I am not sure Lance Morrow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center fully understands critical race theory. In his recent Wall Street Journal piece he seems to equate the theory with a “single-minded ideology” that “sees racism in every white face–a racism systemic, pervasive, inescapable, damning.” He adds: “The doctrine devolves to the crudest form of what might be called racial Calvinism: Americans are predestined–saved or damned, depending on the color of their skin. This doctrine merely reverses the theory of white supremacy, which damned black people–and consigned them to oppressive segregation–because of the color of their skin.”
While I am sure there are some people who believe what Morrow describes here, I don’t think that he accurately represents the teachings of critical race theory. I should also add that if someone was teaching what Morrow describes here in a K-12 or college classroom, I would also be opposed to it.
Morrow references philosopher Isaiah Berlin‘s famous “hedgehog” and “fox”:
The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin turned an obscure fragment by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) into an intellectual’s cocktail-party game. In a famous essay, published as a book in 1953, Berlin suggested that the world is divided between hedgehogs and foxes—between those who believe in One Big Thing (one all-sufficient super-explanation), and those who are content with a more modest, irrational and even incoherent idea of history’s unfolding. Karl Marx was a supreme hedgehog: Everything, for him, was about the conflict of economic classes. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a restlessly improvising fox.
At the risk of being accused of “whataboutism,” let’s remember that those who oppose critical race theory (or what they believe is critical race theory) also seem to take on hedgehog-like characteristics.
The victim wants revenge, and who is more justified in committing any crime or injustice than a blameless victim acting in historic retaliation? Virtue, feeling vengeful and tasting power, grows manic—dogmatic, dangerous. Critical race theory ends by fostering the evil it professes to combat—racism and the hatred that comes with it. “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return,” W.H. Auden wrote. The 20th century taught the lesson over and over again, but it seems to be wasted on the 21st.
As I see it, anger and revenge are not helpful. In fact, they can even be sinful. Vengeance and victimization can indeed grow manic, dogmatic, and dangerous. I’ve seen it happen on both sides of the political aisle. If we want to be people of hope, we must believe that anger can be overcome with love. I believe in Reinhold Niebuhr’s idea of the “spiritual discipline against resentment,” and try to practice it in my life (“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”), but it is not my place to lecture others to stop being resentful unless, of course, I was preaching to my own people. My study of American history has taught me to empathize with figures in the past and present, but I can never completely know the pain of others until I have experienced it myself. And I will never experience the pain and suffering of my Black brothers and sisters.
Having said all this, I do think Morrow’s piece makes some fair points regarding how we must interpret the human experiences–both in the past and present. Here is another taste:
The world’s hedgehog population tends to expand in times of stress and change. Lately it has exploded in the U.S. Hedgehogs are thick on the ground, all of them advancing One Big Thing or another—each peering through the lens of a particular obsession. At the moment, the biggest One Big Thing is race—the key, it seems, to all of America, to the innermost meanings of the country and its history.
It isn’t really true. Race is one of many big things in America. It is hardly the most important. Americans need to desanctify the subject of race—to mute its claims, which have grown absolutist and, as it were, theological in their thoroughness, their dogmatism.
As a historian, race is one of the many categories that we use to understand the human experience. Those who teach the past cannot afford to be hedgehogs. We must interpret the past in all its fullness and complexity. Don’t get me wrong–I think we should have a vigorous debate over Morrow’s claim that race is “hardly the most important” big thing in America right now. (Has he been living with his head in the sand? Perhaps Morrow is releasing his own inner hedgehog with that line.) But Morrow is correct to suggest that people are rarely motivated by just one issue. Those who tend to sing one note–and I know many people like this–can easily devolve into a kind of anti-intellectualized fundamentalism. And if you don’t like me using race as my example here, just think about the Christian Right–an approach to political engagement centered on one or two cultural issues.
It would seem that a hedgehog approach to the world would be particularly damning in an institution of higher learning. Yet college and universities often shape entire programs and centers and curricula around a few people’s hedgehog-like instincts. That is a post for another time.