138. Taking it Out of Neutral: Critical Race Theory

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A movement of legal scholars diagnoses the limitations of merely “formal” measures against discrimination, a point they connect to issues like affirmative action, democratic process, and intersectionality.



Further Reading

• D. Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: the Permanence of Racism (New York: 1992).

• K. Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: a Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 139 (1989), 140-67.

• K. Crenshaw, On Intersectionality: Essential Writings (New York: 2022).

• K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, and K. Thomas (eds), Critical Race Theory: the Key Writings that Formed the Movement (New York: 1995).

• R. Delgado and J. Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: the Cutting Edge (Philadelphia: 2013).

• R. Delgado and J. Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: an Introduction (New York: 2001).

• R. Delgado and J. Stefancic (eds), The Derrick Bell Reader (New York: 2005).

• T.J. Golden (ed.), Racism and Resistance: Essays on Derrick Bell’s Racial Realism (Albany: 2022).

• M. Lynn and A.D. Dixson (eds), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education (New York: 2022).


M on 1 January 2024


I am curious about the critique that white Americans only give concessions to black people when it benefits them to do so. Isn’t this always the case when anyone gives any kind of concession? Especially in this context, where the benefit to white people is just silencing a critique of their moral failings. The implication seems to be that behaving morally because you are embarrassed to have been behaving immorally is somehow undesirable or less moral than if you’d behaved morally for other reasons.

Why should this situation be cause for despair over racism in America? It sounds like, in this case, white people behaved morally toward black people for the same reasons most people behave morally toward anyone.

In reply to by M

Peter Adamson on 1 January 2024


That’s an interesting point; I guess we could indeed get into a discussion of why concessions, especially political ones, ever happen and whether they are always out of self-interest. Especially if you count things like just “not feeling like you a jerk” as self-interest. But the argument here is focused very much on more concrete, self-interested goals and not only showing that one is not immoral, e.g. undermining the Soviet argument that the USA is so racist that communism is prefererable - we actually saw how Claudia Jones was convinced by precisely that argument.

One consequence here might be tactical: to succeed, progressives should not appeal to the mainstream’s sense of morality or fairness (since they are likely to make only symbolic concessions for those reasons) but try to find genuine intersections of material interest, like, here’s how you can get rich by promoting progressive goals! This may sound cynical but it doesn’t sound crazy.

Ervin Dervisevic on 2 January 2024


Having read some of the foundational texts of CRT, I was struck by the fact that definitions of basic concepts are ambiguous at best. What is "whiteness"? Sometimes, it is a simply describes as the property of being a Caucasian. At other times, it seems to be about dominant social norms.  

What is "systemic racism"? CRT does not provide a clear definition of what it is, only descriptions of what it does: creates or perpetuates unequal outcomes. Which creates an obvious problem, even a perfect meritocracy would create unequal outcomes for different ethnic/racial groups. Here is Matt Lutz on the problem of that definition: https://www.persuasion.community/p/the-problem-with-systemic-racism

Moral panic is partly due to these ambiguities. If I start arguing that "whiteness" is an abomination (and I mean social norms), how is an observer not to conclude that I am a madman (because he/she hears me say that white people are an abomination)?

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Peter Adamson on 2 January 2024


I think the problem you’re pointing to is more an objection to the way the opponents of CRT plucked it from academic obscurity and started polemicizing against it in public. As we’ve seen Africana thinkers (including those in the CRT movement) had extremely refined views on the nature of race, what it means to talk about blackness and whiteness, etc. I mean, these people were lawyers and philosophers, they were not given to vague use of terms and if you read more deeply you'll find them discussing this in detail. The preface to the CRT Reader by Crenshaw is a good place to start.

In the case of whiteness they tend toward a realist view of race as socially constructed, i.e. race is created by social norms and has no fundamental biological reality, but that doesn’t make it less real. (Lots of socially created things are real in the sense of having causal impact on the world, e.g. marriage or laws.) Books are written about this in philosophy of race, including one that involved Chike. 

Of course what the opponents did was, alongside simplifying and distorting CRT itself out of recognition, to issue dire warnings about these theories of “whiteness” etc stripped of all nuance or explanation. If with this presentation CRT seems scary or crazy or just sloppy then it is because that is exactly the intended effect.

Finally re. Systemic Racism the article you linked is paywalled but that worry may miss the point a bit. The purpose of this term as I understand it is just to get away from a naive idea where racism is seen purely as a matter of individual prejudices such that we could fix the problem by weeding out explicit racist beliefs. It is a useful insight that this isn't how racism necessarily works. It's then a huge further project to spell out in detail how the "system" works; much of what this episode covered does that, like the discussion of the limitations of civil rights laws and their application, or inequities in voting systems. But the term in itself, I think, should be taken to have more of a corrective function. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ervin Dervisevic on 2 January 2024

P.S. Regarding systemic…

P.S. Regarding systemic racism, by Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.” So the notion that law treats people equally as individuals yet unjustly based on their socioeconomic status, is not new.

Different starting positions between African Americans and others in the US are most certainly the legacy of slavery and racism. But the failure to minimize those differences may not be due to racism today, so systemic racism is a misnomer at best. It may be in some cases be the hell of good intentions.

I mean... Both equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes, if taken to their logical conclusion, are ludicrous ideas. It would require hard and heavy social engineering to equalize opportunities/outcomes for people from different ethnic or racial or socioeconomic groups. Affirmative action is not gonna do that, not any time soon.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Peter Adamson on 2 January 2024

More CRT

Your first paragraph: the CRT point about formality is much more than just that quote (though I agree that the quote captures a part of it). 

Second paragraph: systematic racism just IS the legacy of racism and slavery. If what you mean is "black people are disadvantaged, sure, but maybe that doesn't result from (conscious or unconscious) racist attitudes" then this is exactly the kind of reasoning (or rather, excuse for not doing anything about the problem) that the concept of systematic racism is designed to undermine. 

Third paragraph: the implicit inference from "this solution will not fix the whole problem by itself" to "this solution should be discarded" seems like a bad one.

By the way have you actually listened to the episode yet? If not maybe you should do that before further exchanges with us since I feel like I'm spending a lot of these replies telling you what is in the episode.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ervin Dervisevic on 2 January 2024

I did listen to the episode,…

I did listen to the episode, but I am commenting both to what was in the episode and what I read. The issue I am trying to get to is: not having a clear definition of systemic racism means that anything that leads to unequal outcomes can be construed as systemic racism, even good intentions gone awry. Now, such non-definition may be helpful in arguments about (and in defense of) affirmative action. Especially when faced with conservative arguments that equality before the law means it is up to African American to pull themselves by their bootstraps.

But, practical implications in the matters of both law and public policy: for public services not to be systemically racist, they must ensure equalization of outcomes (aka Singapore-like social engineering). Given different starting positions of ethnic/racial groups, affirmative action is not enough since it can contribute to a reduction of inequality but inequalities would remain for a long time.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Andrew on 2 January 2024


I'm not American, so maybe I am missing something here, but isn't Caucasian either an outdated racial classification or just a synonym for white? If you mean the latter, I don't fully get how to interpret your comment other than you read white as the property of being white, which seems circular. Do you just mean having light skin when you say "being a Caucasian"?

Ervin Dervisevic on 2 January 2024

"Realist view of race as…

"Realist view of race as socially constructed" does not tell me what "whiteness" is. 200 years ago, "whiteness" may have been much about skin color. What about today?  

In Delgado and Stefancic's Introduction, "whiteness" means something like what dominant social norms are on being a "proper American". Like Irish or Jews before them, Asians adopt "whiteness" by adopting social norms of hard work and bootstrapping.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Peter Adamson on 2 January 2024


The part of this episode where we talk about Harris' article "Whiteness as Property" is one example of a sophisticated answer to your question (if one were to boil it down: whiteness is an asset, so whether you are "white" in this sense is defined functionally - can you exploit this asset or not?). But I don't think there is just one general definition that you would get from all Africana philosophers or philosophers of race about what "whiteness" or "blackness" or "race" is in general. However being told that it is real but socially constructive is informative: like, if you didn't know what a cat was and I said "an animal" that would be a good start but not the whole answer.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ervin Dervisevic on 2 January 2024

Well, I would not argue…

Well, I would not argue against viewing ethnic or racial identity as an "asset" (to be used and abused). But it does raise a question of outdatedness of "whiteness" as an inherent advantage in all areas of life. 

"Intersectionality" can work in different ways: you can be discriminated for being a part of etno-racial group, and have some advantages in another. Being "Black" and applying to Harvard is an asset, while "Asian" and applying to Harvard is a disadvantage.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Peter Adamson on 2 January 2024

Whiteness and systemic racism

I think we are to some extent getting into the realm of empirical questions here: which racial identity is dis/advantageous in various situations and, on balance, overall? That’s a question for social scientists, not philosophers. I guess there’s no question that whiteness is overall still the most advantageous racial identity in the USA - I have certainly benefited from it myself! You can pick around the edges of that by worrying about what “white”, “race”, etc. mean but as I say, if you do that in an intellectually responsible way you need to get into the literature a bit and not expect one-sentence -long answers. For empirical purposes it’s probably enough to just go with studying people who self-identify as white, black, etc.

Then it is also an empirical question what effects policies like affirmative action have; as I say, the fact that they don’t make the disparities go away like a magic wand is neither here or there, the question is whether they help some. 

I’m suspicious of the way that objections like the ones you are raising may sometimes aim at obfuscating, confusing, or even being as alarmist as possible, all in an effort to maintain the status quo or even undo the modest reforms the US has seen in the direction of racial equality. But then this sort of behavior is exactly what the CRT would predict would happen! So at least in a way Rufo and his allies have indirectly given strong evidence that CRT was on the right track all along.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ervin Dervisevic on 2 January 2024

First of all, I could not…

First of all, I could not care less what Rufo and his allies are saying. Bad argument is still a bad argument, including the one that posits that the evidence of its' greatness is bad people who are against it. That kind of tribal logic is a non-starter.

Second, it is among other things an empirical question since it is a matter of law, public policy, and economics. For example, quite possible that being black immigrant from Ghana is actually more advantageous than being a white dude from Poland. Because the guy from Ghana benefits from his ancestors not enduring centuries of slavery and discrimination, and he benefits from being able to use affirmative action. In that case, particular type of "blackness" becomes an asset. (In case you are wondering... No, I am not from Poland. Former Yugoslavia, where I have been both subjected to ethnic discrimination and benefitted from affirmative action.)

Third, issue I have with "systemic racism" is not just my aversion to lazy thinking. I am arguing for affirmative action and against social engineering. In practice, "systemic racism" is an argument against the former and in favor of the latter: since affirmative action cannot solve the issue of unequal outcomes, "systemic racism" provides an incentive for public officials who want to be seen as anti-racists to engage in social engineering.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Peter Adamson on 2 January 2024

Affirmative action

Well if you're for affirmative action then I guess we agree anyway in the end. But I don't quite get your last paragraph here. You keep saying "affirmative action cannot solve the issue of unequal outcomes" but as I keep saying in reply, why does it need to be a "solution" and not just an incremental step in the right direction? (Most solutions are only partial solutions, often very partial.) It would of course be a part, maybe a modest part, of a big package of changes to the "system" but that's how "systemic" racism would need to be combated, no? Maybe I am not getting what you mean by "social engineering"; that sounds like just a pejorative phrase that could be used to describe any attempt to address demographic inequality.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ervin Dervisevic on 2 January 2024

Well, it is a matter of the…

Well, it is a matter of the type of incentives provided to public servants (and academia, NGOs, etc). If "unequal outcomes=systemic racism", public official who implements policies leading to unequal outcomes is implementing racist policies. Even if those policies (affirmative action, among others) may reduce racial inequalities. 

For example, say that 15% of high school kids in county A are of ethnicity B. If 25% of kids facing disciplinary measures in public schools are B, that is systemic racism. Even if there is no racist intent, and B kids are simply more likely to misbehave. What is the appropriate response by self-interested public official who wants to be non-/anti-racist? One option is to cover up some cases of B misbehaving in order to reduce the numerator. Another is to punish non-B more often or more harshly in order to increase the denominator.

Such top-down engineering of outcomes would be beneficial to public officials who need to show results now, not in 50 or 100 years. For them, (Webberian) incrementalist notion of slow boring of hard boards (aka limited affirmative action and such) is not an option advancing their career/electoral prospects.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Andrew on 3 January 2024

Ok but why are B kids more…

Ok but why are B kids more likely to misbehave? There are a lot of reasons why they might that would fall under the label "systemic racism" (at least, I would classify them as such. I don't just define systemic racism as "unequal outcomes along racial lines", in part because I am not the biggest fan of the "outcomes" framework anyway and even if we use these terms "outcomes" would be the product of the systemic racism anyway, not the system in and of itself). 

Is it how other kids treat them? Unconscious racial bias by the teachers (where they don't have explicit racist intent)? Is it related to their background or economic conditions etc? How are the ways we are classifying misbehaviour subject to a similar critique that Critical Race Theory makes towards the law? 

Any of these could either be the result from or be systemic racism at play (and given it is a system, the system and its outcomes I don't think are separate as we conceptualise them as anyway - the very outcomes feed right back into the system. Hence why I don't really like the whole outcomes framework anyway).

In reply to by Andrew

Ervin Dervisevic on 3 January 2024

The crux of the problem is…

The crux of the problem is that "why they might" is already answered. If you take the non-definition of systemic racism at face value, the answer to "why they might" is "systemic racism". Hence, the question is not if it is systemic racism, we already know it is. We just have to figure out how is it systemic racism. 

Mind you, I am not arguing that there is no such thing as "systemic racism" or that such an outcome as I have described could not be due to "unconscious bias" or whatever. I am arguing against a tautology where systemic racism is defined as something that leads to disparate outcomes, so that disparate outcomes are caused by systemic racism.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Andrew on 4 January 2024

Oh ok then. Well, I in part…

Oh ok then. Well, I in part agree, in part disagree. 

In part disagree:
I would say that, if we see disparities along racial lines (which we definitely do), and accept that race itself is a societal phenomenon, a social construct (however that itself might be cached out), then it makes sense to posit that the disparities come from society somehow (whether present or historical). The historical cause is itself given (slavery and colonialism), but with that now gone then the question is why the disparities are still around, despite all the effort to remedy it, then I think it is reasonable to then posit something called systemic racism. Even though I haven't actually defined it, and the reasoning might not be fully written out, it still seems reasonable to go from the disparities to saying it is caused by systemic racism and then ask how. Trying to reason from phenomena to essence, and then back to phenomena again to properly understand it. Given all that, I wouldn't say looking at the disparities and immediately going "how did systemic racism cause this" is not necessarily bad reasoning.

In part agree:
If we leave off the reasoning there though, then I would agree it is just a tautology and we are then left with no actual understanding of systemic racism, we still haven't actually deepen our understanding of the phenomena we set out in the first place to explain. And then can't really explain the how you mentioned in your first paragraph either. No actual explanation has been given yet.

In short: I agree because the definition of systemic racism you pointed out correctly doesn't actually explain anything and is just a tautology. I disagree because I think such a tautology is a starting point for then a further understanding of systemic racism and then a definition that isn't just tautologous.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 3 January 2024

Incremental change? A few doubts.

Well, I don't have much to contribute to the debate really between you two, but I would like to question the idea that big systemic problems are solved through incremental change. The problem of (systemic) racism has proved enduring, and I myself have come to the conclusion that any sort of systemic problem is inherently resistant to change and will find ways to adapt rather than let itself be chipped away at, like a rock against the waves of the sea over many years. I have a few arguments for this:

1. A current day example to show its ineffectiveness is post apartheid South Africa. SA famously makes a lot of use of affirmative action. Obviously SA is isn't the exact same as America but still comparable. Even after all this time since abolishing apartheid, SA is, I believe, the most unequal country in the world, with race being a huge determinant of that inequality still, and that is despite it helping the majority of the population! You would think that whatever privilege White South Africans had earned would have disappeared by now, especially since they are the minority in the country but apparently not.

2. This has shown itself to be true in the past (and in some sense quite intuitively obvious when thinking about the past). Take slavery for example. That required its full legal abolition and active fighting against it and dismantling to be destroyed (and even then it survived for quite a while after Lincoln officially abolished it). Slavery required a full on assault against it to be dismantled, and I think you would agree that it isn't the type of thing you can incrementally phase out.

3. Contra what you said in an earlier comment, I don't think systemic racism is just merely the legacy of slavery and segregation still hanging around, which, now uprooted, will fade away. It is a modern day system that serves a purpose. I think you can look at many thinkers of this very series to get that idea. Actually I think modern systemic racism is a descendent, rather than a hangover, of slavery and segregation etc. As some thinkers pointed out before, (systemic) racism serves capitalism (I can get into specifics if you want, but like I said, previous thinkers in this series should show how. For now though, I'll just point to what Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party said as examples of what I am thinking of here). And so I believe unless the system (whether racism or capitalism in general) is destroyed, it will just adapt again as long as it has a function to fulfil. You have to get at the core, otherwise it will just reform itself around our attempts to reform it.

In reply to by Andrew

Peter Adamson on 3 January 2024

Incremental change

Thanks, I find all that very plausible. I actually didn’t mean to suggest (though I may have done so) that incremental changes are the only or best way forward, I just wanted to say that measures shouldn’t be dismissed merely because they are incremental rather than full solutions. Your last point is also a very good one: when I said that systemic racism is just the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow what I meant was that it is the way that American (and not just American) society is structured in a way that perpetuates those injustices, as opposed to being a problem about concious or unconscious attitudes among individuals, which is how people usually think about racism. Again, I think this is really the virtue of the “systemic racism” idea, that it gets us away from the idea of (only) changing minds and towards the idea of changing socioeconomic and political structures.

Neville Park on 2 January 2024

Kimberlé Crenshaw's podcast

For those interested, Kimberlé Crenshaw has a long-running podcast, Intersectionality Matters

P. S. Any plans to cover Afro-pessimism? 

In reply to by Neville Park

Peter Adamson on 3 January 2024


Thanks, I didn’t know she had a podcast! I think the closest we’ll get to Afro-Pessimism is probably the discussion of Bell in this very episode, but maybe Chike and I could touch on it in our concluding interview also.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Neville Park on 4 January 2024

…only outlaws will do Africana studies

That reminds me, this episode also strayed close to something I've often thought about—the podcast/book now almost certainly being illegal in educational settings in several states! 

On one hand, the implications are chilling. On the other hand, from a publishing point of view...you can't buy that kind of publicity. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ken on 5 January 2024

Well That’s Dissappointing

I was hoping you guys would make Afropessimism one of the last subjects you covered. I guess this podcast will have gaps😏

In reply to by Ken

Peter Adamson on 5 January 2024


Well, at least it will be what the pessimists expected. But seriously, maybe the reason we aren't doing it is that this is more a 21st century phenomenon and we're only covering the 20th century. But I'll ask Chike.

dukeofethereal on 8 January 2024

After Cornell West, what is left other than his interview ?

Since Cornel West is the last dedicated figure you plan on covering plus an interview with him, what other episodes are left other than Chike's assessment of this 3rd mini series and the series as a whole (3rd interview with him)?


Has Africana Professional Philosophy Since the 1970s been scrapped? 


In reply to by dukeofethereal

Peter Adamson on 8 January 2024

Still to come

No you're right: what remains is just a scripted episode on West, the interview with him (already done, it's amazing!), professional philosophy, and a final interview with Chike. So that puts us on course to start China on March 10 if I remember right.

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Kimberle Crenshaw

Africana Philosophy in the Twentieth Century

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