Critical race theory is much discussed these days. Let’s break it down.
You’ve heard about the theory of gravity and the theory of relativity. A “theory” is simply a way to explain what is observed.
To understand “critical,” think of where you work. Perhaps the climate is supportive, ideas are encouraged, and the culture values employees. Or the climate is defensive, questions are discouraged, and the culture sees employees as disposable.
Your company’s climate and culture aren’t tangible things. But they’re still quite real. These are “social realities,” and researchers have three approaches to study them.
In a “functional” approach, social realities are determined by what the people in your company do. In an “interpretive” approach, social realities are determined by what the people in your company think. In a “critical” approach, social realities are determined by how power is distributed in your company.
Hierarchy is found in every human group, from families to societies. Power isn’t necessarily bad; without it, nothing could get done. But power can also dominate.
A critical perspective sees how the dominant group in your company keeps power by making its interpretations of social realities seem “natural” and beyond questioning. Thus, if the owner says, “By making a profit, we all win,” employees who question it are marginalized. Another example comes from when I was a young man. If I typed “Ms.” in a business letter instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.,” then I would be seen as foolish for bucking the “natural” order.
No single approach to social realities—functional, interpretive, critical—is best. All three add to our understanding, including a critical approach. So, if you dislike the gender gap in pay, you can applaud the research done by economists. But critical scholarship on the social reality of sexism also has sparked much beneficial change during the past 50 years.
Now that we’ve tackled “theory” (a way to explain what is observed) and “critical” (a way to explain the role of power in social realities), what about critical race theory?
My area of research is religious communication. So, I often go on the internet and watch videos of church services and sermons. And that brings me to a recent example of how critical race theory might help explain what I observed about the possible role of race relations in the social reality of how power is distributed in our country.
The video was a service conducted July 4, which was a Sunday, at a church in the state of Texas. The worship leader led the congregation in pledging allegiance to the American flag, then the Christian flag, and then the singing of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
Next, the pastor in his sermon addressed how “Christian Americans” could “biblically” respond to today’s challenges. As examples of those challenges, he named critical race theory being “pushed” in schools, violence in major cities and border security.
The unconscious inferences of this July 4 service are that the “natural” social reality for “Christian Americans” who are “biblical” is to practice patriotism in Christian nationalist terms and to be concerned about critical race theorists, urban violence and border security. Church members who question this interpretation are marginalized.
Though the faces in the congregation were white, I am sure that nobody in that church is overtly racist. If a Black family came to the service, I have no doubt that everyone would warmly welcome them, smile, shake their hands, and invite them back.
But how to explain that—rather than poverty, injustice, or inequality—the concerns that “naturally” came to mind for white church members were the racially coded issues of critical race theory, urban violence and border security?
This illustrates my point: Critical race theory is a theory to explain not the actions of individuals, but the larger social reality of race and power in America—something we can all observe.