Other Worldviews

Critical Race Theory: Civil Rights Upside Down

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/01/2021

The newspaper headline read, “Critical Race Theory Coming to a School Near You?” The paper was The Conejo Guardian,[1] the monthly publication of Conejo Valley—the quiet, diminutive basin where I make my home in Southern California, just beyond the teeth of the LA sprawl.

The article was a warning.

Critical race theory (CRT) is coming to a school near you—to your high schools, to your grade schools, even to your elementary schools (the universities have already been thick with CRT for years).

Critical race theory is coming to your public schools, and to your private schools,[2] and has even stolen into some of your Christian schools and churches.[3] And it’s coming to your workplace, too (if it hasn’t already), in the form of “inclusion” or “diversity” training.[4] And, generally, it’s not optional—in school or on the job.

The indoctrination rapidly penetrating all levels of society is controversial, contentious, and divisive—aggressively pitting one group of people against another. It’s also thoroughly political, with the current federal government championing CRT—and legislatively backing it—lock, stock, and barrel.[5]

Regarding the aggressive education efforts in California (and in other parts of the country where CRT is penetrating the educational system), Anna Mussmann warns in The Federalist:

Parents need to understand that behind the waterfall of vocabulary is a militant ideology. When kids are taught to subject all of life to “critical consciousness” in order to find the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” everywhere and at all times, they are taught that the only ultimate meaning in life is power.[6]

As with other efforts with a totalitarian impulse, disagreement is not welcome. Dissenters are frequently treated with disrespect, harassed, and bullied:

Critical race theorists want students to accept the assumption that anyone who fails to swallow these rules wholeheartedly is a tool of oppression. Ultimately, it’s a highly effective way of preventing dialogue and pitting students against students.[7]

The attraction of CRT for people of conscience is its emphasis on “social justice” as an answer to racism. But CRT isn’t your parents’ (or your grandparents’) civil rights movement.

Not MLK’s Civil Rights

I was a senior in high school when Martin Luther King was murdered. It’s a vivid memory for me, as are the civil rights efforts of that time. The movement was a flashpoint for change in a long, ugly, brutal chapter in the American experiment, a test to see if the noble ideals of the Founding Fathers and of the Declaration of Independence would be enjoyed, finally, by all Americans.

That is how Martin Luther King understood civil rights, since he referred to those documents frequently. As a preacher from a long line of preachers, he also based his stand on Scripture. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited the Bible liberally.

In King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” address delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he envisioned a nation where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This famous line reflected a commonsense, liberal (in the best sense), and biblical ethical principle. The most important element uniting every human being—more significant than any differences that divide us—has nothing to do with any incidental physical characteristic. What ought to unite us is our shared and noble humanity.

“Now is the time,” King said, “to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King based his dream—his vision of a just America for every human being—on the reality that we were all brothers fashioned in the image of God.

Frederick Douglass, the eminent 19th-century black abolitionist, wrote these words to his former slave master in September 1848:

I entertain no malice towards you personally. There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege, to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other. I am your fellow man, but not your slave.[8]

Note Douglass’s moral kinship with King. A licensed preacher, Douglass understood that the theological “solid rock” of any appeal to racial justice was that we are each other’s “fellow man,” equally precious in God’s eyes. We are also, I will add, all equally broken at the foot of the cross.

Keep those two things in mind—our universal intrinsic value as one race of human brothers and our universal moral guilt—as we explore the hazardous world of CRT. They are central to everything we need to know when dealing biblically not only with racism, but with all forms of human oppression. They trade on the notion that genuine justice is always grounded in truth, not in power.[9]

King’s principal thrust during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s was undoing segregation—whether on buses (the bus boycotts and the “Freedom Riders”), at lunch counters (Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins), in public schools (Little Rock Central High School), and in higher education (the University of Mississippi).

Those days are over.

Today’s fight against racism lacks King’s noble intention to judge people by their character. In fact, rather than de-racializing our country, the current effort is to re-racialize it. Segregation is everywhere now—in graduations, in classrooms, in clubs, in adoptions—systematically endorsed and promoted by the new anti-racism movement.

There’s one significant difference, though. People of color are not the ones disqualified, disenfranchised, or demonized now. Rather, the ones currently disqualified, disenfranchised, and demonized by CRT advocates are white people. And males. And “heterosexual-normative” people. And “cisgender-normative” people.[10] And, of course, Christians.[11]

The consequences are already tragic. At the moment, racial tensions are the highest they’ve been in the 21st century and continue to intensify.

Ask yourself this question. Regardless of your race, or color, or national or ethnic origin, do you feel more comfortable amidst the ethnic diversity of your community now as a result of the events of the last 15 months, or do you feel less comfortable? The trend does not bode well for our communities.

What is going on?

Word Games

Some sage once observed, “When words lose their meanings, people lose their lives.” Proverbs instructs us, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”[12] In short, words matter.

In 1984, George Orwell’s 1949 classic (and oddly prescient) dystopian vision of future totalitarianism, the manipulation of language became a powerful tool of distortion and deception. Orwell called it “Newspeak” and “doublethink”—deceptive vocabulary that citizens of Oceania were socialized by peer pressure to adopt. Some refer to it as “doublespeak”—clever efforts to purposefully distort, obscure, and euphemize ideas or behaviors, masking their otherwise objectionable, unappealing, or even vile qualities. Orwell’s Animal Farm slogan “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is a case in point.

In both works, Orwell was lampooning Soviet totalitarianism. Rod Dreher reminds us of “the Marxist habit of falsifying language, hollowing out familiar words and replacing them with a new, highly ideological meaning.”[13]

The Third Reich did it, too. Segments of the population who were “impaired” were described in German as “lebensunwertes leben,”[14] literally “life unworthy of life.” Thoroughly cleansing the European continent of Jews was called the “Final Solution.”

There is a lesson here for us that we have not learned well, especially the younger adults in our communities: Beware deceptive political euphemisms.

In its current course towards totalitarianism, the Left has shown itself a master at manipulating language. “Antifa,” for example, despite its own fascistic behavior, stands for “anti-fascist.” Who could argue with that? The noble name “Black Lives Matter” makes the organization virtually unassailable regardless of its views. “Social justice” is, well, justice, isn’t it?

“Liberals today,” Rod Dreher observes, “deploy neutral sounding, or even positive, words like dialogue and tolerance to disarm and ultimately defeat unaware conservatives” (emphasis in the original).[15]

The manipulation of language is characteristic of totalitarian movements. This is especially true with the retooling of “connotation” words—words like “tolerance” or “racism” that have a certain feel to them. Their rhetorical force remains even when the words themselves are subtly redefined and pressed into service for different ends.

To that point, a significant shift has taken place between the civil rights language of the ’60s and the rhetoric of today’s “anti-racism” and “anti-white supremacist” CRT movement. That shift in language also signals a shift in substance.

The operative words sixty years ago were bigotry, racism, prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. Each had a particular meaning—a commonsense definition that resonated with ordinary moral intuitions. Each was connected to the other in a series of cascading vices terminating in terrible injustice: treating our human brothers made in the image of God in a way that denied their inherent dignity and value.

Bigotry was the first step, an individual character flaw of “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself”[16] (intolerance, here­­­—understood in the more classical sense vs. the postmodern version—meant “unwilling to grant equal freedom and protection especially in religious matters or other social, political, or professional rights”).[17] Bigotry festers into an unreasonable contempt or even hatred for individuals of a group that’s defined by amoral qualities or characteristics like skin color, ethnicity, or gender.

Bigotry is an ugly vice in individuals—a kind of personal pride or arrogance, an I’m-better-than-you conceit—but it’s deeply dangerous on a wider cultural scale, where it often develops into racism.

Racism was a familiar term in the 20th century—indeed, it was national policy for two great powers that dragged the world into global war. It’s “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (emphasis added).

In racism, then, one “race” is above the rest—Aryans and Japanese, to give two classical examples—superior (allegedly) in extrinsic capabilities, and therefore having superior intrinsic value. All others are inferior.

Racism is bigotry writ large. It is deeply vile and degrading, denying the intrinsic value of every human being based on irrelevant extrinsic differences of groups of human beings.

The sense of racial superiority in racism becomes the breeding ground for prejudice, a “preconceived judgment…without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge…an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, or [a] race.”

Prejudice is evil because it ascribes vice to others based on factors unrelated to anything genuinely moral. A Jew, for example, was “pre-judged” as vermin in the Third Reich simply because he was Jewish, completely unrelated to any individual vice. In America, blacks were demeaned, judged by the color of their skin rather than by the content of their character—the antithesis of King’s dream.

Racial prejudice inevitably results in discrimination against those groups considered ethnically inferior. The root concept merely means “to distinguish between” and could be a virtue or a vice, depending. Practiced properly, discrimination is benign (consider the thoughtful “discriminating” person). It’s an evil, though, when one discriminates “to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit.” This is invidious discrimination—an arbitrary and irrational bias that disenfranchises whole groups of people without legitimate justification.

Segregation, the “separation or isolation of a race, class, or ethnic group,” is an application of invidious discrimination and the final consequence in this chain of civil rights evils. It is racism in action, bigotry in applied practice. “Whites Only” policies of the early ’60s and before, for example, restricted patronage in restaurants, seating on buses, the use of bathrooms, and access to housing and education, to name a few of the common cultural discriminatory disgraces of the time.

Bigotry, racism, prejudice, discrimination, and segregation comprised the chain of evil, the rogue’s list of social iniquities that activists addressed in the ’60s. Individual bigotry led to corporate racism that resulted in a generalized prejudice against blacks. The result was in an illicit discrimination against those in the group who were not treated equally under the law. Instead, they suffered the indecency of segregation.

That was the program of a bygone era. That quest for racial justice, though, is behind us, and a new wave has arrived bearing little moral kinship to the noble efforts of the past. Many of the original words remain, but they have been invested with new meanings and endowed with new values.

Bare-Bones CRT

First, some concerns. Critical race theory is a complex, controversial subject covering a variety of overlapping disciplines with plenty of variety in the ranks. Thus, any treatment of it—especially a general one—can easily be misunderstood or characterized as an oversimplification or a misrepresentation, so please note these two qualifiers.

One, there is a difference between CRT as an explanatory paradigm (remember, the “T” stands for “Theory”) and racism as a reality. Classically understood, racism is a kind of group bigotry. CRT, by contrast, looks at power structures in cultures to explain why that bigotry and the inequity it causes exist and how they operate within social structures.

It may be that CRT fails as a theory when closely examined. That does not mean racism doesn’t exist, though, but only that CRT does not describe the dynamic of racial oppression well.

An illustration might help. Marxism characterized economic exploitation as a class struggle between the working-class proletariat and the capitalistic bourgeoisie. Marx believed it would inevitably lead to revolution, with workers taking over the means of economic production. This, of course, never happened as Marx envisioned, and most consider Marxism a failed project. This does not mean, though, that worker exploitation didn’t exist during Marx’s time. It did, in abundance.

In the same way, CRT may fail to describe the dynamic of racism in our midst or offer a sound antidote to it. That does not mean racism doesn’t exist in America. It does, but it’s a separate issue and must be assessed on separate grounds.

Two, this piece is not so much a critique of CRT as it is a clarification of its basic elements, a comparison between it and the ethics of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, and a caution regarding its totalitarian tendencies.

Totalitarianism, as the word implies, is total. It’s an ideology, Rod Dreher writes, that “seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions…bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality” (emphasis added).[18]

CRT, I am convinced, is like that, offering a comprehensive understanding of reality and giving no quarter to the opposition. It is also rooted in relativism, holding that “objective knowledge—that which is true for everyone, regardless of their identity—is unobtainable, because knowledge is always bound up with cultural values.”[19] I have argued that human lives will be ruled by one of two fundamental forces: truth or power. When objective truth is denied (i.e., relativism), then power alone remains and tyranny follows.

Now to the bare bones.

Critical race theory starts with an assumption. CRT assumes “racism is normal and permanent, and the problem is primarily that people—particularly white people—are failing to see, acknowledge, and address it…. We are to assume that racism is always taking place and our job is to examine situations for evidence of it” (emphasis added).[20]

Author Carl Trueman agrees. CRT, he writes,

is self-certifying. Its basic claims, for example, that racism is systemic or that being non-racist is impossible, are not conclusions drawn from arguments. They are axioms, and they cannot be challenged by those who do not agree with them. Those who ­dissent or offer criticism are, by definition, part of the problem.[21]

The assumption in CRT that racism is basic to culture is a bedrock assumption—obvious, self-evident, and indisputable. Differ, and you’re “part of the problem.” Four central elements of contemporary critical race theory rest on that foundation.[22]

The Social Binary—Humankind is divided broadly into two groups, the oppressed and the oppressors. Dominant groups in power subjugate groups along lines of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, etc. The power abusers in the West have been white, male, heterosexual, and cisgendered—and Christians, I might add, when believers stand for classical Christian morality.

Oppressor guilt or victim status is assigned not on the basis of individual conduct or experience, but on group identity (thus the rise of “identity politics”). A white, heterosexual male, then, is an oppressor by definition, while a black, lesbian college professor is oppressed—again, by definition. However, members of oppressor groups who get “woke”—awakened, enlightened, and sympathetic to CRT’s take on racial injustice—get a pass as allies. Minorities who side with the oppressors, though, are condemned along with them.

Oppression through Ideology—Classically, oppressors were characterized by behavior that was cruel, coercive, and abusive. In CRT, oppressor groups maintain privilege and dominance because they have the power to impose their ideology on subordinate groups. Appeals to “objective,” “universal,” and “commonsense” beliefs and values—even when unwittingly accepted by the subjugated group—are nothing more than power plays conveyed through cultural structures weighted in favor of oppressors. Since these patterns of power and domination are built into cultural systems, racial oppression is said to be “systemic.”

Lived Experience—According to this concept, the distinctive experiences of oppressed people give them privileged access to truths about their oppression. Oppressor groups, on the other hand, do not see their abuses accurately because their privilege blinds them.

Only those abused by the system know the truth about the system’s abuses. Thus, the experience of the “oppressed” is superior to others’ claims of “objective truth” arrived at through “rational thought”—both phrases part of the so-called “language of oppression.” Simply put, “oppressors” don’t have a place at the table.

“Lived experience” is another example of relativism. The truth of one’s own interpretation of his experience is the only truth that matters. Feeling oppressed is proof of oppression. Since such knowledge is personal and private, it’s not open to challenge, effectively insulating CRT from outside assessment or criticism.

Social Justice—For CRT, liberating oppressed groups by eliminating intolerance and all forms of oppression is the antidote for the wrongs of racism. The goal, of course, is honorable as far as it goes, and many noble Christians are drawn to CRT because of this emphasis. However, “social justice” is not what they think. It’s a term of art dictating the transfer of power based on group identity:

Whereas the Civil Rights Movements worked so well because they used a universalist approach—everybody should have equal rights—that appealed to human intuitions of fairness and empathy, Social Justice uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups—white people are racist, men are sexist, and straight people are homophobic. This explicitly goes against the established liberal value of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality….[23]

Clearly, CRT’s “justice” is not the same as biblical justice, which forbids judging according to group status: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not show partiality to the poor nor give preference to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15).

Further, since social justice is the greatest good, social justice warriors justify acts of violence as a legitimate means to end oppression. “Those who resist social justice,” Rod Dreher observes, “are practicing ‘hate,’ and cannot be reasoned with or in any way tolerated, only conquered.”[24]

Civil Rights Upside Down

In an odd way, CRT has turned the sensibilities of the civil rights movement of the ’60s on its head. Racism is no longer a vice of individuals but rather a corporate abuse of power. Since racism equals prejudice plus power, those lacking power cannot be racist, regardless of their character.

I stumbled on this comment from hip-hop artist Sister Souljah cited in one of my own books over two decades ago:

You can’t call me or any black person anywhere in the world racist. We don’t have the power to do to white people what white people have done to us. And if we did, we don’t have that low-down dirty nature.[25]

Note two things. One, racism is impossible for people who aren’t party to power. Two, by describing whites as having a “low-down dirty nature,” Sister Souljah attributes nefarious characteristics to a group based on their skin color—precisely the view of Aryan racists of the last century.

Are you beginning to see the turn? This kind of judgment is clearly an act of individual bigotry. On a group level (e.g., CRT), it’s racism in the classical sense—judging one ethnicity morally inferior to another. It’s a prejudice since individuals (whites, in this case) are prejudged based on skin color. Discrimination against individuals in the inferior group is then justified as well as segregation to give preferential treatment to members of the previously oppressed group.[26]

So, CRT starts with bigotry and ends with segregation—the same cascade of evils the ’60s civil rights movement fought against. Those who oppose it are denigrated, belittled, shamed, and silenced—discriminated against simply because they’re white or side with those who are. The oppressed become the oppressors—evidence of our universal moral brokenness. This is the face of the new civil rights movement.

Racism remains an intolerable evil. What, though, is that evil, precisely? What makes racism wrong? Racism judges people unjustly—not on their character, but on the color of their skin. It treats valuable human beings made in the image of God in an inhumane, unjust, and oppressive manner.

That is the evil of racism, and it is evil no matter who practices it. The injustice of racism must be addressed, but you cannot fight injustice with injustice. Bigotry by any other name is still bigotry. It is still evil. It is still sin. And no Christian should participate in it, condone it, or champion organizations that do.

There is only one basis for our common unity: our common humanity. There is only one foundation for universal respect and justice: the intrinsic value of each human being made in the image of God. There is nothing else adequate to unite us, and there is nothing else adequate to protect us.


[1] The Conejo Guardian, May 2021.

[2] Note Bari Weiss, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” City Journal, March 9, 2021, https://www.city-journal.org/the-miseducation-of-americas-elites.

[3] Carl Trueman, “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” First Things, February 2021, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2021/02/evangelicals-and-race-theory.

[4] Jonathan Butcher and Mike Gonzalez, “Critical Race Theory, the New Intolerance, and Its Grip on America,” The Heritage Foundation, December 7, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/civil-rights/report/critical-race-theory-the-new-intolerance-and-its-grip-america.

[5] Peter Wood, “Biden’s CRT Plan for the schools,” The Spectator, April 23, 2021, https://spectator.us/topic/biden-critical-race-theory-schools-department-education/.

[6] Anna Mussmann, “California’s ‘Ethnic Studies’ Opens Door to Critical Race Theory Indoctrination throughout Public Schools,” The Federalist, April 5, 2021, https://thefederalist.com/2021/04/05/californias-ethnic-studies-opens-door-to-critical-race-theory-indoctrination-throughout-public-schools/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Frederick Douglass, “To My Old Master, Thomas Auld,” https://www.watchtheyard.com/history/fredrick-douglas-letter-to-slave-master-auld/.

[9] Recall the line from “The Primal Heresy” in the March Solid Ground: “Human lives will be ruled by one of two fundamental forces: either truth or power.”

[10] A “heterosexual-normative” person thinks that only heterosexuality is morally proper. A “cisgender” person is one whose gender identity matches their physical sex. “Cisgender-normative” denotes someone who believes gender is not meant to be fluid and diverse.

[11] Christopher Rufo, “Revenge of the Gods,” City Journal, March 10, 2012, https://christopherrufo.com/revenge-of-the-gods/.

[12] Prov. 18:21.

[13] Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies (New York City: Sentinel, 2020), 119.

[14] Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors—Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books/Harper Collins, 1986), 21.

[15] Dreher, 119.

[16] All definitions in quotes are from Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 1965. I’ve used an older source not influenced by current rhetorical trends.

[17] The current postmodern understanding of intolerance is significantly different. See “The Intolerance of Tolerance,” str.org, https://www.str.org/w/the-intolerance-of-tolerance.

[18] Dreher, 7–8.

[19] Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020), 79.

[20] Ibid., 132–3.

[21] Carl Trueman, “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” First Things, February 2021, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2021/02/evangelicals-and-race-theory.

[22] I’m indebted to Dr. Neil Shenvi for this general outline of CRT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E33aunwGQQ4. Also, find short, animated Colson Center infographics on CRT here https://youtu.be/DAABuCC96tI and here https://youtu.be/7rQve0x4aNE.

[23] Pluckrose and Lindsay, 261.

[24] Dreher, 61.

[25] Beckwith and Koukl, Relativism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 101.

[26] Alice Yin, “Mayor Lori Lightfoot Chooses Only Reporters of Color for Interviews,” Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2021, https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-lori-lightfoot-interviews-journalists-of-color-20210519-o6g2ksmaxjditmdainrfvrviia-story.html.