Critical Race Theory (CRT) is all the rage these days. Meaning, literally, that it enrages people. Or at least, pundits and politicians on the extreme right of the political spectrum. Predictably, it also serves as a rallying cry for people on the extreme left of that same spectrum. The fact is, though, that it is a good bet that most of these people — on both sides — have no idea what CRT actually is. Or why it may, in fact, be objectionable. So let’s take a look.
CRT is a theory, meaning a philosophical, political, and legal account of a certain aspect of reality (hence the “T” in CRT). The aspect of reality picked out by the theory is racism (hence the “R”), though modern CRT is cross-sectional, meaning that it also looks at other kinds of systemic discrimination, including for instance sexism and ableism. So far, nothing unusual or objectionable, I should think. Philosophy, political science, and law studies have produced several theories having to do with racism and structural discrimination, critical race theory being one among several. The controversial bit concerns the “C” in CRT: Critical. Critical of what, and in what way?
To understand this we need to take a couple of step backs and talk about the more general Critical Theory (CT), which is the broader umbrella within which CRT eventually was articulated. CT originated with the Frankfurt School, a group of scholars including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Antonio Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. The goal of CT was to develop a social philosophy capable of reflecting on, and critiquing, otherwise invisible power structures. One (debatable, as we shall see below) assumption of CT is that it is these power structures, not individual psychological factors, that are chiefly responsible for social problems such as racism.
The school developed in Germany in the 1930s, under the influence of Marx and Freud. Which is a problem, actually, since both Marxism and Freudianism can be legitimately criticized as intellectual endeavors, and Freudianism has even been accused of being pseudoscientific. You don’t want to build an entire school of thought on a highly debatable set of ideas about class relations and on discarded notions about human psychology.