Race Marxism by James Lindsay, Independently published (March 2, 2022), 310 pages.
James Lindsay is the co-author of Cynical Theories with Helen Pluckrose, which examines Critical Theories plural, covering topics like Postcolonial Theory, Queer Theory, Disability Studies, as well as Critical Race Theory. In Race Marxism, Lindsay goes it alone and focuses in on Critical Race Theory. In broad strokes, the book is an argument for three things:
- Critical Race Theory is a totalizing religious belief system that sprung inexorably from (Neo-)Marxist thought
- The aim of Critical Race Theory is an overthrowing of the social order to bring about a Utopian social revolution
- To accomplish this, Critical Race Theory seeks to integrate itself into every facet of society, including science, education, government, corporations, and even interpersonal relationships
To make this argument, Lindsay does what he often does on his podcast and on his website New Discourses, which is to read from the actual literature and then interpret what is said in plain English. It’s easy to see that Lindsay has devoted his life to his effort to understand Critical Theories and to bring attention to the broader public just what is happening within this often abstruse sounding, jargon-laden system of beliefs and practices. He perceives Critical Race Theory as an existential threat to western liberal Enlightenment values. In this book he wants to convince you that he is right.
In what follows I am going to give a brief summary of each chapter and add some of my own commentary and critique. There is much more in this book than what I will be saying here, so this isn’t a complete recapitulation of Lindsay’s monograph and some of the nuance may be truncated. Thus, this is not a perfect substitute for the book.
Chapter 1: Defining Critical Race Theory
The first chapter is devoted to defining what Critical Race Theory even is. This, as he points out, is more difficult than one might expect, given that Critical Race Theorists don’t totally agree, often by design. He offers several definitions that are progressively more technical:
Critical Race Theory, according to James Lindsay, is:
- Calling everything you want to control “racist” until it is fully under your control. [page 1]
- A Marxian conflict theory of race; i.e., Race Marxism. [page 1]
- A belief that racism created by white people for their own benefit is the fundamental organizing principle of society. [page 1]
- The belief that racism that benefits white people (“white supremacy”) is the fundamental organizing principle of society (and that this is bad). [page 10]
- A revolutionary and broadly neo-Marxist mode of activism based upon the belief that the fundamental organizing principle of society is “systemic racism,” which it asserts was created and is maintained by white people in order to preserve a social structure that provides a multitude of unjust advantages over people of color, especially blacks. [page 16]
He supports these definitions, which all say mostly the same thing, by citing books like Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement edited by et al., White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, and quotes by Max Horkheimer and Ibram X. Kendi, among others.
Lindsay also points out that Critical Race Theory is a misnomer in all three words. It is not critical in the way most people think of critical thinking, but critical in a sense more similar to a mother who constantly complains about their child’s choices. In CRT, Lindsay explains, what one is supposed to be critical of is society itself, critical of it not being the Neo-Marxist racial Utopia that CRT advocates believe is a moral imperative. CRT is also not a theory in the way that, say, evolution or general relativity are theories, or in the way that structuralism is a theory in sociology. Instead, CRT is “theoretical lens” or “sensibility,” or in other words a way that all of ones thoughts and experiences must be “Correctly” interpreted. The “Race” part of Critical Race Theory, Lindsay explains, is also not defined the way most people think about it either, as a way of categorizing people based roughly on skin tone. Instead, race takes the following definition:
A misleading and deceptively appealing classification of human beings created by White people originally from Europe which assigns human worth and social status using the White racial identity as the archetype of humanity for the purpose of creating and maintaining privilege, power, and systems of oppression.
What one will notice is that this definition takes it as axiomatic that CRT is the one true way of thinking about race, a sort of question-begging that makes CRT indefeasible.
What Lindsay wants people to take away from the first chapter, other than just the definition itself, is that CRT is a totalizing belief system (everything must always and in every circumstance be viewed through the belief system and anything that is not is either invalid or immoral), and in fact that it is a religious belief system. He uses the legal definition of a religion given by Ben Clements which says:
religion can be defined as a comprehensive belief system that addresses the fundamental questions of human existence, such as the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the universe, and the nature of good and evil, and that gives rise to duties of conscience.
We can put this more discursively and tick off each one as it pertains to CRT [adapted from pages 21-22]:
- Comprehensive belief system – it is totalizing
- Addresses fundamental questions of human existence, including:
- The meaning of life – to be on the right side of racial History
- Man’s role in the universe – to advance the dialectic toward racial justice
- The nature of good – racial justice
- The nature of evil – racial inequity
- Duties of conscience – being an anti-racist as CRT defines it
The book then proceeds in a sort of reverse-chronological order. Lindsay says that, due to the dialectical nature of CRT, this is the best way to present it, because then each of the predecessor theses can be understood for how they were adapted (“negated”) in the subsequent synthesis. As such, he starts with what modern day Critical Race Theory believes in chapter 2, then goes into the proximate (relatively recently, i.e., 20th century) thought in chapter 3 before then getting into the deep (18th and 19th century) thought in chapter 4. Then in chapter 5 he spells out the tactics used by Critical Race Theorists in furthering their agenda, then in chapter 6 he gives his recommendations for how to resist the CRT agenda.
Chapter 2: What Critical Race Theory Believes
In this chapter James Lindsay sets out to explain what he says are the core tenets of Critical Race Theory. He says he has gleaned these dozen core tenets from multiple sources, which usually list between three and six, but Lindsay wants to be as thorough as possible. And so he gives the following list along with an interpretation of what each of them mean. Critical Race Theory is:
A belief that racism is ordinary and permanent in society
As already discussed in chapter 1, this tenet is taken as a presupposition (it has to be accepted before everything else in order for the rest of it to make any sense). It is exemplified in the Robin DiAngelo quote “The question [under CRT] is not ‘did racism take place?’ but ‘how did racism manifest in this situation?'” Lindsay explains that some in CRT circles (e.g., Derrick Bell), they believe that the permanence of racism means it can never be rectified. However, the majority of CRT advocates, Lindsay says, believe it can be rectified by overturning the social order. In other words, racism is permanent only within the current system. Thus, CRT is skeptical of liberal values like individualism, universal humanity, meritocracy, freedom, and even human rights.
Acceptance of the Interest-Convergence Thesis of Derrick Bell
This is the idea that the only time the dominant group (white people) would ever give anything like rights to other races (especially black people) is if it was in their own interest to do so. In other words, the interests of the non-white people who will “benefit” from some policy must converge with the interests of the white dominant class. I put scare quotes around “benefit” because a part of this doctrine is that the non-whites don’t truly benefit, since when the white interests are upheld it is only ever at the cost of the non-whites (it is zero sum). Indeed, Derrick Bell came up with the interest-convergence thesis when he argued that Brown vs. Board of Education case that led to school integration was done for white interests (like, for instance, stemming the tide of Marxism) and only succeeded (as far as black people are concerned) in making racism more hidden.
Further, Lindsay notes, the materialist view of Derrick Bell has been expanded on so that even when a white person does what the CRT advocates says and becomes an anti-racist (as they define it), they are only doing so for their own benefit.
Belief in material determinism by racial category
Materialism, in Marxist terms, is the idea that material conditions, such as economic circumstances, determine who a person is. In other words, such material conditions determines the content of a persons’ character, and so the “judging a person by the content of their character” is inherently flawed, since that content was determined by material conditions.
Lindsay points out that this kind of materialism has fallen out of favor among the CRT crowd, except as a motte (in the motte-and-bailey fallacy), meaning that because it has an element of truth, it can be trotted out as a more attractive argument when much else in CRT is exposed for its true ugliness.
The structuralism of CRT is much more in vogue nowadays, Lindsay argues, which is why things like policing language and going after cultural issues (e.g., Hollywood and people engaging in wrongthink) is much more popular than, say, trying to end poverty or the war on drugs.
While Lindsay thinks that racial material determinism has an element of truth to it, he says that it is still pernicious because it is a gross oversimplification and focuses on race at the expense of other more salient things like economic conditions.
Social construction (and imposition) of race
The idea that race is socially constructed has its genesis in liberal thinking, which has come to the conclusion that for pretty much everything important about a person, race does not reflect the underlying biological reality much at all. What CRT asserts, however, is that race is an imposition by dominant groups onto “minoritized groups.” In other words, as Lindsay argues, CRT says “…that race is (1) socially constructed by whites to do identity politics for their own benefit and (2) imposed by whites onto others to extract those benefits…”
While Lindsay admits that the origin of racial categories was white people attempting to justify colonialism and slavery, that this had largely fallen away in the last four or five decades. Yet the CRT crowd want to act as if things are as bad as they were in 1950 or even 1850.
Lindsay says that CRT advocates pull a kind of trick in order not to fall into racial essentialism (that race determines a person’s essential characteristics, including character) by saying that, although race is socially constructed and therefore illegitimate, it has been made real by virtue of white people imposing it on everyone else, thereby making racial categories and identity politics fair game for the CRT advocates.
Belief in structural determinism by racial category
This is the tenet that has largely dominated the material determinism of Derrick Bell in recent decades among the CRT crowd. Instead of material conditions, CRT is now primarily concerned with structural conditions, which has to do with things like epistemology (a huge shibboleth within CRT), language (hence all the language policing found on social media), norms, expectations, customs, and so on. Think of the now infamous Smithsonian chart:
Structural determinism then is the idea that racial categories are essential insofar as they are socially constructed by what Lindsay calls “…the prevailing systemic power dynamics that are the fundamental organizing principle of society.” Thus, these structural elements (language, norms, etc.) produce “lived realities” within people of color that determines their character.
A unique voice of color (positional standpoint epistemology)
This is the idea known as standpoint epistemology which Lindsay points out means “…the belief that who you are in relation to the systems of power in play determines what you can and cannot understand.” In other words, your race (or gender, or other non-dominant group characteristics) determines what you can know. In practice, this is seen in the “lived reality” being the authority on what someone can speak about (i.e., why white people are supposed to shut up and listen on matters of race (despite silence being violence, but such are the double binds rampant in CRT)).
The doctrine of standpoint epistemology says that, since the white way of knowing is imposed on everyone, white people only have white ways of knowing, which they falsely claim are objective, while non-whites possess both the white way of knowing (since it has been imposed on them) but also their authentic racial way of knowing by virtue of their “lived reality.” This is the doctrine of double consciousness.
Thus, even if objective measures (which is a white way of knowing) demonstrate that racism has been on the decline since the 1970’s, someone can argue that their “lived reality” of experiencing constant and omnipresent racism supersedes this. Furthermore, by virtue of group epistemology being more salient than individual epistemology, this conclusion from “lived reality” can be generalized to everyone within the victim’s racial cohort.
Conversely, since racial standpoint supersedes, say, economic standpoint, a poor inner city white person (they do actually exist) still maintains the same white privilege as a Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump by virtue of being white. Their black inner city neighbor, on the other hand, has this entire other way of knowing that is inaccessible by the poor inner city white person. Most people would likely think that the poor inner city white and black neighbors would have much more in common with each other, epistemologically speaking, than either would to Jeff Bezos, but the racial essentialism baked into CRT (which they want so bad to escape, but fail to do so) commits the CRT advocate into believing that this is not the case.
Storytelling, narrative-weaving, and counterstorytelling
Storytelling and narrative-weaving are essentially the tools of standpoint epistemology. The idea is that people tell the story of their “lived reality” in order to produce the right narrative. For example, even though police shootings of unarmed black people is a statistically rare occurrence, the “lived reality” of black people is that the police are murdering unarmed black people in the streets of every major city on a daily basis. Thus, the narrative of, say, George Floyd, is held up as proof of what every black person has to fear every time they walk out the door. Or, to put it simply, storytelling and narrative-weaving is ignoring actual facts and statistics in favor of people’s “authentic” feelings.
Counterstorytelling is a bit different. Lindsay describes it as essentially using fake parables to appeal to people’s emotions. He gives several examples, including one of Derrick Bell’s counterstories or “racial hypo” (racial hypothetical) about every black hoodlum and gangster finding a pill that cures them of their criminal ways only for the government to realize how lucrative the criminal justice system had been before and therefore destroy the supply of the pills in order to set black people back. This goes back to Bell’s interest-convergence theory that says that white people will only help black people (or make it look like they’re helping) if it will be helpful to white people. The point of the counterystory is that white people prefer black people to be criminals and gangsters because white people can profit off of it (thus exonerating criminal behavior if it is undertaken by a black person).
These tactics all use the story, which is concrete (instead of abstract statistics) and appeals to people’s emotions, which makes them more powerful than sober analysis. Lindsay doesn’t discuss it here, but I find it interesting that social media has made it much easier for stories of this kind to spread. And not just the stories of this kind pertaining to the experience of non-whites, but also stories about the villainous actions of white people as well. Fringe groups of racists can be trotted out and made to seem like they are indicative of all white people’s attitudes; a few vivid anecdotes can trump even the most towering mountains of objective evidence.
Revisionist history is both heavily frowned upon by also widespread. Indeed, whenever a historian comes out with a new book about the decline of the Roman Empire or World War 2, the reason for publishing a new volume on a period of history whose market is already oversaturated is to examine it from some new angle or with some new interpretation. Did the Nazis lose WWII during Operation Barbarossa? Or was it at Stalingrad? Or could they have pulled something off even after that? Those are the kinds of arguments that new books on WWII attempt to make.
What CRT does, however, is perfectly encapsulated in a quote from Critical Race Theory: An Introduction that Lindsay gives in this section:
Derrick Bell’s analysis of Brown [v. Board of Education] illustrates a second signature CRT theme, revisionist history. Revisionist history reexamines America’s historical record, replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations of events with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences. It also offers evidence, sometimes suppressed, in that very record, to support those new interpretations. [bold added]
In other words, this isn’t necessarily some new interpretation of the facts, but a motivated attempt to make history fit the CRT agenda. Lindsay, as many others have, point to the 1619 Project as a paragon of this revisionist history, where the history of the United States was meant to be reinterpreted as one big conspiracy to perpetuate and maintain the enslavement of those with African heritage.
A critique of liberalism and the very foundations of the liberal order
Liberalism here is to be understood in the classical sense, not in the sense often used to describe the Democratic party in the U.S.
A few quotes that Lindsay cites from Critical Race Theory: And Introduction pretty much say it all:
…critical race theory calls into question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law.
[Critical Race Theorists] are highly suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely rights.
Moreover, rights are said to be alienating. They separate people from each other – “stay away, I’ve got my rights” – rather than encouraging them to form close, respectful communities. And with civil rights, lower courts have found it easy to narrow or distinguish the broad, ringing landmark decision like Brown v. Board of Education. The groups whom they supposedly benefit always greets cases like Brown with great celebration. But after the celebration dies down, the great victory is quietly cut back by narrow interpretation, administrative obstruction, or delay. In the end, the minority group is left little better than it was before, if not worse. Its friends, the liberals, believing the problem has been solved, go on to something else, such as saving the whales, while its adversaries, the conservatives, furious that the Supreme Court has given way once again to undeserving minorities, step up their resistance.
Lindsay argues that CRT advocates hate liberalism because of its success. Liberalism has by and large made life better for more people, Lindsay says, and therefore less prone to become leftist revolutionaries. This, CRT says, is a false consciousness, where the awakening from which the term “woke” originates is in coming to the realization that your life is actually intolerably miserable (if you don’t think so, the according to CRT you either benefit from whiteness or whiteness adjacency or you have internalized your oppression).
Indeed, Herbert Marcuse says in “An Essay on Liberation” that people need to have psychopathologies induced in them that make them unable to tolerate liberalism in order for people to take on a “new sensibility,” meaning that they see anything and everything through the lens of Critical Theory. This is why all Critical Theories are said to be negative insofar as they do not submit a vision of their Utopia, but say that Utopia will be what is left standing once liberalism has been completely razed to the ground.
Whiteness as a form of property
A tenet in CRT, as we have seen, is that race is something invented by white people to oppress non-white people. The complement of that tenet is that white people also created whiteness, which, like property, can be withheld from others or given as a reward to people for properly submitting to white dominance. This is what Cheryl I. Harris argued in “Whiteness as Property” in a 1993 Harvard Law Review.
Lindsay makes the case that this is a canny move among Neo-Marxists. What differentiates Neo-Marxism from Marxism is its focus on culture rather than economics, and so by making whiteness a form of property, then in Marxian fashion the CRT crowd can call for its abolition. This isn’t like white genocide. The abolition of whiteness would essentially be the abolition of white privilege, such that white people would no longer be allowed to enjoy their place at the top of the domination hierarchy, as Critical Race Theory views it. Lindsay also says that the abolition of whiteness as property also transfers to actual property, which he says is why the property damage caused by the riots in 2020 following George Floyd’s death were excused by the CRT crowd and their fellow travelers among the pundit sphere.
This idea of turning whiteness into a kind of property in order to abolish it is interesting. It makes one wonder how such a thing could be done (assuming its true) and how CRT would want to prevent it from simply becoming inverted (if abolition, rather than redistribution, is the actual goal). One could imagine that, should the roles be reversed and white people are put into the place that CRT considers black people to be inhabiting right now, then maybe at some point in the future CRT will focus on the plight of white people and the black privilege that subsumed white privilege during the revolution. Given that pretty much in all places where socialism/communism have been tried it has quickly turned into authoritarian, or even totalitarian, kleptocratic states that simply produced a new ruling class of those within the inner party, it is not too farfetched to think that the social revolution sought by CRT in the U.S. and Europe would end the same way.
If a black man experiences oppression that is, say, 30/100 and a white woman experiences oppression that is, say, 20/100, then how much does a black woman face? Intersectionality says that it isn’t 50/100 (the sum of the other two), but is in fact above and beyond what someone would get from just the sum of both kinds of oppression, perhaps more like 70/100. Coined in Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1991 paper “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” (cited over 28,000 times), intersectionality has taken off in recent years as the sort of Oppression Olympics, where people on Twitter try to stuff as many oppressed identities into their bio as they can in order to rack up oppression points.
Lindsay says that intersectionality is not a totally useless or pernicious concept, that through a liberal lens it could have been useful and beneficial. But, he says, it is in practice “Identity Marxism.” By this he means that it is used as a way of viewing people in terms of identity groups that are determined by their various intersecting traits (e.g. black and woman) rather than as individuals. In a sense, too, intersectionality is like the Critical Theory of Critical Theory, used to call out, say, feminism as being too white and ignoring black women.
Antiracism as praxis
Praxis is a fancy word for practice, which in terms of CRT means activism to turn other people into Critical Race Theorists and ultimately to produce a social revolution. Indeed, as Lindsay argues (and even devotes an entire chapter (chapter 5) to praxis later in this book), praxis is the most important tenet of CRT. Lindsay says:
The two – Theory and praxis – are inseparable in the sense that Critical Race Theory without praxis is not Critical Race Theory and Critical Race Praxis that isn’t based in Critical Race Theory is, by definition, nonsensical. As noted, Critical Race Theory is as Critical Race Theory does.
Antiracism is to be distinguished from being “not racist” which CRT claims is impossible. In CRT, a person is either a racist or an antiracist (a false dilemma fallacy), where the latter is an adherent of CRT and the former is everyone else. Antiracism is the praxis of CRT, where one must both A) take on a lifelong commitment to be self-critical and find racism in one’s every action and B) agitate for “antiracist” policies (e.g., affirmative action; creating departments of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) in government, law, and other institutions. As to the latter, Ibram X. Kendi says in How to be an Antiracist:
The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only rememdy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.
As is plain to see, liberal ideas like neutrality, meritocracy, and equality would prohibit something like this, which is why CRT is so hostile to liberalism.
Critical Whiteness Studies
James Lindsay concludes the second chapter with a description of another aspect of Critical Race Theory, which is called Critical Whiteness Studies, or Whiteness Studies, or Whiteness Education. He says that CRT proper sometimes (but not always) distances itself from this grotesque appendage of CRT since it is so blatantly racist that, when confronted about it, it is indefensible. Yet, Lindsay argues, it is inexorably tied to CRT and an inevitable conclusion of CRT.
What is Critical Whiteness Studies? Lindsay describes it as:
…it is wholly fixated on the white race, white people, and whiteness. Its stated aims include to interrogate the cultural production of whiteness as well as the white privilege it confers upon white people, to develop a comprehensive theory of “white complicity” in racism and assign “white moral responsibility” to white people through it, and to generate a (never-positive) racial awareness of whiteness in white people and encourage them to become self-critical of it to help in dismantling it (as praxis).
He points out that Critical Whiteness Studies is often carried out by white people, with Robin DiAngelo being an exemplar of the practice, saying, for example (from White Fragility):
White people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions… Entering the conversation with this understanding is freeing because it allows us to focus on how – rather than if – our racism is manifest.
Another is Barbara Applebaum, who says in Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy that:
The white complicity claim maintains that all whites, by virtue of systemic white privilege that is inseparable from white ways of being, are implicated in the production and reproduction of systemic racial injustice.
The relevant point for now is that all white people are racist or complicit by virtue of benefiting from privileges that are not something they can voluntarily renounce.
Which are verbose ways of saying that racism is an essential and inescapable part of being white (race essentialism). Lindsay states that “…one of the most important lines of effort in Critical Whiteness Studies is to impose a white racial awareness on white people…” – meaning that Whiteness Studies is for white people in order to raise their consciousness of their complicity in systemic racism and the privilege that being white confers on themselves.
Lindsay points out that Critical Whiteness Studies is not just racist in the way most people understand racism, but is racist even in CRT’s own terms. He says that this is because, according to CRT:
- The definition of systemic racism (according to CRT) is the imposition of a negative racial identity on a group
- Whiteness Studies imposes a negative racial identity on a group
- Therefore Whiteness Studies is a form of systemic racism
For chapters 3 and 4 I am going to keep my summaries as brief as I can without detracting too much from what the vital takeaways are. These are the two longest chapters in the book (72 and 62 pages respectively) and there is a great deal of information, all of it interesting and important, but 1) it would make this already long post much, much longer to even summarize all of it and 2) there has to be something left over for you to read should you purchase this book. So, the brevity of my synopses of chapters 3 and 4 are even less reflective of the full extent of the content contained within them than is the rest of this summary and review.
Chapter 3: The Proximate Ideological Origins of Critical Race Theory
James Lindsay makes a tentative distinction between Cultural Marxism and Neo-Marxism. The former is applying Marxist methodology to culture instead of economics. The latter combines Cultural Marxism with critiques of “classical” (economic/materialist or “vulgar”) Marxism, i.e., it moves the focus of Marxist conflict theory from the power dynamics of the rich and poor to the power dynamics of culturally constructed categories (white and black; male and female; straight and gay; etc.).
Cultural Marxism came first, issuing from thinkers like the Hungarian György Lukács and the Italian Antonio Gramsci. These early Cultural Marxists observed how capitalist societies in western Europe and the U.S. were resistant to the Marxist revolution that was able to occur in the more feudal society of Russia. From this they inferred that there must be something about capitalism that makes it resistant to revolutionary consciousness. They thus concluded that this must be false consciousness that is produced by the culture.
Neo-Marxism then becomes extremely interested in this notion of “false consciousness” which was part of classical Marxism but not well developed by Marx and Engels. Lindsay characterizes the doctrine of false consciousness as the Neo-Marxist “…having more access to the contents of your head than you do” so that they have special insight into the fact that you don’t know how oppressed and unhappy you are. What it boils down to, though, is the idea that the happiness and prosperity that capitalism brings is in fact a trick or illusion (i.e. false consciousness) sapping them of their will to bring about the “liberatory” Neo-Marxist revolution. They are, Lindsay points out, of the Marxist mindset that capitalism is doomed to fail under its own contradictions. Unlike Marx, however, they worry that this will result in fascism, which is seen as the default course of History should the leftist Revolution fail to materialize. Thus, if a leftist revolution isn’t forced on everyone first, fascism is inevitable, which is why Neo-Marxists and their successors are so paranoid about fascists hiding around every corner.
Lindsay says that Neo-Marxists see three primary antagonists within capitalism that stymie their efforts at revolutionary consciousness raising:
- Consumer Culture, which alienates people from reality such that they want the solution sold to them, thereby perpetuating consumerism
- Privileged Elites, who benefit from all this and therefore do what they can to stop the revolution
- Culture Industry (the means of cultural production), which generates a sort of mind-numbing, lowest-common-denominator sort of drivel to rook people into believing themselves happy in order to perpetuate the interests of the latter two
Critical Theory, Lindsay explains, was created with three primary aims in mind:
- Make Marxism more dialectical, i.e., more Hegelian (for instance, that the freedom of liberalism and its antithesis, justice (according to Horkheimer and Adorno), will invariably synthesize into fascism; thus, leftist “Repressive Tolerance” (tolerating repression if it is done by the left) is justified to prevent “the total calamity” of fascism)
- New Sensibility: if the current society doesn’t make a clean break from existing ways of thinking (current sensibilities), then the modes of oppression present in the new society will persist (the Neo-Marxist explanation (excuse) for why the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state)
- Deal with the fact that liberalism and capitalism makes functional and prosperous societies that sap people’s revolutionary consciousness (hence the hatred of liberalism)
Because of this third aim, which Lindsay says is the most important for our purposes, the Neo-Marxists needed to find a new proletariat. In the 1960’s, the Critical Theorists (particularly Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse) saw that the “ghetto populations” (in Marcuse’s words) of racial minorities fit the bill (if only they are given the right consciousness by a middle-class, college-educated intelligentsia, i.e., the leftists on colleges in the 1960’s). From this, Lindsay says, Identity Marxism was born. Not as an extension of the Civil Rights movement, but as a co-opting of black Americans by the Neo-Marxists.
Lindsay defines postmodernism broadly in the following way:
…postmodernism is a post-Marxist Theory (indeed, I will assert that it is also post-Hegelian) of the state of society as it transitions into an information age. A post-anything theory is, in general, something that has given up on the thing in question without abandoning its general thrust… As a post-Marxist Theory, postmodernism retains Marxism’s tremendous distrust and dislike of liberalism, capitalism, and Western Civilization, but it extends this distrust and dislike, rather despairingly, to Marxism as well. In that regard, it is profoundly nihilistic and, in the key word, deconstructive. Its goal is to take everything apart because, in its view, nothing can possibly work.
Earlier in the chapter Lindsay says that postmodernists “…despaired of and largely abandoned Marxism in its abject failure while retaining most of the underlying ethos and much of the methodology that Marxist thinkers brought to the table – not least the profound rejection of liberalism and capitalism.”
The Marxist ethos in postmodernism is power dynamics: knowledge is culturally determined and culture is determined by power dynamics. Or, as Lindsay says:
To paraphrase Richard Rorty on the matter, postmodernism is based in part on a belief that while the world might be out there, truth isn’t because it’s a cultural construct… For postmodernists, truth and falsity miss the point because the point is that for anyone to believe something is true (that is, that it is knowledge), someone has to have been given the authority to say that it is true and to be believed in saying so. Postmodern Theory calls into question all such processes of conferring authority over knowledge claims.
Thus, scientific knowledge, for instance, doesn’t tell you what is true, instead merely expressing the power of those who get to decide what makes someone a scientist in the first place. Another culture might have a different way of conferring the status of “scientist” on people and so will produce different scientific “truths.” In other words, cultural relativism taken to the extreme, along with an unhealthy dose of might-makes-right (in a descriptive, not normative, sense).
The main things that Critical Theory imported from postmodernism were:
- Social Constructionism/Constructivism – the idea that all knowledge is socially constructed rather than referring to reality, thus allowing for multiple truths (something Marxism would reject given that it sees dialectical materialism as a definite truth). This is particularly popular in Queer Theory, where even biological sex is said to be socially constructed. As we’ll see, however, CRT mutates this doctrine somewhat in order to make race something still real in order to use it as a basis for identity politics.
- The Foucaultian idea that knowledge is contingent on culture and therefore imposed by the dominant group(s). This is where the obsession with “epistemes” or “ways of knowing” come from, as well as the subsequent ideas of epistemic oppression and epistemic injustice and standpoint epistemology. This also supports the idea that there can be multiple truths (no objective truth) that are determined by “lived realities.”
- Legitimation by Paralogy is the idea by Jean-Francois Lyotard (from The Postmodern Condition) that we can never tell what is real and what isn’t. Instead, everything must always defer to a socially constructed consensus, which is a function of power (and therefore a false consensus).
- The Derridean idea that language only ever points to other language and never to a real meaning, and so meaning is always deferred; this entails the “death of the author” doctrine (the author’s intentions don’t matter, only the reader’s interpretation) and, Lindsay says, this then leads directly to the conclusion of “impact over intent” in Critical Social Justice Theory (i.e., when you say a prohibited word, it doesn’t matter what the context is or what your intentions are, all that matters is that it could have hurt someone’s feelings – the “victim’s” lived reality of hearing the word that is the final authority on what the word meant).
- The Baudrillardian idea of Hyperreality. This is the notion that we live in a world populated by simulacra of real things without access to what is actually real. Lindsay says that Critical Theorists have weaponized this in order to project their own reality onto the world: think the Queer Theorists who deny biological reality or the CRT advocates who (through storytelling and narrative weaving) want to portray the experience of being black as living under the omnipresent threat of being murdered by the police.
Synthesis of Neo-Marxism and Postmodernism
James Lindsay says Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1991 paper “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” was the watershed moment in synthesizing Neo-Marxism and postmodernism. This is where what Lindsay calls Identity Marxism copulated with postmodernism and spawned the demon that is modern Critical Race Theory (my metaphor, not Lindsay’s).
As we saw above, Neo-Marxism, when taking on Marcuse’s strategy of co-opting the “ghetto populations” for its new proletariat, this resulted in what Lindsay calls Identity Marxism. But at this point there still wasn’t a theory (or Theory) as to why these “ghetto populations” are uniquely poised to become this new proletariat. Postmodern Theory, harboring an obsession with power dynamics, oppressor-oppressed dichotomies, and social constructivism, offered a Theoretical underpinning that (almost) perfectly complemented the Marxist conflict theories and notions of false consciousness. It fit the bill for Marcuse’s new sensibility, the new way of interpreting everything in society as falsehoods perpetrated by the powerful in order to engender false consciousness in the oppressed.
Alas, it wasn’t a marriage without flaws for Critical Race Theory. If race is nothing but a social construct, a fiction to be deconstructed (in the way Queer Theory wishes to do with categories of sex, sexuality, and gender), then what basis was there for using black people as a political category? Thus, what Crenshaw did in “Mapping the Margins” was to modify the postmodern conception of race in order to make it properly basic (real enough to be operative). As Lindsay puts it:
The given justification for this shift in perspective is that identity categories are imposed, thus made meaningful and real, by systemic power and those who hold and wield it. That is, identity categories only exist as applications of power in the first place, so those disempowered by them cannot actually deconstruct them but can understand themselves and society in terms of them. This line of thought is the birthplace of critical constructivism – postmodern social constructivism recontextualized in terms of neo-Marxist beliefs about systemic power.
Lindsay goes on in this chapter to introduce some of the radical 1960’s movements that functioned as the soil for Critical Race Theory, namely the Black Liberation movement, the Black Feminism movement, and Critical Legal Studies. He also briefly discusses Critical Pedagogy, whose founders were Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux, and which Lindsay says wasn’t within the soil from which CRT sprung. Instead it evolved in parallel to CRT and then took on CRT as one of its tools. Lindsay says that:
Critical Pedagogy is about awakening a critical consciousness through education by any means necessary. As a movement, it therefore is content to pick up any convenient tool that might make that possible (in any specific context) and amplify and encourage that tool. Critical Race Theory, as is obvious by its operation…is one such very useful tool.
Lindsay points out that Critical Pedagogy is not picky with which Neo-Marxian Theory it will take up.
It’s aims…[are to] use education as a means to induce critical consciousness in as many children in the population as possible. If economics works, teach Marxism. If gender and sexuality work, teach Critical Gender Theory and Queer Theory. If race works, teach Critical Race Theory. Whatever it takes to raise a generation of Marxian revolutionaries through the education system and thus achieve “liberation.”
Lindsay’s explication in this chapter is somewhat incomplete. The structuralism and semiotics of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Roland Barthes are not discussed. The historical context of May 68 in France isn’t discussed. Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jürgen Habermas, and Alain Badiou don’t get any mention. Nothing about the other two of the “three H’s” that the French postmodernists were steeped in (Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, with the third being Hegel), or Existentialism. But I can understand why. Although these people are important for the development of the current form of CRT, and Critical Theories in general, it would lead down a long rabbit hole that would likely obscure rather than clarify the central theses of this book. I point them out here mainly in case others would want to explore these avenues.
I will end this part of the chapter with somewhat of a reading list for Critical Pedagogy and how CRT is, in fact, being used to teach children in schools (contrary to what the leftist and progressive pundit class are saying). Lindsay cites these authors and papers in this book and in other places where he has spoken on this issue. I’ve tried to give PDFs where I could so that you can read these things in full for free, but I wasn’t able to find some of them in PDF form, but you can get them on Amazon for fairly cheap.
Gloria Ladson-Billings, 1995, “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” (pdf) (cited nearly 10,000 times)
Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate IV, 1995, “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education” (pdf) (cited over 2,000 times)
William F. Tate IV, 1997, “Critical Race Theory and Education: History, Theory, and Implications” (pdf) (cited over 2,000 times)
Paulo Freire, 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (pdf)
Paulo Freire, 1985, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation (Amazon)
Isaac Gottesman, 2016, The Critical Turn in Education: From Marxist Critique to Poststructuralist Feminism to Critical Theories of Race (Amazon)
Henry A. Giroux, 2011 (2nd ed. 2020), On Critical Pedagogy (Amazon)
Chapter 4: The Deep Ideological Origins of Critical Race Theory
In this chapter James Lindsay examines four thinkers whose ideas were borrowed and mutated in the creation of Critical Race Theory. These thinkers are Karl Marx, G.W.F. Hegel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and W.E.B. Du Bois. I say borrowed and mutated because, as Lindsay points out, these thinkers (perhaps with the exception of Du Bois) would likely have rejected Critical Race Theory (e.g., postmodernists would reject it for not deconstructing race and Marxists for allowing multiple “truths”). But, Lindsay says, through the “dialectical” methodology within CRT (and Critical Theories in general), a synthesis can be made from contradictory ideas by throwing out the contradictions and keeping what works. This is seen in “Mapping the Margins” when Crenshaw modifies postmodernism (“vulgar constructivism”) so that black identity can remain a stable category and modifies Neo-Marxism to “relax its grip on the idea of truth” in order to have an operational identity politics of race.
Lindsay puts it this way:
For example, the fusion of neo-Marxism and postmodernism described in the previous chapter is actually a dialectical synthesis of their two contradictory theses, as Crenshaw made quite clear in “Mapping the Margins.” She noted that the social constructivist thesis at the heart of postmodernism is useful (should be kept) but prevents a meaningful neo-Marxist politics of identity (needs to be abolished) and named it a “vulgarized social constructivist” approach. Deconstructive postmodern social constructivism exists in dialectical opposition (contradiction) to identity-based systemic power dynamics in identity-based neo-Marxism – her task was to combine into one Theory the ideas that racial category is a social fiction that is nevertheless deterministic, and following the old feminist playbook of claiming identity roles as imposed upon them by a system of power, she found her way. She then offered a critical constructivism as a synthetic resolution. This approach sets aside (keeps) social constructivism and identity-based power dynamics by recasting social constructivism itself through the lens of systemic power dynamics. The result is critical constructivism or postmodern neo-Marxism – a synthetic combination of the two.
This is why, Lindsay says, when people say that CRT isn’t Neo-Marxist or that postmodernism would deconstruct CRT into oblivion, that these critics are missing the point. Using the dialectical method, the parts of these predecessor theories that contradict the new synthesis are discarded, only those parts that are useful remaining in the new synthesis.
I would add that Critical Theories in general don’t so much as care about epistemic adequacy (knowing what you’re talking about) or intellectual rigor. What matters to Critical Theorists is whether something can be useful to their aims. A refrain through this book is that “Critical Race Theory is as Critical Race Theory does.” Maintaining internal coherence is something “traditional theories” (in Horkheimer’s words) is concerned with. Critical Theories are first and foremost about activism (praxis). The theoretical part of Theory is there so long as it is useful for praxis, coherency be damned. Thus, quibbling about whether this part contradicts that part is something for academic “traditional theorists” to stay distracted with while the Critical Theorists engage in praxis.
As for the path of the dialectic, Lindsay says the following:
Marxism is a dialectical synthesis of Hegel’s idealist dialectical program with Ludwig Feuerbach’s materialism (and Marx’s hatred of God); neo-Marxism is a dialectical synthesis of Marxism with its abject failures along with psychology and sociology; Identity Marxism is a dialectical synthesis of neo-Marxism and radical liberationism; the Theories of Critical Social Justice are a dialectical synthesis of Identity (neo)-Marxism and postmodernsim; and intersectionality is a dialectical synthesis of the varying contradictory Critical Theories of Identity Marxism. All of this…is based upon Hegel’s take on the dialectic, which he adapted to his own systematic, speculative philosophy from origins in Kant and Rousseau.
I made the following diagram to make this clearer:
Lindsay points out that this dialectical process of synthesis is an eschatological leftist faith (a religion) “that cannot possibly accept that the…dialectical process is a colossal failure.” Yet, Lindsay prognosticates, anywhere that these ideas or any new synthesis spawned from them are tried will inevitably end in abject failure. Worse, these failures, as history attests, lead to cavalcades of human suffering and the deaths of millions. But, he says, because of the eschatological faith in this dialectical process, whenever a version of it fails, a new synthesis can be produced, the adherents of which will declare that the previous iteration wasn’t “real Marxism” and that now that the true version is known, it will work this time.
The sections of this chapter on Marx, Hegel, and Rousseau are interesting and important, but there is a lot of information. I will give only the briefest of takeaways from these sections.
The notion of ideology, for Marx, was what the bourgeois used to justify their place in the superstructure of society and their theft of surplus production. Wee, for example, The German Ideology by Marx and Engels, where they say:
Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.
Marx & Engels, The German Ideology
For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to present its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and present them as the only rational, universally valid ones.
Marx & Engels, The German Ideology
This is essentially what whiteness is to CRT – a justification by white people for their place of privilege within society (white supremacy) and their theft of culture (colonialism, cultural appropriation, epistemic exploitation). This is done, according to CRT, as a way of making the status quo appear normal, natural, and necessary. Marx thought Communism, the apotheosis of dialectical materialism, would see the end of ideology. CRT has similar thoughts about whiteness following the Revolution (capitalized to demonstrate its eschatological importance to Marxist thought).
Lindsay also gives the parallel of what he thinks would be the six-stage Marxian historicism (historical materialism, driven by class conflict) for CRT. While CRT has never written these stages out explicitly, Lindsay believes that he can extrapolate that these are what CRT would have correspond to Marxist historical materialism (driven by racial conflict in CRT, i.e., “white supremacy” and “systemic racism”):
Marx: primitive tribal communism
CRT: primitive tribal equity
Marx: slave economies
CRT: slavery (in particular African slaves)
Marx: feudal or estate property-based economies
CRT: apartheid states (segregation, Jim Crow)
CRT: colorblind equality
Marx: socialism (Dictatorship of the Enlightened Proletariat)
CRT: cultural redistribution and “equity” (Dictatorship of Antiracists)
Marx: communism – the End of History
CRT: “racial justice” – the End of Racial History
These stages can be accelerated along by increasing tensions and divisions, doing what Lenin called “accelerat[ing] the contradictions.” For Marxism, the contradiction would be something like: if capitalism has so much prosperity, why are there still poor people? To amplify this contradiction is to make the poor even worse off in order to force them into taking revolutionary action.
In CRT, a contradiction would be something like: if we have racial equality, then how come racial equity hasn’t been achieved? This contradiction is then accelerated through racial agitation: call everything racist and then, when anyone resists their accusations of racism, just keep calling them racist. This will lead to radicalization on the right (amplifying the contradiction) which can then be used for cracking down on even the left-leaning liberals and progressives that don’t buy into CRT, accusing them of giving aid and comfort to the rightwing radicals (or even of being such rightwing radicals themselves).
What would this Dictatorship of Antiracists look like? Lindsay quotes Ibram X. Kendi:
To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals [sic]: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials (with “racist ideas” and “public officials” clearly defined). It would establish and permanently fund a Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state, and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
As far as Hegel, Lindsay’s section is interesting and important, but without going into much depth, the primary takeaway is this: Hegel’s contribution to all of this was the dialectic as an eschatological and soteriological religious faith. Eschatological in that it saw the ultimate fate of humanity, which for Hegel was the Absolute and for Marx was Communism. Soteriological in that any atrocity can be excused on the path to this salvation because they are “on the right side of History” where the “end of History” is a moral imperative.
Lindsay capitalizes the H in History since, according to Lindsay, in Hegelian-Marxist thought History is viewed as a sort of demiurge that creates all that happens, as can be seen in Marx’s stages of historical materialism. Whether Marx thought this way is arguable. Marx says, for instance:
History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real living man, that does all that, that possesses and fights; “history” is not a person apart, using man as a means for its own particular aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.
Marx & Engels, The Holy Family
However, Marx is often interpreted as viewing History with a capital H, as being teleological or at least deterministic. Some scholars argue that Marx himself had not been deterministic, though, like much with Marx, this is disputable as well. For instance, Marx writes in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
Rousseau’s contributions are the primacy of emotion over reason and the social contract (which became the Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills). The former is seen in CRT when people’s “lived experience” is supposed to be believed above objective data. This also results in the utterly racist idea in CRT that being rational is a white thing and being emotional (irrational) is the “way of knowing” for people of color. The social contract is the idea that people give up some rights in order to live in a society. Mills’s The Racial Contract is summarized nicely in a quote from Lindsay’s book from Barbara Applebaum’s Being White, Being Good, which says:
In his oft-cited book, The Racial Contract, Mills argues that a racial Contract underwrites the modern Social Contract. The Racial Contract is a covert agreement or set of meta-agreements between white people to create and maintain a subperson class of non-whites. The purpose of the Racial Contract is to “secur(e) the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maint(ain) the subordination of nonwhite.” The achieve this purpose, there is a need to perpetuate ignorance and to misinterpret the world as it really is. The Racial Contract is an agreement to not know and an assurance that this will count as a true version of reality by those who benefit from the account. That such ignorance is socially sanctioned is of extreme significance. Mills refers to such lack of knowledge as an “inverted epistemology” and contends it is
an officially sanctioned reality (that) is divergent from actual reality. …one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular.
White ignorance, thus, will feel like knowledge to those who benefit from the system because it is supported by the social system of knowledge.
To which Lindsay responds:
How’s that for a conspiracy theory? … It genuinely believes that all white people secretly conspire – without ever actually even mentioning it – to maintain a white-dominant society that marginalizes members of other races. As a result of this super-secret arrangement that all white people (and their adjacents) participate in without even realizing it exists, they also believe that their “white ignorance” of racial “realities” will feel like knowledge to them, even though it isn’t. This, in turn, justifies the need for “other ways of knowing”…to step in to “level the knowing field.”
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (usually shortened as W.E.B. Du Bois), Lindsay says, is the philosophical godfather of Critical Race Theory. One of his contributions is the idea that black people have a double consciousness, namely the consciousness of a black person and as a person living in world created by white people. This is born from the Hegelian idea of the master-slave dialectic, where the slave can understand the world as a slave and as someone within the master’s world while the master can only understand anything from the point of view of the master. Thus, the “white ignorance” and Mills’s “Racial Contract” (that posits a conspiracy among white people that they are ignorant of but which people of color can see) grows out of this idea that white people, as the masters, have their understanding of the world limited.
Lindsay says that Du Bois’s other main contribution is the idea of different races as being their own type of Folk (and why “folk” is used frequently in CRT literature) in the German Völkisch sense of “a mighty nation with a unique soul” (that would eventually lead to National Socialism, but not for quite a while after Du Bois did his graduate work in Germany). This is the way in which race and culture are made equivalent, and so “white folks” and “black folks” are separated not just by difference in skin tone, but by an essentialist sort of spirit or culture.
Given that Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, Lindsay has quite a bit of sympathy for his analysis. At the time, racism was indeed rampant and there really would have been a gap between someone’s identity as a black person and as an American. Lindsay even admits that such a state of affairs would truly call for a critical theory (without the capitalization) to interrogate the racist assumptions of the time. But Lindsay thinks that dialectical and racially Völkisch approach was still the wrong way to have gone about it. It’s even worse, Lindsay says, that modern day Critical Race Theorists take Du Bois’s work as mapping exactly onto their own current situation, which is demonstrably far less oppressive than what Du Bois would have been dealing with in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This chapter is good, but seems incomplete. In particular, the psychology/sociology that was synthesized with Marxism to produce Neo-Marxism could have been explicated. The work of people like Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber are probably more important in understanding Neo-Marxism than Rousseau. For instance, the Freudian/Lacanian notions of the subconscious are important to things like internalized oppression, false consciousness, and unconscious bias. The Weberian notion of the iron cage, value-fragmentation, and the impossibility of objectivity were postmodernism long before the heyday of postmodernism. And the Durkeimian ideas of collective consciousness has been important for the later ideas of social constructivism/constructionism.
Chapter 5: Critical Race Praxis – How Critical Race Theory Operates
Praxis is the synthesis of Theory and practice – activism in alignment with Theory. As James Lindsay says, Critical Race Theory is as Critical Race Theory does. And what Critical Race Theory does is make more Critical Race Theorists. It does this by “consciousness raising.” The plan, apparently, is to do this until a critical mass of Critical Race Theorists is reached in all the institutions (education, law, media, entertainment, corporations, etc.) that we end up with our Dictatorship of the Antiracists. Once that is achieved, something will happen and then voila, racial justice. Or, put another way:
Step 1: induce Critical racial consciousness in as many people as possible
Step 2: Dictatorship of the Antiracists
Step 3: ???
Step 4: racial justice
What Lindsay discusses in this chapter, he says, is the various tactics used for accomplishing Step 1. The reason, Lindsay says, is because Marxism (and CRT) doesn’t know how. This is the notion that nobody knows what the end (racial justice) actually looks like, only that they know what it doesn’t look like, and those are the things that must be Critiqued into oblivion, leaving standing only the shining Utopia that is contained inside (there is the dialectical thinking, that everything contains its own contradictions), like the statue in the block of marble.
The tactics Lindsay discusses are as follows:
Divide, Scoop Up, and Conquer
This is essentially causing a commotion and then turning the ensuing chaos toward CRT. Lindsay says that this is often done by having CRT advocates infiltrate some company or institution, usually one with people sympathetic to progressive causes, and then raise a ruckus by crying racism (make a racialized incident, often out of something mundane). This will get sympathizers to move further left and leftists to gain Critical racial consciousness (either voluntarily, through social coercion, or through renormalization by intolerance (where people go along with what the most intolerant person wants just to keep the peace)). Anyone who doesn’t take this leftward turn is then ostracized and discredited.
Lindsay uses the metaphor of viruses (that he actually borrows from an article “Women’s Studies as Virus: Institutional Feminism and the Projection of Danger,” though the comparison was already begging to be made). He says:
In some sense, within the context of the viral metaphor, this can be likened to a virus…finding specific receptors on an institutional structure to which it can attach. These might include not wanting to make a fuss, wanting to appear virtuous an inclusive, not understanding the specialized “alchemical” language, or any other number of liberal values and bureaucratic norms that Critical viruses exploit. Once those soft spots are identified and exploited, the Critical RNA of the virus can enter the institution’s cultural and bureaucratic structure. There, it will be replicated, producing more Critical Theorists out of everyone associated with the institution. Like with a virus and its host cells, once an institution or community is infected, all of that institution’s internal machinery and resources are slowly bent toward the objective of making the now-colonized entity a Critical Race Theorist maximizer… The institution’s cell machinery has been captured by the virus, so all it does thereafter is make more viral proteins while trying to evade detection by the immune system (by doing its regular work too) for as long as possible. These newly minted “change agents” can then replicate the process in other institutions in their lives.
Strategic Manipulation of Language
Essentially, this is being overly complicated and using different meanings for words so as to confuse people, make them feel stupid or like they don’t understand what’s going on (sapping their epistemic authority, which is “feeling confident that you know what you’re talking about, either in yourself or in the eyes of others”). What happens is that the Critical Race Theorist makes someone feel as if they harbor a profound ignorance on the topic and therefore undercut that person’s belief that what they’re thinking or doing is the proper way to do things.
Lindsay also says that this can be done through gaslighting, undermining someone’s psychological authority in their eyes and in the eyes of others. He gives the example of when the CRT advocates (or their useful idiots in the pundit sphere) say that Critical Race Theory is a complicated legal theory that isn’t being taught in schools, your thinking this is just because you’re too paranoid or unsophisticated to understand all that gobbledygook in your kid’s homework. Additionally, gaslighting people into believing in things like collective guilt and “white complicity” saps them of their epistemic authority and moral authority, making them and everyone around them question their motives.
There is also what Lindsay calls the Critical Inversion of Language. Possibly the easiest example of this is with the terms Diversity and Inclusion, where they only pertain to people who look different (accidental and immutable traits), but all of them must think the same (i.e., must think using CRT). Thus, Diversity does not allow for diversity of thought and Inclusion does not allow for the inclusion of anyone outside the CRT ideology – their inverted meaning is that they actually mean conformity and exclusion.
Noetic Effect of Privilege
Lindsay does not call it this, but his description made me think of the idea in Christian apologetics called the Noetic Effect of Sin:
The noetic effects of sin refers to the affect sin has on the mind of every person. Sin impacts our ability to think rationally, especially about God, Who has made Himself known through general revelation (Ps. 19:1-2; Rom. 1:18-20) and special revelation (1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Tim. 5:18; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). God’s revelation disrupts the mind of man, confronting wrong thoughts and inviting conformity to the mind of God. Though God’s revelation is clear, rebellious people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18), and their foolish heart is “darkened” (Rom. 1:21). When confronted with God’s revelation, the person who is negative to God either denies His existence (Ps. 14:1), or reduces Him to the status of a creature (Rom. 1:22-25) [bold added]
This is very similar to a quote that Lindsay gives from Barbara Applebaum’s Being White, Being Good:
One can disagree and remain engaged in the material, for example, by asking questions and searching for clarification and understanding. Denials, however, function as a way to distance oneself from the material and to dismiss without engagement. Hytten and Warren explain that such strategic denials are not only already available in the sense that they are socially authorized but also that they serve to protect the center, the location of privilege. Such discursive strategies [intentional ways of trying to maintain power] of denial are an “implicit way of resisting critical engagements with whiteness.” When white students, for instance, refuse to acknowledge the depth of their privilege, their privilege is reflected in the very questioning of the social facts that are at odds with their experience. They have what Peggy McIntosh refers to as permission to escape and what Alice McIntyre identifies as “privileged choice.” In other words, the mere fact that they can question the existence of systemic oppression is a function of their privilege to choose to ignore discussions of systemic oppression or not. [bold added]
So, basically, the tactic is to say that someone who doesn’t buy into Critical Race Theory either hasn’t engaged with the material or is too blinded by their privilege to understand it. The idea being, the only way someone couldn’t be a Critical Race Theorist is if they are ignorant or evil.
This is the idea that examining race through any other lens than CRT is proof of racism. Asking for evidence of racism, for instance, makes one guilty of the sins of 1) using white methods that elevate white “ways of knowing” above other “ways of knowing” and 2) it denies the existence of the “lived reality” of someone who authentically and sincerely (in Rousseauian fashion) feels like they are experiencing racism.
Anyone who resists this, Lindsay says, is then subjected to the kafkatrap, named after Franz Kafka whose novel The Trial has the main character on trial for a crime he doesn’t even know about. His insistence that he is innocent is taken as a coded confession of guilt: “a guilty person would say they’re innocent.” Likewise, any white person who protests to being called racist is giving a coded confession to their racism, since a racist is someone who would deny that they are racist. Indeed, the doctrine of “white fragility” is a kafkatrap par excellence: your discomfort with being called a racist is a sign of your white privilege. There are plenty of other examples that Lindsay gives as well: “willful ignorance” (Critical Whiteness studies) and “white rage” (the successor to White Fragility) and “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback” (Alison Bailey) and “active ignorance” (Jose Medina) and “white ignorance” (Charles Mill and Barbara Applebaum) and on and on.
Chapter 6: What Can We Do About Critical Race Theory?
James Lindsay wants first to make clear two things: that Critical Race Theory is a belief system with values alien to liberals and conservatives alike and moral commitments inverted relative to the majority of the population; also that Critical Race Theorists desire and are actively working towards a Dictatorship of Antiracists. These two things, he says, not only inform how this ideology must be resisted, but also implores us to do so.
As a precondition for resisting CRT, Lindsay says that people need to realize that CRT does not have good intentions. This, he says, is tough for the left-leaning liberals and progressives, since CRT can often appear to accord with such values. But, he says, even if particular people espousing CRT might have good intentions, the Theory itself does not. All it cares about is making more Critical Race Theorists and does not care how many people it must use and discard on its way toward that goal. As a result, there is no compromise with Critical Race Theory, no benefit of the doubt that should be extended to it: people have to simply learn to say no.
Lindsay says not to even accept the CRT framing. For instance, don’t argue over whether or not an institution is racist. Instead point out the word games that are being played and the different meanings of the term racist that are being employed. The problem is that when we hear CRT advocates say something is racist, we think in terms of the broadly accepted definition of this term (which is what the Critical Race Theorists are hoping) and therefore they gain a sort of Trojan horse into our minds. And so, Lindsay says, we must reject the very framing of the argument and understand the tactics being used.
To do any of this, Lindsay says, people need to stop being afraid of getting called a racist. According to CRT, disagreeing with CRT is racist, and therefore people have to prepare themselves to be called racist, because it will definitely happen. But only by not kowtowing to this tactic will any resistance be possible. This is imperative, because as Lindsay warns, it is only going to get more and more difficult to resist as CRT is allowed to continue its long march through the institutions.
Lindsay’s next bit of advice is what he calls discernment, which is being able to discern when CRT is being forwarded and calling it out. While I agree that this is important, I also think it can be dangerous. What I mean is, if people are constantly looking for places where CRT is being employed, they will definitely find it. Thus, it will be very easy to focus on the wrong things (to say nothing of accusing things of being CRT which are not CRT). One place where this is happening that comes to my mind is all the people up in arms about Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings show, which is accused of being Woke propaganda. Sure, maybe it is. I don’t know. But is it really a good place to focus one’s energy? If the show gets canceled after one season because of boycotts and what have you, how does that benefit the “resistance” to CRT? It seems like a distraction for people to be making video essays and writing think pieces about how Dwarves wouldn’t be black because they live underground. Wow, way to stick it to the Critical Race Theorists! But all that such virtue signaling does is give them ammunition to show fence-sitters how right they are about omnipresent racism. Meanwhile, nothing has been done to materially stem the tide of creeping Wokeism.
I submit that the place where resistance to CRT would be most effective (and Lindsay agrees, see below) would be in institutions that really matter, namely education and news media. Teachers and principals, professors, deans, and university presidents, journalists and commentators, those are the people whose resistance is needed. And the people who should be held accountable by those who want to stop CRT from spreading. This, of course, offers its own dangers. I think it’s easy for someone to believe (or come to believe) that if CRT is wrong and morally bankrupt, then anyone who calls it out must be good. We can’t forget that there are charlatans and demagogues opposed to CRT as well. People must be wary about swallowing someone else’s poisoned Kool Aid in order to avoid the CRT flavor. Certainly such people might function as allies on this one issue, but never forget that illiberalism isn’t the sole domain of the left. The enemy of your enemy isn’t your friend, but they can be an ally, if only temporarily.
Lindsay has two subsections in this chapter for his two-pronged approach to resisting Critical Race Theory: institutional and cultural. The two are meant to complement each other, where the institutional approach is quick and effective – a sort of triage while we’re already bleeding out – while the cultural is long term so that we will not backslide when some new Marxist-Hegelian synthesis comes along to replace CRT.
Abuse of power is the greatest weapon in the CRT arsenal. And so Lindsay says that CRT ought to be extirpated from our institutions – educational, media, legal, corporate, bureaucratic, etc. He says:
Because Marxian Theories are focused entirely on obtaining power they can abuse to raise critical consciousness or enforce a performative simulacrum of it, institutional changes must remove Critical Theorists from power. They must be fired, forced to resign, voted out of office, sued, defunded, and limited in their ability to abuse power for Critical means by both law and institutional policy. Their incursions must be rebuffed, rejected, and repealed.
I personally think that this goes a little too far (which Lindsay anticipates, but insists that it is necessary anyway). Certainly, when people within these institutions do something against the liberal values on which Western Civilization is founded they ought to be reprimanded and even removed, and certainly the Critical Race Theorists ought to be told no much more often, but a full-on purge seems to me like it will lead to its own undesirable outcomes. A different sort of speech-policing is likely to be enacted, where everything people say will be “Critiqued” not for whether CRT is motivating the thought, but for how CRT is motivating the thought. I think Lindsay isn’t appreciating that, as alien as the moral commitments of CRT may appear, they are backed by extremely human motivations. The resistance to CRT isn’t immune from hyperbolic overreactions and abuses of power, either. Lindsay says that liberals may construe his recommended measures as reactionary, but there is every reason to think that it would turn out that way: the people doing it will be human beings, just as fallible and biased as the leftists.
Along with some practical suggestions, Lindsay also proposes that CRT be designated a religion, legally speaking. This, he argues, would help rid CRT from institutions (especially educational institutions) because of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,…”). He argues that the benefits CRT would gain by being designated as a religion through the Free Exercise Clause (“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,…”) would be outweighed by the restrictions they would face within institutions by the Establishment Clause. Given that he (and others) have argued that CRT is indeed a religion, this would not just be political shenanigans, but would actually reflect the truth about CRT more accurately.
Setting aside that this wouldn’t necessarily work outside the United States, it seems to me that it would be difficult to accomplish. Especially from the outside. What might make such a thing more likely is if someone within CRT petitioned to have it legally recognized as a religion, but as Lindsay points out, Marxists have vehemently resisted such a move in the past, predicting that it would be to their detriment. I’m not against this strategy, but it seems farfetched, even if CRT didn’t already hold so much institutional power to fight back against such a maneuver.
Lindsay calls for a common sensibility, which means viewing all people as members of a common and shared humanity as opposed to members of insular identity groups. He says that this comes about, ironically, through the decentralization of knowledge, like when after the Reformation people were allowed to interpret Scripture how they pleased, or through Democracy when people were given a say in the government.
This, to me, seems overly optimistic. The sort of atomizing effect of Enlightenment individualism is likely what led people into the arms of Marxian Theories in the first place. People realized that God doesn’t exist and that no human has special insight into what is True, and as a result a sort of epistemological anarchy ensued, leading to moral relativism and social isolation. Without religion to fill in that part of the human psyche that it once did, other ideologies are cobbled together as poor substitutes. Religion co-evolved with the human brain to fill that role nearly perfectly, and so now without the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral certainty religion once offered we are “condemned to freedom” as Sartre said.
My point is, CRT (or Marxism more generally) didn’t cause the moral relativism and epistemological anarchy; CRT is an effect of those things. It is a religious belief and it is successful because it so comfortably fills that religion-shaped hole evolution carved into our minds that has been emptying itself of religious dogma over the past few decades precisely because of the Enlightenment ideas that Lindsay is holding up as the solution to the current problem. Yet our neuropsychology is constitutionally incapable of perpetually living within the metaphysical vacuum of Enlightenment rationality; our current crisis attests to this. Thus the issue, as far as I see it, is that even if CRT is defeated, it will quickly be replaced with another pernicious substitute for religion, whether that is some new Marxist-Hegelian synthesis or some rightwing claptrap or any other pleasurable belief without regard for the truth (I mean, just look at the flat-earthers or those who subscribe to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop).
If you think this sounds pessimistic, it’s because it is. Sure, I’m on board for resisting CRT and attempting to uphold Enlightenment rationality and liberal values, but I’m under no illusion that it is a long-term solution. It doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which is that humans have evolved to need something to fill that psychological void once occupied by religion. One could propose that we try going back to the old religions, as the Catholic Integralists do, but that is simply fighting one noxious falsehood with another, one totalitarian theocracy with another.
Lindsay does not have this third prong here, but I think it is worth adding. This is somewhat using the Marxism against the Cultural Marxists. One of the issues that Cultural Marxists (and all the subsequent iterations of Marxist thought) realized is that the prosperity that capitalism brought acted as a vaccine against Marxist ideas. And so, if we want to add a booster to that vaccine (if you will) then why not do what we can to make material conditions better for people? Even if you don’t want to do it out of charity and good will, then why not do it out of self-preservation? Ensure that people have a good enough life that they will not be sucked in by the siren song of grievances and victimization.
One place where I think this could be done very easily is by ending the war on drugs. Certainly other proposals, such as stronger social safety nets, universal healthcare, or universal basic income, are on the table as well.
Given my pessimistic screed in the above subsection, I doubt such measures will root out all bad ideas (and, for all I know, will only cultivate new bad ideas). But at least people might feel less inclined to act on those bad ideas if they feel like they have something to lose by enacting them.
If we are being frank, James Lindsay’s book Race Marxism is describing a vast conspiracy theory. It sees Critical Race Theory as a conspiracy to overtake governmental, legal, administrative, and cultural institutions through brainwashing and coercion (both covert and overt). It is full of secrecy and obfuscation, nefarious goals, and shady characters. If one wasn’t able to see (or didn’t want to see) that these things were going on before our very eyes, one could easily dismiss James Lindsay as a paranoid crank and hysterical conspiracy theorist.
But we do see it happening before our eyes. And James Lindsay, in Race Marxism, points to the words penned by the very shady characters themselves to support his conspiracy theory. Just because something is a conspiracy theory doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true.
All in all, I think Race Marxism is an important book. While I disagree with some of what James Lindsay offers as solutions (mostly in the details), I think it is vital that people understand what Critical Race Theory is and what it wants. This book spells out the ideas (and ideology) of Critical Race Theory in as plain of language as your are likely to find on the subject. For that alone it is worth its price.