Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

Progress is possible and hope sheds light

Fresno Bee, July 19, 2020

This may seem an odd time to accentuate the positive. The nation is struggling with a pandemic, protests against racism, political dysfunction, and economic woes. Things could get worse. But when things look dark, it is important to take stock of progress that has occurred.

Science, economics, and the law have created improvements. There are many reasons to believe that things are better today — not perfect, but better.

Our lives are easier today thanks to technologies such as the internal combustion engine, refrigeration, telecommunication, personal computers, and the internet. There are downsides. Fossil fuel use causes climate change. And the Internet is awash in porn and fake news. But life is easier, healthier, and smarter thanks to applied science.

The coronavirus is scary. But experts are learning how to prevent and treat this disease. We’ve already eliminated smallpox, polio, cholera, and other devastating diseases. Many countries have made progress controlling COVID-19. The U.S. needs to get things under control. But medical science is better now than it was 100 years ago when the Spanish flu killed millions.

Protests against police brutality and racism indicate there is more work to be done. Terrorism and mass shootings cause anxiety. The U.S. exceeds other countries in gun violence. The U.S. imprisons more people than other countries. But crime is down from a high point in the 1990s and Americans are safer today than we were just a few decades ago.

The pandemic has exposed a digital divide in virtual learning. But a hundred years ago, girls and nonwhite people were woefully undereducated. Today we understand the ethical demand to provide quality education for all children. We teach science, math, and history to more kids in more sophisticated ways than in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear.

Wage gaps and wealth gaps remain. Rich people live longer and have more political power. But progress has been made for racial minorities, disabled people, homosexuals, women, and religious minorities since the 1950s when the Supreme Court abolished the farce of “separate but equal.” Things are not perfect. But discrimination is illegal and voting rights have been secured for members of previously excluded groups.

Threats to the American constitutional system exist, along with corruption in the halls of power. The free press has been attacked. Unjustified force has been employed against peaceful protesters. But the five freedoms of the First Amendment remain as beacons. The courts continue to defend our rights. And there is more vigorous political debate today than in previous decades.

Much of this debate overlooks the good news. The loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum dwell on a sense of crisis. The conservative motto “Make America great again” begins with the premise that things have gotten worse. In response, progressives focus on remaining racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as Trumpian malfunction.

I’m not saying things are perfect today. There is substantial room for improvement. But hope for improvement depends upon the sense that progress has been made and can be made.

It is easy to lose sight of this. The news focuses on crime, disease, and corruption. Movies feature murder, malice, and mayhem. We like stories about bad guys and action heroes. A story about decent people who love their families and go to work every day would be boring.

Good news is also a political dud. Political energy grows from the sense of crisis that rallies the base. Change-makers are elected to shake things up. A campaign focused on moderate and incremental improvement would be uninspiring.

Incremental change is tedious. It takes persistent effort. The good it produces is slow in arriving and unexciting once it gets here. But lasting improvement occurs through painstaking effort.

In a crisis, despair can set in quickly. When things appear to be falling apart, it is easy to throw in the towel. That’s why it is important to recall the progress we have made. When we understand that smart, creative effort improves the world, it is easier to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The world will never be perfect. But it won’t get better unless we believe that through our efforts it can be improved.

Kaepernick, Racism, and Football

Can we look past Kaepernick and actually talk about race?

Fresno Bee, September 3, 2016

The Kaepernick kerfuffle is an example of how moral discourse works in the Twitter era. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem.He explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

The response was typical. Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick should find another country. Fans burned Kaepernick’s jersey. Supporters spoke of Kaepernick’s right to free speech. A group of veterans for Kaepernick defended his “right to sit down.”

Instead of talking about the race problem in America, the conversation shifted to Kaepernick’s refusal and his right to free speech. Soon enough people were criticizing Kap’s socks. He wore seemingly anti-police socks during practice.

racism-2014How bizarre. Racial injustice continues to be a problem without a solution. Poverty and prison plague the black community. Unarmed black men are shot by police. Riots break out. And here we are talking about a quarterback’s socks.

Rather than talk about race and justice, we prefer to change the subject. It’s easier to cast stones at a celebrity than to think about complex questions of social justice.

Kaepernick has the right to sit out the anthem or wear socks of his own choice. But defending that right does not confront the tough question of racial injustice and inequality. We skim the surface and avoid the depths.

Of flag salutes and other rituals

And so it goes with flag salutes and other rituals. They are nice. But they are only skin deep. We can mouth the words without meaning them.

At least Kaepernick appeared to be thinking about the meaning of the flag he chose not to salute. Of course, we cannot dig into the secret recesses of his mind. Nor can we plumb the souls of the athletes and fans who stand and salute.

The conscience is a deep well where we ruminate on meaning. Songs, salutes and socks rest on the surface. The commitments of the heart are independent of the motions of the body. To get to the heart of the matter we need to talk, listen and think.

Standing for the flag is fine. But flag salutes are symbolic, not substantial. Some claimed Kaepernick was disrespecting the troops. But we support the troops most directly by paying our taxes.

Which brings us back to football, which has a strong commitment to supporting the troops. Until last year, the league itself didn’t pay taxes, since it was listed as a tax-exempt nonprofit. To be fair, local franchises pay taxes. But the NFL itself did not, even though the commissioner earned $30 million to $40 million a year.

At any rate, it is strange that the football industry has become a public good, wrapped in the flag, when it is a profitable private enterprise. This is no stranger, I suppose, than the fact that Budweiser renamed its beer “America” this summer and covered the label with patriotic slogans. Budweiser is owned, in case you are wondering, by a foreign beverage corporation named InBev.

Many layers of patriotism

This is a reminder of the complexity of flags and patriotism. Patriotism can be heartfelt and sincere. Or it can be thoughtless jingoism. Patriotism may also be conscientious loyalty to a nation’s highest moral principles. And in some cases patriotism is a useful marketing strategy.

The Roman author Juvenal worried that the Romans were too focused on “bread and circuses.” Today it is football and beer. Trivial distractions undermine thoughtful and sincere citizenship. They keep us too preoccupied to have meaningful conversations about morality, justice and the common good.

And so we mock easy targets and ignore the hard questions. Kaepernick is a millionaire with weird socks sitting alone on the bench. It’s easy to malign the man. But the difficult question of race in America remains on the table.

That question is connected to complex social, psychological, economic and political questions. Like every other important question, the racial problem needs long and careful deliberation. But we ignore that complexity when we blast away on Twitter.

Marketing and propaganda make us think that the truth is obvious and easy to understand. In reality, important ideas take a lifetime to figure out. And flags, socks and songs only touch the surface of things.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State:fiala.andrew@gmail.com

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article99549522.html#storylink=cpy

Racism and Growth Mindset

Fighting racism with faith in the future

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2015

It’s disappointing to see that racism still exists: in fraternity houses, in Ferguson’s police department and in Fresno’s schools. But most of us are outraged by recent racism. And this gives us a reason to hope. Racism is not inevitable. Racists are bred, not born.

A key to making progress on any issue is the belief that it is possible to make progress. If you don’t believe that improvement is possible, you won’t work to make things better.static1.squarespace

Research done by psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates the importance of affirming that progress is possible. People who have a “growth mindset” believe that since growth is possible, their effort matters. On the other hand, those who believe that talent and intelligence are fixed — something you are born with — give up more easily.

I recently spent the day with Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a business that is putting Dweck’s research into practice. Briceño had a number of examples of the importance of the growth mindset. Educators, for example, clearly believe that growth happens. The point of education, after all, is to help children grow.

One of Briceño’s most astounding examples comes from the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians who have a growth mindset are more willing to compromise, less distrustful of one another and more hopeful about peace. The reverse is also true. Those who believe that character is fixed are less willing to compromise. If you believe that people can’t change, and that members of certain groups have fixed traits, then there is little hope for peace and progress.

Racism is connected to the fixed mindset. Racial prejudice is based upon assumptions about the “fixed” traits of members of racial groups. But racial identity is not destiny. Nor are racists destined to be racist. One way to break the stranglehold of prejudice is to remind ourselves that our identities and attitudes are not permanently fixed.

Some of this research sounds too good to be true. Cynics argue that human nature is not really that malleable. The cynical realist shrugs, thinking that recent racism is yet another chapter of the same old story of man’s inhumanity to man. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But cynicism is defeatism. It rests on the same kind of fixed mindset as racism.

Sure there are limitations to growth. Racism is not the simple result of a bad mindset. Racism is also the result of struggle over scarce resources, demographic pressures, corrupt institutions, media stereotypes and so on.

It is important to recognize the depth of racism. But that shouldn’t stop us from working to make progress. Rather, realism about racism set the agenda for the work we must do to build the world we want.

Racism won’t go away over night. But it is important to see that we have made progress. Outrage about racism is a hopeful sign. As are the institutional responses that we’ve seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. We are slowly growing a better future.

The philosopher William James once explained, “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” When we believe that change is possible, change is more likely to occur. James imagines standing on a mountain pass, confronting a leap across a chasm. If you have faith that you can make the leap, you will jump farther. But defeatism will undermine you. A defeatist will jump weakly or not at all, either falling into the abyss or failing to reach the summit.

Martin Luther King Jr. also emphasized faith in the future. He believed that the universe was on the side of justice. But King also said, “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Rather, progress comes through “tireless efforts” to combat the cynical forces of social stagnation. King clearly had a growth mindset.

Racists and cynics believe that the world is fixed. But that’s false. The world is always changing. So there is work to be done. There is always a new generation being born, who have yet to be corrupted by pernicious ideas. Like weeds in the garden, racism and cynicism occasionally crop up. So let’s get to work, pulling weeds, planting better seeds and growing a better world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/20/4438246_andrew-fiala-on-ethics-fighting.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy