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Orange is the New White
Q: Is Critical Race Theory dangerous?
Obviously anything can be dangerous if it is not handled gracefully & intelligently. Critical Race Theory, Christianity, Communism, Materialism, Idealism, Buddhism, etc. It’s a matter of hownotwhat. So let’s start by generously assuming that we all understand this point — that smart use of poison can be healthy and wrong use of essential vitamins can make you sick.
Then where do we go?
I think we would be foolish not to try to widely and deeply teach each other a more complex understanding of history. And, as people become naturally ready, they would practice the skills that empower a healthy, progressive critique of the systems in which we are embedded. One you have learned how soccer is played, you can move on to intelligently explore the consequences of playing on a sloped field. A generous reading of CRT is simply that it is trying to help with this. However, there appear to be two problematic processes that inhibit this potential benevolence:
Firstly, we have organized groups of pseudo-conservatives who are colluding to produce yet another faddish cultural boogeyman who bears very little resemblance to the actual situation — and which will be replaced, before long, with yet another wave of hysteria against the phantasmal forces of godless socialism on the march!
Secondly, of course, we have reactionary liberals in our homes, school systems, libraries and boardrooms who are fragile and hysterical about the specter of bias and racism lurking in all kinds of normal human activities. These virtue-signaling, hand-wringers have an exaggerated, mythic notion of group identities and suggestive every kind of conformist and unproductively suppressive response to the mere possibility of disrespect and disadvantagement in human culture.
These two, although they probably vote differently, strike me as largely the same kinds of people. Neither seems to have much insight into Critical Race Theory.
The title Orange is the New White is — besides being a nod to the television program “Orange in the New Black” — a phrase I use often to point to the critique of modernity (classed fancifully as “Orange” in both Spiral Dynamics & Integral Theory) that I think underlies the critique of inter-racial dynamics. In alignment with CRT, I tend to think that the organization of ethnicity into Black and White is largely false, misleading and operates to preserve the dominance of a particular kind of cultural operating system. Our laws, media and economic habits don’t reflect racial polarization — they produce it.
As far as I’m concerned, the serious critical argument about race is NOT that white folks exist and they have been manipulating laws and economies to benefit themselves disproportionately compared to black folks (who also really exist). The argument is that our laws and economies are manipulated in order to produce the artificial categories of “whiteness” and “blackness” and the shifting inequity of their relationship.
Although we tend, rightly, to associate racism with the historical culture of ethnocentric kingdoms (in which simple visual categorization, heredity, meta-tribes, exploitive caste dynamics, etc. are quite normal), we should not therefore believe the "modern” hype that freedom, individualism, fairness and color-blind humanitarianism naturally characterizes the inter-national, industrial-scale machinery of civilization that expanded to dominate the Earth after the 16th and 17 centuries. When Americans discuss the legacy of slavery, for example, it is a phenomenon of the last few hundred years — not a relic of the distant past. It is part of the new set-up.
The ideology of modernity, inter alia, seems to propose that we are radically free to be individual entrepreneurs, investors and consumers. And, no doubt, there has been an increase of certain freedoms — but we cannot stop our investigation as this superficial layer. What happens over time as this system is implemented? Is there a set of regularly recurring structures which — like the patterns into which a hidden magnet directs random iron filings — tend to appear when you run this program for a while?
I am fairly comfortable with the argument that modern systems (whether American, Chinese, Russian, South African, Iranian, etc.) are hegemonic. What I mean is that a particular way of doing things is privileged, defended and implemented by violence if necessary. It is embodied in certain classes of people who are maximally advantaged by the current way of doing business and who, treated as “meritorious,” are empowered to distort social habits further in their own favor. This oligarchic class is much more mixed, fluid, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered than in traditional societies but it is not decisively fair and democratic. It does not, over time, naturally gravitate toward general wellbeing, freedom, reason and innovation (even though that forms part of its aspirational rhetoric).
This hegemony is served by a relatively conformist managerial class who negotiate a mainstream consensus in media, politics, military and business communities. It is also protected by what I might call a cultural “shield.” This shield takes many forms but one prominent version is the racial shield.
The racial shield is an ongoing friction between an artificial racial group who enjoys certain cultural advantages regardless of their actual wellbeing and one or more other artificial racial groups who contest that status. In the United States, this typically takes the form of White/Black.
The structural imbalance of the racial shield is analogous to the many forms of polarized structural imbalance that characterize the operational machinery of modernity (from the flow of electrons between the terminals of a battery, to the alternation of the “two major parties,” to the legal disputes between prosecutor and defender, etc.). Although our medieval ancestors knew very well how to harness a waterwheel, the rise of the new culture in the last few centuries was accompanied by a massive proliferation, spoken and unspoken, of schemes in which an imbalance is found (or created) and then the efforts to correct the imbalance are harnessed for utility or profit.
To be a little flippant, if you find yourself on the “side” of either the positive or negative terminal of the battery then you are almost certainly being exploited for the production of electrical current.
If you find yourself promoting or opposing CRT then…?
You could argue that the Middle East is a real thing — an actual geographic, cultural and climactic region. The nation of Iraq, however, is a completely artificial entity created for the profit and convenience of large modern nations who invented its borders — and guaranteed an ongoing ferment of cultural struggle. This is very similar to what CRT critiques.
"Whiteness” and “Blackness” are not actual ethnicities. It is very strange that we have come to accept, in our conversations, that an albino Icelander and a swarthy, sun-drenched Romanian thousands of miles away belong in the same category. Likewise, what do the darkest South Africans and the lightest Tunisians have in common? The habit of grouping these diverse lineages and cultures into the White/Black polarity should strike us as highly suspicious and not at all respectful to our actual heritage and ancestry. These are recent, modern and unnatural groupings.
An American law forbidding “inter-racial marriage” does not extend a natural antagonism between two races but, rather, leverages both language and law to create the false appearance to TWO polarized, homogenous, racial options upon which we are, apparently, supposed to project our natural antagonisms and/or struggle against them.
Now, it may sound like I am (and I am!) being very supportive of a particular kind of abstractly generalized CRT. However, we should make sure that we incorporate the legitimate — although usually clumsy, self-thwarting and mixed in with all kinds of regressive nonsense — concerns of its opponents.
I think there are two primary issues.
The first, perhaps the least significant, is the feeling that there is something deeply incorrect about any analysis which suggests the system is set up to benefit and express the belief in white superiority. This is a slippery distinction. I think people are correct when they intuit an error in this matter. The system is set up to benefit some people, and certain procedures, over others by creating a white/black differential in statistical outcomes. It generates certain kinds of white superiority rather than reflecting certain kinds of white superiority. The system is making, rather than expressing or protecting, an imbalance. It doesn’t give a damn about who is winning and losing — it just needs winners and losers. Over time and across different nations, the same pattern will play out using different winners and different losers.
The second, more pertinent, issue the problem of critical depression.
We could also call this the problem of pride. Many of the vocal critiques of (what they imagine to be) CRT are concerned that it is teaching people to hate themselves and feel bad about their history. What does that mean?
It means that:
(a) they sense that it is important to feel good about yourself, your people & your history — especially when learning about it
(b) they have associated themselves with a particular racial construct and mythic version of history.
My view is that we need to champion (a) while learning to feel beyond (b). I don’t think the deeper study of more complex history should make people feel bad. Truth should be edifying, strengthening, interesting — these are pleasures. Even the acknowledgement of tragedies and complexities should make you feel good. Otherwise you are fragile.
But is it “white fragility?”
Therein lies the rub because, once you have accepted your identification with the artificial modern categories of racial discourse, you transfer your natural human need for pride and ancestry, into this falsehood. Then any threat to the falsehood seems like a threat to your self-esteem and normal veneration of lineage (both its flaws & virtues).
Once you accept, from all kinds of constantly repeated (and systemically enshrined) background signals, that you belong to a “race” — then you have very little choice but to defend that category against all real and symbolic attacks.
So I suppose that I’m saying that, at the level of perspective from which CRT becomes really useful and benign, we also have to think about securing our pride and ancestry from these artificial racial constructs generated by typical modern legal and economic habits. We have to tease these apart. We have to start helping people “feel good” about something else. You should take pride in your ancestors, whoever they were, but not because they were “white God-fearing Americans.” Perhaps they were weird, Franco-Irish migrants with a penchant for occult rituals? Who knows. The point is that there are many more accurate, natural, pluralistic and idiosyncratic forms of personal, familial and cultural enjoyment that operate outside of the socially constructed systematization of white/black (or whatever the dominant racial polarization of your particular modern state happens to be).
CRT operates at a postmodern level of consciousness. It involves critical perception into the elements of modern systems that are hidden from the participants within those systems. It cannot be properly implemented by people who are modern or traditional in their behavioral and affective styles. It is pointing toward a reality that is not one on of the “sides” but rather which undermines the those identities and looks past the conscious attitudes of individuals as the primary causal drivers of social outcomes. And it requires, in order to manifest gracefully, an affirmation of the positive experience of critical analysis as well as a shift toward forms of pride and lineage that are not defined by the conventional polarized terms of the hegemonic modern discourse.
Now if only I could turn all of that into a soundbite…