Critical Race Theory (CRT) has recently moved from academic circles to popular culture and has been the subject of both praise and critique. In this episode, journalist and former religious freedom lawyer David French discusses the merits and shortcomings of CRT. Join Scott for this informative conversation that took place during his 2020 visit to Biola's campus.
About our Guest
David French is a Senior Editor at The Dispatch, which launched in 2019. French is also a columnist for Time magazine, and previously spent four years as a writer at the National Review. He was previously a religious freedom attorney before becoming a journalist.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. We're here with our guest David French, who is a New York Times bestselling author, long career as a religious liberty defending attorney, a graduate of Harvard Law School, a columnist for Time, senior editor of The Dispatch. David, I'm sure there are a whole host of things we could add to that. But I want to spend our time today on what I think has become not only an academic subject, but also a significant cultural one. And that is with all the discussions about race that have emerged in the summer of 2020, a philosophy undergirding our discussions has become more public knowledge in the notion of critical race theory. Could you tell us a little bit, I mean you've done a lot of thinking about this. You been working with critical race theory in one form or another for roughly 30 years, I know ranging back from your time as a law student. But why do you think the discussion of this has catapulted onto the public scene today, sort of come out of the academic shadows and into the public consciousness much more widely today?
David French: Yeah, you're right. I was essentially taught law by critical race theorists. The vast majority of the professors that I learned law from were critical race theorists, or critical theorists of some kind. Gender, sexuality, et cetera. But I think the reason is that in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, there was a massive, national, unlike almost anything I've seen in my life. Almost like a national convulsion of revulsion and anger at what happened in Minneapolis. It was brutality that just shocked the conscience, just shocked the conscience. And so for the first time for some people in their lives, for a lot of people in a long time, they began to sort of turn to each other and say, what is it we can do about this? What is wrong with us?
What is wrong with this country? What is wrong? Why do these things still happen? And the George Floyd killing happened right on the heels of this awful murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the killing of Brianna Taylor in Louisville, and as people were pent up in the pandemic, frankly. So there was this huge outcry, unlike anything that I have seen. What's the old statement? Nature abhors a vacuum. So if people are saying, tell us about what's happening, tell us why. Well, there's this entire literature of critical race theory. And books, How to be an Antiracist; White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, a lot of literature that was out there in the academic world, sort of in the corporate diversity world, was there and flooded in to the gap. It flooded in, just as there was this outcry. Tell us. We need to know. What can we do.
I think it was one of the situations where idea met moment, and there weren't as many other voices, quite frankly. There weren't as many thoughtful, theologically conservative Christian voices, although there are. They are out there. But as far as reaching that mass pop culture level, they just didn't do it. And so you had these ideas that have been around, they've been widely accepted in the academy for decades, and there's nothing new about them, widely accepted in a lot of more progressive corporate world for decades. But then in this mass pop culture level, those were the ideas that were ready to meet the moment. They were sort of like, dust them off the shelf, boom, here you go. Here it is. Here's the explanation. And so it just took off, to the point where I think I've had more critical race theory conversations, even though I've been dealing with critical race theory to some degree or another for almost 30 years, I've had more critical race theory conversations in the last six months than probably the last six years combined.
Scott Rae: But it's also provoked quite a reaction too. What is it about critical race theory that has provoked the reaction that it did across the country?
David French: Well, there's a lot of reasons why it provoked a reaction. Essentially what critical race theory... Here, let's define it briefly, okay? I'll read a part of a definition from the UCLA School of Public Affairs. CRT, critical race theory, recognizes that racism is ingrained in the fabric and system of the American society. Okay, already there, you're going to be controversial. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects... This is another one. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Now, when it's talking about liberalism, it's not talking about liberal, conservative in a political sense.
Scott Rae: They're not talking leftism.
David French: Right. They're talking about classical liberalism, the Liberty based principles of the American founding. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal truth, in scare quotes, by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power and privilege. You read that definition, you know why it's controversial. So essentially what it's saying is this culture is just... Racism is in its DNA, and that it's in its DNA to such an extent that even the principles of the American founding are suspect.
Okay. So that's why it's quite controversial. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't elements of critical race theory that are useful for analyzing our American society.
Scott Rae: Spell that out a little bit further. How is that so? Because I think some of the critics of critical race theory want to throw out everything.
David French: Yeah. So what critical race theory does, that is actually helpful and can be helpful, is it will ask you to look at any given situation in society and deconstruct it in terms of power and privilege. Who has power and why, and has that power provided them with certain kinds of privilege? And you think, what? What are you talking about? I don't quite follow.
I'll give you an example. I wrote about this example and I think it's a really good example of how critical race theory and breaking down power and privilege can help us understand how power creates privilege and privilege can perpetuate injustice. All right. Before I became a journalist full time, I was a lawyer and I used to advise a lot of Christian schools. Colleges, high schools. And there's a Christian high school in a town in the South that was offered a free sheriff's deputy as a school resource officer after one of the terrible school shootings recently. Parkland, I believe.
And initially the board was like, yeah, let's have that officer. Why not? And the headmaster spoke up and he said, well, let's rethink this. Because if we have a police officer in the schools, if somebody is caught with marijuana, as people had been, it's a law enforcement issue. It's not just a discipline issue between parent and headmaster where we try to set the kid on the right course biblically. They might meet process through juvenile court. Or if there's a fight, it's not just a fight that we deal with between parents and headmaster, who's also pastor. It becomes a criminal justice issue, potentially an assault. Do we want to criminalize our school discipline? At that point, members of the board, some of whom had kids who'd been in fights or had gotten in trouble, said you know what? We'll pass.
We'll handle our own business. And that was the right decision. I'd think that was absolutely the right decision. Totally the right decision. And nobody in that room mentioned one thing about race. But you know what that did, is it was a product of power that created a privilege that perpetuated an injustice. And you're like, what, how? Okay, let's break it down. The public school down the street has school resource officers. The public school down the street is disproportionately black. There was no distinct school board for that particular school, there was just one school board. The parents didn't have the power to say no to the school resource officer. Here's the police officer in the halls. They didn't have that power. Those of us who had the wealth and the power to create our own independent school, had the ability to say no.
Now what privilege was created by that power to say no? We'll call it a crime-ing privilege. So that unlike the students at the school down the street, our students had the ability to commit a host of petty crimes, or even what the law, like assault, would consider something more than petty, and not processed through the criminal justice system. Whereas students at this other school would do the same things and be processed through the criminal justice system. Which let's just put it, frankly, the criminal justice system is not designed as a character formation vehicle. Right there, you then begin to see how the outcomes for the students can start to diverge from these decisions that are based in power that create privileges.
I wrote that and people said, well, wait a minute. What you're talking about is a difference in wealth. It's not a race difference. Well, why do these historical wealth differences exist? Why do they exist? Why is it that the average white family has a household wealth far greater than the average black family? I mean, there are complicated answers, but one of the key answers is that it's rooted in the legacy of 345 years of institutionalized, by law, violently protected racism. So then you begin to see how and why some divisions exist and are perpetuated. So that's helpful. That's helpful. It helps us understand the world around us. But then, when critical race theory starts to get prescriptive, rather than descriptive, in my view, it goes off the rails in some pretty serious ways, both as a matter of political philosophy and as a matter of theology.
Scott Rae: So let's talk a little bit about that. Not only from a biblical theological perspective, we'll get to that in just a moment, but would you say that when it moves from descriptive to prescriptive, that's when it really starts to trouble you?
David French: Yeah. I'm not saying it's always right descriptively, either. For example, one famous critical race theory informed piece of journalism is the 1619 Project from New York Times. I think one of the flaws of critical race theory is that often over interprets history through the lens of race, but it still can be a helpful tool to interpret history in our present reality. But when it gets prescriptive is when I feel like it really has a problem. We'll talk political philosophy first.
Scott Rae: Okay. Hold that thought for just a second, because I think some of the things that I think people have commented on over the summer of 2020 is that the use of critical race theory has sort of morphed from being useful, descriptive tools into more of a worldview, more of a totalizing ideology for understanding virtually everything in the culture, and I take it that's where you say it starts to run off the rails.
David French: Critical race theory's some sort of all encompassing explanation for every important phenomenon within the United States is where it goes significantly off the rails, and I think the 1619 Project, as originally published, was a prime example of that. Because the New York Times took something that is true, which is, we do not sufficiently discuss 1619, which is the year in which the first African slaves were brought to American shores. We do not adequately discuss the implications on our nation and culture of that moment. I believe that's true. They turned it into something well beyond that, which is 1619 became quote unquote, the true founding of the United States of America, which it is not. It is not. In fact, the way I put it in a piece in The Dispatch, what 1619 signified really was that this new civilization being built on the Eastern seaboard of the North American continent was more of the same.
It was more of the same exploitation, more of the same violence, more of the same injustice that had plagued humankind since the fall. 1776, however, was something new. It was an aspiration to an ideal, and we know that the founders didn't live up that ideal, but they articulated an aspiration. That's the true founding of the American nation. What American history has been, to a large extent, has been a war between 1619 and 1776, between the awful reality of fallen man in 1619 versus the aspirational hope of the founders and those who sought to perpetuate and extend the principles of the American founding since 1776.
One of the things that's so toxic about critical race theory is that critical race theory rejects 1776. But when the principles of 1776, especially as articulated in the Bill of Rights and amplified in the Civil War amendments have been indispensable to extending American liberty to an ever enlarged, ever-growing circle of people. That's where I think you have a real flaw, is this idea that says that these aspirational principles of 1776, which contradicted 1619, are somehow the problem when in actuality, they're the solution. It's just been long and hard and painful to implement that solution.
Scott Rae: In your piece on critical race theory that I read recently in The Dispatch, you use the imagery of when critical race theory moves to the prescriptive element, sort of doing away with liberal democracy and meritocracy and market systems. You described that as tearing down the King's house. That imagery I think is really helpful, because you suggest that the founding principles of 1776 actually function really differently to enlarge the house to include others that that have historically not been included. Tell us a little bit about the origin of that imagery and why it's so effective.
David French: There's this saying that I heard, going back to 1991 when I got to law school and first was exposed... I wouldn't say exposed to critical race theory, marinaded in critical race theory at law school, you don't destroy the master's house with the master's tools. Essentially what that's saying is the master's house was this oppressive structure of the United States of America and the master's tools where the instruments of classical liberalism. My argument is you expand the master's house with the master's tools. In other words, you use the principles and the aspirations of classical liberalism to enlarge the home of American democracy and pluralism. In fact, that's what many of the great abolitionists and civil rights leaders of our time, in times before, did.
Frederick Douglas, for example, was a fierce champion of free speech. He called free speech, the great moral renovator of society and government. And free speech is one of the foundational liberties of a classical liberal society. His argument was that free speech was the dread of tyrants. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about a promissory note. That essentially the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were a promise. Now, black Americans had come forward to cash in on that promise. So if you look time and time again, as American liberty has spread, American justice has spread as well. And that American injustice has flowed from the lack of Liberty. The greatest injustices in American history, I mean, think of slavery. Slavery represented the total deprivation of Liberty. The total deprivation. And even after slavery was abolished, when Jim Crow came crushing down on black Americans in the South, they suffered widespread deprivation of Liberty and it is the extension of these liberal, small L liberal, virtues that have really helped bring a measure of justice to American society.
Scott Rae: Which I think suggests that the phrase in our pledge of allegiance, "with liberty and justice for all," was designed to go together, not contrasting.
David French: Well, in many ways, justice flows from free speech. I was talking to Reverend Walter Fauntroy many years ago. He's one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus and was a civil rights leader. And I asked him to what did he attribute this real, incredible, remarkable rise of legal protections against discrimination that began with Brown vs Board of Education and culminated in the civil rights acts. You had 300 plus years of bylaw racial discrimination swept away in a decade plus of legislative and constitutional reform. And he said it was two things. He said it's Almighty God and the first amendment. That the first amendment gave us the opportunity to speak and Almighty God softened men's hearts to hear our message. And so that justice flowed from the speech.
Scott Rae: So look, David, let's take critical race theory, not just as analytical tools, but more as this totalizing ideology. What's your assessment of that? Or maybe, before we get to that, for the average person among our listeners who probably is not super familiar with the CRT literature, what are some of the things that would give away or would indicate that critical race theory has become this totalizing ideology? What would you say are some of the identifying marks of that as an overarching ideology?
David French: Well, I think one of the things that really bothers me ultimately about it is how much it centers around your race or ethnic identity. How much it centers you around that identity. Which is a little bit ironic because there are many critical race theorists who argue that race is a social construct. With a lot of validity, by the way. This concept of people perceiving themselves as white is a relatively new thing. They argue simultaneously that race is a social construct, but also that once constructed, this construct becomes sort of a centering identity. It's at the essence at the heart of who you are. And one of the things about, for example, this doctrine of intersectionality, it takes sort of a common sense approach that says, hey, wait a minute. As a general rule, black men experience the culture a little bit differently than black women, than gay men, then Hispanic men and women. But again, centers you around this identity. The origin of the idea of identity politics centers you around this identity and everything then begins to flow from this racial or ethnic or sexual identity. That's the centering aspect of your existence.
Well, that's contrary to a biblical idea that says the center of our identity is in Christ. There's no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free, no male, no female. We're all one. That doesn't mean that in a fallen world, these categories like white or black, Republican or Democrat, or whatever, let's stick with race. White or black, that they don't have a consequence. That they don't have a meaning.
But what it does mean is under Christ, they are submitted to Christ. That our central identity is located in Christ, for all of us. So that's where I have a real problem with a lot of aspects of critical race theory that center your identity in your ethnicity, whereas in Christianity you're centering your identity in Christ. Now, there are a lot of Christians who've taken that to say, well then we're paying too much attention to race if we're centering our identity in Christ. Well, if race is the source of injustice, if the fallen world is centering identity around race, we need to ameliorate. We need to deal with the effects of that injustice. But ultimately, we're centering our identity in Christ.
That's one of the things that I find probably deeply problematic, especially as people adopt sort of a CRT worldview as a fundamental mindset. As sort of the lens, the prism through which they view life. What you'll often see at some of the extreme edges of it is they will not divorce ideas, experiences, attitudes, ideology from the race or gender of the origin. They will not divorce the ideology from the race or gender of the speaker. They will not deal with an idea independently of the race or gender of the speaker, and I think that begins to get really problematic.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Which I think suggests that you're either more qualified or disqualified to give an opinion based on whether you have the race that day that the person desires to see.
David French: Yeah. What you see often in critical race theory is an emphasis on what's called experiential authority, but experience is often not rooted in what we would typically call... The experience is derived from the identity. Okay? So if you're talking about police reform and you have an African-American man who maybe hasn't had a lot of interaction with the police, and you've got a white guy who's had a lot of interaction with the police, a critical race theorist is going to default to wanting to hear from the black man before wanting to hear from the white man, even if the white man has had some very concrete experiences to bring to bear, because the identity gives the experiential authority. Which again, I think is deeply problematic. Now that doesn't mean that there aren't experiences that often flow from identity.
So for example, Tim Scott, black Republican Senator from South Carolina, one of the more powerful people in the United States, has had encounters with the police that I would never have. So he has some experiential authority in how even a very powerful man, a very powerful black American, is going to be made to feel powerless because of the color of their skin in multiple instances throughout his life. We need to hear that. But at the same time, the fact that he's had this experience doesn't mean that his opinion on the merits of qualified immunity as a protection mechanism for the police are more valid than say, for example, my opinion on the merits of qualified immunity. That's where sometimes you'll begin to see some of this experiential authority breakdown.
Scott Rae: It too simplistic to reply to that, to simply say that arguments don't have skin color?
David French: Well, I'm not going to go that far. I'm going to say a lot of experiences have skin color, and so arguments based on those experiences are absolutely imperative to hear. But I would also say that there are profound limits to that approach. For example, I think these experiences are very important to inform arguments. They don't end arguments, is maybe a way of saying it.
Scott Rae: That's a helpful clarification of that, I think. A couple other things I think that trouble folks who've reacted to the prevalence of critical race theory as more of an ideology in the culture is the tendency to see the world through the lenses of oppressor and oppressed without nuancing that. But then I think on the other hand, theologically our doctrine of sin certainly suggests that both individuals as well as institutions can be infected by sin. You have depraved sinners who are writing laws and creating institutions that we shouldn't be surprised that our institutions also reflect some of those sinful tendencies.
David French: Oh, absolutely. This is where I talk about how critical race theory can help you actually diagnose not just the existence of sin, but the effects of sin, and how those effects can linger, and those effects can manifest themselves through people who are not in fact racist. I think one of the things about... As with any complicated theory, once things get boiled down into simple language, they often turn into big blunt instruments. One of the things that people rebel against is this idea if I'm sitting here and I'm not racist, and my company is trying to deal with the effects of racism with affirmative action hiring, diversity training, et cetera, to then say that my company is part of systemic racism, what? Or I am. What? What are you talking about?
To the extent that I know any system at all, the system around me is trying to end racism. That's where some of these buzzwords I think get really unhelpful because when somebody who's progressive talks about systemic racism, they often mean something different from what conservatives hear when they hear those words, and then phrases like white privilege... A lot of this stuff gets boiled down into this very blunt assessment of human beings, where you can have somebody who's just struggling to make ends meet, who doesn't have a racist bone in their body, who's trying to raise their kids right, feeling like other people are describing themselves as some sort of privileged oppressor, and it makes no sense. Just makes no sense, and it feels like a personal attack. When things are boiled down like that, it's really, really, really, really unhelpful.
But if you put it differently, and you say that... The way I've put it is that we have had 345 years of racial discrimination enforced by violence in this country. For 345 years, 1619 to 1964. We followed that up with 56 years of contentious change. There is no way that we have dealt with the consequences of those 345 years in the last 56. There's just no way. So we need to think hard about how to deal with the consequences of those 345 years without them saying, because of who you are, mom and dad of three kids struggling to get to soccer practice on time and help your kids with your homework, you're an oppressor. That you're a part of the problem. Instead, you say we have a problem, how do we fix it? I think there's a giant difference between those two.
Scott Rae: You've described in your piece in The Dispatch that the terrain you're staking out here is a hard slog.
David French: Yes.
Scott Rae: What makes it that way?
David French: Oh. I think what makes it that way, what makes it really hard is that, number one, it is a slog that puts you not really squarely within either political party, to be honest. So it means that if you're a Christian who is concerned with the effects of that 345 years, let's say you're Christian Republican, often that means that you're going to be looking to people who are not on your side of the political aisle, who've been thinking about this a lot more and a lot harder than some of the people who are on your side. That's uncomfortable these days. Our ideology or our political affiliation is so totalizing. It also means disagreeing with some people who get very heated. Very heated. Both right and left are overcome with a political correctness around race, and some people who hear that would say, what?
I understand that there's left-wing political correctness. Right-wing, what? And I'd say it like this. On the left, you have a lot of people who overracialize. They will overracialize. On the right, you have a lot of people who underracialize. In fact, on the right if you say you are thinking about racial justice, the first thing you'll hear, and you'll get this online if you have any kind of public voice at all, are you getting woke? Are you a cultural Marxist? Are you critical race theorist now? The very idea that you would begin to try to seriously engage on issues of race is seen as, by some people on the edges of the right, as a symptom of squishiness. There's two great examples of political correctness on the right and the left around race, gender, et cetera.
On the left, I don't know if you remember the story of James Damore, the Google software engineer. Kind of libertarian-ish guy. Google asks its employees, hey, what are some ideas that we can do to increase gender diversity? And he writes sort of a manifesto that says, hey, we need to understand why there is a gender disparity, and that gender disparity is rooted in that women tend to not want to do this job as much as men. But here's how we can try to encourage more women to do this job without engaging in gender discrimination. Some parts of it I agreed with, some parts I disagreed with, some parts I wasn't sure about, but it was written obviously in good faith. He was fired. We can't have that in Google. People felt unsafe. He was fired.
Then fast-forward, and right wing world said, look at all that political correctness. Look at that. They can't withstand descent, they can't handle disagreement. Look at that political correctness.
Then, in 2017, Trump is campaigning for Roy Moore and calls out kneeling football players, who were engaging in quiet protest. They weren't hurting anybody. He says, fire them. And the conservative world said, no, we like free speech. No, that's sadly not what happened. They go, yeah, fire them. And I wonder, I wonder. If Colin Kaepernick were kneeling to protest abortion, would American Christians have joined in the cheer to fire him? We know he's kneeling to protest police brutality and racial injustice. And I think part of the political correctness on the right is that we underracialize. So it wasn't just that they didn't like the form of the protest, it was also that they didn't like the substance of the protest at the same time and that worked together to create an impulse to try to cancel these football players in the way that people on the right have objected to cancel culture and other context when applied to them.
Scott Rae: One final question on this, David. This has been really insightful stuff, and I appreciate you're staking out this difficult terrain. What would your message to the church be about critical race theory?
David French: My message is be open to unorthodox sources of truth. One of the things that we have a problem with while also maintaining a firm and critical biblically informed worldview and reading ideas through the prism of a biblical worldview. There's this term, common grace, and one of the operative words in the term common grace is common. There can be ideas of merit from a variety of sources. So what we have to do is we have to learn to stretch ourselves, to go outside of our comfort zones to seek and find truth. We can't put it all in our favorite pastors, our favorite Christian thinkers. They simply don't have the bandwidth to know everything about everything. So here's what we often do. A big issue will come up and they'll say, I wonder what X thought of this. Well, there's probably a good chance that person X, pastor X is scrambling going, oh, what should I think of this?
So seek out scholars and seek out people who have thought about these issues for a long time, but always examine truth claims in the light of scripture. Always examine truth claims in the light of history. It's hard, but we should do it. And then when things contradict biblical truth, you don't advance it. You disagree with it. You articulate why you disagree with it. When something can help explain or inform the world around you, or explain to truth about the world around you, you embrace that truth. It's just really hard because we're just cocooning off into our respective bubbles, so when a race issue comes up, a person who's a politically conservative Christian will immediately think, I wonder what conservatives think. What's the conservative perspective on this? And that's the perspective. And progressives will think, what's the progressive perspective? And that's the perspective. We have to get past that.
Scott Rae: David, this has been really, a very insightful discussion. I so appreciate your coming on with us, and particularly, as you describe it, this difficult terrain that you're navigating on this still very, I think, very controversial, very highly-charged emotional issue of critical race theory. But I so appreciate the end part of that, where essentially you're suggesting that we think biblically about everything. Particularly this.
David French: Absolutely.
Scott Rae: So thank you so much for being with us and all the best to The Dispatch. I want to really encourage our listeners to check out your-
David French: Thedispatch.com.
Scott Rae: Thank you. That's what I was looking for. It's a wealth of really insightful materials. It's great stuff and well worth checking out.
David French: Oh, thanks so much for having me, and thanks for the kind words about our work.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest David French, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.