Thursday, April 21, 2022

CRT, Amoebas, and Venn Diagrams

CRT is the new boogeyman, in the sense that it's become a shapeless, formless specter that haunts our schools and churches. For those who are vehemently against it, it seems to include almost everything about race or racism, like some amoeba floating around absorbing everything in the water, or like the blob from the old horror movie, assimilating everything in its path. Being the skeptical person I am, every time I see a list of authors that I'm warned against because they are CRT (or do CRT, or believe CRT, or practice CRT. Honestly, even the language used to describe it is exhaustingly vague), I look them up to see if that's the case. Sometimes, they are authors who speak against racism or promote anti-racism, but who never claim to embrace CRT, sometimes even openly disclaiming it, like Ibram X. Kendi.

And yet, fellow Christians are constantly warning me that every book on anti-racism is CRT, and that CRT is the devil, to quote Mama Boucher. Usually, these accusations come from people who haven't read the books they warn against, and haven't read any CRT scholars of note. Instead, they lambast the (decidedly vague) notion of CRT at face value. It makes me wonder what we would think about the Christian faith itself, if we only ever listened to its detractors.

The most recent warning I've heard is against Ijeoma Olua's So You Want to Talk About Race? As far as I know, Olua doesn't claim CRT scholarship, but she writes primarily about anti-racism. I got an email with warnings from Christian ministries and Neil Shenvi concerning the book. One specific issue they take with the book is that she says a thing is about race if a person of color says it is. This feeds into the claim that CRT is all about feelings, that it places a higher priority on the subjective experience that on objective truth or statistics. I'm no CRT scholar myself, but in reading some of these anti-racist works, I can definitely say that these authors rely pretty heavily on studies and statistics, while still giving credence to the lived experiences of minorities in our culture. In fact, from what I can tell, a major function of true CRT is to explain the racial differences in legal and economic outcomes, based on the data collected by experts. 

Still, the contention is that CRT, and Olua's book by association, wants to elevate the lived experiences of people of color, particularly when it pertains to racism. But what Olua and others are getting at is that Black folks might just live in a different world than white folks, where the rules are written in stone, but somehow not applied in the same way. If that's true, then denying their lived experiences is like a lactose tolerant person telling a lactose intolerant person that their reactions to ice cream are imagined or made up or unimportant. What is really a very nuanced discussion of race gets reduced to the most controversial, cherry-picked statement in the book. And it's not even the most controversial statement in the book; just wait until the penultimate chapter.

To put it another way, consider how Christians often talk about the solution to racism. Those who are willing to accept that it exists, but often limit that existence to individual feelings of animosity towards other races, will often say that we should "just preach the Gospel," pray for changed hearts and minds. One quote from Olua's book reminded me of this approach to racism.

"When we look at racism simply as any racial prejudice we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter, fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself. This is not only an impossible task, it's a pretty useless one."

This struck me as extremely poignant and sad, considering that I hear Christians saying all the time that the response to racism should be preaching the gospel until hearts change. How exhausting must this be, to be tasked with the never-ending mission of reaching every heart who discriminates against me? And what if the heart belongs to my professor, a banker, a police officer, or anyone with the power to change my life for the worse? What if my livelihood, my legal status, or my safety depend on eliminating racism? How can I be expected to wait until every heart changes, and what if some hearts just never respond to the gospel? This is the basic premise of Dr. Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait.

There are other parts of the book that are tougher to read, and some points that are harder to agree with, but overall, there's a lot to learn, and it definitely isn't the devil. So, why do books like this get lumped all together in this supposedly evil category of CRT?

It's like looking at a Venn diagram of Christianity and capitalism, or socialism, or social justice, or Americana. If we're honest, there's bound to be some overlap, but never a complete alignment. All of creation is fallen and all of man’s systems are corrupt. Arguing that capitalism is better than socialism is like arguing that lying is better than murder. You might have a case, but don’t go printing the t-shirts with logos for your liars club just yet. 

Still, in that overlap, we can find lots of space for agreement, plenty of room to work with people who don't believe exactly the same things we do, but who share some of the same values and goals. By our own Scriptures, Christians should crave opportunities to seek justice, as much or more than anti-racist activists do. Christians should want their neighbors to have the best health care and education opportunities as much or more than any so-called leftist. In so many ways, we should be looking for bridges and making allies to work towards our common goals.

Instead, what we often do is look at these Venn diagrams of Christianity and other systems of thought, with their varying slivers of overlap, and, instead of focusing on the shared values, we first decide whether the opposing system of thought is convenient to us, or something that we're predisposed to accept. If it is, then we try to pull every other tenet of the other circle into the Christian one, whether they fit or not. We force things like rugged individualism or market dynamics into the Christian circle and cherry-pick verses to support it, often twisting them from their original meanings. Conversely, if the system of thought is one we disagree with, then we try to shove every overlapping value into the other circle, whether it's social justice or universal health care, and pretend as if they were never a part of the Christian faith. Ultimately, we alter and deform the faith to suit whatever philosophy we want to support or deny.

At some point, we have to start reading the books for ourselves, starting with our own Bible, instead of just letting others tell us what they mean. We have to decide that we're Christians first, with the primary mandate to love God and love others, and be willing to work with a variety of people to accomplish those two important goals.

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