A decade or so ago, I sat in my BYU literary theory class. I had pretensions to literary grandeur—or something like it. I certainly thought myself brighter than I am, more literate than I am, and more liberal than I am. The professor, Daniel Muhlstein, dropped a term: “Critical Race Theory.” I balked at it, grumbling that it was likely an admixture of hollow academic aspirations to relevance coupled with a few hits. I was a G.K. Chesterton fan (and I still am). Such rambling, I thought to myself, was nothing more than “long words to cover the errors of the rich.”
My kvetching was just as, if not more, hollow as such Chestertonian “long words.” Could I, a Caucasian male from an existentially remote, Latter-day Saint settlement in the mountains, claim to know anything about the experiences of ethnic minorities in America? My hometown looks more or less now as it did then, 30 years ago, and not that much different from how it looked 60 years ago—with but a small handful of people of African descent. We speak of the ineffability of God’s name; is there also ineffability to global horrors?
We speak of the ineffability of God’s name; is there also ineffability to global horrors?
No serious study of racism in America should occur without a dash of visceral horror chasing through our bones, without a head-to-toe sense that a global atrocity was inflicted on the Promised Land. Haggling over definitions (or haggling over whether we’re haggling over definitions) might be useful, at times, but compared to the atrocities and their after-effects, such conversations ought to strike us as small, akin to wringing our hands over whether we’re being excessively sensitive regarding the Holocaust, overly anxious over the horrors of the Cambodian genocide, or perhaps a bit too harsh on the Great Purges. When faced with these accounts, our default responses might be moral outrage, existential plunging, or even speechlessness. We might shake our heads, shed a tear, write a poem, or even go for an anxiety-induced run. Critical Race Theory invites us to consider that perhaps millions of enslaved, segregated, marginalized, and enclosed peoples of African ancestry have more to say to us than we do to them. Learn though we must, inquire though we might, there is a reason Jesus’s descent below all things caused his will to shake and tremble under the pressure. There is a reason that when Enoch pondered on the atrocities of humanity, his heart needed to “swelled wide as eternity” while “all eternity shook.”
In his comments on the atrocity of Auschwitz, Philosopher Jean Francois-Lyotard observed: “Suppose that an earthquake destroys not only lives, buildings, and objects but also the instruments used to measure earthquakes directly and indirectly.” Auschwitz produced a “negative presentation of the indeterminate,” leaving observers—and particularly victims—bereft of language. “The silence that the crime of Auschwitz imposes upon the historian . . . indicate[s] that something which should be able to be put into phrases cannot be phrased in the accepted idioms.”
We speak of the ineffability of God’s name; is there also ineffability to global horrors akin to the slave trade and American segregation? If people cannot see the face of God without spiritual assistance, can they look upon the epoch of a horrific history? For Joseph Smith, language was like a prison, even under comparatively peaceable circumstances. Can we expect more from language when discussing the trafficking of 11,000,000+ humans into Western ports from Rio De Janeiro to New England? “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man” the moral atrocity underlying this history.
If we invoke them, we must do so in the face of 11,000,000+ testators and their descendants advising us to stop and check ourselves. The trans-Atlantic slave trade caused a genealogical shock on a global scale, with shockwaves rippling from Angola to Bahia and from Liverpool to St. Domingue. With families separated, it represented a continent-wide frontal assault on the family structure. Conditions of state-sponsored marginalization that developed from the slave trade have continued well into the 21st-century. When we speak of race in America, this is the 400-year-long drama into which we enter. A person does not need to be a 1619 project acolyte to acknowledge such demonstrable realities. As an author and instructor writing and teaching on race at secular institutions, I have taught race—and critical race theorization—within secular academia. It is a fundamentally empirical line of inquiry. It can be measured, traced, documented, verified, and confirmed. These are not Ivory Tower abstractions but the hard-boiled stuff of daily life.
In this vein, Critical Race Theory invites us to question the inherence of racial identity. “Blackness,” “Whiteness,” or any other kind of racial adjective represents neither lineage nor personal essence but a product of power relations. “They” are “black” because a particular social structure (in this instance, enslavement) said they were “black.” Not only was the trans-Atlantic slave trade a massive-scale atrocity; it compelled peoples from various African societies to transform their personal identity. Outside of engagement with the empires of the West and Egypt, peoples of sub-Saharan Africa did not identify as “black” or even “African.” These labels are after-the-fact re-constructions that had no rooting in indigenous African realities. Prior to enslavement and colonization, these peoples of African ancestry identified by family, nation, or ethnolinguistic groups: the peoples of Nsukka and Aba, of the Songhay Empire, of the Fante coast along present-day Ghana, or of the Kayor Empire in present-day Senegambia. Black Americans or Black Brazilians are not “Igbo Americans,” “Balanta Americans,” or “Yoruba Americans.” Enslaved Africans received new names. These new names came with shackles, and their new home, with the expectation of a short lifespan on rice, indigo, sugar, and cotton plantations.
Only once compelled to exist in the European-governed slave plantations of the Western world did enslaved Africans become “black Americans,” “black Brazilians,” or “black Jamaicans.” Stripped of indigenous identity, compelled to negotiate a new cultural environment, these enslaved Africans became a collective, lived archive of a host of indigenous knowledge. In this system, they had no name of their own, such as Chukwuemeka, Saheed, or Kwaku. They were “the blacks.”Critical race theory, in this way, is an inherently humane intellectual act—seeking to explain how entire communities of human beings found themselves in a vortex of an interlocking network of private and governmental structures devised, whether directly or indirectly, to enslave, enclose, and alienate black American communities. It not only suggests but insists that “the blacks” had their own names, along with their own fully-formed identities that a global network of atrocities attempted to rip from them.
Critical race theory seeks to understand how such policies and racial power structures develop, how racial identity forms, how government and policy facilitate both justice and injustice, and how language shapes—and is shaped by—these structures. The word “structure” need not alarm. However we feel about corporations or government bureaucracies, few of us would claim that structures are irrelevant. Any living human navigates, either directly or indirectly, zoning laws, housing laws, and business laws. The homeless, too, live on the terms set for them by civic authorities. Structures, for better or for worse, are evergreen in this mortal milieu. For those attuned to the long durée of documented American history, these themes represent not abstract, other-worldly concepts but rather, on-the-ground daily realities. These realities hardly get more visible than the ¼ mile separating the Norwood Hills Country Club and downtown Ferguson or the bubbles that seem to surround Ikoyi and Ikeja from other neighborhoods in Lagos, Nigeria.
Therefore, the question is not whether these structures are relevant; the question is what these structures have or have not done to and for various communities. These questions need not cause self-loathing, any more than any other study about social problems does. Contrary to popular depictions, Critical Race Theory is not a secular catechism used to teach students self-loathing. Rather, Critical Race Theory represents a serious effort to turn back long-standing lines of thinking, thinking entrenched in the sinews of our cities and countryside–and even scriptural interpretation. Indeed, the tenacity in misapplying scriptural accounts to explain the existence of black Americans has been striking, including the invocation of Biblical figures far-removed from the realities of African societies. Were the ramifications of such theorizing not so horrific, it would make for ribald comedy. The much-abused accusation of “presentism” will not save historical figures here; a reasonably-sized cohort of critics challenged these notions since America’s colonial days. As school teacher Jacob L. Stone observed in 1863 of Biblical explanations for racial origins:
The whole idea is founded on a demonstrable mistake—and a mistake so palpable, that it is a subject of great wonder how the prevalent belief of such a prophecy ever came to be general, and how it has managed to survive to this day.
Stone concludes: “There is no such prophecy.” “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man” the moral atrocity underlying this history.
For black Americans, resilience has co-existed alongside the embodied horror. Perseverance co-exists alongside oppression. Those who navigate up and through their ancestral past know exactly the price their forebears have paid. Several black Americans, particularly those rooted in Virginia, descend from Igbo-speaking lineages. The Igbo name Chi na-eso (God follows) is a profound invocation when given to a child: may Chi (an individual’s spiritual counterpart) follow them and their family in blessing. Most enslaved were not Igbo, but they all needed to rely on the spiritual source of support to sustain them in a land where they knew themselves to be but “strangers and pilgrims.”
I am reminded of when I was visiting with some black American friends at a genealogical entity. They approached a librarian to ask about using their genealogy software to identify their ancestors. With a concerned look, the worker tried to warn them: “You probably descended from slaves.” My friend looked at me, laughed, and winked: “I think we had an idea.” Their enslaved ancestry was not news to them. Descendants of atrocity and genocide tend to know it both in their mind and in their bones.
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man” the moral atrocity underlying this history.
The fundamentals of critical race theory represent a serious effort to come to grips with the ramifications of these horrors. At each era of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade’s existence, there was a reasonable cohort of critics of the slave trade, all of whom leveled their criticism based on Christian humanitarian grounds. Each of Critical Race Theory’s “radical” precepts—oppressors and the oppressed, racial identity, and the lasting effects of systemic marginalization—has its seeds in past eras dating back to the birth of the republic. Whether through black Revolutionary-era patriot Lemuel Haynes’s celebration of anti-slavery republicanism, activist David Walker’s pointed critiques of Bible-based race theory, Quaker activist Abby Kelley’s sharp-tongued attacks on pro-slavery Christianity, Frederick Douglass’s rounding condemnations of the American slave system, Dr. James McCune Smith’s erudite scriptural commentaries, or Dr. Anna Julia Cooper’s piercing autobiographical commentary on life in the South. We as modern Americans are late-comers in our attempts to understand the after-effects of American slavery and state-sponsored segregation.
On an interpersonal level, Critical Race Theory invites us to engage in what author David Brooks calls “deep seeing,” or perhaps what David A. Bednar describes as being “quick to observe.” Recognizing these long-standing consequences shows our willingness to “see those who have a need.” If we pretend that all humans of all backgrounds have the same needs, our “colorblindness” is little more than a blindness—refusing to have eyes to see or ears to hear.
Critical race theory represents a worthy effort to engage with a seismic past, tragic beyond the comprehension of those who have lived it, and the significance of that past outweighs whatever individual grievance we may have with a particular voice advocating for its engagement. It grows from a moral vision demanding not only empathy but also, rectification. For Christians, Jesus assumed the burden of rectifying wrongs he did not commit on behalf of billions of people both before and after him. May we be so Christlike.