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What You Need to Know About Critical Race Theory

Over the last decade, critical race theory has grown from something that was only discussed in academia to a concept that is now being taught in schools, featured on the news, and brought up in casual conversations. Some people are adamantly in favor of it, and others are just as adamantly opposed. But how should Christians respond to this cultural movement?

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer, authors of the book Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology―Implications for the Church and Society, to discuss how Christians should respond to the rise of critical race theory.

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Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer headshots

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Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Raising Kids With Character

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Just say the term critical race theory, and heated debates break out, but how many of us really understand what that is? If we want to operate with more understanding on this contentious topic, Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s new book Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society might be a great place to start. We’re grateful to have them join us today to talk about their new book and share a little bit of what they have learned about this timely topic. Dr. Neil Shenvi, welcome. Dr. Pat Sawyer, welcome to you too.

PAT SAWYER: Thank you happy to be here.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, let’s just start with what is critical theory and why is it seemingly so revolutionary?

NEIL SHENVI: Critical theory today is an umbrella category that encompasses many different critical social theories. And is it revolutionary? Well, in one sense, no. It really traces its roots back to Karl Marx, so in that sense, it’s been around for a long time. But what is revolutionary is how much purchase it’s found in the US culture today. So critical theory is everywhere. And I think once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, now you mentioned critical theory; most of the time, we hear critical race theory. Are there other names that this theory goes by that we should be looking out for?

PAT SAWYER: I would say that it’s a good way to think about historic critical theory from the 1920s and 30s. Historic critical theory was an extension and an amendment to classical Marxism. Today, as Neil mentioned, we have critical social theory, which is an extension and an amendment to historic critical theory. And within critical social theory, there are many critical social theories like critical race theory, which is concerned about power relative to race; queer theory, which is concerned about power relative to gender and sexuality; critical pedagogy is concerned about power, how it’s manifested in our education systems. So today, we want to think of critical social theory as a manifestation of a number of critical theories. And then downstream from that would be woke ideology, critical social justice, and anti-racism. Those three terms are kind of downstream from critical social theory. And, of course, all of them are swirling in our society today.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk more about this critical theory. When you mention it, people on both sides go a little ballistic; if you happen to oppose, especially critical race theory, somehow, you end up being a racist. And, of course, there on the other side, it seems like you can’t even support parts of the critical race theory without being considered left-wing. So, talk a little bit about that. Is it really as bad as we hear on the right here? And is it a threat to American values in our Christian worldview?

NEIL SHENVI: So we answer unequivocally that yes, it is a threat to traditional foundational American values and to the Christian worldview, even though we agree that people can weaponize the term, say critical race theory, and apply to anything they think is slightly to the left of them is critical race theory, is wokeness. We want to avoid that. But in our book, we’re very careful to quote critical theorists and show how in their own words, they’re opposing traditional American values. For example, critical race theory is explicitly committed to questioning enlightenment rationalism and the classical liberalism, and things like civil rights. Critical race theorists think that civil rights discourse is often a mask for racism. They want to undermine things like colorblindness and meritocracy and equality theory. They use it explicitly in their text.

So in that sense, they would say openly that they’re committed to “massive social transformation” to root out what they see as systemic oppression. So in that sense, they really are overt about saying they want to transform American culture and American society.

And then, secondly, we’re more concerned with how it’s incompatible with Christianity. There are many ways in which that’s true, but I’ll give you just one. Critical race theory, since its inception, has seen racism, sexism, and heterosexism as all forms of oppression. So they would argue that you cannot be an anti-racist and still believe in traditional marriage; they would say that if you are transphobic, then you are not really an anti-racist. You have to embrace anti-capitalist policies to truly be opposed to racism. In all these ways, we would argue, they’re arguing that all these systems are oppressive. And as Christians, we have to recognize that some of these systems that they see as unjust and oppressive are actually part of God’s design for humanity. So for that reason, and many others that yes, critical theory in general is opposed to Christianity.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Sawyer, do you agree with that?

PAT SAWYER: Without question. When you think of critical social theory today in its robust forms, it is operating as a worldview. It is a meta-narrative; it’s answering big questions around epistemology; how do we know what is true? Around ontology, what does it mean to be a human being in society? Around phenomenology, how should we interpret our lived experience and our existence? And so when you are answering those questions from the standpoint of critical social theory, you’re giving answers that are opposed to a Christian worldview. So it is not an overstatement to say that there’s significant opposition between the ideals and perspectives and ideological standpoints of critical social theory and then the ideals and perspectives and beliefs and truth of Biblical Christianity.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned, Neil, that the goal is, by the critical theory proponents, to radically transform our culture and our society. What do they want it to look like? Is there a clear picture drawn?

NEIL SHENVI: The end goal of critical social theory is very overtly about liberating supposedly oppressed groups. So they have charts and tables of different oppressor and oppressed groups. And their goal is to achieve the promised land of diversity, equity, inclusion, where all of these groups share power. Where there is no one overriding what they call a hegemonic discourse, one group with power that abuses it and that marginalizes other groups. They achieve that through tearing down these systems and structures, and values that valorize certain groups at the expense of other groups.

So they would say any system that results in inequity, that produces winners and losers, well, that is an unjust system that must be dismantled. And as Christians, though, we would say, Well, no, this merits an objective reality. Some things are good, and these are evil, but they want to tear down any system that would have an objective value attached to it that would promote the power of one group at the expense sense of another group, because they will tell you straight off that depression is evil, and justice is good. They’re not relativists; they’ve just redefined what justice and oppression mean. And so they have their own moral grid that is just incompatible with a traditional Christian grid regarding all kinds of issues around gender and sexuality, for example.

PAT SAWYER: But it’s also important to keep in mind that when critical social theory is interested, at least says it is, in a divestment of power and kind of utopian society for all, well, the moral standpoints and precepts and the ideological beliefs that critical social theory wants to force on society, that utopian dynamic; it won’t happen, because once you begin to make a moral claim like Neil just mentioned, that’s what critical social theory does, it makes strong moral claims that are to be universally applied, well, then there are going to be people who disagree with us moral claim.

So, if critical social theory wants to make homosexuality a norm, that is considered to be virtuous. Well, that’s gonna run into problems with groups of people who have a different epistemological standpoint and see that homosexuality is deficient when it comes to God’s sexual ethics. And so this idea of this utopian perspective, it’s really something that’s elusive and teased out there but could never be realized.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So let’s talk about justice. I mean, this seems to be a word that’s bantered around quite a bit. How is that key? And why is it such a point of contention in this discussion?

NEIL SHENVI: I think that the word justice and the word oppression have both been redefined. So justice, traditionally, means something like giving each person his due, but to a critical theorist, justice is primarily defined in terms of destroying this divide between oppressors and oppressed. And in some sense, the ends justify the means as long as they can get rid of that social binary, that’s considered the end goal that’s good. And they’re willing to do a lot of stuff that we consider unfair. A good example would be the notion of equity is the notion that you can treat different people unequally, as long as you’re promoting equal outcomes. Likewise, oppression, we would traditionally define that as a cruel, unjust treatment or control, but they would redefine oppression to include any kind of systems or norms that create some people as outside of the norm and the standard. Anything that does that is considered oppression. So we have to resist these redefinitions and recognize them when they happen.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What about racism? I mean, I think most people would agree that racism is evil, but you all contend that what they’re trying to do through critical race theory really does not achieve what we would all expect.

PAT SAWYER: We would argue strongly that absolutely racism is evil at the individual level and at the institutional level. But the precepts and the concerns of critical race theory will yield some things that actually will do more harm than good. Neil’s already mentioned this notion that any disparities between different ethnicities automatically means that racism has happened. That’s just patently not true. But if you ascribe to that, that means that you will now on-board remedies for that that are going to be ultimately racist. And so, critical race theory is doing what it hopes it wouldn’t do, creating a context for more racist action and attitudes.

And another thing is that critical race theory wants to onboard onto white skin oppressive, immoral attribute as just being part and parcel to being white. You become the oppressor. And then, if you’re nonwhite, you become the oppressed. Well, that perspective will yield results in society that will ultimately be racist in themselves, because it’s a flawed position to begin with. And so, while there are aspects of critical race theory that certainly are true, and we honor that in our book, overall, the campaign is a detriment to society.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS : So are we being persuaded? What are you seeing when you look at our culture? Are we listening to this?

NEIL SHENVI: Critical theory has really just consumed progressives. Moderates and conservatives they’re being, to varying degrees, influenced by it; I do see some pushback against these ideas. But I think people are really ill-equipped to understand what’s going on. I think people look at what’s happening in society around transgender, around organizations like Black Lives Matter, and they know something’s wrong, they can’t quite put their finger on what. And our book is trying to help them to give language and concepts around what they’re seeing so they can fight it effectively.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Of course, we know these theories are important. I mean, we all have a theory or a worldview; we certainly have a theory that underpins our Constitution and our way of life here in America. If these theories have consequences, they must have victims. Who are the victims of critical theory?

PAT SAWYER: You want to think about that question from a macro standpoint, and then a micro standpoint. From a macro standpoint, when you are putting a social binary, this notion of oppressor and oppressed, on top of society, that means that you’re going to actually create a certain class of people as victims. So if you have a situation where you have a student that’s of color, and they’re being positioned by the teacher, as someone who is oppressed, well, that can certainly work against the flourishing of that child. And then, if you go to another category, look at what transgenderism is doing in our society. It’s become a social contagion among whites who are trying to find a way to not be an oppressor for why it used to be part of that oppressed category, so they can have some actual cultural capital. But look at what transgenderism is doing. When you study detransitioners and you listen to their stories, you recognize that the transgender ideology has created strong victims, people that now have mutilated their body and have come to see that they were wrong in their thinking in terms of adopting these perspectives. And so transgenderism is part of critical social theory. And so it is creating literal victims as people now are being radically confused about their identity and seeking solutions that are to their harm. So critical social theory is certainly producing victims. And if we care about society, then we will want to seek to remedy these concerns and be salt and light in our communities.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Is there a key for moms, dads, people who teach in public schools? Is there something that we can do besides educating ourselves? How do we tackle this? How do we begin to tackle it?

NEIL SHENVI: I would just say pray. This is ultimately a spiritual problem. As we argue in the book, this is a competing worldview or even a pseudo-religion; people are seeking meaning and purpose to their lives. And as Christians, we would say, you can only find that in the gospel. But if you don’t find it there, you’re gonna find it somewhere.

PAT SAWYER: I would also say that get into robust dialogue. Go to people who think differently than you and keep in mind Christ’s commands, we are to love people with our speech. Part of that though, is speaking truth, but go to people and have dialogue. Part of critical social theory is that it doesn’t love dialogue, and dialogue is a way to putting things into the light.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Is there anything else that people can do to follow the work that you’re doing besides reading the book?

NEIL SHENVI: We’re both on Twitter; my handle is just @NeilShenvi. Pat is @RealPatSawyer. Yeah, if you Google my name, you’ll find on my website, our book. Anywhere books are sold, you can buy it there.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Neil Shanvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer, authors of Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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