Why White Leftists Will Never Criticize CRT
I received this challenging e-mail from a reader who gave me permission to post it as long as I keep his identity protected. This is a really thoughtful letter, and it is appalling that we live in a time when a man who writes something like this has to fear for his livelihood if his name became attached to it:
I’m writing in response to Rod Dreher’s “Coming Race Crack-Up?”, particularly the following section:
“If you are on the Left, please, I beg you, get out of your bubble and realize how the kind of racial rhetoric that has been completely normalized in your circles sounds to those who don’t exist within them. Critical Race Theory is the acid that will dissolve America, no question. If you want to keep this country together, and make it possible for us to live peaceably together, and continue the long, slow work of making progress towards loving each other more perfectly, then you had better fight CRT, whatever your politics.”
I empathize with this appeal, and respect the spirit in which it is made. It seems to beg the question: “why don’t any of you challenge CRT?” The appeal expresses the divide that makes our different American experiences so difficult to imagine for one another, particularly across political lines.
I am a Leftist. I believe I am many things people on the right may not like. I am a college professor, an artist, and I live in an east-coast metropolis. I wear skinny jeans, eat avocado toast, and I read post-modern theory. I usually drink my coffee black, but I certainly don’t mind lattes. I also oppose CRT and identity politics in general. However, I tend to keep this opposition repressed. I believe I can articulate why I keep silent and, in general, why you will not see much criticism of CRT coming from the Left.
In order to understand it, you must understand that the Left, as you might imagine it, does not exist. By this I mean that the term “Left” does not refer to a consistent ideology or an actual group the members of which have solidarity. We on the Left are a loose (so very loose) coalition of distinct groups, many of whom have interests that are very much at odds with one another.
Interestingly, many on the Left are better understood as Conservatives. By this, I mean to express that a Conservative is someone who works to preserve his or her lifestyle, his or her people. There are Conservatives for every group in the world, and there are corresponding Liberals who try to change what the Conservatives are trying to protect. This tension can be irritating, but also productive.
In the United States, the term “Conservative” refers to a specific set of characteristics that have developed over the course of US history: typically Christian, pro-Capitalism, a preference for either the rural or the suburban, a preference for modernist infrastructures, and an individualist philosophy. Even with this specifically US Conservatism (which I admit I am simplifying here for the sake of argument) many on the “Left” are still Conservatives. Pro-family values? The Latin American community is die-hard into that. Boys should be boys and girls should be girls? Most Black Americans defend their gender roles with unrelenting zeal. And if you are super pro-capitalism, you might find yourself smiling at some of the lyrics you’d find in rap’s greatest hits, celebrating money, hard work, and all the beautiful clothing and cars financial success can bring into your life.
While we might associate racial minorities with the Left because of their voting habits, typically blue, they otherwise share many of the same values as white, Republican-voting Conservatives. Why do these groups vote differently, then? Simply because politicians from either party are better or worse at reassuring different groups of Americans that they have and will continue to represent the interests of these groups. Blacks and Latinos tend to vote Democrat for pretty much the same reason Whites tend to vote Republican, not because there is any Marxist preference innate to darker skin.
And yet you are more likely to see a socialist over on the Democrat’s side. Because of the unique power of parties in the United States, different groups must fit together under these small umbrellas. There are Neoliberal Democrats (Clintons), Keynesian Democrats (Obama), and Socialist Democrats (Sanders). These kids don’t play well together. In fact, their interests are often fundamentally opposed. But out of all the Democrats, the ones who argue for economic equality, the socialists, are the ones who have the least power. Perhaps this power has been increasing in recent year, but it is still miniscule. Even Bernie Sanders’ flavor of “Socialism” is a soft-core version that is less Socialist than the US and the UK actually were before the 80s. The most radical thing he’s actually done is save the word “Socialist” from vilification… somewhat.
So… what about Critical Race Theory? Why are we talking about how weak class-based politics are on the left? This is where things get a little gross. Because, as you might know, Capitalism is competitive. Left or Right, we all can agree on that. And when you compete, of course you compete to win. And CRT is a great strategy for keeping white people from competing.
To clarify, it must be asserted that Critical Race Theory is, itself, not a cohesive set of ideas, but simply a tendency to make race the central device to investigate injustice. This, itself, is not really that radical as it is undeniable that race does play a role, depending on one’s specific context, in determining how fairly one will be treated both legally and economically. However, the nature of that role is inherently ambiguous.
Further, it’s unclear what’s the best strategy to combat this inequality. Even many Republicans, so often generalized as racists, desire to see race lose its relevance in determining one’s social position. Hence, you can place a lot of different ideas underneath the term. And only a handful of people will ever read the central texts of any school of thought, meaning that whatever is written in whichever CRT book isn’t actually as relevant as what ends up on Twitter. CRT is only relevant insofar as it does something. So, what does it do? How is it used?
I think the reader already has a good idea how it is used. To shame, to slander, and to silence whiteness. It is innate to CRT to prioritize the perspective of the non-white subject. This is justified on the premise that the white perspective is the one that has been historically prioritized and remains the dominant perspective. White claims to “color-blindness” are here ridiculed because it is held that white people cannot see their own whiteness, because they made the white condition the universal condition. The brilliance of this is that any argument made by a white person that does not conform to the CRT program innately confirms CRT’s conclusions and, retroactively, also its promises.
The white subject thus effectively immobilized, s/he is no longer in a position to advocate for his or her interests. But what are the white’s interests? Any white American who believes in the liberalism of our society will argue that there are no white interests. That there are only our interests as Americans. Unfortunately, as per above, CRT argues that your beliefs in a universal human condition are a type of white self-delusion. This is how race works. Race does not exist in the capital “R” Reality, but only in social reality. Other people tell you what your race is. And since you can’t change what they think, you cannot change your race. You have been made white, and you are being told what that whiteness means. And what this means, for you, is that any interest you might intuitively hold to be universal is now a white interest. Since you ought to be ashamed for your whiteness, for your ugly and ongoing history, you ought to shut up. Stop advocating for your white self.
So since you are now effectively silenced, not by formal government, by the way, but by a community form of governance in which shame is the means of control, it will now be easier to surpass you economically. Because if you unite on the basis of race you are Nazis and if you unite on the basis of class you are no longer a Republican, you are now an alienated individual rather than a citizen, with solidarity, with community. This is to say, identity politics are not opposed to our economic system. It fits right in, which is why it is proliferating. If you look in the literature of CRT, you will notice that it forbids whites from escaping their racial responsibility by recourse to their economic powerlessness. Poor whites are still privileged.
Class is not an option. CRT is being used to turn a black person’s economic success into an American triumph and a white person’s economic success into an American disgrace, black poverty into America’s shame and white poverty into a non-topic. Any time I have ever tried to talk about poverty as a general problem, I have been greeted with some version of: “we are talking about black people now”. This, of course, bothers me because I’m the kind of Leftist who does care about class.
But who am I supposed to talk to about this? Who can I team up with? Where is the space for this conversation on the Right? If I say the words “class solidarity”, you might imagine me in a green beret and coveralls, smoking a cigar. You might distrust me if I say the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US disturbs me as well as a Marxist thinker like David Harvey. If I argued that a stern condemnation of Neoliberalism is something Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common, you might think I’m playing some sort of trick. Maybe I am wrong, but I do not feel I have any space to critique capitalism on the right.
My political identity was formed in the Bush era, as a direct consequence of the war in Iraq. As a kid, I was told that I was not allowed to question the war, that doing so was un-American and that “if you don’t like it, you can get out”. The walls around conservatism have always been too high for me to climb, and so I’m not on that side. On the side that does grant me a small, tiny little space, we have a rule: do not criticize identity politics.
This one rule is the rule that holds all the different groups that vote for Democrats together. Not even a nuanced, considerate good-faith argument is allowed, especially from a straight white man. Allegiance is expected, or you are off the team. You get severed from any networks, and since the Conservatives won’t have you, because their economic ideals are more important to them than any of the other values they hold, where are you going to go?
Where could I go? I would be less than a zombie. I’d be an outsider’s outsider. We all need community to survive, and if I question, even a little, the lines about race I am expected to swallow, I will have none.
And yet the system of moral control implied by CRT, the way this disqualifies me from social participation even on the Left, is now causing me to question my allegiances. It’s frustrating, because it should not be so strange to imagine a diversity of parties, all with different interests, some shared and some opposed. If that were the case, I would assert that while we will, perhaps, never see eye to eye in regards to economics, I absolutely agree with the Right that we have a major cultural issue here that we need to do something about. Presently, however, we’re in an all-or-nothing situation. No critiques of capital on the Right, no critiques of identity politics on the Left. Factionalism, more that CRT, is tearing us apart, because Factionalism is what prevents people like me on the “Left” from saying something about CRT.
Though, when I heard Sen. Josh Hawley compare Mark Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs to “modern day robber barons”, appropriating a critique of 19th-century industrialists, it did give me some hope…
What an interesting letter. I don’t agree that the Right is hidebound to free-market fundamentalism, though it certainly still remains the dominant orientation towards the economy on the Right. Patrick Deneen and I, in our Budapest discussion the other evening, both said that we are the kind of social conservatives who would be happy to see more state intervention in the economy for the sake of upholding the common good — specifically, to make it easier for people to have kids and raise families.
If you haven’t read this new piece from Bari Weiss about how Amazon is using wokeness to disguise the fact that it treats its workers like crap, please do. She draws attention to the Amazon Playbook, a guide to being super-duper inclusive in scripting dramas for Amazon video productions. Click on the link and check it out yourself. This is some high-octane bullshit. Bari comments:
The playbook explains that “the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion requires all of us to disrupt those biases, and the longstanding customs and practices in the industry, in order to achieve real, lasting change. This work is not easy to do, but don’t worry, we’re in this together.”
Are we, though? I wonder how the Amazon drivers afraid to take a bathroom break in order to keep up with their delivery quotas would feel about that. Or the workers in JFK8, the company’s Staten Island warehouse, who labor under the all-seeing eye of Jeff Bezos. More than 60 percent of the people who work in that warehouse, which is the size of 15 football fields, are black or Hispanic. And, according to a recent New York Times investigation, black workers at JFK8 were almost “50 percent more likely to be fired.”
I would really love for an Amazon executive to explain to me how understanding the difference between Disabled and disabled — Amazon’s Inclusion Playbook told me that Disabled with a capital “D” refers to those who are culturally Disabled, whatever that means — makes an actual difference in the lives of anyone at all.
As Newsweek editor Batya Ungar-Sargon has noted: wokeness is, almost always, a smokescreen. By focusing the attention and energy of the rich and powerful on say, whether using the word Latinx is preferable to Hispanic, we let them off the hook for actually doing something about the fact that Latinos remain more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line as whites and Asians.
Batya put it to me this way: “‘Doing the work’ means hiring diversity specialists to call their children white supremacists in a prep school class they can put on their transcript to help their chances of getting into Harvard. It has absolutely nothing to do with asking those who could actually make a difference with regard to true inequality to sacrifice anything of themselves.”
It is an amazing thing to behold Amazon executives LARP as gender studies majors.
The first American politician to stand up credibly and courageously to both wokeness and cutthroat corporate America will win the votes of the great American middle. I would love to vote for a candidate like that, even if he or she had a D after their name. I think that person, if he is going to emerge at all, is more likely to emerge on the Right. A candidate who not only rejected wokeness in general, but promoted old-fashioned American unity around hard work, mutual respect, and the content of our character — man, that person would win the presidency going away.
It’s going to take a Hispanic to do it, I think. President Gonzales is going to bring America back, out of the morass of spite and destruction left by wokeness.
Anyway, back to the reader’s letter. I would welcome a place for Leftists open to social conservatism and Rightists open to economic leftism could exchange ideas. I am confident that any Rightist who publicly participated in such a conversation would at worst be made fun of by others on the Right. Any Leftist who did would be denounced as bigot-adjacent, and therefore toxic. Which is why the author of this letter asked me to keep his name off his letter. No conservative who wrote to express doubts about free-market fundamentalism and the GOP would have had to go nameless. That’s the difference.