Ravitch, Rand, and CRT: The Ominous Parallels?

I introduced this blog post on Facebook with the following preface:

Okay, here’s something that should piss off people on both sides of the Critical Race Theory debate. The merits of CRT matter less to me than the central point of this blog entry: That somebody as far away from CRT as Ayn Rand had something profoundly important to say about the nature of systemic racism.

I have not written extensively on “Critical Race Theory” and have no time to do so, given personal and professional constraints. But Diane Ravitch published a worthwhile article in the New York Daily News on this topic in the 29 June 2021 issue. Check it out here.

Ravitch writes:

In the Houston of my youth, every public and private facility was racially segregated: schools, mass transit, restaurants, hotels, public swimming pools and everything else. Grocery stores had two water fountains, one marked “white,” the other marked “colored.” Public buses had a movable marker with the word “colored,” which consigned Black people to the back of the bus. If whites needed more seats, the marker was pushed back, and Blacks stood. By custom, a Black person entered the house of a white person only through the back door. When a white and a Black approached each other on the sidewalk, the Black person was expected to step into the road to let the white person pass. The customs of white supremacy were well understood and seldom, if ever, violated.

In school, our history textbooks taught us about great American patriots, all of whom were white. The only person of color mentioned was George Washington Carver, who discovered many uses of peanuts. When we studied the Civil War, there were heroes on both sides (my junior high school was named for a Confederate hero, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston), but minimal mention of slavery or its cruelty.

Reconstruction following the Civil War was taught as a time when Southern whites were oppressed by federal troops, opportunistic carpetbaggers, and ignorant Black politicians who ran their states into the ground.

It was many years later that I learned that this was the Confederate view of events, and that Reconstruction was a time when able Black men served honorably in Congress, and racially integrated state legislatures wrote new and progressive constitutions. And that, when Reconstruction ended in 1877, white Southerners quickly restored the status quo, replacing slavery with Jim Crow legislation that maintained racism, segregation and unequal opportunity for Blacks.

Many whites, myself included, believed that the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision, which overturned the fiction of “separate but equal,” marked the beginning of the end for racial segregation. The Civil Rights laws passed during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in the mid-1960s strengthened the belief that racial inequality was defeated. The federal government and the federal courts would reverse any racial discrimination, we believed. No longer would places of public accommodation or public transit or public schools be allowed to bar Blacks, nor would Blacks be denied the right to vote.

This too was misleading. In the 1980s, I became friends with Prof. Derrick Bell, the first Black person ever to receive tenure at Harvard Law School. … He is called the founder of critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic and that Blacks will never achieve equality until we reckon with the past and confront the systems and beliefs that allow racism and segregation to persist, blighting our society. An example is housing patterns, which did not evolve by accident or choice, but because — as Richard Rothstein showed in his book “The Color of Law” — racially discriminatory rules were imposed by the federal, state and local governments. Segregated neighborhoods produce segregated schools. … A nation can’t escape the sins of its past without confronting them directly.

For those who dismiss all of this as a by-product of “leftist” thinking, check out Chapter 12 (“The Predatory State“) in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. While Rand would have had many differences with many CRT advocates, I examine, in that chapter, Rand’s profoundly dialectical analysis of the reciprocal relationship between advancing statism and deepening racism in our society, such that each is both a systemic precondition and effect of the other.

I present Rand’s approach as a Tri-Level analysis of social relations of power:

The Tri-Level Model of Social Relations

As summarized in my September 2005 Freeman essay, “Dialectics and Liberty“:

Rand maintained that government intervention in the economy creates a civil war of all against all; advancing statism makes masters and slaves of every social group, with each vying for some special privilege at the expense of others. Paradoxically, even as statists try to create and rule society as a collective whole, their policies simultaneously create vast social fragmentation. The rule of force has the effect of engendering the formation of pressure groups, each with a design on the levers of power. Every group threatens every other group while acting in self-defense against the aggrandizement of its political competitors. Over time, Rand argued, the group becomes the central political unit of a statist society, and every differentiating characteristic among human beings—be it age, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, or race—becomes a pretext for the formation of yet another interest group.

Racism, in Rand’s view, was the most vicious form of social fragmentation perpetuated by modern statism. It was not a mere byproduct of state intervention; it was a constituent element of statism. From the perspective of Level I, Rand argued that racism was an immoral and primitive form of collectivism that negated individual uniqueness, choice, and values. Psychologically, the racist substitutes ancestral lineage for self-value and thereby undermines the earned achievement of any genuine self-esteem. Holding people responsible for the real or imagined sins of their ancestors, wielding the weapon of collective guilt, the racist adopts the associational, concrete-bound method of awareness common to all tribalists. This “anti-conceptual” tribalism is manifested in the irrational fear of foreigners (xenophobia), the group loyalty of the guild, the worship of the family, the blood ties of the criminal gang, and the chauvinism of the nationalist. Tribalism was “a reciprocally reinforcing cause and result” of the various caste systems throughout history.

Such “psycho-epistemological” tribalism could only gain currency in a culture dominated by irrationalist and collectivist ideas (Level II). When the Nazis ascribed notions of good and evil to whole groups of people based on legitimating ideological doctrines of racial purity, they depended on the obliteration of individualism as a cultural ideal.

In terms of structural realities (Level III), Rand explored the various political and economic institutions and policies that both reflected and perpetuated racism—through outright slavery, genocide, or apartheid, or through the use of quotas, prohibitions, zoning laws, rent control, public housing, public education, compulsory codes of segregation and integration, and a self-perpetuating welfare bureaucracy that kept poor people poor, while inculcating a psychology of victimization among them.

What most interested Rand was the broad historical process by which racism predominates in modern societies. In Rand’s view, statism was born in “prehistorical tribal warfare.” Political elites often perpetuated racial hatred and scapegoated racial and ethnic groups in order to secure power. But “the relationship is reciprocal,” said Rand: Just as tribalism was a precondition of statism, so too was statism a reciprocally related cause of tribalism. “The political cause of tribalism’s rebirth is the mixed economy,” marked by “permanent tribal warfare.” In Rand’s view, advancing statism and tribalism went hand-in-hand, leading to a condition of “global balkanization.”

For those who think there is no comparability between Rand’s view of how statism and racism are systemically related and what Ravitch and others have said about systemic racism, I’d say this: If anything, Rand lays bare the statist order that makes such systemic racism possible. It is not just a part of the past, but a necessary part of our present social system. Rand called this system “the New Fascism”, and her analysis of it—of the racism and social fragmentation it depends upon and perpetuates—is as radical as any proposed by Critical Race Theorists.

Taking a cue from Rand, I’d tell folks on both sides of this debate to “Check your premises.”

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