The world of American conservatism (and thus also a large segment of the world of American Catholicism) is embroiled in yet another moral panic: this time regarding what is described as Critical Race Theory. What most people mean when they talk about CRT is not specifically the decades-old school of legal theory that goes by that name, but “wokeism” in general, or an approach to racial justice that goes beyond advocating for equality of opportunity and engages with ideas like systemic or structural racism. In past weeks and months we’ve heard many disturbing claims about the implications of CRT, but is there anything truly nefarious behind it? Is it as alien a way of thinking as it is sometimes portrayed?
Amidst all the Tucker Carlson-style fear-mongering about CRT, there is room for real concern. The language of CRT can sometimes cause profound misunderstandings and lead to unnecessary conflict. For instance, the term “white supremacy” in CRT is meant to refer to the privileging of the social construct of “whiteness” and “white” perspectives, and not (necessarily) a racialist philosophy of biological supremacy. When CRT adherents talk about white supremacy in institutions, for example, they are not accusing those representing such institutions of being neo-Nazis or KKK members, but nevertheless such language does not help foster constructive dialogue. Also, some of the intellectual roots of CRT are in critical theory, which in turn has roots in Marx and Nietzsche, and thus within its intellectual matrix there will undoubtedly be points of conflict with Catholic teaching. All this being said, however, if we as Catholics treat CRT as an alien or completely anti-Catholic way of thinking, we risk pushing ourselves into a simplistic reactionary stance and warping our understanding of social justice. We should instead make space for dialogue, since the general categories that CRT uses to describe structural injustice are actually common sense among even many conservative Catholics, although we usually encounter them in very different contexts.
Here is an example to consider which may help those unable or unwilling to engage with CRT. Imagine being a zealous Catholic pursuing a liberal arts education at a major North American university in a subject like Sociology, Psychology, or English. Nobody has questioned you about your religion or would dream of excluding you from the university because of it. However, you soon feel like you don’t fit in. When you express opinions that are rooted in your moral principles as a Catholic, your professors and peers become confused or even irritated. Over time, you come to realize that you are running up against certain ideological norms within academia—largely liberal secular norms, but mixed with some left-wing anti-liberal leanings. It is simply assumed by everyone around you that all intelligent people think this way. You decide to pursue further academic study—again with no anti-Catholic regulations blocking your path—and you realize that these norms persist through graduate school and into award competitions and hiring processes. You understand that your chances of becoming a successful academic are slim if you plan to continue being an uncompromising Catholic—not because others hate Catholics in principle but because your perspective simply doesn’t fit. Looking out at the world, you see that such liberal norms are also reinforced by the university graduates who write opinion pieces for the big newspapers and magazines, or who enter political life. Once you learn to see it, it becomes obvious: nearly all media, institutions, and workplaces enforce these liberal norms. They constitute a default, hegemonic discourse, and to a great extent control what can be thought and said, even if no punitive measures are involved.
You also begin to see examples of legislation or public guidelines that, while ostensibly introduced to ensure equality of access to things like health care or to protect the public, infringe upon religious freedom or in some way disproportionately affect people with particular religious convictions. Fully awake, you now understand how legal and institutional structures, and the discourses that flourish within them and reinforce them, may result in the disadvantaging, exclusion, or even outright persecution of those with differing views or identities. You come to the conclusion that within Western society as a whole, and despite fierce opposition from some quarters, there reigns a single default worldview: “liberal supremacy.”
I’m sure many Catholics will be able to relate, in one way or another, to the somewhat exaggerated example above. Yet some secular liberal folks would laugh at the idea that Catholics suffer from any kind of discrimination! They might even point out that Canada has a Catholic Prime Minister, and the US has a Catholic president. We know, however, that the problem of exclusion of Catholics and Catholic perspectives runs much deeper than this. Despite the presence of Catholics in some positions of power, the legal, institutional, and discursive structures within our societies nevertheless do their work and often make life an uphill battle for those seeking to live by their faith.
In this context, speaking of religious identity, we can think very easily and with a degree of sophistication about the way injustice can become embedded in social, legal, and institutional structures. We understand that hegemonic discourses may shape what can be said and thought, and that processes of normalization may exclude or disenfranchise those who do not fit the norm. Why can’t we do the same when discussing the even more fraught topic of race and how it functions in our societies? Can we really claim that all we have to do is be “colourblind,” point to Martin Luther King and President Obama, and leave it at that, as if the idea of systemic racism is a mere myth?
I offer this as something for Catholics to think about. There are other people who can explain how systemic racism works in our societies much better than I can. All I will say is that we gain nothing from remaining naive about racism, and may lose a great deal. Most of us live in highly pluralistic societies, and the historical processes that brought us here can’t be reversed. We’re all “woke” now, in one way or another, so let’s try talking the same language—one we are already fluent in, even if we don’t always realize it—and engage in the kind of dialogue that can transcend populist fear-mongering.