Mike Gonzalez is a think-tank academic at the Heritage Foundation who can trace critical race theory’s roots through a meandering lineage from 1930s German philosophers to Columbia University’s Teachers College to Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter.
But the clearest description of the theory, he says, comes not from any textbook but from a Keanu Reaves film: 1999’s sci-fi hit “The Matrix.”
First, a brief history.
Critical theory, CRT’s intellectual forebearer, began in Germany in the 1930s among a handful of Marxists who longed for the oppressed classes to rise up and overthrow society. The problem, if it could be called that, was that it was becoming clear that most people were happy with their lives, enjoyed working and making money, and were not particularly itching to overthrow society. Critical theory was aimed at fomenting a Marxist revolution in a world in which the working class did not appear dissatisfied with the economy.
“The term ‘critical theory’ itself is first formulated by Max Horkheimer, the director of the Frankfurt School, in a 1937 essay. Horkheimer and his assistant, Herbert Marcuse, believed that the worker was sucked into the consumer culture of capitalism,” Gonzalez told The Daily Wire on Wednesday. “He says… capitalism is too good at producing goods, so the worker does not understand how oppressed he is.
As Horkheimer himself put it: “Marx had the ideal of a society of free human beings. He believed that this capitalist society would necessarily have to be overcome by the solidarity spelled by the increasing immiseration of the working class. This idea is wrong. This society in which we live does not immiserate the workers.”
But that’s because workers were too obtuse to know they should be unhappy, Horkheimer continued. “The critical theory which I conceived later is based on the idea that one cannot determine what is good — what a good, a free society would look like — from within the society which we live in. We lack the means. But in our work we can bring up the negative aspects of this society, which we want to change.”
The idea was like something out of an acid trip: Although we, the regular middle class, were all happy, there was a certain way we could see the world in which we would understand that everything we thought we knew was wrong, and actually, we should be angry. Because of our failure to see this invisible but true reality, as the philosophers thought we should, in some ways the enemy was us.
Gonzalez studied the critical theorist philosophy of the era and learned that “Their position was the worker has become his own oppressor because he’s bought into the idea of country and his family and capitalism. They say he has a ‘false consciousness’ by buying into the ‘superstructure.’”
Then he put something together: “I watch ‘The Matrix’ and I think, this is what they’re talking about.”
Morpheus: The matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room, you can see it when you look out your window or turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work or church or pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. …
The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
A mysterious and undefinable “system” that unlocks the key for why things are actually bad when we think they are good “is critical theory. You may think you’re happy, but you’re actually oppressed. We just need to help you discover that truth,” Gonzalez said.
1960s: Teachers College
When the Third Reich came to Germany, the Frankfurt School fled to America, and its academics found a home at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Marxism hadn’t worked, and the odd philosophical twist hadn’t convinced the “lumpenproletariat” — the working class who socialist leaders said they were fighting for, but who were too dumb to appreciate it — to demand revolution either. But on a new continent came an opportunity for a new strategy. “Before this revolt takes place, critical theory needs to Americanize,” Gonzalez said. That meant pivoting from class to race.
Looking for this “substitute proletariat,” Herbert Marcuse settled on the minorities in the U.S. “The ghetto populations may well become the first mass basis of revolt,” the white German philosopher wrote in 1969. “Confined to small areas of living and dying, it can be more easily organized and directed.”
1970s: Law schools
At the same time, critical theory also applied its ideas about invisible “systems” of oppression to the legal system.
“Starting in the 1970s, law professors and law students start to apply CT and the idea of a ‘superstructure’ to the legal system. Just as critical theory sowed distrust into the institutions, critical legal theory did it with the law: ‘The law is not neutral. And even if it is, the results are not,’” Gonzalez said.
“People begin to realize, this is going to be really bad for the legal system. The legal system requires not just courts and prisons, but for all of us to believe in the law, that there’s such a thing and for there to be a society we need to follow it. Critical legal theory undermines that.”
Even so, a small number of radical law students, many of them black, pushed the theory further. “They said it’s true that there’s a superstructure. But you’re missing one thing: they’re all white. The original critical legal theorists believed that race didn’t exist or wasn’t that important. They started arguing that race is the main thing that matters.”
1990s: Race supplants law
A 1989 conference at a convent in Madison, Wisconsin marked the birth of the most racialized strain of Marcusean theory, with three founders, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Derrick Bell, in attendance.
“We gathered at that convent for two and a half days, around a table in an austere room with stained glass windows and crucifixes here and there–an odd place for a bunch of Marxists–and worked out a set of principles,” Delgado later said.
The critical race theorists “begin to try to evict their white colleagues” in critical legal studies, Gonzalez said, “saying you don’t have the lived experience… And they’re Marxists, they feel guilty, so they [left].”
Bell, the first tenured black professor at Harvard, began holding protests trying to force Harvard to hire others who shared their ideology, including at a 1990 protest at which Barack Obama gave a speech. “Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell,” the young Obama orated.
Anther practitioner, Angela Davis, went on to influence Black Lives Matter, said Gonzales, who is the author of the 2020 book “The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics is Dividing the Land of the Free” and the upcoming book “BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution.”
“So it becomes dominant but really contained in the university until about 2011, where it really begins to impact K-12. Around 10 years ago, things began to change, CRT began seeping into the education system,” Gonzalez said — to some extent unbeknownst to parents until coronavirus lead to virtual school.
There, it includes fantasy-like ideas like meritocracy is a myth, or equality should be replaced with equity, or that young children are inherently racialized.
Of course, the overwhelming negativity of critical race theory is not something most parents of any race would agree to expose their kids to. “Derrick Bell writes again and again that black people will always be subservient, that they will never gain full equality,” Gonzalez said. “They call white kids racist which is a form of a child abuse and terrible. But to tell black kids that to read and write is a white thing is repulsive, it’s false and it’s something the KKK would say.”
Because of its obvious fringe nature, schools say they are not teaching CRT — which is true: they’re not teaching it, they’re doing it.
“What they mean is they’re not assigning Derrick Bell in the third grade. Of course they’re not. I needed an aspirin to read that and I’m an adult. What they’re doing is practicing the ideas he wrote about. They’re doing these things like saying take a step back or forward based on your privilege.”
And at the end of the day, the terminology should be irrelevant to whether something is objectionable. “You’re dividing kids by race. You can call it whatever you want, call it Disneyland. It doesn’t matter, it’s illegal,” Gonzales said.
Whether teachers realize it or not, these ideas trace back to the handful of white academics who have attempted to foment division in society for nearly 100 years. So how do you recognize CRT in your child’s school?
“The main belief is that racism is no longer a decision people make, it’s just a system. Anything that teaches that is critical theory and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” Gonzalez said.