What’s The Big Deal With Critical Race Theory? (Part 1)

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Photo: MSNBC

Racial tension has always been an elephant in the room of Singapore’s discursive landscape. Of late, there has been an increase in visible incidents of racial intolerance, whether it be kicking ladies in Chua Chu Kang Park or offering unsolicited coupling advice to interracial couples on Orchard Road.

While some who suggest that racism is endemic bemoan the idea that it is gaining visibility only now, others beg to differ, believing these to be isolated incidents that are not reflective of the tenor of Singapore in general. It doesn’t take a genius to get that racism is divisive.

How we handle it matters. In a culture where “silence is violence”, holding one’s tongue encounters the wrath of self proclaimed anti-racists who demand everyone takes up proverbial arms against the intolerant. Denying racism exists is also unhelpful as a response, and is dismissive of the stories of racism experienced by the members of our community. On the other extreme, are those who claim that racism is systemic or institutional.

Yet amidst the din, there are sometimes thoughtful and reasonable responses to approaching the complexities of racism in Singapore.

The LHZB Furore

On 13 June 2021, Yap Pheng Hui from Lian He Zao Bao wrote one such op-ed (henceforth the ‘LHZB op ed’) addressing the rise in racially motivated incidents that had been occurring more frequently. In the piece entitled “Expand public space to promote racial harmony”, he made the case that Singapore’s trajectory in terms of racial equality and harmony was positive but not perfect and that this could be undermined by several ‘pressures’ including tribalistic thinking in the face of challenges, and unhelpful ideas that are uncritically promulgated by social media and other sources. One such idea that was cited is Critical Race Theory (CRT).

The op-ed triggered an open letter from a variety of Singaporean scholars and academics who took umbrage with the op-ed’s characterisation of the roots of racism in Singapore. Curiously, the bulk of the letter read like an apologia for CRT, which was so briefly discussed in the LHZB op-ed that it was almost negligible.

Understandably, scholars with academic ‘skin in the game’ would react in such a defensive and asymmetrical manner, especially when it is potentially being misrepresented. However, to the layperson, CRT may come across as a doctrine that is frustratingly incomprehensible and even offensive. Even scholars who specialise in CRT admit that it is complex, wide-ranging and even difficult to characterize and articulate. 

What do we make of the initial comments about CRT within the LHZB op-ed? In a two-part series, Regardless reflects on CRT as reasonably as possible from the perspective of an intellectually curious outsider to this discipline.

What is this framework of understanding race relations, and is it appropriate or even helpful to local discourse?  

Contra Right-wing Truth? 

Apart from the near single-minded focus on CRT, the open letter accused the LHZB op-ed of uncritically rehashing far-right talking points by “commentators in the United States who do not engage with the actual writings and concepts of CRT”. Is the backlash against CRT truly a right-wing ploy against honest truth-seeking about race relations?

A recent YouGov poll amongst the general public in the US, revealed that although self-identified Democrats overwhelmingly saw CRT as ‘good for America’ (and vice versa for Republicans), a significant proportion of Independents and ideologically moderate individuals thought CRT was unhelpful. Similarly, a not-insignificant 22% of black respondents were generally unfavourable towards CRT regardless of political affiliation, while a staggering 53% of supposedly ‘oppressed’ Hispanic respondents had similar views.

Oddly, the constituency that CRT aims to help (ie. racial minorities) hesitate to fully support it. Failing to recognize these trends of actual attitudes towards CRT in American discourse probably indicates that the signatories are unconsciously (or uncritically) taking cues from their favoured side of US culture wars. 

Main Themes in CRT

One might anticipate that the response to the above information (and to the 54% of the poll respondents who reported to know what CRT is) is that such persons do not actually understand what CRT is, and what it purports to accomplish. 

Despite the difficulty in defining it exactly, the following are several tenets that most Critical Race Theorists seem to agree on. 

1.Race is a social construct, not a ‘biological fact’ – and the boundaries of racial identities are often defined by the racial group in power to produce structures that maintain a social hierarchy. Think of how slavery in the US reinforced racial categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’. In Singapore, the CMIO model, formed during the colonial era, has also cemented our notions of race. CRT was invoked recently by Sudhir Vadaketh in a blog post to explain how the Ethnic Integration Policy inadvertently resulted in a form of structural racism towards minorities within the CMIO framework who would only be able to sell their flats into the resale market at lower prices (more of that in part 2 of this piece). 

2.Deep cynicism of the dominant liberal ideology – specifically, holding that the promises of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s towards racial equality were hollow or deficient. CRT theorists believe that values like ‘colour-blindness’, ‘meritocracy’, ‘neutrality of the law’, ‘objectivity’, ‘equality of opportunity’, ‘individual freedom’, a socially integrative approach to race and so on, were only truly realized when majority interests coincided with that of minorities. Otherwise, minorities are not granted equal standing for their own sake. This phenomenon is known as ‘interest convergence’.

3.Emphasis on ‘Experiential Knowledge’ and ‘Counter-storytelling’ – because one cannot truly be ‘objective’, ‘neutral’, or ‘colour-blind’, and we can only obtain true knowledge by listening to the narratives of members of minority races to reaching the truth about race relations. Hence, recounting, elevating and preferring the ‘lived experiences’ which run counter to the dominant narrative is an important aspect of CRT. 

4.A multidisciplinary theoretical analytic tool AND a vehicle for activism – beyond the confines of legal studies, CRT has been brought into other disciplines such as sociology, education. It is meant to draw upon an eclectic range of sources to analyse and expose racism as it manifests in all areas of life. However, beyond simply being a theoretical analytical tool, it should be followed in praxis to effect change, hence it has an activistic characteristic to it.

CRT and Activism

Because of this, much of the unhappiness in the US stems from the fact that the ideological products of CRT are being inserted into the education system, and corporations under the overarching umbrella of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training. In other words, it is not CRT that is the primary problem, but rather the quickly evolving ideas and methods that activistic types promote, which have their roots in analyses and conclusions derived from CRT.

Such activism is certain to proliferate in Singapore. Already, there are a plethora of social media accounts that seek to increase ‘race consciousness’ in Singapore (@beyondhijabsg, @minorityvoices, @crittalk.sg). Apart from producing infographic-style material, some accounts regularly feature anonymous autobiographical accounts (or ‘lived experiences’) of racism.

This activism is not limited to social media. The authors of the open letter have themselves vowed to put their foot to the plough, as seen in their final update to the letter:

“But this is far from the end. We still have much to work on to confront systemic racism in Singapore, and to be actively antiracist. This is just one of many efforts towards the same goal.”

With such moral fervour towards an antiracist eschaton from the scholarly papacy community, the ultimate question is whether CRT is indeed as useful as it is claimed to be, or whether it is even valid at all. 

Perhaps the LHZB op-ed may have fallen short in giving the most accurate portrayal of CRT as an intellectual discipline.  But the role of the media is also to reflect the sentiment ‘on the ground’. The fact that a substantial number of parents, students, workers, politicians, and everyday people (no less members of minority races!) are uncomfortable with this thing called ‘CRT’ in the US because it causes racial enmity must be acknowledged and not be dismissed so uncaringly, lest it further entrench the stereotype of the academic ivory tower.

Furthermore, the claim made by the open letter that CRT does not vilify white people should be highly contested. ‘White supremacy’ is a concept which charges that white people, as a category, are complicit in systemic racism. This will be expounded upon in the next essay as well, in relation to its cut-and-paste application to Singapore’s majority population which faces accusations of “Chinese Privilege” – language hitherto unheard of in Singapore (till the import of the culture wars which according to these same liberals, is not happening).

While it is reasonable to say that CRT may be useful within certain parameters, the Disunited States of America shows us just how easily well-intended CRT can be abused. Applied to Singapore, it quickly becomes apparent why it (and its aggressive proponents) need to be regarded with caution.

The arguments put forth in the open letter, as well as the overly defensive stance against LHZB, suggest that this intelligentsia is motivated to incorporate CRT in some way, shape or form into racial discourse in Singapore.

As the authors of these pieces are members of minority races in Singapore (in contrast to the almost monoracial make-up of the signatories of the open letter), we feel like we have a special stake in this issue. The next article will delve into greater depth into the potential problems of uncritically applying CRT to Singapore and what to look out for when identifying toxic approaches to race discourse.

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