Race is suddenly all the rage. Employees, students, and parents are being inundated with “anti-racism” training programs and school curricula that insist America was built on white supremacy. Anyone who raises even the slightest objection is often deemed irredeemably racist.
But what if the impetus behind a particular type of race-based training programs and curricula we see spreading at the moment is not exclusively, or even primarily, about skin color? What if race is just a façade for a particular strain of thought? What if what stands behind all this is the old, color-blind utopian dream of uniting the “workers of the world,” and eradicating capitalism?
CRT, after all, does nothing to remedy racial disparities. As investigative journalist Chris Rufo pointed out in a recent Heritage Foundation paper, CRT “would not solve racial inequality. It would deepen it.” Rufo explains that “race is becoming less determinative of social outcomes” and “social class is gradually supplanting race as the most salient variable for producing inequality.”
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that many of the intellectuals who originated the concepts of “whiteness,” “white studies,” and “white privilege” were concerned with uniting the American working class, so that it could overthrow the capital-owning bourgeoisie.
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If this all sounds very Marxist, it should. All the giants in whiteness studies, from Noel Ignatiev, to David Roediger, to their ideological lodestar, W.E.B. Du Bois—who first coined the term “whiteness” to begin with—were Marxist. In the cases of Ignatiev and Du Bois, they were actual Communist Party members.
Criticizing to Destroy
All strains of CRT are of Marxist origin, a fact that would be better known to the wider public if the press did its job. CRT is based on Critical Theory, a concept developed in the 1930s by a neo-Marxist European group of academics housed in the Institute for Social Research, though better known as the Frankfurt School because it was originally part of the University of Frankfurt, in Germany.
The media never mentions the connection between CT and Marx—or between CRT and CT, for that matter. Yet, CT’s link with Marxism is clear in the very first essay in which Critical Theory was introduced to an unwary world.
“The Marxist categories of class, exploitation, surplus value, profit, pauperization, and breakdown are elements in a conceptual whole, and the meaning of this whole is to be sought not in the preservation of contemporary society but in its transformation into the right kind of society,” wrote Max Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School’s first long-lasting director, in his foundational 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory.”
Horkheimer’s essay makes clear why Rufo is right that CRT does not solve racial inequality because it does nothing to improve the background variables that lift people out of poverty: access to work, education, and intact families. Such lack of care in solving problems is a feature, not a bug, of the system.
From its start, Critical Theorists have been clear that helping the individual thrive is not the theory’s goal. The aims of Critical Theory—and critical race theory—are much higher: they seek to eliminate the structures and “rules of conduct” of society.
Critical Theory’s purpose, Horkheimer says, “is not, either, in its conscious intention or in its objective significance, the better functioning of any element in the [social] structure. On the contrary, it is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive and valuable, as these are understood in the present order.”
The freedom to trade inherent in capitalism and democracy, Horkheimer understood, was very good at lifting people out of poverty. Marx’s error, Horkheimer told a documentary maker in 1969, was that he
believed that capitalist society would necessarily be overcome by the solidarity of the workers due to their increasing impoverishment. This idea is false. The society in which we live doesn’t impoverish workers, but helps them toward a better life. And moreover, Marx didn’t see at all that freedom and justice are dialectical concepts: The more freedom, the less justice, and the more justice, the less freedom.
Today, critical race theorists also oppose an economy based on the free exchange of goods because it ineluctably leads to capitalism, and capitalism in their view ineluctably leads to exploitation, the “heightening of social tensions,” unbearable inequality, constant crises, wars, etc. The bourgeoisie, which is based on this type of economy and on the “patriarchal family,” is self-interested and “is not governed by any plan; it is not consciously directed to a general goal” of the common good, as Horkheimer put it.
CRT theorists see capitalism’s disparities as a function of race, not class. Capitalism, all the leading CRT proponents believe, is therefore “racist.” CRT merely adds an R to the name; it reimagines class warfare as race warfare.
CT’s practitioners had understood that they had to work through the culture, not the economy, to change society. That had been their contribution (something they borrowed from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci), and something they passed to CRT’s proponents. But CT’s academics still thought in terms of economic classes. Horkheimer’s essay, for example, mentions the words proletariat or proletarian 15 times, and bourgeoisie 38 times. The word “race” is used once—ironically when Horkheimer writes about the “human race.”
On this issue, CRT departs from CT and holds the opposite view: there is no human race per se; there are just white oppressors and the non-white oppressed. To some CRT practitioners, there is no human race united by functions, traits, or goals. Others question outright the concept of humanity itself. “The idea of species-being is ideological,” writes Angela Harris, a CRT pioneer now at UC Davis School of Law. “It presents itself as a universal truth, but in fact ‘the human’ is a political concept that has produced, and continues to produce, systematic violence and suffering.” To Maneesha Deckha, “That the human/subhuman binary continues to inhabit so much of western experience raises the question of the continuing relevance of anthropocentric concepts (such as ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’) for effective theories of justice, policy and social movements.” To Bob Torres, the distinction between human and beast is an invention of the Enlightenment.
CRT therefore uses race to continue CT’s intense criticism of the cultural institutions in order to fundamentally change society. That CRT emanates from CT, something evident in the name alone and in the shared obsession with destroying norms, is however constantly downplayed, when mentioned at all, but the proof is everywhere.
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As Kimberle Crenshaw, the American scholar who introduced the term critical race theory, put it in a 2019 panel: “We discovered ourselves to be critical theorists who did race and racial justice advocates who did critical theory.”
Harris made all the links amply clear in her 2011 essay “Compassion and Critique”:
Marx famously wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Critical theory differs from pure philosophy in its motivation to provoke change, and thus it necessarily traffics in the emotions. Challenging power relations, as critical theorists love to do, means provoking anger, disquiet, anxiety, and even fear in those with a settled understanding of who they are and where they belong.
Some conservatives have written about these links, but the less-than-inquiring minds of the mainstream commentariat would not touch this with a barge pole. A New York Times opinion piece attacking Rufo and others fighting CRT is Exhibit A. Times columnist Michelle Goldberg writes, “The [critical race theory] movement was ahead of its time; one of its central insights, that racism is structural rather than just a matter of interpersonal bigotry, is now conventional wisdom, at least on the left.” Goldberg says that critical race theory came from radical law professors disappointed with the outcomes of the civil rights movement—without mentioning the Marxist lineage.
CT, and CRT afterward, were in fact fully-loaded howitzers aimed at all the pillars of the system. They did not even pretend to want to alleviate problems, considering doing so as perpetuating the capitalist, Christian, and patriotic structures that, in the eyes of its practitioners, needed to be razed, not improved. One historian sympathetic to Critical Theory said Horkheimer and his colleagues, including Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, made it their “self-imposed task . . . to negate the truth of the existing order rather than producing blueprints for a better one” (though Marcuse, for one, dared to imagine socialist utopias in his writing, explains this historian, Stuart Jeffries, author of Grand Hotel Abyss).
Derrick Bell, widely recognized as the godfather of CRT, also made it clear when he wrote in 1995, “As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with the radical assessment of it.”
Because race is what matters most, and completely trumps shared humanity, such proponents of CRT as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo think that society can only remedy racial disparities—in housing, in education, in health, in wealth, etc.—through the heavy-handed use of the crude racial quotas of affirmative action. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination,” writes Kendi in his 2019 bestseller, “How to Be an Anti-Racist.”
CRT intellectuals are trying to change the view that racism is an individual issue, and insist it is systemic, in order to get society to change the entire system. The view that racism is “an intentional, isolated, individual phenomenon,” according to Harris in a 1994 essay, is a “false understanding” which “can be corrected by CRT, which redescribes racism as a structural flaw in our society.”
Such a replacement of the traditional communist revolutionary agent—the worker and his class—by a new revolutionary actor—the racial minority—has driven some orthodox Marxists to despair. They understand that race-based affirmative action leaves behind the poor white, while helping mostly the bourgeois non-white, creating a double problem for Marxism.
Adolph Reed, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is one such Marxist intellectual. “An obsession with disparities of race has colonized the thinking of left and liberal types,” Professor Reed told the New York Times last year after one of his talks to the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City Chapter was canceled. He believes that the emphasis on race, not class, “doesn’t begin to address the deep and deepening patterns of inequality and injustice embedded in the ostensibly ‘neutral’ dynamics of American capitalism.”
Reed and other Marxists who believe that the obsession with race actually inhibits the unification of the working class have a point. Separating people by race, and giving benefits to all except whites, of any socio-economic stratum, aside from violating the Constitution, obviously divides and fuels feelings of resentment.
But this analysis by orthodox Marxists misses an important point about the particular types of “whiteness” trainings we see mushrooming at the present moment. There is an intellectual discipline, or better yet, a tradition, within CRT that does aim directly at creating color-blind working-class unity. It agrees with the rest of CRT that disparities have a racial origin, but its ultimate goal is color-blind. It is this tradition that is ascendant in the trainings and curricula which rightly so trouble Americans now.
Workers of the World, Unite!
Using CRT as a strategy to unite the American working class, of all races, has also almost completely escaped popular scrutiny. Some Marxist scholars who understand what is being attempted constantly write about it, but there are no press reports pointing out the obvious: The intent behind the CRT anti-racism trainings and curricula we see, designed as they are to dismantle “white privilege,” is also to unite the working class and end capitalism.
The idea is that what kept the American proletariat from uniting was racism. White workers would have benefited from uniting with their black counterparts, but instead they formed an alliance with the white bourgeois, first with the planter class after Reconstruction, and then, in the North, with the owners of industrial capital.
White American workers were thus truly lumpenproletarians, the term Marx used for workers uninterested in destroying the capitalist system. In the American case, they were supposedly too cozy with it because they derived benefits from their race.
Du Bois, who first used the term “whiteness” in his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” sequel to his famous 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, also wrote in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, that “the theory of laboring class unity rests upon the assumption that laborers, despite internal jealousies, will unite because of their opposition to exploitation by the capitalists.
“Most people do not realize how far this failed to work in the South,” he added. “And it failed to work because the theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply.”
Why? “It must be remembered that white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by as sort of public psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white,” added Du Bois, who became mesmerized with the Soviet Union after visiting in 1926. He formally joined the Communist Party in 1961, two years before his death.
Bell, whose pioneering work at Harvard Law School starting in the early 1970s started CRT in all but name, incorporated Du Bois’s Marxist analysis in his work. “After the Civil War, poor whites fought social reforms and settled for segregation rather than see formerly enslaved blacks get ahead,” wrote Bell in his 1992 work, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.”
In one of his earliest works, “Race, Racism and American Law” (1972), Bell writes that segregation “represented an economic-political compromise between the elite and working-class whites.” This compromise “gave to the poor the sense of superiority, while retaining the substance for the rich.”
Roediger fully embraces Du Bois’s concepts, and his 1991 book “The Wages of Whiteness” became the key text in the then-new discipline of “Whiteness Studies” that swept American campuses in the 1990s. As the title makes clear, Roediger, a Marxist scholar, combines the Du Boisian concepts of whiteness and the psychological wages.
From this point on, whiteness becomes the focus of much of the attention given to race. Driving the privilege out of the white race, in order to unite all the workers, is the new Holy Grail. It is at this moment that, as Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad puts it, we pass from “Black is Beautiful” to “White is Ugly.” Whiteness studies and all mentions of white supremacy are wrapped around this supposedly material advantage that whites, even the poorest, derive from their lack of melanin.
The purpose of the CRT training programs, and the curricula, is now to create enough bad associations with the white race, by teaching whites from childhood that they’re collectively guilty of past crimes and generally inferior (because of a myriad of bad traits, such as supposedly being too linear in their thinking, not sufficiently emotive, etc.). The trainings then elevate the pride, dignity, and supposed traits (oral traditions, empathy, etc.) of the non-whites, who are collectively innocent. They cannot even be racist, according to critical race theorists, even when they say they hate white people.
This notion drives curricula such as that in Nevada, where a single mom has lodged the first suit against critical race theory indoctrination because her son was told to “undo and unlearn their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that stem from oppression.” The desired outcome is for whites to no longer receive a psychological wage.
We also see these ideas in, for example, the educational worksheet that the Museum of African American History, a part of the Smithsonian, released last summer for classroom use, which said that ideas like hard work and politeness are just evidence of systemic racism (“whiteness”) in American life. Only after much criticism did museum officials later apologize and remove the worksheet from the museum’s website. And we definitely see these ideas behind the New York City public school principal who sent parents a note encouraging them to become “white traitors” who will “dismantle institutions.”
The intellectual who synthesized this type of thinking for all eternity was Noel Ignatiev, who influenced the works of Roediger, CRT trainer Robin DiAngelo, and even Bill Clinton, who praised Ignatiev’s writings.
Ignatiev’s signature ideas were the need to “abolish the white race by any means necessary,” (the last clause a nod to the Caribbean Marxist Frantz Fanon) and the idea that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”
By that, Ignatiev did not actually mean the mass genocide of whites, but to squeeze all the privilege out of whiteness. “Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and white skin would have no more social significance than big feet,” he wrote. Indeed, feelings of white superiority were, according to Ignatiev, “bourgeois poison aimed primarily at the white workers.”
To Igniatev, there is “only one struggle, the proletarian class struggle, in which the rejection by white workers of white supremacist ideas and practices is crucial to the emergence of the proletariat as a revolutionary class.”
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Ignatiev wrote that white superiority “is a crime not merely against non-whites, but against the entire proletariat.” Its elimination, therefore,
certainly qualifies as one of the class demands of the entire working class. In fact, considering the role that this vile practice has historically played in holding back the struggle of the American working class, the fight against white supremacy becomes the central immediate task of the entire working class . . . As soon as white supremacy is eliminated as a force within the working class, the decks will be cleared for action by the entire class against its enemy.
It is in this light, then, that we should reconsider workplace trainings and forms of instructions that tell white children to abandon “whiteism,” so there can be proletarian unity, and to non-white children to abandon practices, such as punctuality and hard work, that support capitalism.
It is important to note that both the theorist who started Critical Theory and the most famous practitioner of critical race theory trainings see things in this light. Horkheimer saw such traits as “nobility of character, fidelity to one’s word, independence of judgement, and so forth,” as being unique, and necessary only, “to a society of relatively independent economic subjects who enter into contractual relationships with each other,” that is, the 18th and 19th “liberalist” centuries. Almost a century later, Robin DiAngelo, meanwhile, told the New York Times, that capitalism’s dependence on these traits was what made it racist; “if a criterion ‘consistently and measurably leads to certain people’ being excluded, then we have to ‘challenge’ the criterion.”
That—the overthrow of the capital-owning bourgeoisie and its entire economic system—is the goal of many of the trainings we see, and the theoretical foundation of critical race theory.
This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty