Critical race theory’s demonisation bodes ill for social justice research

Right-wing politicians’ caricaturing of a mature research approach is a social dominance power play, says Steve Raven

July 17, 2021
Goldfish staring at black fish in bowl (racism)
Source: iStock

Throughout the pandemic, the UK government’s decision-making has avowedly (if not always entirely accurately) been driven by “the science”. By contrast, the analytical toolkits of social scientists whose focus does not align with Conservative politicians are increasingly being demonised.

White privilege is a prime example. The education select committee’s recent report The forgotten: How White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it claims that this notion is “alienating to disadvantaged White communities, and it may have contributed towards a systemic neglect of White people facing hardship, who also need specific support”.

Putting to one side the education funding debate raised by this report, its focus on white privilege is typical of various reports and statements in which Conservative MPs and ministers have repeatedly taken aim at critical theorists’ tools and concepts – which also include institutional racism and critical race theory (CRT). Regarding the latter, for instance, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch said at a Black History Month debate in Parliament last October that “I want to be absolutely clear that the government stand unequivocally against critical race theory”.

Institutional racism, white privilege and CRT are being caricatured for popular consumption as an existential threat to white people. This reverses the victimhood narrative for political gain (a classic perpetrator’s gambit), deflecting attention from the murky social issues that damage society and that social justice research flags up and to which it suggests effective remedies.

CRT is a mature, criticality guided analytic approach to social research. It initially developed in US legal scholarship as a way to understand the disparities, contradictions and discriminations that were apparent in case law outcomes. One of the dark social phenomena that CRT documents is the pervasively symbolic violence of racialised microaggressions. It has also built evidence of “ingrained learning”, which inculcates in white people (or those who pass as white) a sense of entitlement based on their racialised identity, giving them exclusive access to various activities and options.

White privilege itself entered the academic lexicon through the work of Peggy McIntosh in 1988, as did male privilege. It is a more useful academic concept when hyphenated – “white-privilege” – the hyphen intended to signal all the ways that an individual’s identity of whiteness gives them social advantages. It is not about the advantages of wealth, money, social class or property, and it is not about the imposition of white people’s will (that would be the unhyphenated version). White-privilege is, instead, about the granting of advantage by those who have power.

By ignoring this nuance and silencing social researchers, the politicians obscure their own role in the power dynamics perpetuating racism of all kinds, including institutional racism. This isn’t a purely UK phenomenon, of course. In the US, the hysteria about CRT is even more advanced, and seven states have already passed legislation banning its teaching in schools. This would have a similar effect on the teaching of social science as banning microscopes would have on the teaching of cellular biology, but it serves right-wing politicians’ anti-social-justice agendas.

In the UK, the nadir came in March, when the government-sponsored Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published its report. To the widespread dismay of social justice academics, this failed even to acknowledge the systemic presence of institutional or structural racism. This concept is a central pillar of antiracism research, so the report implicitly questions the credibility of a whole body of evidence that social researchers have painstakingly developed.

For example, Kalwant Bhopal’s 2018 book, White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Age, painstakingly documents the pernicious maintenance of advantage by the enacting of white privilege. Kevin Hylton demonstrates the level of immersion of racist tropes across society in his 2015 paper “‘Race’ talk! Tensions and contradictions in sport and PE”. The seminal 2018 book Dismantling Race in Higher Education, edited by Jason Arday and Heidi Mirza, demonstrates the sector’s whiteness by documenting its systemic institutional racism. David Gillborn’s work on the disparities “race” brings to education further adds weight to the value of critical research.

In the face of such a volume of evidence, parliamentary denial supports Bhopal’s thesis that the post-racial age is indeed a myth.

To deliberately misunderstand the value of tools that provide scientific analysis in an attempt to silence criticality is a social dominance power play. If this is the phase of social policy we are entering, social justice research is in real jeopardy.

Steve Raven is a research assistant at the Centre Global Learning, Education and Attainment (GLEA) at Coventry University and a member of the Inclusive Sport and Physical Activity Research Group at the University of Worcester.

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Reader's comments (1)

True, but also, in the longer historical view, we are all in trouble if the government, establishment, and bulk of the population cannot accept scientific findings. This appears to be an age of denial. The best we can do is keep the scholarship intact and moving forward, even if politics and mass society appear to be determined to reject findings. They can't do so forever.

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