The Bogeyman Term: Critical Race Theory

I am going to update this as the new year continues. I continually read National Review Online, Town Hall, The Federalist, and The American Conservative. What these websites do is function as somewhere between the populist message of conservatism and transmitting ideas to those same populists and conservatives. Rarely, there is an attempt at doing philosophy by conservative philosophers who write in these spaces. Most of the pieces are what you expect from examples of public philosophy. These conservative philosophers don’t ever feel, however, that they need to perform philosophy for the public. They can simply write and cater to the immediate audience of these websites. What this means is that there is no attempt at logical reconstruction of someone’s argument that everyone reading these pieces disagrees with. They can just presuppose the wrongness of some secular, liberal, or Leftist position or -ism. In this way, rarely is their an effort to understand what they are all hating on.

Recently, I have been involved in conversations with conservative academics about how often something called Critical Race Theory is now a bogeyman term. In that light, let me spell out some observations about this term by making an analogy to the term: postmodernism. Both terms are terms of art in academic discourse for those that favor them and those that despise them. Both terms are never truly understood by their sources.

When these terms are discussed in conservative circles, no specific philosophers or social theorists are cited as examples of the bogeyman term: “critical race theory” (CRT hereafter). In the 1980s, it was “postmodernism.” Back then and to this day, nobody in the run of the mill conversations cites Rorty, Baudrillard, Lyotard, or Foucault. Nobody attempts to understand what postmodernism truly means; it’s just okay to be dismissive of it without understanding it. In other words, nobody ties postmodernism to the simulacrum/simulation distinction of Baudrillard, Lyotard’s appropriation of Austin and Wittgenstein and the death of meta-narratives, or how various historical forces and power give rise to historicized discourses in Foucault. Instead, it’s all truth is relative. That’s not the issue at all in these discourses; certainly that’s a logical implication, but not a preoccupation of any of them.

Why do conservatives rally against these terms in the culture wars? It gives something for Conservatives to be all against; it’s a point of messaging and branding. Concerning critical race theory, the fact is that nobody is citing Derrick Bell. Nobody is reading Leonard Harris, Tommy Curry, Martin Luther King, Jr., Benjamin Elijah Mays, Paul Taylor, Lee McBride, George Yancy, Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James etc. Mostly, these conservative bloggers/writers are just agreeing with a propagandistic message that CRT is evil and then they dodge anyone who points out that they as learned philosophers and scholars should be held to a higher standard of what the term actually means. In other words, they are not reading what they disagree with–something in grad school these same scholars weren’t allowed to do, so why should they think it possible to do in these conservative websites.

The lack of charitable presentations with a theory goes all the way back to how blind-sided race discourse is outside academia. As an expression in conservative circles, CRT one can cherry pick your evidence against it too. If someone of the dogmatic woke-ism says something very stupid, a conservative can fetishize that and say that’s part of the stupidity of this term. In this way, CRT is now responsible for a host of things that can serve as a rallying cry for conservativism. CRT gives them something to blame, even though it’s a red herring many times and almost always a strawman. So in the list that follows, I want to document how many times I hear the term, the instances of its mention, and I will pinpoint how often the term is mentioned without being anchored in any philosophical or scholarly work from that tradition. I will post both scholars and more conservative populist authors from these websites.

1. Another Prestigious School Pummeled by Critical Race Theory by Jack Fowler.

In this article, Fowler says:

At its essence, Christianity is a belief in salvation, love, redemption, and forgiveness. At its essence, CRT is about classification, vilification, repudiation, and being unforgiving. How a Catholic institution such as Regis can replace one with the other is a scandal of monstrous proportion and an act of utter sinfulness.

Notice. Fowler doesn’t address any of the jargon in the shared letter to Regis. He simply asserts that it’s jargony and implies disagreement with CRT as a dogma. We don’t even know what he means by this term. Again, CRT serves as a rallying cry. Juxtaposed to Christianity, CRT is unforgiving and vilification. How so? Again, there is no argument here because there is no engagement with any source inside the CRT tradition. There is no nuance.

2. Biden’s Critical Race Theory Two-Step, by Robert W. Merry.

This article talks about CRT in a variety of unflattering ways. Mostly, CRT is engaged with from the work of Christopher Rufo, a conservative journalist and documentary filmmaker that provided research behind Trump’s Executive Order that vilified CRT. As someone who inhabits spaces of the Heritage Foundation and a journalist who should cite their sources, we never get that in the Executive Order or in the quotations Merry pulls from Rufo. Again, there is no engagement with any particular proposition or thesis from a thinker, scholar, or philosopher in the CRT tradition. Instead, Merry is taking issue with some trainings in the Seattle Public Schools. One wonders if they are fair since no evidence of what the trainings contained were provided. What’s clear is that Merry regards CRT as meaning that Whites are implicated in systematic racism such that being white is, then, somehow denigrated and the charge of the fact that CRT is racist on its face is offered as rebuttal to all of CRT as a cultural problem. Consider where Merry sums up at the end,

 The allegation of inherent racism, based on ancestral behavior and feelings and actions of today that get to be defined exclusively by those making the allegations, can have no end in sight, particularly given the growing reality that the forces of critical race theory seem to believe they have whites in the workplace cowed, silenced, on the run.

What makes this maddening is that this ambiguous and vague handling of CRT means it can be whatever you want it to be. So here inherent racism becomes an allegation and racism belongs solely to the past with such a phrase as “ancestral behavior”. The normative position of those offering up an evaluation of the United States is characterized as mere feelings of today are defined by those making the allegation. Well, yes, that is how any normative analysis works. Our feelings tend to pinpoint what ought to be because what ought to be is not in the actual world as it is structured even though we desire the world to be more fair. What we desire reflects what ought to be. The fact that Merry does not see normativity connected to feeling or that somehow CRT means anti-whiteness in the workplace are, of course, strawmanning the position of CRT.

By J. Edward Hackett

J. Edward Hackett, Ph.D is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the United States. He specializes in American Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, and Ethics. He is the author of several books: Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology: An Exploration of Moral Metaphysics (2018), Phenomenology in the 21st Century (2016, coedited with J. Aaron Simmons), House of Cards and Philosophy (2015), and a novel, Flight of the Ravenhawk (2019). Hackett received his Ph.D. in 2013 from Southern Illinois University focusing on phenomenology and pragmatism, and his M.A. in analytic philosophy from Simon Fraser University in 2008. His philosophical work has been translated in Spanish and Russian. Recent work has paid attention to the overlap between Catholic and Methodist personalism in Scheler and Brightman, process metaphysics, the metaphysical underpinnings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the ethics and political philosophy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

2 replies on “The Bogeyman Term: Critical Race Theory”


Wow. Thought I was doing well reading The National Review … can’t imagine reading all those others regularly. As a person who used to read most of those occassionally, I can tell you that they weren’t so thoughtless a decade ago. They’re yet another institution to fall under post-Tea Party influence.

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