set free in America, we would involve the country in a civil war, which assertion is altogether at variance with our feeling or design…. (Walker’s Appeal, p. 74)

Likewise, Douglass, following the emancipation of slaves sought by David Walker, noted the continuation of these stereotypes and even their spread throughout the nation:

It is said that physically, morally, socially and religiously he is in a condition vastly more deplorable than was his condition as a slave; that he has not proved himself so good a master to himself as his old master was to him; that he is gradually, but surely, sinking below the point of industry, good manners and civilization to which he attained in a state of slavery; that his industry is fitful; that his economy is wasteful; that his honesty is deceitful; that his morals are impure; that his domestic life is beastly; that his religion is fetichism, and his worship is simply emotional; and that, in a word, he is falling into a state of barbarism.

Such is the distressing description of the emancipated Negro as drawn by his enemies and as it is found reported in the journals of the South. Unhappily, however, it is a description not confined to the South. It has gone forth to the North. It has crossed the ocean; I met with it in Europe. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 715)

This, according to the traditional civil rights discourse, is the history and genesis of the “color line.”

To be sure, I sometimes fear I’ll make too much of this “traditional civil rights discourse”; but for the average White evangelical like myself, I don’t think that is even possible. This discourse, as traditional as it is, represents a radical reorientation from the most common White American understanding of racism.

It was this understanding of abolitionists and civil rights activists which made the connection between race and economics such an inescapable feature of the traditional African American critique.

We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…. This means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order. (Dr. King, “Report to SCLC Staff [May 1967]”)

It’s why from the 1800’s to the height of the civil rights movement, African American activists were simply unable to separate racism or “color prejudice” from the very fabric of American life, culture, and institutions.

I am … not here to make any profession whatever of respect for that country [America], of attachment to its politicians, or love for its churches or national institutions. The fact is, the whole system, the entire network of American society, is one great falsehood, from beginning to end. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 55)

Slavery is indeed gone, but its shadow still lingers over the country and poisons more or less the moral atmosphere of all sections of the republic. The money motive for assailing the negro which slavery represented is indeed absent, but love of power and dominion, strengthened by two centuries of irresponsible power, still remains. (p. 653)

Mankind lost sight of our human nature in the idea of our being property, and the whole machinery of society was planned, directed and operated to the making us a stupid, spiritless, ignorant, besottled, brutified, and utterly degraded race of men. (p. 584)

And it was Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton who provided the classic definition of “institutional racism”—in 1967, not 2007; though, again, only giving a name to what many others had already spoken of for centuries:

Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type.

When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city—Birmingham, Alabama—five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which many people will condemn—at least in words. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. … A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are “better” than blacks; therefore blacks should be subordinated to whites. This is a racist attitude and it permeates the society, on both the individual and institutional level, covertly and overtly. (Black Power, pp. 3-4)

(Enjoy also THIS EXCERPT from King describing, we might say, affirmative action for White people and the injustice of calling for Black Americans to bootstrap.)

It is also why African American activists have always focused so much on the question of power. As Dr. King explained so eloquently (as per usual),

[O]ne of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power. From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny, he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore, a problem of power—a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. …

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. … There is nothing essentially wrong with power. The problem is that in America power is unequally distributed. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 37)

Last, this “theory” of racism makes clear that, though often included, racism was never primarily about personal hatred.

[P]eople in general will say they like colored men as well as any other, but in their proper place! They assign us that place; they don’t let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision. (Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 4)

The white liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love but also justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would have for a pet. Love at its best is justice concretized. Love is unconditional. It is not conditional upon one’s staying in his place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable. He who contends that he “used to love the Negro, but … ” did not truly love him in the beginning, because his love was conditioned upon the Negroes’ limited demands for justice. (Dr. King, Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 95)

Concluding Remarks

Assuming you are still with me, we will conclude this survey with just a couple more points that will be crucial for future assessment. Some subjects, to be sure, are a little less clear, especially given the disagreements between, for example, Garvey, Du Bois, and Washington, or Carmichael, King, and the NBC. But in most important ways, each of these abolitionists and civil rights luminaries advocated for the same ends; initially emancipation, then equal rights, anti-discrimination law, and economic reforms, though they may have differed on the preferred means to these ends, whether assimilation and integration or nationalism and separatism, and what it should look like when we get there—like Mecca, a la Malcom X?

First, the issue of colorblindness will be important throughout this series, and there is no doubt that this was in fact a dimension of the traditional civil rights discourse. When the law specifically accords rights and privileges based upon “White” vs. “Colored,” it behooves activists seek to eliminate this distinction from the law, removing color altogether. When the signs say “white” or “Colored” or “White Only,” the most direct way to remove the signs is to argue that such distinctions have no place in the distribution and availability of goods and services. To be clear, this message is perfectly understandable and rational as a calculated course of action to attain equal rights when rights are explicitly distributed based on “color” difference. But when the signs have been removed and the time has come to address the “colorless” society-wide systems of White Supremacy, and to address the need for repair and restitution, civil rights activists were clear that colorblindness would prove no means to this end. Again, Carmichael and Hamilton:

[W]hile color blindness may be a sound goal ultimately, we must realize that race is an overwhelming fact of life in this historical period. There is no black man in this country who can live “simply as a man.” His blackness is an ever-present fact of this racist society, whether he recognizes it or not. It is unlikely that this or the next generation will witness the time when race will no longer be relevant in the conduct of public affairs and in public policy decision-making. To realize this and to attempt to deal with it does not make one a racist or overly preoccupied with race; it puts one in the forefront of a significant struggle. (Black Power, p. 54).

And further, Dr. King’s dream was not to seek equality by playing make believe, pretending there is no Black and White, no oppressed nor oppressor. Rather, he spoke plainly:

The dilemma of white America is the source and cause of the dilemma of Negro America. Just as the ambivalence of white Americans grows out of their oppressor status, the predicament of Negro Americans grows out of their oppressed status. It is impossible for white Americans to grasp the depths and dimensions of the Negro’s dilemma without understanding what it means to be a Negro in America. Of course it is not easy to perform this act of empathy. Putting oneself in another person’s place is always fraught with difficulties. Over and over again it is said in the black ghettos of America that “no white person can ever understand what it means to be a Negro.” There is good reason for this assumption, for there is very little in the life and experience of white America that can compare to the curse this society has put on color. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p.)

Again, Douglass,

Slavery, ignorance, stupidity, servility, poverty, dependence, are undesirable conditions. When these shall cease to be coupled with color, there will be no color line drawn. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 654)

Next—and this may seem unnecessary, but it will indeed prove important as we move on—the traditional civil rights discourse was largely modernist, whether we are speaking of Booker T. Washington at one end or Huey Newton at the other. According to Angela Harris,

Modernist narratives assume three things: a subject, free to choose, who can be emancipated or not; an objective world of things out there (a world “the way it really is” as opposed to the way things appear to be in a condition of false consciousness); and “reason,” the bridge between the subject and the object that enables subjects to move from their own blindness to “enlightenment.” (“The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction,” p. 751)

That is, there is such a thing as Truth, there is such an identifiable group as “Black People” for whom we advocate, racism is immoral and wrong, and humans can be persuaded through rational discourse to change and seek liberation for themselves and others.

And last, of course, most abolitionists and civil rights activists were Christians, though with important exceptions. I love this quote:

The great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge. You don’t have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary. I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx; I got it from a man named Jesus, a Galilean saint who said he was anointed to heal the brokenhearted. He was anointed to deal with the problems of the poor. And that is where we get our inspiration. (Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ch. 31)

While we must finally conclude this survey, be assured that we will most certainly come back to many other traditional civil rights themes as we move forward, including “double consciousness,” “second sight,” “the wages of Whiteness,” Whiteness studies, the seeds of intersectional theory, etc., all of which are present throughout the writings African American activists for centuries. But in our next post, we will discuss what we might call “the post-civil rights era compromise,” as we begin to walk toward the advent of CRT.

Some Questions

1. Would you say that this was the “civil rights discourse” you learned in school, or from family, friends, or church? If not, why do you think you were taught an alternate version?

2. Are there any of these ideas that you previously believed were modern ideological developments, or even products of Critical Race Theory itself?

3. Are there aspects that you find troubling about Critical Race Theory, as you currently understand it, which might more properly be accorded to the much earlier civil rights tradition?

4. Given the truth of the traditional civil rights “theory” of racism, how do you believe the historical narrative relates to our Christian confession that racism is properly sin, that sin is from the heart, and that sin is ultimately rooted in the fall of Adam?

Further Reading for Part 1

“’Racism Isn’t the Problem, Sin Is the Problem!’ : A Brief Clarification,” by Bradly Mason

The Color Line,” by Frederick Douglass

The White World,” by W.E.B Du Bois

The Colored World Within,” by W.E.B. Du Bois

Where Do We Go From Here?, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bradly Mason
Bradly Mason is a husband, father of four, member of a historically Reformed church, and a cabinet maker by trade. Brad blogs occasionally at AlsoACarpenter.com and can also be followed on Twitter, @AlsoACarpenter

C’mon Up!

One response to “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the “Traditional Civil Rights Discourse””

  1. […] In our last post we surveyed the “traditional civil rights discourse.” In particular, we saw that racism was not understood to be a natural human dynamic, but rather a very specific and historically conditioned social relation; that “color” itself had little to do with racism and only tangentially to do with its creation; that racism was not understood to be the cause of African slavery and exploitation, but rather the result; that racism, with its accompanying systems and ideas, was manufactured to justify African slavery and group-based exploitation; and last that, according to the tradition, racism is at bottom “the myth of inferior peoples” (Dr. King, p. 75). […]

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