When Critical Theory Took on Race

When Critical Theory Took on Race


Critical Race Theory (CRT) has been gaining traction in organizations throughout the Western world for over 50 years, but increasingly so for the past 5 years leading up to 2021. It is either highly criticized or highly-regarded, with little room for fence-sitting—a phenomenon facilitated by the widespread adoption of social media. This essay will attempt to provide additional information about the connections between Critical Race Theory and its philosophical parent Critical Theory (CT).

A thorough reading of the historical development of both philosophical disciplines reveals a genealogy that is closer than simple intellectual similarities.

A brief overview and explanation of Critical Race Theory will be followed by its history. Next, we will discuss Critical Theory, its origins, supporters, and key assumptions. Lastly, we’ll look at how CRT and CT are related by exploring their common genealogy and conceptual frameworks.

Critical Race Theory

What is it?

Everything in our world is power, the distribution of which is mediated by race (e.g. broad categorizations of Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, Native, Pacific Islander, etc.).[1] Every human construction, from governments to homeschool co-ops, is embedded in racial structures that fundamentally build or dismantle racism and white supremacy. All people, regardless of socioeconomic status, location, or personality cannot help but perpetuate or undermine systems of racial oppression. This is Critical Race Theory in a nutshell.

For adherents of this theory, Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream is idealistic nonsense. The only path of progress is through the rubble of a completely dismantled America. Why? Critical Race Theory (CRT) asserts that the very structure of society is systemically oppressive to minority populations and that racism is built into the very fabric of social life. So much so, that even when overtly racist policies, practices, or actions are ‘removed’ or ‘rectified,’ racism still exists—it is simply manifesting in new ways.[2]

As a result, racism cannot ever truly be solved, according to CRT. This belief creates a truly dangerous situation. Children are being taught that they live in a society that is riddled with racism and hate. They are being told that due to factors outside their control—their melanin levels—they are oppressed, or they are the oppressors. They are also being taught that there is no resolution to this problem. Consider what havoc this is likely to wreak on young minds. “We have a problem. You are the problem, and there is no way to fix it. You’ll never be able to do enough to repair the damage that you perpetuate simply by existing.” CRT is incredibly disempowering. Children who are placed in the ‘oppressed’ category are told that the system is rigged against them. In such a situation, why should a child make any attempt to succeed?

Where did it come from?

Like many ideas, CRT is the product of the combining of other, older ideas. In this case, it started as Critical Legal Studies—the combination of race relations (arguably the social issue of the late 1960’s in America) and the study of the law. A man particularly well-positioned to push this new theory forward, the founder of Critical Race Theory, was Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell. Bell (1930-2011) was the first black-tenured law professor at Harvard. He was 40 years old at the time of his hiring.

The ideas and works of Derrick Bell are largely variations on a theme that was laid out over 65 years earlier by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). While Bell continues to be seen as the modern founder of CRT, his ties to Du Bois, if only conceptually, are readily acknowledged by CRT scholars.[3]

Du Bois was a political economist who began his undergraduate studies at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, then moved on to Harvard University. At the time, some of the most prestigious universities in the world were in Germany. He spent two years in Germany studying on a scholarship from the Slater Fund, which ended before he could complete his PhD. While he was there, he wrote letters in which he mentioned several of his professors—some of them more than others. W.E.B. Du Bois completed his studies in Germany in 1894.

Critical Theory

What is it?

Everything in our world is power. Systems and structures are created to maintain and build upon that power. Governments, organizations, businesses, and even hobby clubs exist solely to maintain and build power. Critical Theory’s goal is to intellectually emancipate society from oppression. Critical Theory is “…practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense.”[4] In other words, “critical” arguments are formed and founded in rhetoric—only. You cannot test their claims with any instrument of measurement. This is Critical Theory in a nutshell.

So, if you can’t test its claims, how can anyone know whether its claims are true or not? This requires faith or ‘suspension of disbelief,’ whichever you prefer. What value does it really have to anyone? So far, it’s been a very effective method of creating additional faculty jobs at universities. It has the added benefit of creating for its proponent’s social protections that are granted to ‘allies of the oppressed.’

Where did it come from?

Goethe University Frankfurt was one of the preeminent universities during the interwar period of the early 1900s. During this time, the Institute for Social Research was created by Friedrich Pollock and Felix Weil with a professor of political law and economy at the University of Vienna named Carl Grunberg installed as its first director. The Institute was bankrolled by Weil, a wealthy student at Frankfurt. All of them were neo-Marxists. While they agreed with Marx, they felt many gaps were left in his writings that required development and explanation. The Institute (now commonly referred to as The Frankfurt School) was formed with the vision of filling in those conceptual gaps through the work of its members. Most notably, these scholars argued, in effect, “Not only was the Social Democratic leadership too wishy-washy and compromising, its voting constituencies among the working classes were themselves clueless about their real needs and their real but masked state of oppression.”[5] By this time, the leading lights of the Institute had agreed that what the Marxists really needed was an aristocracy—a role they could fill. The major result of this work is what is now known as Critical Theory.

Some of the Frankfurt School’s more recognizable names include Horkheimer, Marcuse, Adorno, and Grunberg. Of course, they each differed from one another on particular points of their ideology, but the fundamental theoretical underpinnings—noted above—of the School were largely undisputed among members of the Institute.

Max Horkheimer—who was involved with the Institute from the beginning—pursued his doctoral studies under Hans Cornelius, a neo-Kantian philosopher, at Frankfurt. Horkheimer was a major influence on The Frankfurt School, becoming its second director after the departure of Grunberg due to illness. Both Grunberg and Horkheimer were skeptical of epistemology and reason. They fostered that skepticism among others through their writings and speaking events. While they nurtured doubts about shared reality and objectivity, they pursued Kant’s anti-Enlightenment ideas that prioritized subjectivity and emotion.

The ideas that emanated from the scholars of the Institute for Social Research—Critical Theory—continue to influence the Western world today.

A Common Thread

Gustav von Schmoller was one of the frequently-mentioned professors in W.E.B. DuBois’ letters back home. Carl Grunberg also studied under Schmoller during his stint at Strasbourg from 1872-82.

While no one can be completely sure exactly how much influence Schmoller had on either DuBois or Grunberg, it seems perfectly reasonable to surmise that it was more than zero. And, given both of Schmoller’s eminent students went on to espouse similar positions on the proper framework through which to judge reality, the possibility seems even more likely.

So, who is Schmoller, then? He was born in Heilbronn, Germany in 1838. His father, as a civil servant in Wurttemberg, was a wealthy and influential man with connections to those in power. Gustav was entrusted with the operations of some of his father’s affairs which gave him experience with government, bureaucracy, the economy, and other integral systems that are constituent pieces of a functioning society. At the time, a prerequisite for consideration of an appointment within the government was the completion of a university degree in Kameralwissenschaft a discipline “…which combines public finance, statistics, economics, administrative science, history, and even sociology.”[6]

After working for his father for some time, rather than stick to government work, Schmoller decided to teach at a university. He was already a committed “communitarian,” having gained and retained full faith in the state’s ability to manage the entire economy in such a way that productivity and efficiency would be maximized.

For Schmoller, economic theory required a thorough consideration of all potential factors that could affect economic activity. And, as he himself had prescriptions for what the ideal society should look like, he provided social commentary willingly.

Economic behavior is embedded in a cultural style specific to one epoch, one historical structure of meaning, which happens to favor an economic style marked by certain “habitual moral sentiments” (Schmoller 1923a, 22), values, and norms. Therefore, if the most elementary object of economic analysis, economic action, has an ethical, cultural, and religious dimension, then the economic theory purporting to explain it must also encompass the interrelationship of ethical, cultural, and religious factors.[7]

Schmoller sought and advocated for social reforms in the name of social justice that aligned with his prescriptions. He reasoned that the study of political economy was properly oriented when it was focused on the psychology of economic action. “The true desideratum of economic research was, therefore, a psycho-social description of the motivations of human action.”[8]

Conclusion: Intellectual Brothers

Schmoller’s ideas about the psychology of economics found expression in W. E. B. Du Bois’ work on the influence of racism in American economic and political life. Carl Grunberg’s Institute for Social Research was the birthplace of Critical Theory—an admixture of Schmoller’s psychology of economics and Marxism, where Marxism is the interpretive structure and economic psychology is the object of study. Both Du Bois and Grunberg were communists—with Du Bois writing a series of articles in support of Marxism during the 1930s and ultimately joining the Communist Party very late in life in 1961.[9] Both of them believed in a worldview that categorized everyone as an oppressor or oppressed. Du Bois critiqued society using race as a frame of reference. Grunberg used social class as his.

Both Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory have at least one common progenitor: Gustav von Schmoller. Their common teacher joins Du Bois and Grunberg as intellectual brothers if their works did not show enough similarities to comfortably make that claim.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book, Critical Condition: Destructive Ideologies in America’s Classrooms.

  1. Biologists do not use the term “race” to differentiate between people with variations in melanin levels. Race is a purely cultural and rhetorical phenomenon, which has no basis in biology.
  2. Delgado, R., Stefancic, J. (1998). Critical Race Theory: Past, Present, and Future, Current Legal Problems, 51(1), 467–491, https://doi.org/10.1093/clp/51.1.467
  3. Avshalom-Smith, D. (n.d.) Toward a philosophy of race: W.E.B. Du Bois and critical race. 1619: Journal of African American Studies. Retrieved on 2021 May 10: https://www2.ccsu.edu/afamjournal/?article=419.
  4. Stanford University (2010). Critical Theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/
  5. Hicks, S.R.C., (2004). Explaining postmodernism: Skepticism and socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Ockham’s Razor. 140.
  6. Fischer, W., (1968). Schmoller, Gustav. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York. The Macmillan Company and The Free Press. 14(60).
  7. Nau, H. H., Steiner, P. (2002). Schmoller, Durkheim, and old European institutionalist economics. Journal of Economic Issues. 36(4)1005-1024.
  8. Nau, H. H., Steiner, P. (2002).
  9. Jackson, J. E. (1961). W.E.B. DuBois to Gus Hall: Communism will triumph. I want to help bring that day. The Worker. Retrieved on 2021 May 10: https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/from-the-peoples-world-archives-w-e-b-dubois-joins-the-communist-party/.
Matthew Nielsen

Matthew Nielsen is Founder and Board Chair at the Educational Freedom Institute, a 501c3 nonprofit organization. His forthcoming book on harmful ideologies in K-12 classrooms will be released in late 2021. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewnielsen.


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