Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Amos 5:24

United Methodist Deacons are at it again, stirring the waters of justice. In the second in a series of workshops on the theme “Becoming an Antiracist Community,” the Orders of Deacons of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conferences dove into a study of intersectionality. We began with basic questions: What is intersectionality and how can this concept help us address racism? Even though the idea of intersectionality is part of critical race theory, we refused to let fear be our guide as we navigated these dangerous rapids.

Many people, including many of us, did not know much about critical race theory beyond the fact that some US politicians and faith leaders are vehemently against it. In September, the Trump Administration banned federal agencies from using critical race theory in anti-bias trainings. Subsequently, prominent white leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention garnered national headlines for rejecting critical race theory and intersectionality as “secular ideologies” incompatible with their faith. However, these white faith leaders did not offer a description or explanation of what they spoke against.

Critical race theory views our struggle for racial justice through the lens of history. Simply put, we cannot fully address racial injustice today without understanding the laws, customs, and events that led up to this moment. Law professor Priscilla Ocen observed, “Our government at the moment is essentially afraid of addressing our history of inequality and if we can’t address it, then we can’t change it.” Critical race theory is a disciplined way of learning the underside of our social, legal, and cultural history of racism for the purpose of redressing those injustices.

Intersectionality is a key tool of critical race theory. Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, coined the word “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how discriminations based on race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics overlap. For example, Black women may face workplace discrimination in ways that neither white women nor Black men face. Intersectionality helps us see that there are forms of discrimination not based on gender or on race alone. Crenshaw explained,

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there.”

There are multiple ways in which power can be wielded unjustly.

To help us understand intersectionality, we turned to one of the videos in the “Dismantling Racism Panel Discussions” series sponsored by the General Commission on Religion and Race in partnership with the Council of Bishops, United Methodist Women, the General Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Communications. We discussed the video, “Intersectionality: Dismantling Racism Panel Discussion,” in which Erin Hawkins facilitated a conversation between professors Miguel De La Torre and Traci West. Both promote liberation theology, which considers “the consequences . . . for the most vulnerable” persons in our communities the priority in making ethical decisions.

Who is the most vulnerable, though? One of the challenges of justice work is to avoid the temptation to engage in comparing oppressions or sufferings. Critics sometimes depict intersectionality as a “hierarchy of victimhood.” Whose oppression is worse? Which form of discrimination should be prioritized as the most unjust? However, Traci West asserted,

“intersectionality is about power . . . not about identity. . . . Intersectionality is about systems of power and the ways in which those systems of power operate in multiple ways at the same time.”

We do not have to choose to address one discrimination over another, as if there were a waiting line for justice. Intersectionality exposes the ways in which systems of privilege foster competition among oppressed groups as a way of maintaining those privileges. De La Torre observed that justice for other ethnicities is often pitted against justice for African Americans, as if there were a limited supply of justice to go around. He countered,

“My Latino life will never matter until Black lives matter. It’s connected. It’s intersectional. The success of the current power structures is to keep us divided.”

Erin Hawkins was forthright in her assessment:

“The tactic of keeping these matters [of oppression] siloed is a function of . . . white supremacy.”

An intersectional lens on injustice quickly becomes uncomfortable for institutions that systemically discriminate against certain classes of persons.

The United Methodist Church currently discriminates against gay and lesbian persons in the church. Discriminatory practices have been embedded in church law for decades. The Traditionalist Plan enacted by General Conference, February 2019, further heightened the severity of penalties for dissenting clergy and congregations. West identified the UMC’s “deep hypocrisy of naming a commitment to racial justice” while enacting the Traditionalist Plan. She and De La Torre were in agreement: “If we’re going to claim racial justice in the church, it has to include the full equality and inclusion of LTGBTQIA+ peoples.” These are challenging words to many members of the UMC.

We found ourselves entering the deep waters of justice. How should we use the tools we were learning? Hawkins described the conversation about intersectionality as “the invitation to decolonize our faith.” Critical race theory provides a way to see the history and origins of our current systems of injustice. West encouraged, “We must draw from our resistance history,” a theme in her most recent book, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality. Our faith tradition is full of resources for and examples of justice-making. Most importantly, to address racism and other injustices, we must be willing to change. De La Torre challenged white majority congregations:

“If you’re going to invite me to be part of your church . . . you’re inviting me to radically change how you do church.”

Racism cannot be addressed through token representation. The structures of racism are too deeply embedded in our institutions. Becoming an antiracist community requires true transformation.

Drenched in these words of justice, we considered the panel’s call for us to work on communication, listening, and building relationships. One of our deacon sisters, Christinah Kwaramba, reminded us, “What is important is the human condition”; empathy for persons suffering should guide our response. United Methodist Women’s 2021 Spiritual Growth Study, which I authored, offers an in-depth discussion of empathy in the work of justice. Listening deeply to others is a profound act of love. Encouraged by Kwaramba, we concluded our discussion by considering how we can use our power to empower others to speak up for themselves.

If you feel called to a lifetime ministry of love, justice, and service, consider exploring the several avenues of diakonia available in The United Methodist Church: deaconess, home missioner, and deacon.

Previous event in this series: “The Role of Anger in the Work of Justice and Love.” November 2020.

Next event in this series: “The Racial Politics of Immigration,” led by Carlos S. Reyes Rodríguez. February 20, 2021.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Biewen, John. 2017. “Seeing White.” Scene on Radio, 14-part documentary podcast. http://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/

Breakdown Whiteness. Resources to Dismantle White Supremacy, Brick by Brick. https://www.breakdownwhiteness.org/

Stephens, Darryl W. 2020. Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship. New York: United Methodist Women.

The United Methodist Church. 2020. “Intersectionality: Dismantling Racism Panel Discussion.” Erin Hawkins, Miguel De La Torre, and Traci West. Video, October 26.

Welch, Skot, and Rick Wilson, with Andi Cumbo-Floyd. 2018. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald.

West, Traci C. 2006. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.