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Critical Race Theory and the question of social sin

  • 05 August 2021
  Critical Race Theory, which has recently been banned ineffectively by the Australian Senate from the National Curriculum, has everything going for it as a lightning rod. It has an acronym (CRT), opacity and an air of self-importance. It is also associated with a controversial social movement: Black Lives Matter. The theory does not need to be understood before generating heat.

Underlying both CRT and the controversy, however, is a deeper question about the relationship between social structures and personal responsibility. This relationship may be illuminated by an earlier Catholic controversy about social sin.

Critical Race Theory itself developed out of a wider discussion among lawyers about the importance of the social context in the interpretation and administration of law. It asked whether legislation was influenced by such factors as the race, wealth, social standing, gender and religion of the legislators, and whether the administration of the law by lawyers, judges and police was influenced by similar factors.

These questions led them further to ask whether such biases prevented those involved and society at large from seeing the prejudice and partiality of their decisions and actions. In other words, whether the system was rigged, and its kings unclothed. And if so, what was the proper response.

This brief overview suggests that critical race theory is a field of study based in social psychology which has to do with the effects of social relationships on personal attitudes and beliefs, and so on institutions. It is not a set of conclusions but an enquiry in which radical and less radical views on all sides can be stated and questioned. Its focus on race reflects the attention given to racial discrimination in the United States.

The controversy about Critical Race Theory is really about the roots and dynamic of racial discrimination and its influence over the ways in which racial minorities are treated. This is a fraught question.

If you accept that the framing of laws and their administration by police and courts are coloured by discriminatory views, and that these laws and institutional practices in turn both license and conceal discriminatory attitudes and behaviour, the implication is that the gains and privileges enjoyed by the majority as a result of this discrimination are ill gotten. Justice might then demand a reordering of society in which previous winners would be losers.

'The emphasis on social structures and on a conflictual approach to social reform led Catholics naturally to expand their understanding