Some commentators have expressed concern with proponents of critical race theory (CRT) who they argue are becoming increasingly intolerant of opposing and disagreeing views (1). In this article, we will look at one case in which some critical theorists in no uncertain terms condemned the findings and conclusions of one particular study. Critics believe these responses are illustrative of CRT’s intolerance to dissent.
Several studies are finding that racism is not nearly as bad a problem as some might think, which, critics of CRT maintain, is inconsistent with the narrative peddled by CRT. CRT, these critics maintain, places all blame on racism, which results in neglecting to take other factors into account as to why people of color might be underperforming in society
For instance, the South African Institute of Race Relations published the results of a nationwide survey of racial attitudes that found that fifty-five percent (55%) of people see unemployment as the biggest problem in the country. Only eight percent (8%) identified ‘race issues’ as the biggest problem (which is very interesting given the country’s rather recent history of apartheid). Somewhat of a similar finding emerged in a report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in the United Kingdom to come just after the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd. It is relevant to note that the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is under the chairmanship of Tony Sewell, a Black man.
But critics of CRT argue that we see more evidence of intolerance in response to this report (2). The report states that racism is indeed a “real force” in the United Kingdom (for example, there is both overt and anecdotal evidence of racism), but also stated that the system is no longer “rigged against ethnic minorities.” And although disparities do exist, very few are directly to do with racism. There is also no “institutional” racism. About British history, the report says that it was not just one of “imperial imposition,” but also “one in which there were episodes of both shame and pride.”
There were also several other findings of relevance which might explain why the kickback by critical race theorists was so loud. For example, the pay gap between all ethnic minorities and the white majority population has shrunk to two-point-three percent (2.3%). Success in education has “transformed British society over the last 50 years into one offering far greater opportunities for all.” New arrivals in the United Kingdom view education as a means out of poverty. Educational opportunities have been taken leading to “remarkable social mobility.” This makes education the “single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience.” Although many first-generation immigrants experienced downward social mobility, the second generation has “caught up and in some cases surpassed white people.” This progress has mostly taken place in the last two decades and has been “imperfect and mixed.” Ethnic minority candidates find it more difficult than Whites to obtain jobs, which is why Britain, the report says, is not yet a “post-racial society.” But neither is it a place where “the system” is “deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.” Sewell later stated that children were more likely to prosper when both parents played a role in their upbringing, which asks ministers to look at initiatives to prevent family breakdown.
But the reactions to this study by many critical race theorists were vitriolic and extensive. An activist called Sewell a “token black man” spreading a “white-supremacist lie.” The playwright, Bonnie Greer, said his report was “sick and dangerous.” A Labour Party spokeswoman, Marsha de Gordova, accused the report of “glorifying the slave trade,” a point also made by Owen Jones of The Guardian. One Labour MP equated the commissioners with cross-burners in the Ku Klux Klan. A Cambridge professor of postcolonial studies likened Sewell to Josef Goebbels. At the United Nations, a “working group of experts on people of African descent”’ accused the report of rationalizing White supremacy and called for Sewell’s commission to be “disbanded or discontinued.”
What did Sewell make of all these harsh accusations? He simply responded that they had “been extreme, unnecessary, over the top, ridiculous, and absurd.” But why, one might be motivated to ask, was the outcry in response to the study’s findings so loud? Perhaps a good answer is found in one commentator who writes,
“Indeed, it dawned on many of those watching that what was really going on here was an attempt by the professional anti-racists of the liberal establishment to silence the dissident voice of a black public intellectual. Tony Sewell was speaking out against the cult of victimhood, thereby betraying what was meant to be his identity and his heritage. Having in effect been told to get back into his box and shut up, he was refusing to do so. It was this act of defiance — his insistence on singing his own song of freedom — that had evoked such vicious abuse” (3)
Critics invite us to remember that CRT allegedly proposes that White people, or “Whiteness,” are the villains in this story. They are responsible for the oppression and discrimination experienced by people of color.
But Sewell’s study threatens to strike a crack in the hull of this narrative. First, Sewell is a Black person and as such bursts the boundaries cemented in place by critical race theorists. After all, all Black people must agree that Black people are victims of systemic racism. But Sewell does not. The study concluded that Britain is not irredeemably racist and that not all issues and socio-economic inequalities are a direct result of institutional racism and systemic discrimination. In other words, White people are not exclusively to blame for people of color not doing well. The reasons for this lie not with them but with other pressing social challenges like parenting, family break up and stability, educational achievement, and more.
Thus, taken together, a Black man, an organization, and a study supporting findings that do not gel with what CRT is proposing are severely offensive to the sensitivities and sensibilities of many critical race theorists. This explains the comparisons to the Nazis (see Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies).
Here critics mount their major criticisms that CRT is totalitarian. Its proponents want to silence critics and dissenters, which can include deplatforming them or driving them out of universities and their places of work. Anyone who disagrees that racism is at the heart of society’s issues needs to be silenced. In Sewell’s case, we find a petition titled “Denounce the divisive, deceitful, racist, Dr Tony Sewell report on race inequality” with over 12 000 signatures. There are demands that either Sewell must scrap the report or stand down from his position. Sewell’s response is that “when people are desperate to silence you and discredit you, you must be saying something that is true.”
The government has nonetheless come out in support of Sewell and the researchers involved in the report, especially in opposition to the vitriolic responses it engendered, “This Government welcomes legitimate disagreement and debate but firmly rejects bad faith attempts to undermine the credibility of this report. Doing so risks undermining the vital work we are trying to do to understand and address the causes of inequality in the UK – and any of the positive work that results from it” (4).
- Kane-Berman, John. 2021. Good (but for some, unwelcome) news about racism in the United Kingdom. Available; Kane-Berman, John. 2021. Critical race theory cannot tolerate criticism. Available.
- Kane-Berman, John. 2021. Ibid.
- Johnson, Daniel. n.d. Tony Sewell has been disgracefully compared to Nazis — but he will not be silenced. Available.
- Sandhu Serina. 2021. Race report: Commissioners have faced death threats and ‘racial slurs like Uncle Tom’ says Kemi Badenoch. Available.