The article below is a reasonable summary of the claims and counter-claims of the currently influential "Critical race theory".
It is however a theory in search of something to explain. It arose as an attempt to explain the immovably "disadvantaged" state of American blacks. It sought to find an explanation of that state in the way white society operates. Society was at fault as the cause of black poverty etc.
But if society is inherently racist and oppressive to minorities, how come most minorities in America do very well? The highest-paid ethnic group in America is in fact Indians, with Japanese, Jews, Koreans and Chinese not far behind. If the mechanisms of American society are so oppressive, how do we expain the stellar record of those minorities? White society may not have given them a bed of roses but its "oppressive" mechanisms would appear to be in fact very weak, far too weak to explain the badly depressed state of black achievement.
So why are blacks such a standout? Is there anything in white society which affects only them? The reality tends in fact to be the opposite of that. There is a great deal of prejudice in their favour, usually under the rubric of "affirmative action". Yet still they fail as a group both economically and in other important way such as the crime-rate and disruptive male-female relationships.
So it is clear that the cause of the uniquely bad state of American blacks has to be found in something unique to blacks. And from a scientific point of view what that is could hardly be clearer. But "clear" does not mean socially acceptible. Around 100 years of scientific research showing that blacks on average have markedly low IQs just cannot be accepted. And East Asians of course have markedly high levels of average IQ. Average IQ is the critical variable. The very low level of black IQ explains perfectly the very low level of black achievement
So "critical race theory" is a tortured attempt to explain black disadvantage in a way that defies clearly established scientific facts. As such it deserves no respect. The "racist" nature of American society is a desperate delusion -- as the great success of most racial minorities in America shows
There's a good chance you've never heard of Critical Race Theory. But if its opponents are to be believed, this niche academic discipline poses the biggest threat to Western civilisation since the Dark Ages.
Donald Trump has called it "toxic propaganda" that threatens to destroy America. British Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch, a black woman of Nigerian parentage, last month told Parliament it leads to a "segregated society" and makes everything "about the colour of your skin"; teaching it in British schools without offering an alternative view, she added, was "illegal". In Australia, the Murdoch media has railed against it for "reducing people to a racial essence", and judging them on the basis of "group identity" rather than "individual character, behaviour and merit".
Its advocates say it lays bare the hidden machinery of "systemic" racism, but its critics say it is itself racist, pitting white against black, peddling damaging notions of "white privilege" and "white supremacy" and making a virtue of victimhood.
But what exactly is Critical Race Theory — CRT for short — and is it really as dangerous as all that?
CRT has its origins in US law schools in the mid-1970s, as researchers began to ask why the legal advances won by the Civil Rights movement had produced so little improvement in the lives of minorities. The answer, they came to believe, lay in the way these new laws that supposedly guaranteed equal opportunity were being applied — and effectively resisted or undermined — by the courts. This was, they argued, "systemic racism" in action.
"Think how our system applauds affording everyone equality of opportunity," wrote Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in their 2001 book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, "but resists programs that assure equality of results."
The term Critical Race Theory was coined in 1989, and the discipline has ebbed and flowed in the years since. In Britain and the United States it has found its way into the education system and workplaces in explicit terms, prompting Badenoch's speech in parliament and Trump's September edict that no government funding would go to federal diversity training programs that drew upon it "because it's racist".
But in Australia it remains a minor field, cropping up in the odd humanities, law or politics department, though only occasionally labelled explicitly as CRT. For the most part, it's only in the occasional flare-ups on social media that we see its influence in this country.
The language deployed around the Mukbang controversy at the Sydney Film Festival in June was typical. In drawing upon a Korean internet phenomenon and featuring a briefly seen anime-style drawing of a white girl strangling a black boy, the short film (directed by a young white woman) was guilty of cultural appropriation and racism, critics insisted. In awarding it a prize, and allowing the offending anime image to be removed after the fact, the festival was even more guilty, of both whitewashing and of upholding a "white supremacist" system (never mind that the festival’s director, Nashen Moodley, is a South African-born person of colour).
Condemnation flared again in August when the candidates for the Rob Guest Endowment, a $50,000 scholarship offered to an up-and-coming star of musical theatre, were announced — all of them white. There was outrage, a botched apology, and finally the mass withdrawal of “the 30 former semi-finalists" in solidarity with "artists identifying as First Nations and People of Colour".
This masthead found itself in the crosshairs in May when it appointed five emerging book critics — again, all of them white. Amid outrage at yet more evidence of "white supremacy" in action, two resigned, labelling the selection process "a missed opportunity to support non-white voices in arts criticisms in Australia". In August two new reviewers from diverse backgrounds were appointed.
The accusations are typically fierce, and the apologies that follow often reek of the re-education camp.
It's easy to be dismissive, to chime in with the tired observation that each one of these outbursts is just another case of "political correctness gone mad". But focusing on the doctrinaire nature of the language only obscures and distracts from the critique that informs it — and it's a critique that perhaps ought to be taken seriously if we are to avoid the ructions currently splitting American society.
Broadly speaking, Critical Race Theory argues that the laws and institutions of Western societies only appear to be neutral; in truth, they discriminate against black, indigenous and other people of colour in myriad ways, often invisible to the naked eye. The job of the antiracist is to expose the workings of this systemic racism, no matter how incremental, and call them out.
The key insight of CRT may be that it locates racism not just in the acts of individuals — the white supremacists of bedsheets and cross burnings, say — but in a system that upholds, deliberately or not, inequality of outcome on the basis of race. It might manifest as racial profiling in policing, say, or failing to get into university because of the way eligibility is assessed (favouring tutored wealthy white kids over under-resourced kids in Indigenous communities, for example), or in the lack of diversity in particular kinds of workplaces.
Tim Soutphommasane, professor of sociology and political theory at the University of Sydney and Australia's former Race Discrimination Commissioner, says CRT is not the only model for dissecting racism, and nor is it "beyond reproach". But for many people concerned with combating racism, "there has long been the view that a liberal approach that focuses on individual attitudes and behaviours only gets you so far ... you can't understand racism without understanding how it involves power."
Plenty of white people who think of themselves as non-racists might find it hard to accept the idea that our institutions — education, employment, policing, the law, even health and welfare services — might be shot through with racism, and that they benefit from it. And for working-class whites struggling to pay the bills, the idea of "white privilege” is even harder to swallow (one reason why the issue has been so divisive in the US, and prompted many traditionally Democrat voters to swing to Trump).
"Many people still think you shouldn't be tagged as racist unless you subscribe to racial supremacist doctrine," Soutphommasane says. "Many don't understand that racism is as much about systemic impact as it is about individual intention."
One of the key criticisms of CRT, particularly from those on the Right, is the way it identifies "whiteness" as an object of study — and a problem. But advocates insist there's an important distinction to be made between "whiteness" as a system of power, and "white people", who may or may not be "allies" in dismantling that structure in order to end racism.
"Any decent critical race work doesn't focus on the individual, it focuses on the system, the structure," says race critical scholar Alana Lentin, an associate professor at the University of Western Sydney. "As soon as we can see that, we also see that no one benefits from a divided society."
One of the most widely cited "proofs" of CRT's inherent racism is history professor Ibram Kendi’s assertion that to declare oneself "not racist" while doing nothing to actively combat racism is the same as actively being racist.
"Being antiracist is not harmful," Claire Lehmann, founder of the liberal politics and philosophy website Quillette, has said. "What is harmful is this notion … that everything is either racist or antiracist. That's a really damaging idea because it doesn't allow for neutrality."
Kendi's version of CRT — as articulated in his book How to be an Antiracist — would argue that neutrality is anything but. It would, for instance, cast the recent assertion by Wallabies coach Dave Rennie that players taking the knee before a match would be a "political move" in a very different light. Given the rise of the gesture around the world as a display of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the campaign against racially motivated police violence against people of colour, not taking the knee would be seen as the real political statement.
It's not only conservatives who have issues with CRT, though. Writing on the broader subject of cancel culture in the most recent issue of The Monthly, Waleed Aly observed that the insistence on calling out "microaggressions" (the tiny daily instances of discrimination, none prosecutable in their own right but collectively degrading) was counterproductive.
"In this world view, no act or comment is too small to be considered part of a system of oppression," Aly writes. "[But] when nearly everything can be found problematic, when labels like 'white supremacist' can be hurled at most social behaviour and people, they flatten out the very idea of oppression."
For James Lindsay, host of the New Discourses podcast and a staunch critic of CRT, its real intent is nothing less than to overthrow liberal society. It aims, he says, to "awaken ... that awareness of oppression ... agitating people to see how bad their lives are even when they liked them, so that they would want to effect a revolution".
Or, as Australian writer, actor and Twitter activist Michelle Law put it in June, it seeks not to reform the system so much as to "burn it all down".
White supremacist groups such as Proud Boys are clearly racist. But is failing to speak out against such groups and their beliefs similarly racist?
White supremacist groups such as Proud Boys are clearly racist. But is failing to speak out against such groups and their beliefs similarly racist? CREDIT:AP
Not everyone who identifies with CRT holds that view, though. Just as liberalism is a broad church encompassing everything from anti-government libertarians to pro-welfare interventionists, so CRT hosts a range of views.
"I haven't read anything in CRT literature that argues that white people are the only people who can perpetuate racism," says Amy Maguire, associate professor in law at the University of Newcastle. "Whiteness theory situates whiteness in Western societies as the neutral or non-raced position, and situates non-white people as racialised/other. My read is that it would be possible for a non-white person to engage in racism against racialised communities in this type of framing."
CRT isn't a prescriptive set of rules, says Dr Tess Ryan, president of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association and an Indigenous woman of Birapai descent from Taree in NSW. "There are a lot of learnings from the US and Europe and the UK that need to be nuanced and adapted to the Australian situation. I think it's about taking what you need at a particular time and in a particular context. It's a toolkit situation — or a dilly bag, if you will."
It would at any rate take a very great effort of will to pretend inequity and racism do not exist in Western societies (or in non-Western societies for that matter). And if we agree on that point we have a choice: to accept it as the natural order of things, or to try to change it.
CRT demands change. In some versions it seeks to force people into extreme positions - of black victim and white supremacist, or of self-flagellating white ally - that do little to encourage faith that we might find a middle path to a better, post-racist society.
But, says Dr Ryan, it doesn’t need to be that way. "You don't have to walk down the street slapping yourself with a whip," she says. "It's about recognising and acknowledging, and that's not hard to do."