The Philosophical Roots of Critical Race Theory

*This is an excerpt of my larger writing on Critical Race Theory which can be found here.

One of the major philosophical elements of Critical Race Theory is postmodernism. In order to have a greater appreciation of why critical theorists have embraced this newer philosophy, it might help to understand the modernism that they believe needs to end. In the medieval era, the source of knowledge and truth went through a process of change. Hopefully, this short history will help make sense of the transition.

Thomas Aquinas

In the 13th century, the theologian Thomas Aquinas blended Aristotle’s “natural” philosophy with Christian doctrine in his epic work Summa Theologica. Consequently, the Catholic Church adopted many Aristotelian “scientific” views, such as the belief that there were only four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), that the earth was at the center of the solar system (the geocentric view), and that it was possible for something to spontaneously generate out of nothing. Over time, these views became a part of church dogma. (This is why when Galileo questioned the geocentric view, he was called before the Inquisition.)

Francis Bacon

After the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was no longer able to control what people thought and the Catholic/Aristotelian worldview was challenged (especially by Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, who wrote his Novum Organum, outlining the new scientific method, as a direct response to Aristotle’s Organum).” The focus on empirical evidence, in conjunction with the truth of the scriptures and a search for the “mind of God” in His creation, initiated a great Scientific Revolution.

Not long after this burst of scientific curiosity, a group of thinkers became excited that people were free from the “dark ages” of religious control. Impressed by the advances made in science, they developed what they called an “enlightened” philosophy which often gave precedence to empirical evidence and human reason over scriptural revelation. This was the beginning of the modern era.

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Thomas Jefferson

I’d like to take a little side eddy here to note that one of the first consequences of the Enlightenment emphasis of science and reason over scriptural revelation was the advent of scientific racism. For example, Thomas Jefferson (the same person who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”) described blacks in “scientific” language in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other distinctions proving a difference. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites.[i]

David Hume

David Hume, another Enlightenment philosopher who relied on science, empirical evidence, and reason (and rejected faith and biblical revelation as a source of knowledge) had this to say about people of color:

I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to Whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection [sic] than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences . . .[ii]

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant agreed with Hume, saying, “The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish. Hume invites anyone to quote a single example of a Negro who has exhibited talents.”[iii] Voltaire, who also emphasized reason and science over biblical truth, had this to say about blacks:

Their round eyes, their flat nose, their lips which are always thick, their differently shaped ears, the wool on their head, the measure even of their intelligence establishes between them and other species of men prodigious differences.[iv]

Polygenism was a form of scientific racism that claimed different races had parents other than Adam and Eve. To the polygenist, the Africans were a sub-species of humanity, a different and separate species than the whites. This was not an obscure view; it was the cutting-edge science of the day. For example, Samuel George Morton, a Harvard professor and president of the American Academy of Natural Sciences, was a phrenologist who collected skulls from around the world to prove his scientific racial views.

On the other hand, the abolitionists stood firm on the scriptures, especially Acts 17:26 which declared that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth.” They believed in the brotherhood of man because we all had one father (Adam), therefore, we were all equal.

William Wilberforce

There seems to be a forgotten history of the Christian battle against polygenism. For example, in London, England, Christians organized the Ethnological Society to battle against slavery and the abuse of indigenous peoples. Their motto was ab uno sanguine (from one blood). Their members would become part of the Clapham Sect, founded by John Newton, the former slave trader and writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian whose perseverance is credited with finally leading to the abolition of slavery in the entire British Empire, was also a member of the Clapham Sect.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, also battled against scientific racism in his 1854 speech given at Western Reserve College entitled, “The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered.” Abolitionists such as John Rankin, whose home was a major stop on the Underground Railroad, would oppose scientific racism and argue for the brotherhood of all men:

It must be admitted that the Africans and the rest of mankind have all sprung from one common father [emphasis mine]; and consequently all, originally were alike free. The right to freedom belongs to the Africans.[v]

These biblical views were often ignored by Southern slaveholders such as John A. Broadus, a professor of New Testament interpretation and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said, “The Negroes in the United States come from several quite distinct races, at least three of which, even at the present day, present broadly marked differences.”[vi] He used the language of the Enlightenment philosophers to describe blacks:

John Broadus

The typical negro, with thick lips, flat nose, protruding jaws, narrow and retreating forehead, is entirely distinct from the other two races, and vastly inferior in point of intelligence. For my part, I never saw one of these who could be regarded as very intelligent.[vii]

In the last half of the 19th century, polygenism would be replaced with social Darwinism as the source of white supremacist belief. So now instead of racism being based on the belief that blacks were a sub-species of humanity, the darker races were inferior because they were less evolved. This was the view held by Charles S. Gardner, professor of sociology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who thought the only way blacks would advance was through mixing the blood of whites and blacks in a belief this would cause the black race to evolve.

It is the simple truth to say that the negro race has never risen appreciably except by mixture with a superior race. Whether this mulatto product of race fusion can become a stable, permanent race is an open question; by a process of natural selection, there will ultimately appear a definite and relatively fixed race-type of mulattoes.[viii]

Of course, this “scientific” view also led to the belief that “race fusion” could cause the devolution of the white race. This is one reason why intermarriage was frowned upon.

I hope this contrast between the views of scientists and philosophers, and those of faithful Bible-believers, reveals that if Christians had remained faithful to the scriptures ALONE, perhaps America would have avoided the travesty of white supremacy, slavery, Jim Crow, and all the horrors and injustices associated with racism. True social justice has always been achieved by those who love the scriptures. Moving forward to our time, I am greatly concerned that we are making the same mistake when we add Critical Race Theory to our Christian faith. 

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Back to the philosophical history . . .

One of the main goals of the Enlightenment philosophers was to create a just society. Two revolutions, one in America and one in France, occurred as a result of their thought. American founders, influenced by the Great Awakening, aligned their thought with Christian doctrines, such as the concept that people are inherently sinful. This led to the inclusion of “checks and balances” into American political theory, while in France the philosophes embraced the views of Diderot and Rousseau—that humans are inherently good. The French philosophers tried to erase all Christian principles from society, even making a week last ten days (instead of the biblical seven days). Ironically, the resulting Reign of Terror revealed that “good” people would quickly resort to mob rule and guillotines.

Hegel

Georg W. F. Hegel, a German philosopher, initially thought of the French Revolution as “a glorious mental dawn,”[ix] but when it failed he rejected the godless view of the European Enlightenment and decided to design his own version of an “ideal state” which wouldn’t remove the spiritual perspective. While his philosophy is much more detailed than what I can describe here, there is one idea—the dialectic—that has had a great influence on liberal/leftist ideologies.

Hegel created a philosophy of history in which he asserted that there was an Absolute Spirit (or Geist) that was moving the world forward and upward to greater and greater manifestations of freedom. To prove his philosophy, he started with the Persian empire and traced the expansion of freedom over time showing “that in past Oriental civilizations [the Persians] one was free; in classical antiquity, Greece and Rome, some were free; and in modern Germanic and Anglo-Saxon civilization, all are free.”[x]

This theory worked well until he came to the failure of the French Revolution. He created the dialectic as a solution. History was in constant conflict, Hegel said, therefore, since the world is moving forward through a continuous clash of ideas, an opinion (the thesis) will be contradicted by another opinion (the antithesis) and this battle will result in, not the triumph of either the thesis or its antithesis, but a new synthesis.

The synthesis would then become the thesis and the process would repeat itself over and over like a great spiral that constantly moves the world forward and upward to greater heights of freedom. This is called the spiral view of history. Therefore, the French Revolution may have seemed like a setback to the progression of freedom, but it actually led to the development of nation states, individual rights, private property, etc., so it was still propelling history forward and upward.

Hegel had an evolutionary or progressive view of history. He believed that the world was going to get better and better over time. This is the opposite of the Christian view that “evil men will wax worse and worse” (2 Tim. 3: 13) and the world will continue to deteriorate until Christ comes and sets up his kingdom.

Unfortunately, some of Hegel’s students became theologians and were active in a movement known as the historical-critical movement. One of its goals was to critique the scriptures in light of scientific advances or archaeological discoveries, so if parts of the Bible didn’t align with the latest breakthrough (such as Darwinian evolution), they were discredited. This was the beginning of the modernist (or liberalist) movement in Christianity. To those who adopted the views of the historical critics, Christianity was no longer a religion of truth, so it had to be reinterpreted to become a religion of experience whose ethical teachings could help propel human society forward and upward to new realms of progress and prosperity.

Because Hegelian progressivism was added to Christianity, the church divided. Those “fundamentalists” who held to the inerrancy and purity of scripture (regardless of what the science and/or archaeology of the day seemed to prove) maintained their biblical faith, while those mainstream churches who accepted the claims of the historical critics felt they had to create a new, modern form of Christianity, called the social gospel, which trusted in the latest scientific views and attempted to use socialist economics to bring about a just society.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx, the founder of communism, was influenced to reject Christianity by another student of Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, who wrote a book entitled The Essence of Christianity, which argued that God was merely created out of the minds of men. Marx then rejected Hegel’s Geist as the spirit behind the progression of history. Instead, his “ideal state” would be godless.

After Hegel died, the followers of his philosophy would split into two camps. Marx was in the Left Hegelian (or Young Hegelian) camp, while the Right Hegelians maintained the traditional view of Geist and would remain prominent in Germany during the decades before the Nazis came to power.

A group of Left Hegelian Marxists (many of whom were Jewish) known simply as the Frankfurt School, had to flee Nazi Germany.  After World War II, when the failures of both Nazism and Marxist communism were clearly revealed to the world, most people might have given up on their affection for Hegel and Marx, but the members of the Frankfurt School didn’t admit defeat. Instead, they developed what they called Critical Theory. Although they could see that capitalism hadn’t failed (as Marx had predicted it would), there were other problems in society, so instead of promoting revolution based only upon economic divisions, they shifted to a new form of Marxism based on the clash of identities. This is why it’s often called Neo (new)-Marxism.

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse (who did his thesis on Hegel) was one of the members of the Frankfurt School. He thought the new Marxist cause should become that of the “substratum,”[xi] those who resided underneath the conservative middle class and was made up of “the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable.”[xii] Marcuse admitted he didn’t have any ideas about how to construct a better society, but he thought oppressed persons could find their satisfaction merely in the act of opposing injustice. He called this opposition the “Great Refusal.”[xiii] It has been represented in many movements by the image of the raised fist.

During the 1960’s and early 70’s, the ideas of Marcuse influenced the New Left and he became the “guru of the student movement.”[xiv] In his book Eros and Civilization he also pushed for “personal and sexual liberation.”[xv] (He coined the term “Make love, not war!”) Realizing that revolutionary support would not come from the American working class, he instead appealed to “students, ethnic minorities, women, and workers in the Third World.”[xvi] These movements became known as the anti-war movement, the black power movement (as opposed to the Civil Rights movement headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., which had its roots in the church), the feminist movement, and liberation theology.

Sigmund Freud

Marcuse also thought Sigmund Freud’s idea of the subconscious could be “married” to Marx. He said, “according to Freud, repression is bound to increase with the progress of civilization, at the same time and parallel to it aggressiveness is going to be mobilized and is going to be released.”[xvii] In other words, the more civilized society was, the more repressed its citizens would become, and the more they would be ripe for revolution.

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned by the fascist dictator Mussolini because he was a leader of the Italian communist party, was disappointed that the lower classes (the subaltern), who were greater in number, never revolted against the less numerous ruling class. In his Prison Notebooks he explained that cultural hegemony—the atmosphere created by the ruling class or majority in society and spread by the media, churches, schools, advertising, and entertainment—allowed those with power and influence to exploit the lower classes, causing them to willfully participate in their own consensual oppression. He said that most people just accept the status quo even if it isn’t beneficial to them. It’s just the way things are, the commonsense notions of society.

Jacques Derrida

After learning of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, the postmodernists (a group of mostly French or “Continental” philosophers) argued that the Enlightenment project, which was based on human reason and empirical evidence had failed. Jacques Derrida (who studied Hegel) developed a theory called deconstructionism, which said words, which are merely symbolic representations of objects or thoughts, can easily be interpreted in numerous ways. (What I think when I read a word might be entirely different from what another person would think if they read the same word.) Therefore, any text is open to many interpretations—meaning that language cannot be relied on to convey truth. It also doesn’t matter what the author’s intent was, since each reader will perceive it individually. Therefore, since truth is no longer attainable through the use of language, debate is discouraged, and the only thing that matters is the pure pursuit of power to make change.

Derrida also developed the concept of decentering. In the past, modern structuralist views of society held on to a center. This could be God, laws, man, ideology, etc., but the center, which was like an anchor for the structure, changed at different times, and history was merely “a series of substitutions of center for center”[xviii] competing for the center position. Postmodernists deny that society should be organized around a center, since, they believe, every center has failed in the past to provide a just society. Instead, just like language, our societal centers have no true meaning. This leaves the construction of morals and truth to be determined by each individual.

Michel Foucault

Not surprisingly, any attack on the legitimacy of language had an impact on biblical interpretation, since the concept of doctrinal purity or scholarly analysis “is regarded with intense suspicion by the postmodernists.”[xix] Michel Foucault (who studied Hegel) did an analysis of the power relationship between the interpreter (such as a pastor, pope, or professor) and the community and raised “questions concerning the potentially repressive function of ‘authorized’ biblical interpreters.”[xx] (This attempt to discredit biblical authority should not be surprising since Foucault, a homosexual who died of AIDS in 1984, was searching for a way to normalize behavior that was outside of the realm of societal acceptance.)

Jean-Francois Lyotard

Jean-François Lyotard, another of the French philosophers, said that a simplified definition of postmodernism was “an incredulity towards meta-narratives.”[xxi] Again, since universal truth isn’t found in an overarching story or narrative of history; truth can only be known through the perspectives of individuals who lived it.

This explanation of the philosophies behind Critical Race Theory is not exhaustive, but it does help us to have an insight into the mindset of those who developed the theory and how there are discernable connections between the neo-Marxist/postmodern philosophers and the critical theorists.


[i] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia. (Richmond, VA: J.W. Randolph, 1853), 149-150.

[ii] David Hume, The Philosophical Works of David Hume, cont. Henry Maudsley (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1854), 228.

[iii] Immanuel Kant, “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime,” as quoted by David Brion in the book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2006), 75.

[iv] Voltaire, “Essai sur les mouers,” as quoted by David Brion in the book Inhuman Bondage. Ibid.

[v] Rev. John Rankin, Letters on American Slavery, Addressed to Mr. Thomas Rankin (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 70-71.

[vi] John A. Broadus, “As to the Colored People,” Standard (Chicago), 1 Feb. 1883, 1. As quoted by Gregory A. Wills, et al., “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” Dec. 12, 2018.  https://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/sbts/uploads/2018/12/Racism-and-the-Legacy-of-Slavery-Report-v4.pdf.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Charles Spurgeon Gardner, “The Negro and the White Man,” typescript, pp. 4-6, Charles S. Gardner Papers, SBTS, as quoted by Gregory A. Wills, et al., in “Report on Slavery and Racism.”

[ix] Peter Singer, Hegel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1.

[x] Robert S. Hartman, Hegel: Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1953), xviii.

[xi] Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 256.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., 257.

[xiv] Heywood, Political Ideologies, 139.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man, 256.

[xvii] “The Frankfurt School with Herbert Marcuse.” Interview with Bryan Magee, 1978. YouTube. Mar. 17, 2018. Accessed May 15, 2020.

[xviii] Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992), 1117.

[xix] Ibid., 245.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Jean François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), xxiv.

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