So as not to put the buggy in front of the horse, we need to define it before looking into its ethics. It is a three-word thing. Critical + race + theory.

Madame Merriam-Webster defines critical as “inclined to criticize severely and unfavorably.” The Cambridge Dictionary says critical means “saying that someone or something is bad or wrong.” Your Dictionary offers twenty-six definitions; first on their list is “Judging severely and finding fault.” So, there you have it—critical is always bad news for someone.

The second word, “race,” begs for a definition. Madame Wiki says “Race is a categorization of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into groups generally viewed as distinct within a given society. The term was first used to refer to speakers of a common language, and then to denote national affiliations.”

“Race” is of course a fiction. It is a way to explain racism. If you ask a white supremacist about racial hierarchy, you will get a pseudoscientific lecture about the biological differences between the races.[1] Races are a product of human imagination.

“The modern meaning of the term race with reference to humans began to emerge in the 17th century. Since then, it has had a variety of meanings in the languages of the Western world. What most definitions have in common is an attempt to categorize peoples primarily by their physical differences. In the United States, for example, the term race generally refers to a group of people who have in common some visible physical traits, such as skin color, hair texture, facial features, and eye formation … Although most people continue to think of races as physically distinct populations, scientific advances in the 20th century demonstrated that human physical variations do not fit a ‘racial’ model. Instead, human physical variations tend to overlap. There are no genes that can identify distinct groups that accord with the conventional race categories.”[2]

The third word in the trilogy at issue in this blog is “theory.”  In everyday use, the word “theory” often means an untested hunch, or a guess without supporting evidence. But for scientists, a theory has nearly the opposite meaning. A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses, and facts. The theory of gravitation, for instance, explains why apples fall from trees and astronauts float in space. Similarly, the theory of evolution explains why so many plants and animals—some remarkably similar and some quite different—exist on Earth now and in the past, as revealed by the fossil record. But in the context of the feared and daunted “critical race theory,” there is no science and little agreement.

In the view of The Goldwater Institute, critical race theory is a perspective on modern life—a worldview—that believes all the events and ideas around us in politics, education, entertainment and the media, the workplace, and beyond must be explained in terms of racial identities. They capitalize the words for emphasis—Critical Race Theory. Its authors argue that under CRT, “Every policy idea, election, textbook, movie, news report, work environment, and local concern cannot be judged according to effectiveness, quality, or accuracy but according to whether minority individuals and issues are afforded more influence in everyday life. Even George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the U.S. Constitution itself are subject to being canceled out of American culture—such as being removed from the names of public schools—for failing to live up to the standards set under Critical Race Theory.”[3]

Political conservatives argue that Critical Race Theory grew out of Critical Legal Theory. This is a theory based a legal premise, necessarily intertwined with social issues, stating that the law has inherent social biases. CLT proponents believe that the law supports the interests of those who create the law. As such, CLT states that the law supports a power dynamic which favors the historically privileged and disadvantages the historically underprivileged. CLT finds that the wealthy and the powerful use the law as an instrument for oppression in order to maintain their place in hierarchy. Many in the CLT movement want to overturn the hierarchical structures of modern society and they focus on the law as a tool in achieving this goal.[4]

But is this a binary choice? Are the proponents of CLT right and the proponents of CRT wrong? What does “right” and “wrong” have to do with either theory? Right and wrong are moral principles. Ethics and morals relate to “right” and “wrong” conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.[5]

There are two sides to the CRT vs. CLT argument. Conservatives detest CRT. Liberals believe CLT. The magic word in both might lie in which century you like most and which religion you prefer. Alternative, the fight can be viewed in the reality of today’s politics driven by who gets to vote and how.

Critical Race Theory is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. It recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. Consequently, societal issues like Black Americans’ higher mortality rate, outsized exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, denial of affordable housing, and the rates of the death of Black women in childbirth are not unrelated anomalies.[6]

That side of the argument is vested in morality, religious principles, and historical truth. The other side is vested in politics, power, and a history of oppressing racial minorities and progressive politics.

The Ethics Sage put it this way. “Critics describe critical race theory as racially divisive, teaching children to judge differences in skin color above the content of character. They say adding curriculum rooted in critical race theory also teaches children to search for racism in all aspects of life over teaching civics and history education. What we should be doing is instilling in students the skills to critically analyze theories like critical race theory and then come to their own conclusions. When they are told what is right and wrong, indoctrination follows and that is never a good thing.”[7]

My small world—the ethics of writing, is a never-ending search for ethical norms in expressing ideas, telling stories, and advancing ethical writing. The CRT v. CLT word-fight is a fight between right and wrong. It is right to seek racial justice. It is wrong to use it to advance a political position.   

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, author, “Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind.” Harper Prernnial. 2015, at page 134.







Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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