Critical Race Theory and the SAIRR

Descendants of the founders of The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) have recently criticised the Institute for straying from their founding principles. While the SAIRR disagrees with Dr Heather Brookes’ (the granddaughter of the founder, Edgar Brookes) assessment, those who read the comments to the first piece would also note that her sentiment is shared by a previous member of their national executive, Prof. Hugh Corder, who resigned in the mid-90s thanks to perceiving this same value-drift occurring even then.

There are many strands of analysis one could pursue here, mostly under the (summary, and not-yet-justified) umbrella concern of the SAIRR devolving into becoming a mouthpiece for the sorts of talking-points beloved by the American (political) right – opposition to gun control, a sceptical or dismissive attitude to Black Lives Matter and anthropogenic climate change, and downright hostility to what they call “identity politics” (where their criticisms are, unfortunately, as partisan and intellectually incurious as those of Helen Zille).

I’ll focus on only one aspect, namely their recent campaign to “combat and expose Critical Race Theory indoctrination in South African schools“. As a starting point, and noting that the piece linked is not an academic output, it’s instructive that the author, SAIRR “Head of Strategic Engagement” Sara Gon, does not offer a single example of a school that is indoctrinating pupils in this fashion, and furthermore, that the statement highlights that it is in private schools that this “indoctrination” is taking place.

When you factor in that only around 5% of South African pupils (2019 figures) are attending private schools, and combine this with the absence of any examples demonstrating that this “indoctrination” is taking place, what we seem to be left with is the presentation of a moral panic dog whistle to a constituency that don’t care as much for data as they do for thinking that something called “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) is coming to turn their kids into Marxists, or maybe even into the sort of ideological zombie who believes White privilege is real.

Given that the SAIRR used to have a (deserved, to my mind) reputation for caring about the integrity of their data, and for presenting the evidence without (obvious) bias, reading a statement from them that could have been written by Tucker Carlson is disappointing, to say the least.

But the chumming of the shark-infested water doesn’t end there, because the statement’s definition of CRT tells us that:

CRT holds that all black people are victims of a system designed to keep them oppressed and that all white people act together to maintain that system in order to protect their unearned, white privilege. Unique, individual characteristics are irrelevant to CRT.

CRT aims to ensure that racism becomes an eternal obsession, patronising black children and shaming white children.

Again, that is Carlson speaking, first because that’s in no way a canonical (rather than prejudicial) definition, and second, while we are told teaching this is a problem because “it is not the function of schools to indoctrinate pupils into one political theory while ignoring all others”, we’ve been given absolutely zero evidence that the 5% of pupils we are talking about are a) being taught CRT at all; b) being taught the version of CRT described here; and c) being taught it outside of a context of competing positions.

I was planning to say quite a bit more, including quoting some of my lecture notes from when I was teaching this stuff in a Sociology course in 2002, to illustrate how devoid of substance the SAIRR’s position is, but this has rapidly become too stupid a debate to be spending time on. Also, it’s almost certainly the case that anyone who actually cares to understand the issues already has a better grasp on them than the SAIRR does.

So I’ll just leave you with a restatement of my typical stance, namely a version of Ben Goldacre’s “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that [but of course non-hyperbole gets fewer clicks and donations]”.

Meanwhile, burn your Althusser. Or something.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.