A Closer Look at an Increasingly Popular Claim
From CFBU: In our view, the legacy and person of MLK is complicated. While the machine of Big Eva seems to revere him uncritically, our position is more nuanced. If nothing else, MLK's work is historically important and deserves to be studied in its own right. There are aspects of MLK's theology that are sound, and others that ought to be considered heretical. We discuss this issue in a short video linked at the end of the post. We also think legitimate questions can, and should, be raised related to his social theology. In this post, Dr. Aaron Preston addresses one particular question related to MLK. This is not an exhaustively complete comment on every aspect of MLK's ideology or complex legacy.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022, the Los Angeles Times published an op ed by Kimberlé Crenshaw claiming that Martin Luther King Jr. “was, in fact, a critical race theorist before there was a name for it.”
Crenshaw bases this audacious claim on the single fact that, like contemporary critical race theorists, King acknowledged a persistent, structural or systemic dimension to racial inequality in the United States. But this is an extremely weak basis for classifying King as a critical race theorist, for two closely related reasons: first, Critical Race Theory (CRT) involves a great deal more than this single point, and there are good reasons to suppose that King would have disagreed with much of the rest of CRT’s theoretical platform; second, it is unlikely that King understood even this single point in the same way that proponents of CRT do.
Unpacking these claims will take a considerable amount of space—more than anyone wants to read in a single blog post. So I will unpack them over the course of several. In this post, my aim is to elaborate on the nature of CRT, as well as on King’s fundamental theological and philosophical commitments. This will set the stage for further comparisons showing that, while King did agree or likelywould have agreed (had he lived longer) with some aspects of CRT, he also would have had substantial disagreements with CRT that would have prevented him from identifying as a “critical race theorist.”
A Brief Overview of Critical Race Theory
First, what is it to be a critical race theorist? Obviously, it is to endorse all or most of what CRT teaches, and to accept the resulting theoretical framework as one’s primary framework for understanding the phenomenon of racial inequality. Among those who identify as critical race theorists, there is not perfect unanimity concerning CRT’s core teachings, but there is a great deal of overlapping agreement. In their widely read Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic identify six commonly accepted “basic tenets” of CRT (see pages 8–11):
(1) The ordinariness of racism: the view that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational . . . the usual way society does business . . ..” This implies that “racism is difficult to address or cure because it is not acknowledged.”
(2) Interest convergence, and material determinism: According to CRT, “our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group. . . . Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it.” The terms “interest convergence” and “material determinism” speak to the (rare) conditions under which the reverse is true. “Interest convergence” is Derrick Bell’s term for the idea that progress toward racial equality occurs only when it serves the interests of whites—that is, when their interests converge with those of non-whites. “Material determinism” adds to this the view that the interests in question will inevitably concern dimensions of material well-being, so that progress occurs only if whites see the change as contributing to their own material well-being.
(3) The social construction of race: CRT “holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient. People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment, are dwarfed by what we have in common, and have little or nothing to do with distinctly human, higher-order traits, such as personality, intelligence, and moral behavior.”
(4) Differential racialization: As an extension of (2) and (3), CRT “writers in law, as well as in social science, have drawn attention to the ways the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market . . ..”
(5) Intersectionality and Antiessentialism: Intersectionality is the view that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity,” and that “[e]veryone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.”
A related term is “antiessentialism.” Since the time of Aristotle, an essence has been understood as a set of attributes that defines what it is to be an entity of a certain type—animal, vegetable, mineral, human, black, white, male, female, etc. There are two basic reasons for postulating essences in this sense, and both have to do with fundamental sameness in the face of superficial differences. First, individuals remain fundamentally the same through many types of change: the apple remains an apple though it changes from green to red; the human remains a human though its height, weight and hair color may change over time. The essentialist understands this in terms of the essence, or essential attributes, remaining the same, while other, non-essential attributes change. Second, entities naturally fall together into types or kinds or categories like “apple” or “human.” They may differ in many ways, as human beings differ in height, in weight, and in the color of hair, eyes and skin. Nonetheless, the essentialist recognizes a naturally-occuring fundamental sameness beneath the differences. Despite differences in the color of hair, eyes or skin, all humans are fundamentally the same, and this sameness is what makes them all human. Antiessentialism denies that there are essences in this sense: there are no, naturally-occuring, fundamental types or categories that can serve to define one’s fundamental and unitary “identity.” Likewise, someone may be a member of a certain category, but this does not imply that they share any fundamental attributes with other members of that category.
(6) “Unique voice of color” (a.k.a standpoint epistemology): “Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.”
The reason this final tenet stands in tension with antiessentialism is that, in practice, it tends to be deployed in ways that suggest all people belonging to a given category speak with one voice, on the basis of a universally shared experience. This is pretty close to assuming that there is an “essence” to, for instance, “being black,” or “the black experience.” But, given antiessentialism, there can only be many differing “black (etc.) experiences” exhibiting, at best, a range of overlapping similarities.
There is much more to say before we can offer a final answer to the question, “Was King a critical race theorist?” At this point, however, we can make the following claim with confidence: Crenshaw’s argument for her affirmative answer falls woefully short. Again, she bases her claim on a single point of agreement between King and CRT: the idea that racial inequality has ”structural” or “systemic” roots. This claim isn’t explicitly mentioned in our list of CRT’s basic tenets, but it is pretty clearly presupposed in points (1) and (2): we inhabit a “system of white-over-color ascendancy” in which racism is “the usual way society does business.” But those two tenets also involve other sub-claims, both implicit and explicit. Crenshaw does nothing to show that King endorsed those other sub-claims, let alone any of the other basic tenets of CRT. Thus, Crenshaw has a lot more work to do in order to establish her claim, if it can be established at all.
How Might MLK Have Approached CRT?
Many of the remaining posts in this series will be given to asking, and answering, the questions Crenshaw didn’t bother to ask: How extensive was King’s agreement with CRT? How many of the basic tenets of CRT did King endorse, even implicitly? And did they form King’s fundamental theoretical framework for understanding phenomena such as racism, racial injustice, and racial inequality (which are not necessarily the same thing!)?
This third question can be answered with a definitive “no,” as I will show shortly. But the first two questions are trickier than they may seem. In my estimation, it’s reasonable to believe that King would have agreed with some aspects of each of CRT’s basic tenets. King was a nuanced thinker who made a practice of separating the theoretical wheat from the chaff in everyone he read, from Plato to Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr. For example, in describing his study of Marxism and Communism, King said:
I read Marx as I read all of the influential historical thinkers—from a dialectical point of view, combining a partial “yes” and a partial “no.” In so far as Marx posited a metaphysical materialism, an ethical relativism, and a strangulating totalitarianism, I responded with an unambiguous “no”; but in so far as he pointed to weaknesses of traditional capitalism, contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches, I responded with a definite “yes.”
In the final analysis, King adopted the view of “the late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple,” who “referred to communism as a Christian heresy”:
By this he meant that communism had laid hold of certain truths which are essential parts of the Christian view of things, but that it had bound up with them concepts and practices which no Christian could ever accept or profess. Communism challenged the late Archbishop and it should challenge every Christian—as it challenged me—to a growing concern about social justice. With all of its false assumptions and evil methods, communism grew as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged. [ . . . ] The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’ words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor: he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
I have little doubt that King would have taken a similar approach to CRT, acknowledging its truths and rejecting its errors. But ultimately, I do not believe King would have embraced the label “critical race theorist” any more than he did “Marxist” or “communist.” Rather, he would have incorporated what was true in CRT into a fundamentally different orienting framework, the framework he explicitly endorsed, that of Christian Personalism.
Personalism is a broad tradition of philosophical thought that originated in the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century. In all its major forms, Personalism’s main concern was to defend the primacy of personhood across all categories: personhood is first in the order of being (personhood is the fundamental or ultimate reality), first in the order of knowledge (everything is ultimately to be explained in terms of personhood), and first in the order of value (persons are the most valuable entities in existence).
As one might infer from the idea that ultimate reality is personal in nature, most versions of Personalism were also forms of theism. In fact, Personalism originated in efforts to resist assimilating the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the impersonal “God” of Spinoza and the impersonal “Spirit” of Hegel.
In the middle part of the nineteenth century, the Personalist tradition turned to a defense of finite or created persons (like human beings) against the tendency of Spinozists and Hegelians to treat them as mere parts of a larger whole such as God or the cosmos. Personalism’s central argument was that being mere parts of a larger whole, more or less in the way that fingers and toes are parts of the human body, is not consistent with key features of personhood, such as having one’s own, unique sphere of conscious awareness, and the capacity to initiate one’s own actions (the power of free agency, or “free will”).
King first encountered Personalism as a seminary student, but he studied it thoroughly for the first time as a doctoral student at Boston University, where most of his professors were Personalists. In his first book, King identified Personalism as his “basic philosophical position,” declaring that “Personalism’s insistence that only personality [i.e., personal being, or personhood]—finite and infinite—is ultimately real strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.”
Although King’s views continued to develop through the end of his life, he never disavowed his commitment to Personalism. As we shall see in further posts, King’s Christian Personalism would have put him at odds with CRT at a very deep level - a fact which makes Crenshaw’s claim that King was a critical race theorist highly implausible.
Dr. Aaron Preston is a Professor of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. He is also a member of CFBU’s Academic Advisory Council.
Long-form interview with MLK