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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rob Williams

Awakening to “Woke” – Critical Thinking/CMLE, Programmed Polarization, “Critical Race Theory,” and America's Cultural Revolution

As #TeamHuman moves into 2024, it becomes ever more clear that we as a species are being programmed for polarization at every level of US – men versus women, rich versus poor, masked versus unmasked, old versus young, “vaccinated” versus “unvaccinated,” and of course, black versus white. This  US “Divide And Conquer” strategy has a long history in the United States, as anyone familiar with US colonial elites’ use of “race” as a legal, political, socioeconomic and cultural strategy to divide and separate poor “white” indentured servants from poor “black” slaves well knows. (See Edmund Morgan’s brilliant American Slavery, American Freedom for context). Division, combined with Disinformation, literally means Life or Death. Author Christopher Rufo's new book traces the evolution of these toxic ideas cum strategies in his important new book America's Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything.

Kendi, the author of Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America (which received a 2016 National Book Award) and How To Be An Anti-Racist (2019), serves as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center For Anti-Racist Research, and is perhaps the world’s most visible champion of what is known as Critical Race Theory (CRT). In the pull quote below his Atlantic article title, Kendi writes that “pundits and politicians have created their own definition for the term (CRT), and then set about attacking it.”

What is implied in the framing around Kendi’s Atlantic article is that “critical race theory” should not be “debated.” To a detached and objective observer, this approach may seem odd, even paradoxical. However, among the “Woke” (a catch-all term used to describe supporters of CRT specifically and the cause of what is called “social justice” more broadly) answers seem certain, questions serve as distractions, “debate” appears suspect, and CRT’s critics are often cast as nefarious actors, acting out of ignorance, maliciousness, and what is referred to as “implicit” and/or “institutional” “racism.”

In this essay what I propose, pedagogically speaking, is this: rather than assuming a “Woke” posture, we assume a posture of “awakening” – listening, asking questions, exploring differing viewpoints, and engaging in vigorous public discussion exploring difficult civilizational conversations surrounding not only “race,” but all matters surrounding what it means to human in all of its myriad complexities.  This approach, of course, describes critical thinking at its core, as well as embodying the core intellectual activities that catalyze a pedagogical approach known as critical media literacy education (CMLE), which champions the accessing, analyzing, evaluating and producing of media in all forms, with “media” defined as “storytelling environments” which deepen our understanding of how our world functions.

Applying CMLE to CRT is this short chapter’s ambitious goal.

First, a quick summary of CRT.

“The critical race theory (CRT) movement…is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power,” summarizes the Washington Post in July 2021, the same week the Atlantic published Kendi’s essay. “Its most direct academic origins can be found in the work of the late Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, who rigorously challenged mainstream liberal narratives of steady racial progress, illustrating how landmark legislation — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — failed to deliver liberty and justice for Black Americans.” Taking note of CRT’s legal underpinnings, Kendi quotes CRT co-founder and law professor Kimberly Crenshaw in the same Atlantic article, who defines CRT as “a way of looking at law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country.”

Let’s go a bit deeper.

“CRT is an approach to racial scholarship born in law schools in the 1980s that operates from the premises of pervasive racial inequality and a social constructionist (i.e. anti-essentialist) conception of race; challenges the idea that the superficially colorblind nature of the law means the law is race-neutral; and seeks to explain how landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s failed to deliver on its promises of equality for the racial minorities it was supposed to uplift,” explains Samuel Hoadley-Brill in a May 2021 online article. “Critical race theorists take up two tasks. The first is descriptive: ‘to recognize and theorize the centrality of race and white supremacy to the making of the modern world’; and the second is prescriptive: ‘[to recognize and theorize] the implications for normative theory and an expanded vision of what needs to be subjected to liberatory critique to achieve social justice,’” quoting from Charles Mills’ 2017 book Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique Of Racial Liberalism.

With these explanations in mind, it seems clear to even casual observers that CRT has now moved from its origins as a legal framework into US cultural discourses as a whole, as any casual Google “news” search or Twitter hash tag scrolling of the term will quickly reveal.

As a US historian and CMLE practitioner for thirty years now, I confess to finding the phrase “critical race theory,” comprised of three powerful and provocative words open to multiple interpretations, somewhat maddening. (Side note – I first encountered CRT while pursuing my doctorate in the mid-1990s – the phrase cofounded me then, as it confounds me now, in large part because of CRT’s definitional slipperiness).

So, in the brief space we have here, let’s first ask of CRT four foundational questions of CRT, designed to complicate our thinking.

  • What is meant by “theory”?

At first, this seems an easy question to answer, until we dig a bit deeper.

The word “theory” has two commonly accepted meanings which are not mutually overlapping.

Definition #1: a theory is a “a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena, such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Definition #2: a theory is “a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural and subject to experimentation, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact.”

So, is the “theory” in CRT defines by the first or second definition?

Is CRT, in other words, correct and coherent, or conjectural and experimental?

In his Atlantic article, Kendi clearly adopts the first definition, building on the word of Bell, Crenshaw and other legal scholars who are correct to critique the history of institutional racism embedded in US policies, protocols and legal structures.

Adopting a critical thinking and CMLE framework, does it make sense to apply these CRT-focused legal and historical critiques of US society to American society more broadly here in our present historical moment?

And if and/or when we do so, to what other places and times in US (or global) history are we making these comparisons?

In other words, if one is to claim that 21st century US society is “endemically racist,” to when, and to whom, and to where are we to measure this assertion by way of comparison?

To be clear, I am not confirming or denying the veracity of this central claim made by CRT’s champions  – I am simply asking questions.

  • What is meant by “race”?

Again, seemingly simple definitions reveal more complex realities.

“Race,” explains, is “an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.”

Above this definition, however, is found this much longer caveat, worth quoting at length.

Genetic evidence has undermined the idea of racial divisions of the human species and rendered race obsolete as a biological system of classification.  Race therefore should no longer be considered as an objective category, as the term formerly was in expressions like the Caucasian race, the Asian race, the Hispanic race. Instead, if the reference is to a particular inherited physical trait, as skin color or eye shape, that salient feature should be mentioned specifically:  discrimination based on color.’s caveat then goes on to call for specificity with regard to “race:”

Rather than using race to generalize about national or geographic origin, or even religious affiliation, it is better to be specific:  South Korean, of Polish descent. References to cultural affiliation may refer to ethnicity or ethnic group:  Kurdish ethnicity, Hispanic ethnicity. Though race is no longer considered a viable scientific categorization of humans, it continues to be used by the U.S. Census to refer to current prevalent categories of self-identification that include some physical traits, some historical affiliations, and some national origins:  Black, white, American Indian, Chinese, Samoan, etc. The current version of the census also asks whether or not Americans are of Hispanic origin, which is not considered a race.

And then, In a historically relevant nod to CRT’s champions like Kendi,’s concluding trope:

There are times when it is still accurate to talk about race in society. Though race has lost its biological basis, the sociological consequences of historical racial categories persist. For example, it may be appropriate to invoke race to discuss social or historical events shaped by racial categorizations, as slavery, segregation, integration, discrimination, equal employment policy. Often in these cases, the adjective ‘racial’ is more appropriate than the noun ‘race.’ While the scientific foundation for race is now disputed, racial factors in sociological and historical contexts continue to be relevant.

So, to pose these conclusions as a single open-ended question: while the term “race” is no longer acknowledged by the dictionary, does the term “race” bears historical relevance as a conceptual tool for making sense of US history?

As a US historian, I would answer a definitive “yes” to the second part of the question, and am still pondering the implications of the question’s first part, especially in light of close readings of Kendi’s book How To Be An Anti-Racist, and “white studies” scholar Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, both of which postulate a world of manufactured racial binaries where Humans are neatly grouped into one of two categories – Racist/Anti-Racist and Black/White – from which both scholars draw sweeping if simplistic conclusions about human motivations, feelings, and behaviors.

  • What is mean by “critical”?

For a third time, we find ourselves on slippery terrain.

Definition #1: “critical” means to “be inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily.”

Definition #2: “critical” means “involving skillful judgment, as to truth, merit, etc.”

Assuming that Kendi and other CRT champions are more inclined to embracing definition #2, I am left bereft, in part because of the comparative questions and critical observations I posed above.

Asked another way, if we are going to critique 21st century US society as “systemically or endemically racist,” as CRT’s champions do, mustn’t we also ask comparative and historically apropos questions – to when, to where, and to whom are we making such comparisons?

  • What is meant by “critical race theory”?

The myriad answers to this question go far beyond the scope of this inquiry.

Now that we’ve complicated CRT, let’s engage in a critical listening exercise.

During summer 2020, in the wake of the highly publicized George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and subsequent peaceful protests and civil unrest in 150 US cities, evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein hosted a two hour “black intellectuals roundtable” on his “DarkHorse” podcast with seven distinguished US scholars of color (the entire episode, which has more than one million views, can be accessed here.

All of the roundtable thinkers agreed on two conclusions: the US finds itself in an explicit and evolving national conundrum re: race (and other vital civilizational matters), and 2) more implicitly,  Critical Race Theory (CRT) proves problematic as an approach to understanding the nuances and complexities of our current historical moment. The entire conversation bears close listening and reflection – here, let me simply excerpt a single powerful moment from each thinker in order to complicate our conversation about race, class, and other hot button social and political topics within the 21st century United States.

“I think we’re out of touch with reality and that demagoguery is afoot,” explains Glenn C Loury, Merton P. Stolz Professor of Economics at Brown University. “There is supposed to be an epidemic of racist police killings of black people – I don’t think that’s true; I think that’s literally false.”

“I think this is a moment of extraordinary opportunity and extraordinary danger,” observes John Wood, co-founder of Braver Angels and the former Vice Chair of the Los Angeles Country Republican Party. “Right now there is this zealous pursuit of an ideological victory in favor of a certain version of social justice which is calling for the vast condemnation of a white supremacist state – it gives the impression that America is irredeemable because its Whiteness imbues it with a certain guilt that can only be removed by a sort of mass atonement and capitulation to a series of demands.”

“We face tricky problems as a country – much harder problems to address than if you listen to the dominant rhetoric coming out the left-wing activist movement right now,” notes Coleman Hughes, former Manhattan Institute fellow and Quillette magazine contributor. “We live in a country that has more guns than people…which offers no pat or easy solutions to [problems like police violence].”

“Race isn’t real, but racism is,” explains Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Losing my Cool and Self-Portrait In Black and White. “Where I sit in Europe, looking back at America, it is important to see how extraordinarily violent a society [America] is, and how extraordinarily violent the police are towards allAmerican citizens, as compared with other societies.”

“What we’re seeing right now is [the rise of] a certain radical strain of anti-racism that has been present for decades,” observes John McWorter, Columbia University Professor of Linguistics and author of Words On The Move and a new 2021 book entitled Woke Racism: How A New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. This anti-racism strain, McWorter notes, is “intellectually mediocre but extremely frightening to other people because one of its main tenets is that to not agree with it makes you a ‘racist’ – we’re in a society now where to be called a ‘racist’ is the equivalent of being called a ‘pedophile.’”

“This looks like a crisis of meaning in the country – we are as citizens increasingly atomized and isolated both socially (certainly due to COVID-19) and I think there is a spiritual malnourishment in the country that manifests itself in certain ways – once of which is racially,” reflects Chloe Valdary, founder and global facilitator of the “Theory of Enchantment” program. “The way in which this idea of ‘anti-racism’ has been proliferating over the past few months is a direct product of that spiritual malnourishment.”

“The country is in a very vulnerable position – in the throes of a global pandemic and at the beginning of a profound economic crisis that may play out over the course of the next decade,” explains Kmele Foster, founder and lead producer of Free Think. “The notion of individuality itself is now [in some circles] a retrograde notion that should be condemned, with the idea that we should be instituting new corrective curriculums [sic] in our workplaces and our schools to try and introduce new ways of thinking.”

To conclude, I humbly submit that, rather than adopt a singular posture on CRT, we instead apply critical thinking and CMLE: listening, asking questions, exploring multiple points of view, and engaging in the difficult task of public discussion around “critical race theory” and beyond.

In other words, let’s teach the debates, as honestly and openly as we can – rather than simply accepting or rejecting what either CRT’s champions or critics claim.

It is in this way that we move beyond Woke, honor our awakening, embrace both critical thinking and the principles of CMLE, and become more fully democratic and human in the process.

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