Critical Race Theory Is Part of the ‘Noble Lie’ at the Heart of Today’s Black Studies
Introduction: Critical Race Theory as Historical Misinterpretation
President Trump’s recent attacks on Critical Race Theory demonstrate once again that given good information, POTUS can be effective at addressing ‘race problems’ in this country, as we saw in the recent prison reform legislation. And in my opinion, the preeminence of this so-called theory in the most prestigious academic institutions of the USA, does in fact represent a ‘race problem’. It is a Gremlin in American race relations and the study of the American race problem more generally.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) would not be a problem if it simply represented one hypothesis among many. Instead, along with the concept of ‘institutional racism’, CRT has become central to the intellectual dogma of today’s black left, who dominate black American education today.
These black educational leaders and intellectuals have underdeveloped so-called Black Studies, the historical & theoretical study of black life in the USA. Moreover, they have done so in a manner analogous to how the Medieval Catholic Church underdeveloped Western European learning, which is to say, they have limited the progress of black social science, because of their adherence to a questionable theological-political dogma meant to serve a problematic & outdated socio-political agenda.
CRT historically represents a misinterpretation of failed policies and leadership, black & white liberal, which we will call the Great Society approach to addressing ‘America’s race problem’. According to this usage, The Great Society is not just a set of policies, but there is also a larger socio-political model that underlies these policies, which itself represents an interpretation of the ‘race problem’, among other things.
This is postmodern liberalism. CRT seeks to radicalize this postmodern liberal agenda that comes out of the late 1960s, because of impatience with ‘slow black social progress’ or even aspects of ‘black decline’, since the Civil Rights Acts. The idea is that liberal policies have failed black people, and so what is needed is more radical federal government intervention into the ‘race problem’, with an even more socialist approach. The New Deal, The Warren Court, The Civil Rights Acts, the Great Society, and Affirmative Action did not go far enough. We need a full court press. Needless to say, this does not work well on a Macro level for American political society as a whole. It’s really not a feasible or even desirable option.
The ‘Noble Lie’ of Today’s Black Studies Programs: The Overselling of WEB Du Bois
There is a lot of mumbo jumbo in CRT, but underneath there is an important historical interpretation, rooted in the work of WEB Du Bois and his intellectual disciples. Today, the Black Studies establishment, epitomized by Harvard University’s own Afro-American Studies program and its celebrated WEB Du Bois Institute, propagates a narrative that claims Du Bois to be the founder of black American social science, but this is not historically accurate. Instead, this black social science origin story functions as a kind of ‘noble lie’ at the heart of the mythological mystique that Black Studies programs like one finds at Harvard University try to wrap themselves up in. The historical truth is that so-called black American social science started at Tuskegee Institute, under the direction of Booker T. Washington, before Du Bois had even made a name for himself. In fact, Du Bois’ best known early essay, ‘The Talented Tenth’, was part of a Tuskegee series of monographs illuminating the race problem in America.
This ‘noble lie’ is central to the interpretation of history propagated by these Black Studies programs, because socio-political models like CRT or ‘institutional racism’, really do come out of a certain interpretation of Du Bois’ work. This false narrative that all black social science derives from WEB Du Bois, makes their interpretation appear more reasonable, even necessary. If Du Bois is the only foundation of black social science, then the doctrines of CRT and ‘institutional racism’ must be right. Anyone who disagrees is either a racist or race-traitor, depending on whether they are white or black. It’s this false narrative of ‘historical necessity’ that is the basis of their view that all other interpretations are illegitimate. They propagate the narrative that their view is in some sense ‘historically necessary’, when this is far from the case.
Of course, Du Bois has had a huge and outsized influence on black social science, especially since the Civil Rights Movement ended. Stokely Carmichael, the creator of the Black Power ideology and the doctrine of ‘institutional racism’ was a disciple of Du Bois in a real sense, the radical Du Bois. Even Malcolm X, whose views are very different than Du Bois in some ways, follows Du Bois in his historical interpretation of the race problem in important respects. The young Martin Luther King of the Southern Civil Rights Movement was not a Du Boisean, but instead had been trained in the school of Booker T. But in grappling with the problems arising after the Civil Rights Acts are passed, MLK leans more towards Du Bois’ interpretation of things. This includes MLK’s interpretation of both the ‘War on Poverty’ and the ‘Vietnam War’.
WEB Du Bois never ran an institute of higher learning, like Booker T. Washington, nor did he ever hold a professorship at one. This is partly owing to limitations of race, but more importantly because Du Bois made a lot of enemies, not only because of his radical politics, but also because of the way he treated people, which is to say, badly. There was no ‘Du Bois School’ during his lifetime, but he did do a lot of writing. He produced important academic works as well. These have become the basis of today’s so-called ‘Black Studies’.
Effectively, the Black Power Revolutionaries from the 1960s and 1970s created a real ‘Du Bois School’ within America’s most prestigious Universities. During their respective lifetimes, Booker T. got all the ‘corporate funding’ for his agenda, while Du Bois worked in relative obscurity. The real coup here for these Black Power Revolutionaries is that they have turned the tables on this historical relationship of patronage. Now it is Du Bois’ radical agenda which gets all the corporate funding via these Black Studies programs, which claim to have the only legitimate model for black social science, when this is far from true.
Du Bois is a problematic model for the black intellectual in certain ways. Most importantly, he is deeply alienated from The American Dream, so to speak, yet few blacks of his time had more opportunities for social advancement than Du Bois. At 35 years old, Du Bois is more or less living the American Dream, but his publication of Souls of Black Folk represents the philosophy of a man who is not only deeply alienated from American society, but whose pride is in some sense rooted in his racial alienation. Moreover, the racial philosophy of this book is filled with the concepts of scientific racism popular at that time, which Du Bois probably picked up from racist and anti-Semitic German scholars he studied under in Berlin, like Heinrich von Treitschke, for example. Souls is a racist book in some ways, including his concept of ‘double-consciousness’. This formulation is a rationalization that Du Bois uses to justify his own inability to cope with racial alienation.
Booker T. Washington had every reason to be alienated from The American Dream. He was born a slave. He witnessed the nadir of race relations in this country, a period of unequaled racial hate and violence, yet he chooses not to be alienated. That is his character. Booker T. never had any of the advantages that WEB Du Bois had growing up as a child or an adolescent, yet Du Bois chooses the path of racial alienation. That is Du Bois’ character.
This is at the heart of why we need a school of Black Studies that is more rooted in Booker T. than Du Bois. Du Bois’ work is important of course, but his overall orientation to American society is deeply problematic. By the time he is an old man, Du Bois is ready to side with the Japanese against the Americans in World War II. He sides with the Soviets and Mao Zedong over the Americans during the Cold War. Yet Du Bois received his BA and PhD from Harvard University, studied at Berlin University, and was a commencement speaker of his Harvard
College graduating class. What’s the deal with this guy?
Du Bois had a bad attitude, and it cost him dearly in life. That’s the long and short of it. But these black intellectuals have romanticized him and his alienated ways. That is not good.
Conclusion: The Need to Renew the School of Booker T. Washington
We need a new approach to so-called Black Studies, another option that is rooted more in Booker T. Washington’s social science than Du Bois’. Du Bois was a legendary American social scientist, but the work produced at Tuskegee under the direction of Booker T. is also excellent. Booker T. was no less a genius than Du Bois, but he was more a practical genius than a theoretical one. If Du Bois represents the great black social scientist, than Booker T. represents the great black social inventor. His mind works more like a George Washington Carver or Thomas Edison. Booker is gifted at solving practical social problems in a way that Du Bois is not, and this reflects in the work.
Booker T. did not know as many advanced social scientific models as Du Bois, but he worked with the best black and white scholars, and his intuition and keen observation regarding race problems in America is unparalleled, in my opinion. I doubt Booker T. ever read Karl Marx’ Das Kapital in the original German, like Du Bois, but he was keenly aware of what he regarded as the dangerous lure of socialism to black American intellectuals and activists. He believed white radicals preyed on black naiveté, and took advantage of American race problems to promote their radical political agenda, using blacks as tools. He used this argument to urge further action on the race problem by the white establishment. If they did not make more progress, this left open wide the danger of blacks being lured into white radical politics, and I think Booker was correct about this.
It would be relatively easy to start a new school of ‘Black Studies’ rooted in Booker T. Washington’s interpretation of history. One simply needs to compare Du Bois’ 19th century histories to Booker T.’s. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction is based on a structural model, which in a sense replaces Marx’s concept of ‘class’ with ‘race’. Booker’s historical interpretation focuses more around character and leadership. He analyzes structures, but in light of character and leadership, not the other way around. That is a major difference. The beauty of using Booker T.’s approach is that it fits well with more traditional historical and social scientific models. For example, Niccolo Machiavelli and David Hume also focus on character (or virtue) and leadership in their historical analyses. Their view is different from Booker T.’s of course, but there are parallels. One could slip Booker T. into the historical of Western social thought without missing a beat. Moreover, gaining an understanding of Booker’s work actually deepens one’s understanding of this history, rather than undermining it, as Black Studies does today. It’s a better model overall.
There were many black scholars and educators who were followers of Booker T. long after he died in 1915. It’s only in the wake of the Black Power movement that Booker really took a hit. There is already a lot of black social scientific work that has been done that could easily be brought into this school of thought, including contemporary scholars, such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell. This just shows how slanted the research that is done at these Black Studies programs are. They have edited and distorted American history to suit their political agenda, and black education and social science has suffered immensely, as has racial progress in this country.
Il Trovatore (Aristarchus Patrinos)
October 6, 2020; < 2000 words