On this episode of the AIER Authors Corner, Ethan Yang interviews AIER Senior Fellow Phil Magness on the topic of Critical Race Theory. Although the subject has certainly become a major discussion point in American society, the level of understanding for the idea tends to be lacking on both sides. Through this episode, we hoped to not only discuss the implications of Critical Race Theory but also its basic scholarly underpinnings so that those who wish to oppose or support it are better informed.
Critical Race Theory as its name implies is a derivative of Critical Theory, which is a Marxist philosophical lens that understands society through power dynamics. Critical Race Theory by extension fundamentally analyses society with race and racial hierarchy as the main concern.
Critical Race Theory shares the same intellectual lineage as intersectionality theory, as they both trace back to American legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw. Much like intersectionality theory, they both have a generally agreeable and commonsense foundation but then quickly diverge into more controversial positions.
Phil Magness explores this in detail in an article published in Cato Unbound as well as in the podcast. Intersectionality theory starts with the idea that individuals can experience discrimination in different ways depending on the identities that they hold. For example, a black woman experiences discrimination from being both black and a woman which would differentiate her experience from that of a black man who experiences discrimination from just being black. Likewise, Critical Race Theory starts off with the commonsense idea that many societal institutions were created by racists or made, at one point, with racist intent. It is undeniable that racism helped shape the course of history and those legacies can still be felt today.
Both of these intellectual frameworks then advance towards more controversial and problematic frameworks. Magness points out that there are two general strands of intersectionality, which he calls elementary (which was just described) and compound. Compound intersectionality refers to the practice of compounding a large number of categories and factors into an analysis which could include things like class, citizenship status, and so on. Eventually, an entire case against institutions and systems is made on the grounds that they oppress certain groups of people. At this point, intersectionality theory becomes a political tool, as Magness notes that scholarly works which utilize this approach tend to issue sweeping denunciations of ideas deemed unfavorable. This is how seemingly race-neutral ideas, such as free-market economics, get labeled as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. This is why it is common that intersectionality and Critical Race Theory are viewed as normative frameworks to reform society rather than understand it, which is what a discipline like economics attempts to do.
Magness cites scholarly intersectional literature to demonstrate the inherent political underpinnings of intersectional theory, to which he notes that it condemns attempts to depoliticize the idea. It accuses those who wish to do so as corrupted by the “Neoliberal Knowledge Economy” as opposed to supporting the intersectional “political project.” This mirrors the revolutionary Marxist doctrine of condemning anything that impedes the revolution, even if it is simply a request for free discussion.
We can see similar aspects in the intellectual framework of Critical Race Theory and intersectionality. Magness outlines two core principles that are highly problematic. The first being a lack of falsifiability and empirical emphasis. This refers to the use of obscure and confusing language that is often only discernible by other trained intersectional Marxists. This not only avoids rigorous intellectual scrutiny but also attempts to gain some semblance of self-imposed superiority. The second component is what Magness refers to as “epistocratic tendencies,” which refers to the common refrain that only members of certain groups may speak on issues. This again lends further protection from empirical scrutiny and acts as a method of silencing dissent.
Critical Race Theory exhibits many of the same characteristics but instead of analyzing how individuals experience oppression in differing ways, it deconstructs societal institutions as inherently racist. Criticism or dissent of course, when viewed through this framework, would be considered racist. This makes the theory more of a political agenda rather than a formal academic concept. As demonstrated by the scholarly literature, that’s actually how it’s supposed to be and anyone who tries to depoliticize it would be a corrupting influence in favor of the Neoliberal Knowledge Economy.
In many ways, the advent of Critical Race Theory and compound intersectionality theory signal the reemergence of the far left into the mainstream political conversation after thoroughly losing the economic debate during the late 20th century. Instead of trying to prove that Socialism can beat Capitalism from an economic standpoint or limited government from a legal standpoint, these new tools of argument attempt to subvert that conversation altogether by arguing on the grounds of race. From this position, a new front is opened on the war against the traditional Western ideals of individualism, free markets, the rule of law, and limited government. A war fought not on the open battlefields of rigorous debate and empirical analysis but in the elusive jungles of obscurity and confusion.