On September 22nd, the Trump Administration issued an executive order banning the use of training programs rooted in Critical Race Theory (CRT) for federal employees. At the very least, this act prompts an honest look into the ideas that compose CRT. After all, ideas are often several generations removed from their principle sources, leaving individuals who adopt them unaware of their ideas’ true origins. And a close look at today’s CRT quickly reveals its Marxist past.
CRT and other related frameworks are all part of the most recent evolution of Classical Marxism. Although Marxism’s stamp can be found on many ideas, the ideology always leans heavily on two core principles: an “oppressor vs oppressed” mentality and the utilization of deconstruction over debate.
The “oppressor vs oppressed” paradigm is perhaps the most fundamental tenet of Marxism. In fact, the first sentence of section 1 of The Communist Manifesto asserts that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” 1 Marx and Engels proceed to outline many such class struggles from various historical periods. And they strongly assert that each society’s structure can be boiled down to two competing interests: a power-hungry cabal of exploiters and a powerless mass of victims.
In the language of CRT, this philosophy is translated into the terms “white supremacy,” “anti-racism,” “race-hierarchies,” and other neat dichotomies that bake the concept of division into struggles between whole groups. This is why Professor Ibram Kendi classifies all ideas as either fostering or hindering equality: “There is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and anti-racist ideas.” 2
Note the logical conclusion of this groupish kind of thinking: injustices are not actions between individuals but relationships between groups. By offending, conflicting with, or otherwise performing an undesirable action upon another individual, you are not just doing an injustice to that person; rather you are attacking an entire sector of society.
Marx and his followers were never interested in logically debating their opponents. Instead of playing by the rules to demonstrate how their ideas were more reasonable than those they opposed, Classical Marxists wrote their own rules: “Socialist and Communist publications contain also a critical element. They attack every principle of existing society.” 1 In other words, they do not debate; they deconstruct.
Deconstruction is a form of argumentative strategy whereby, instead of crafting an argument within the agreed upon rules of debate, an individual rejects such rules entirely—thereby defining his own “logic” and “reason.” This has always been the sharpest arrow in the Marxist quiver, and it can be found in such works as The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones or Caste 3 by Isabel Wilkerson. The goal of both of these works is to reimagine the way we consider our complex history. Note that these authors do not directly confront American history as it exists today and has existed for the past 244 years. Instead, they reframe America’s history as one centered around the brutalities of slavery, oppression, and racism. Both Hannah-Jones and Wilkerson deconstruct the context and progress of the American story. They transform the narrative of the American story into a nihilistic monolith—thereby leaving nothing worthwhile in their opponent’s arsenals. But deconstructing the history and culture of America in order to reimagine her as a constant stream of evil is just as dishonest as pretending that no such evil ever existed.
The point here is not the worthiness of the conclusions arrived at by the aforementioned authors. Instead, the point is that deconstruction is a strategy that allows the user to arrive at any conclusion they choose, regardless of how well their premises match reality. Deconstruction requires no logic, data, or evidence, because each of these can be whisked away as a vestige of “the system.” This strategy is egregious, because history is not constructed – it is learned. And by deconstructing away American history as a story of vice and evil, these authors leave very little desirable ground for a shared history.
Yet without some sense of a shared history, it is doubtful whether a republic can remain healthy. In a society structured around democracy, it is essential that we retain some sense of togetherness. I therefore leave you with a few closing thoughts.
As we move forward towards what will almost certainly be a chaotic election, it is important to recognize that despite our differences, there is much to unite us as Americans. It is important to remember that our history is complex and has its warts, but that there is nonetheless much to celebrate and be grateful for. Lastly, it is important to understand American culture as a flawed but fundamentally good framework, one which still has much good to give to people of every race, ethnicity, gender, or creed. In looking at the ideology currently dominating the political left, it is important to recognize this for what it is: a collection of old Marxist ideas rebranded with modern American distortions of race.
- Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. London ; Chicago, IL: Pluto Press, 1996.
- Kendi, Ibram X. How to be an Anti-Racist (p. 20). New York City, NY: One World, 2019.
- Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Random House, 2020.
Is the thesis of this piece that critical race theory is bad because it asks people to actually look at American history? It seems that when Marxists “attack every principle of existing society”, it is in order to force us to examine why society is the way it is. The author doesn’t really explain why “directly confront[ing] American history as it exists today and has existed for the past 244 years” is actually different from viewing it through the lens of racial oppression. To the extent that it “leav[es] nothing worthwhile in their opponent’s arsenals”, it is only because those opponents don’t actually have an argument for why this is a bad lens. Author claims that this is “dishonest”, but merely saying so is not an argument. I would be hard pressed to explain why a country that expanded into stolen land, all the while carefully dividing the spoils so as to preserve the institution of slavery, should not be viewed with racial violence in mind.
When there are no time constraints, and both sides are free to do as much research as they please, the only “illegitimate” debating tactics are to doctor one’s sources and to declare that certain arguments are prohibited without a good reason for doing so. Marxism and critical race theory are just ways of analyzing historical events – the former through dialectical materialism, and the latter through race. Claiming that these arguments are off-limits because they “leave nothing in your arsenal” is akin to a creationist saying that we can’t look at the fossil record or rock strata, because it would leave them without a leg to stand on. In fact, it’s worse – at least the creationist can claim, albeit weakly, that the fossils were put there by Satan to deceive us. Author does not even offer a reason why dialectical materialism or critical race theory are incorrect.
Finally, it is not the case that history is not constructed. Events do not simply “exist”, they happened because people with agendas caused them to happen. These agendas are, especially in the case of America, exceptionally well-documented. “Deconstruction” isn’t some tactic to create pedagogical chaos, it is a way to investigate those agendas, uncover patterns, and use those patterns to analyze other parts of our (extremely bloody) history. If your position can’t stand up to this extremely basic level of scrutiny, tough luck – freedom of speech does not mean that society owes your opinion a chance to be correct.
Hi there, author here. Great questions! Put simply, the thesis is that there are strong parallels between Marxist ideology and CRT. Now, this is an op-ed so I have smuggled my own opinions into the piece but I stand by them. I do not argue that examining history through different lenses is an unsound or unwanted methodology. Clearly, dissenting opinions are necessary to discover untold or unseen truths, and to this end it is indeed desirable to possess and utilize an array of lenses. This is certainly no less true for matters as serious as race relations.
However, the works I’ve cited go beyond looking at something through a different lens. When it comes to Kendi’s Manichean classification of public policies, the claim that every idea is categorically racist or anti-racist is an argumentative non-starter. There are obviously ideas that have nothing to do with race or racism, and I would also argue that ideas can be racist, not-racist, anti-racist, or even a combination of all three depending on the context, time, or application. Even Kendi admits this in the first chapter of his famous book. Wilkerson’s Caste presents American culture as a mirror image of the Indian Caste system. In order for this to be true, you would have to demonstrate that one’s success or failure in American life is entirely due to the immutable characteristics of your identity as is true in a caste-based society. This is simply not the case; the data on American demographics do not support this thesis. To argue in the face of contradicting evidence and logic is indeed deconstruction, as you must deconstruct and then redefine either the definition of “caste” or the reality of American social structure. I will admit that the 1619 project inhabits a region of gray with deconstruction, particularly given the recent edits made by the NYT (https://quillette.com/2020/09/19/down-the-1619-projects-memory-hole/). However it’s original mission was indeed to claim that America’s true founding moment was not in fact upon signing the Declaration of Independence, but upon bringing the first victims of a brutal system of racial oppression to the New World. If slavery truly is the most central feature of America, why is it our founding year not 1535 when African slaves were first brought to Florida under Spanish rule? Or 1865 when slavery was officially abolished and liberty made a legal reality for all of Americans? Or 1965 for similar reasons? The answer is that a nation-state begins when a group of people coherently declare themselves independent. To argue otherwise is to deconstruct the very definition of nation. In employing deconstruction, you are creating a muddled argument where new meanings are smuggled into old words to break down the rules of debate. Deconstruction enables you to confuse and thwart your ideological opponents without having to actually address their arguments because you are defining your own logic to fit the conclusion. And again, pretending that America is a flawless country is just as much of a deconstruction as pretending it is evil. Of course nothing is truly “off-limits” as people will do what they please, but I believe this behavior is detrimental to both sides because logic is inherent to reality and not constructed. Perhaps that is indeed just my opinion, but after all this is an op-ed 🙂
“There are obviously ideas that have nothing to do with race or racism, and I would also argue that ideas can be racist, not-racist, anti-racist, or even a combination of all three depending on the context, time, or application. Even Kendi admits this in the first chapter of his famous book.”
While there are ideas that are disjoint from notions of race, in the context of US history they are few and far between. It does not follow from “there are some ideas that are neither racist nor anti-racist” that considering US History through the lens of racial oppression is wrong.
“Wilkerson’s Caste presents American culture as a mirror image of the Indian Caste system. In order for this to be true, you would have to demonstrate that one’s success or failure in American life is entirely due to the immutable characteristics of your identity as is true in a caste-based society.”
Would I, though? Perhaps it is inaccurate to say “American culture is exactly the same as the caste system”. However, where you start out has *massive* implications on where you end up. The most obvious reason is that people cannot change the color of their skin. But beyond this, racial wealth gaps, hypersegregation, and policing are all impossible to ignore. One’s success or failure in America might not be entirely due to the “immutable characteristics of your identity”, but it is willfully ignorant to pretend that Black people and people in poverty do not walk on much thinner ice in this country than wealthy white people. It’s completely valid to “deconstruct” the notion of a caste and ask ourselves in what ways circumstances of birth affect outcomes in our country.
“If slavery truly is the most central feature of America, why is it our founding year not 1535 when African slaves were first brought to Florida under Spanish rule? Or 1865 when slavery was officially abolished and liberty made a legal reality for all of Americans? Or 1965 for similar reasons?”
American notions of white supremacy are rooted in being Anglo-Saxon, not just living in a place where some Europeans invaded. If white supremacy is a feature and not a bug of American society, and there are countless reasons it is, then the “founding” of America (i.e. the onset of its most central tenet) was when the first slaves were brought to America by the progenitors of America. We wouldn’t consider 1965 to be the founding year of America any more than we would consider the passage of any other bill relating to racial justice to be the founding year. If you prefer, the Voting Rights Act doesn’t mark the beginning of America because if it did, Shelby County v. Holder would probably mark the end of it.
“In employing deconstruction, you are creating a muddled argument where new meanings are smuggled into old words to break down the rules of debate. Deconstruction enables you to confuse and thwart your ideological opponents without having to actually address their arguments because you are defining your own logic to fit the conclusion.”
It is still not clear what you mean by “deconstruction”. You say it is “to argue in the face of contradicting evidence and logic”, but is there such evidence and logic beyond pedantry? Saying that we should only call elements of the Caste system “castes” doesn’t engage with arguments about how much of life is a birth lottery, e.g. how unlikely it is to escape from generational/long lasting poverty.