How to Be of Two (or Three) Minds About Critical Race Theory

“Jupiter, I should like to understand what it is you are talking about. You say your master is sick. Hasn’t he told you what ails him?”

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Gold-Bug”

Baptists and bootleggers don’t see eye to eye. Neither joins the other in their activities, yet they benefit from each other’s existence. A cynical perspective argues that this odd dynamic owes to more than their Sunday rivalry. Moonshine means more people to seek redemption from the ravages of addiction and sin, whereas public morality underwrites bans that make more people buy moonshine. Both groups want booze officially banned but secretly accessible.

I’m likewise split regarding Critical Race Theory (CRT). I think its advocates mostly peddle snake oil, but it’s a species of snake oil that justifies attention to a set of authors that should be at the core of American Studies courses in high schools, colleges, and universities across the country. Does this make CRT necessary snake oil?

It’s tempting to denigrate CRT. Its leaders dig accusatory thumbs into culturally sensitive topics for profit. Like sorcerer-priests at harvest time, they stoke the crowd’s resentment as well as its guilt. And they use every trick in the book: pseudoscience, cultish verbiage, show trials, distorted metrics, self-fulfilling diagnostics, fake statistics, sloppy history, bureaucratic stratagem, and litigation, to name a few.

CRT has matured into one of the main costs of doing business in the U.S. It works because its fictitious demons—racist boogeymen—can never be exorcized. It’s hard to prove the total absence of what once existed somewhere, and just one unconscious racist now tars us all. An inability to disprove something, however, doesn’t mean it exists in excess, so CRT advocates also work to transduce old racism into a “structural” problem, making it hard to find but deeply rooted. They therefore need perpetual funds to address it.

But CRT requires surprisingly little in terms of actual effort. It’s a sloppy scam. Take the notion that systemic racism surfaces when white people freak out about race. People freak out about race because to be labeled a racist is devastating. Jussie Smollett, Bubba Wallace, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. are as common as their imagined enemies. Conversations and “beer summits” about race sour in this context. Technology then magnifies all this stupid signaling. Prudence and reason get quashed by our bundles of instincts and emotions easily spread on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, podcasts, and cable.

Mostly, though, CRT works just by threatening people with shame and exclusion. In the evolutionary history of humanity, to lose contact with others usually means death. Perversely, then, the same fear of banishment that programs us to follow a racist herd also programs us to follow the CRT herd.

Ayn Rand called racism “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism,” and CRT is perhaps its most sophisticated reflection, the latest form of what Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa—recalling Karl Popper—recently called la llamada de la tribu, or “the call of the tribe.” More than two centuries ago, John Jay used a maritime metaphor to refer to these same impulses in his defense of the provincial power of the U.S. Senate: “They who have turned their attention to the affairs of men, must have perceived that there are tides in them; tides very irregular in their duration, strength, and direction, and seldom found to run twice exactly in the same manner or measure” (F64).

Now, CRT advocates would agree that the Senate originally empowered state legislatures, many of which defended race-based chattel slavery. But the Senate has proven useful since that time because it can also leverage minoritarian provincial wisdom against the urban insanity of a majoritarian House. Ignorant mobs—in racial or nonracial form—are the essential features of democracy as well as its chief problem. This is unavoidable because, as Alexis de Tocqueville argued throughout Democracy in America (1835/40), constitutionally protected free thought remains highly vulnerable to social repression: “The Inquisition was never able to stop the circulation in Spain of books hostile to the religion of the majority. The power of the majority in the United States has had greater success than that by removing even the thought of publishing such books” (DA 1.2.7). On the one hand, this contradiction reflects an ugly aspect of electoral politics, so it must be guarded against in democracies where group emotions can determine the success or failure of a cause. But Tocqueville was after more than Jay’s unforeseeable tides or even Huxley’s and Orwell’s futuristic nightmares. He also had in mind the racial mob.

A fairly standard history of literary movements holds that the shock of the French Revolution drove the frantic tone of horror and high gothic fiction, as well as their grim companion genres of science and detective fiction. There’s something to this. Roughly fifty years after the storming of the Bastille, Edgar Allan Poe made major contributions to all four, arguably inventing the last two. Accordingly, Romanticism consists of multiple generations of artists, writers, and philosophers around the Atlantic basin seeking escape in the wake of 1789. This is literal and figurative; it explains both why and what Romantics create. Monsters, vampires, werewolves, zombies, space bugs, and body-snatchers—plagues of the conjured, infected, or mesmerized—are the rebellious masses, and solitary projections of murderous tyrants—Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula—are dragged along by their destructive creations.

Tocqueville reflects this same shift, dreading a style and scale of social rampage now far less dependent on leaders:

Napoleon’s method of conducting a war was suggested to him by the social conditions of his day and succeeded because it was wonderfully suited to those conditions and he was the first man to put it into practice. Napoleon is the first man to have traveled at the head of an army from capital to capital along a route opened before him by the ruins of feudal society. It is permissible to believe that, if this remarkable man had been born three hundred years earlier, he would not have derived the same fruits from this method (DA 2.3.26).

Democracy’s epic metamorphosis into a violent and virulent machine that killed 3.25 to 6.5 million people in 1803–15 is among Tocqueville’s chief anxieties in the second volume on America (see DA 2.3.18–26).

The hyper-racialized Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 was another consequence of the French Revolution, and it profoundly influenced the trajectory of events in the American South. Near the end of his first volume on American democracy, after noting that whites will lose in the West Indies but win on the mainland, Tocqueville qualifies that if the U.S. dissolves, southern whites will be left in a difficult spot. He drops here a curiously inverted analogy between Dixie and early modern Spain:

Perhaps then the southern whites will suffer the same fate as the Moors in Spain. After occupying the region for centuries, they will end up by withdrawing gradually to the country which their ancestors left previously and will abandon to the Negroes the ownership of a land which Providence appears to have destined for them since they live and work there without difficulty and more easily than the whites (DA 1.2.10).

Every major essay, poem, novel, or story by Poe gathers depth and momentum in light of Tocqueville’s remarks about what goes unspoken among southern whites circa 1835. Thanks to the French count, Poe’s literary universe now glimmers with the stalking moral psychology of Dante’s Hell. Every fissure, every shadow, every species of victim, every rat, cat, monkey, bird, or bat, every shiver, every bell, every whisper, every ocean swell, every corpse of a woman, every rival soul, every clouded mountain or night sky, and surely now every inquisitorial agent, is infused with the agonizing specter of race:

The threat of a struggle, more or less distant yet inevitable, between the whites and the blacks in the South of the Union, constantly haunts the imaginations of Americans like a nightmare. Every day, northerners talk of these dangers even though they have nothing directly to fear from them. They seek in vain for some means of averting the calamity they foresee. In the southern states, everyone is silent; no one talks about the future to strangers; they avoid discussing it with their friends; each man virtually conceals it from himself. This silence in the South has something more frightening about it than the noisy fears of the North (DA 1.2.10).

Poe’s genius was his ability to mesmerize his readers by using phantasmagoric stories to scratch at their most self-censored moral predicament.

Today, waves of human masses heave algorithmically via cable news, podcasts, and social media, so our revolutionary nightmares turn out more of a science fictional mob than a racialized one. But the effect is the same. In a technologically driven environment, plagues and elections still reveal our crisis-oriented tendency to identify with one side or the other and pursue our rivals well beyond the city walls. Surely, we can agree that our personal demons and shared monsters reemerged over the past five years in shockingly familiar ways.

The good news is that given such a stormy environment, the fading credibility of the racist label likely signals its demise. In the 1950s, German-American sociologist Eric Hoffer mused about the organic lifespans of political movements. Grassroots struggles surge to achieve a mission, but then they forsake their original fervor and values, coopt traditional institutions, and fade back into the status quo. In the end, rebels train litmus testers, heroic passion is consumed by bureaucratic resentment, and fundamental virtues sublimate into empty political jargon. Journalists Heather Mac Donald, James Lindsay, Christopher Rufo, Phillip Magness, and Asra Nomani have documented CRT as the exhausted issue of a failing, late-stage con.

But its unconscious and group dimensions mean that exposing the corruption of CRT may not eliminate it right away. Moreover, the movement has insinuated itself into the armed forces, corporations, the mainstream media, teachers’ unions, tech companies, HR departments, and academia generally, perhaps most critically journalism and education programs. So, we should expect sociopolitical and institutional discomfort to surround CRT going forward.

Our system works, however, by harnessing democracy’s overly egalitarian outbursts with reason, which in theory enough of us will imbibe if given time. The downside is that we seem always to surf along the edge of a crisis driven by the existential paradox of our politics. Can our patriotic zeal or national honor sustain a system created to wreck the effects of our shared enthusiasms? Jay knew democracies can’t avoid social tides. What really matters, then, is our response to bad ideas like witch trials, racism, slavery, colonial wars, or red scares. To the degree that democracies work by restricting fanaticisms to minority cross-sections of society such that they eventually get derailed or peter out, we should be trying to sustain and discover old and new mechanisms, procedures, dialogues, perspectives, and coalitions that can reduce our collective spasms and restore the virtue of liberty to the public square.

The neoracist aim of CRT misses the mark, I think, but its point of departure seems about right. I say this because I study the literature and history of another culture that has dealt with similar problems on multiple occasions. Major texts in a crucial phase of the evolution of narrative fiction in Spain from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century include: Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (publ. Seville 1513, Zamora 1536 and 1539, Medina del Campo 1543, Antwerp 1551), Diego Hurtado de Mendoza’s Lazarillo de Tormes (c.1550), Don Juan Manuel’s El conde Lucanor (publ. Seville, 1580), Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605/15) and El coloquio de los perros (1605), Juan Rodríguez Freyle’s El Carnero (1636–38), and María de Zayas’s Desengaños amorosos (1647). Slavery and race figure conspicuously in these texts. Michel Foucault interpreted Diego Velázquez’s Las meninas (1656) as echoing the philosophical subversiveness of Cervantes’s great novel. Here’s another example, only the subversive continuities relate specifically to the themes of race and slavery:

Diego Velázquez, La cena de Emaús (1618)

Velázquez strings together allusions to racial contrasts through a series of white objects occupying the foreground of an otherwise dark scene, except for a tablecloth and a halo in the background. La cena de Emaús alludes to mestizaje, or “racial mixing,” via a pestle and mortar, an overturned jug, and a hammered golden bowl balanced oddly next to a white rag on a table in the foreground of a Mediterranean kitchen. The white trim of the young woman’s dark clothing insinuates similar combinations. The conceptual mise en abyme of the apostle Luke, who was also a painter, seeing Christ resurrected for the first time near the vanishing point is an exquisite detail of the Dublin version (c.1618). Translation: Can we now see the sacrificial victim that yet another Christian painter has produced for us? On the other hand, the Chicago version (c.1622) is clearly superior in its technical attention to light bouncing off shiny objects. Again, form reveals didactic function: Can viewers see the emerging meanings of lighter and darker people in society?

In early modern Spain, the themes of slavery and race collide upon Philip II’s annexation of Portugal in 1580, which included an extensive and lucrative transatlantic trade in black African slaves centered on Lisbon. In this light, these two paintings by Velázquez are remarkable combinations of still life, hagiography, realist portraiture, and sociopolitical criticism. This level of generic coordination echoes Cervantes’s insertion of the Micomicón fantasy among the pastoral, urban, and autobiographical tales of Don Quijote, and also the biting wit of El coloquio de los perros. Like Montaigne’s essays, Cervantes’s fiction and Velázquez’s paintings circle problems, gesturing at what novelist Javier Cercas calls el punto ciego—“the blind spot”—that obvious, yet from some vantage still unaddressable, question at the heart of a serious work of art.

Antonio Ciseri, Ecce homo (c.1871–91)

If we expand the early modern period from 1300 to 1900 and limit it geographically to the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean, race and slavery are still core themes in the area’s greatest books. In the subfield of American Studies, for instance, to read Robinson Crusoe (1719), The Federalist Papers (1787–88), Democracy in America (1835/40), “The Gold-Bug” (1843), Moby-Dick (1851), Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1852), or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in the absence of race would be dysfunctional and depressing. One way or another, these texts are all telling us that the early American Republic could not avoid the abolition of race-based chattel slavery.

Conservatives should find it unobjectionable that such texts lose their beauty and genius when held apart from slavery and race. Moreover, they indicate the consequential liberty and equality extended by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 and by Imperial Law number 3,353 (the “Golden Law”) signed by Brazilian Princess Isabel of Bragança in 1888. Just so, both echoing and inverting how Velázquez’s La cena de Emaús criticizes race-based slavery in early modern Habsburg Spain and Portugal, the monumental perspective of Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce homocelebrates a new liberating force in late-nineteenth-century America.

Ciseri’s approach to John 18:38–19:16 unveils, unravels, and reorients a theological dilemma at the core of modern constitutional liberalism. Between others’ robes of red and dark blue, an almost diaphanous Pontius Pilate gestures at the first consequences of a people’s preference for sacrifice in lieu of traditional property law. The mob chose: “‘Not this man but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.” And that choice has now set in motion the abolitionist and suffragette movements at stage right, where a black man and a woman dressed in darker scarlet exchange a scroll along an emerging diagonal which turns clandestinely into a roll of red fabric. In the other direction, the coiled monument rising up into the sunlight beyond the mob and above Pilate’s head draws our attention to the staggering history of human law that precedes this moment. We might paraphrase Ciseri’s allegory for the change taking place in the United States and Brazil in the latter half of the nineteenth century as follows: “Any law that turns a person into property on account of his race is illegitimate and we should instead consider sacrifice (war, revolution, resistance).”


CRT advocates argue that the U.S. was founded on slavery. The verb “founded” allows fanatics to condemn American society as racist and demand reparations. Bad people and racism exist, but setting aside who are or were the racists, what should be done? We can agree that race has sociopolitical implications but hold that the law should ignore it. We can also agree that the greater question is which policies will solve current or future problems. CRT advocates do not want the law to ignore race, and most are uninterested in solving current or future problems.

When tides appear in democracies, sometimes it’s best to sail into them. CRT advocates are signaling where to change course: education. In the American experience, the mechanism by which to solve a problem is traditionally freedom, and the solution is usually more of something. The Tenth Amendment allows people to manipulate social, legal, and economic parameters and then gravitate toward best practices. We should increase freedom and competition in education at local and state levels, remove certification requirements for teachers with MAs, experiment with vouchers in as many contexts as possible, and trust American citizens to discover better policies and institutions going forward.

In terms of content, conservatives need not overthink their response. Simply execute a better education. Teach American history or government using unobjectionable textbooks as primers for dates, events, actors, laws, sources, etc., and then get straightaway to great texts by Defoe, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Tocqueville, Poe, and Douglass. CRT is already weaker than most realize, and creative destruction doesn’t have to be apocalyptic to work.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Eric Clifford Graf

Eric Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is Anatomy of Liberty in Don Quijote de la Mancha (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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