Part 2: Was MLK a Critical Race Theorist?

Is Christian Personalism Compatible with CRT?

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.


This is the second installment of a series addressing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s claim that Martin Luther King Jr. “was, in fact, a critical race theorist before there was a name for it.”

In the first installment, I made the following main points:

  1. Crenshaw bases her claim on a single point of agreement between King and critical race theory (CRT): both acknowledge a structural or systemic dimension to racial inequality in America.

  2. Being a critical race theorist requires more than this, however. It requires endorsing most or all of what CRT teaches and accepting the resulting theoretical framework as one’s primary framework for understanding the phenomenon of racial inequality.

  3. King’s primary framework for understanding all of reality, including racial inequality, was Christian Personalism, and Christian Personalism is incompatible with many of the tenets and sub-tenets of CRT.

  4. King was a careful and nuanced thinker. His stance on CRT would likely have been similar to his stances on Marxism and communism: it’s likely that he would have agreed with some of its claims, possibly in a modified form adapted to his Christian Personalism, while disagreeing with others and rejecting CRT as a total theoretical framework.

Points 3 and 4 require further elaboration: How is Christian Personalism incompatible with CRT, and what would King have accepted and rejected in CRT?

Personalism: A Brief Review

At the heart of Personalism is the conviction that, as King put it, “only personality—finite and infinite—is ultimately real.” For the Personalists, the term “personality” did not refer to a mere collection of “traits,” as it does in contemporary parlance. Rather, it meant something more like “personhood” or “personal being.” Thus, to say that “only personality ultimately exists” is to say that only persons ultimately exist: the “infinite” personal being of God, and the “finite” personal beings that God created, including but not limited to humans. Non-persons also exist, of course, but from the standpoint of Personalism, everything non-personal is derivative from or dependent on persons for its existence. Hence the late Rufus Burrow, Jr., one of the last to study with some of King’s professors at Boston University, explains that Personalism “maintains that person is ‘the supreme philosophical principle.’ This means that one who is interested in ultimate causes and reasons for things must seek for their explanation in mind or person” (pp. 11-12). This distinctive Personalist perspective on the nature of ultimate reality, and on the structure of ultimate explanations, has significant implications for King’s likely agreements and disagreements with the teachings of CRT.

Essentialism: A Defining Factor for Christian Personalism

To begin with the most fundamental disagreement, King’s Christian Personalism endorses an essentialist view of the human person, while CRT rejects essentialism and substitutes socially constructed, “intersectional” identities for essences. As I explained in Part 1, in philosophy, an essence is basically a set of attributes that defines what it is to be an entity of a certain type, and which serves as the fixed nature of entities of that type. Essentialism is just the view that, in the usual case, entities have essences. Different versions of essentialism are possible. A maximalist version of essentialism would claim that every entity has an essence, while a minimalist version might claim that only those things that are “ultimately real” have essences. These possibilities book-end a range of intermediate positions. For example, it might be the case that only God and God’s direct creations have genuine essences, while human “creations” (inventions, artifacts, etc.) do not.

King’s Christian Personalism committed him to at least a minimalist essentialism which claims that there is an essence to personhood. And the fact that King endorsed a Personalistic version of natural-law theory in ethics suggests that his essentialism was of a more-than-minimal variety, for natural-law theories characteristically ground goodness and rightness in the fixed natures or essences of things. For present purposes, however, I will focus just on King’s essentialism with regard to persons.

The Essence of Personhood: the Basis for Human Dignity

Personalism’s concept of personhood is built from the accumulated insights of western philosophy and Christian theology. In fact, Christian Personalists tend to see their conception of personhood as a philosophical elaboration of what it means to be made in the image of God: to be made in the image of God is to be a created person, and vice-versa. For most Personalists, a person is an individual entity characterized by consciousness, libertarian free will, moral agency, and an array of cognitive and affective capacities capable of yielding self-consciousness, intersubjective awareness, and insight into a broad range of moral and non-moral truths.

Personalism emphasizes interiority and rational moral agency as the heart of personhood. A. C. Knudson, Dean of Boston University’s School of Theology in the generation before King’s arrival, captured the Personalist perspective on interiority when he wrote that “personality . . . implies a certain degree of privacy, and this privacy has about it something sacred. In every person there is a holy of holies, which it would be sacrilegious to invade.”

But Personalism does not take this emphasis on interiority to favor solipsism, subjectivism, or individualism. The capacity to relate to other persons is just as essential to personhood as are interiority and agency. For Christian Personalists, this relational dimension of personhood is deeply connected to God’s nature as a tri-personal being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

These two dimensions of personal existence—the intrapersonal and the interpersonal—are closely related through the ethical dimension of personal existence. It is from the sacred interior space of our private thoughts and feelings that we apprehend the objective moral order in which we exercise our moral agency. Through deliberation, evaluation, and volition, we initiate processes that spill over into outward acts bearing upon other entities, including (and especially) other persons. This ethical dimension of personal existence is so central to Personalism that the late 19th century Personalist Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison said that Personalism “might [also] be described as ethicism.”

On the basis of the capacity for rational moral agency, most Personalists followed Immanuel Kant in attaching a unique and intrinsic worth, or dignity, to persons, a worth that demands to be recognized wherever it occurs, both in oneself and in others. When King said that Personalism gave him “a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality,” this is what he had in mind. King’s insistence on nonviolence and on an ethic of universal agapē-love were grounded in his recognition of the dignity attaching to human beings in virtue of their being persons.

Consistent with the Christian theological heritage of the concept, materiality is not part of the essence of personhood. While human beings are embodied persons, embodiment is incidental to personhood per se. Thus King exclaimed in his 1959 sermon, “The Measure of a Man,”

You look at me and you think you see Martin Luther King. You don’t see Martin Luther King; you see my body, but, you must understand, my body can’t think, my body can’t reason. You don’t see the me that makes me me. You can never see my personality.

Essentialism's Incompatibility with CRT

Such essentialism is contrary to the CRT claims that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity,” and that “[e]veryone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.” Those who read Part 1 will recall that these are the words used by critical race theorists Delgado and Stefanic to explain two of CRT’s basic tenets, antiessentialism and intersectionality. It makes sense to link these, as Delgado and Stefanic do, because once essences are rejected, all that is left to “define” or ground the “identity” of a human being is the multiplicity of socially constructed identities it bears, as captured by the notion of “intersectionality.” But King and the Christian Personalists believed that every human being does have a single, unitary identity grounded in their fixed nature as a person, as an image-bearer of God.

Interestingly, Delgado and Stefanic do not explicitly associate intersectionality with social constructionism. Rather, they list “the social construction of race” as a distinct tenet of CRT. But, in fact, social constructionism pervades CRT thinking about the human self. In his article, “How Critical Race Theory Marginalizes the African American Christian Tradition,” Rutgers Law Professor Brandon Paradise explains that CRT is characterized by at least ten core ideas or tendencies of thought, including constructivist views of the self:

CRT scholars . . . have frequently employed post-structuralist understandings of language—in which language signifies but does not correspond to a reality external to “language games” or discourse—to advance the claim that things such as speech, clothing, and culture (all a part of discourse) constitute race itself and that these, in turn, constitute important aspects of personhood.

In this way, according to CRT, “the human self is constructed out of social practices and performances.” But, as Paradise goes on to argue,

This anthropological premise stands in deep conflict with the African American Christian tradition, which holds that the human being has an eternal self and soul whose dignity consists in its nature as Imago Dei (that is, being made in the image of God).

For King, as we have seen, this theological commitment took philosophical shape in his commitment to Personalism.

Incompatibility of Personalism and CRT

Now, there is no reason that a Christian Personalist like King could not accept some of CRT’s insights about the socially constructed dimensions of the demographic categories we commonly employ, and about the role these categories sometimes play in fostering injustice. Some aspects of race and gender, for instance, really are socially constructed, in the sense that humans regularly graft contingent social norms of thought and practice onto naturally occurring physiological and psychological differences among human beings. And sometimes these contingent social norms are problematic: either intrinsically, or in virtue of their practical consequences, they may fail to do justice to the personhood of those who fall under the relevant categories. Paying attention to these dimensions of human life could very well yield important insights into the causes and possible cures of many of our social ills. Subsumed under Personalistic essentialism, this tenet of CRT could be safely used as an “analytical tool,” which is how CRT is often described by its proponents, including Crenshaw.

However, the problem with CRT is that, by rejecting our essential nature as persons, and by giving exclusive attention to those socially constructed dimensions of human “identity” associated with injustice, it shifts the center of moral gravity away from what unites us and toward what divides us as human beings. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt contrast King’s “common-humanity identity politics” with the “common-enemy identity politics” that has arisen among those who have been deeply influenced by CRT and closely related ideologies. This difference is grounded in the fact that King made our essential nature as persons the focus of his moral vision, while CRT’s focus is on the socially constructed divisions that facilitate injustice.

Because King was an essentialist, he could promote a moral vision focused on an agapē-love that

does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. Therefore, agapē makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. . . . It springs from the need of the other person—his need for belonging to the best in the human family.

Because CRT is antiessentialist, it has no choice but to begin by “discriminating between …people” on the basis of “qualities that [they] possess.” And doing so in an attempt to identify the causes of injustice inevitably leads to discriminating between victims and perpetrators, and hence between “worthy and unworthy people.”

Because King was an essentialist, he could call for “a genuine revolution of values” in which

our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.

This statement comes from King's final book, which ironically is one of the sources Crenshaw cites to show that King was a critical race theorist. But because CRT is antiessentialist, it can only reinforce loyalties along (inter)sectional lines, which naturally tends toward divisive, “identitarian” thinking. One wonders whether, confronted with CRT–inspired “common-enemy identity politics,” King might have updated his statement to read:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than intersectional. Every demographically divided group must now develop an overriding loyalty to humankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual identities. This call for a universal fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all people.

Speculation aside, this much is clear: King was a Christian Personalist, hence an essentialist about persons, including human persons. This commitment to essentialism is a significant point of disagreement with CRT, and one that constrains many of the partial agreements that he had or might have had with CRT teachings. As we have seen, it restricts the extent to which, and the manner in which, King could have appropriated CRT views about social construction and intersectionality. It also has implications for thinking about the systemic dimensions of racial injustice—the sole point of agreement between King and CRT emphasized by Crenshaw. We shall turn to that topic in our next installment.


Dr. Aaron Preston is a Professor of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. He is also a member of CFBU’s Academic Advisory Council.

Additional Resources

Long-form interview with MLK