Critical Race Theory: Interview with Phil Magness

This interview is adapted from our podcast interview with Dr. Phil Magness. If you would like to listen to the entire conversation, you will find this and other interesting interviews on our podcasts page. 

Dr. Phil Magness is an economic historian; senior research fellow at AIER, as well as the Independent Institute; and author of multiple books concerning the intersection of race, political economy, international trade, higher education, and American history.

Critical Race Theory: Interview with Phil Magness

Can white people understand or opine on Critical Race Theory?

Magness: The funny thing about the the ongoing debate about critical race theory (CRT) is that its proponents respond to any criticism or pushback against it by looking at the the race, or in some cases, the race and the gender of the person that is the critic raising objections, rather than actually engaging with the criticism. Yet, there is a double standard here because a lot of the defenders of critical race theory are white males and they do not seem to apply that same standard to themselves.

One thing that I’d point out is that CRT is not the only way to look at the problem of racial discrimination. Especially from a historical perspective. I come from a scholarly tradition that tackles some of the same problems that CRT claims to be opposing: Prejudice and the institutionalization of racial restrictions through the instruments of the state. As someone who approaches history from a different angle than the CRT tradition it does not mean that I do not care about racial discrimination. Quite the contrary, I am arguing that I have a different perspective that has stronger explanations and stronger value in how to tackle these problems than what CRT is offering.

If you look at the rise of the CRT movement in academia It does not have a track record of alleviating the problem. What it seems to do is just heighten the politicization and the rhetoric of dealing with the problem of discrimination and has no actual material benefit.

What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?

Magness: If you ask someone like Dr. Ibram X. Kendi or some of the more senior academics that founded the discipline, “what is critical race theory?” you get word salad. I think there’s a video that’s actually circulating on the internet of Kendi where he is asked in a Q&A session to define what he means by racism in the context of CRT and he goes into this circular jumble where he says racism is stuff that is racist and the institutions that are racist and it becomes very clear that they don’t have a functional definition of the issues they cover.

Doug: But it works for them because that lets them decide anything happening they disapprove of is racist.

Magness: Right. So, they possess a blanket concept that is poorly defined and oftentimes does not even really mean anything. But that’s an opportunity to pivot into these very strong far-left ideologies about rejecting individualism; and you find that they reject free market capitalism; they reject classical liberalism and values such as free speech and the bill of rights when they conflict with their ideological stances. But that is kind of the constantly moving set of definitions and standards that they have set up in their own literature. So it is something that is really hard to pin down.

What I can give you is what CRT is from its historical origins, and to do that you have to go into a broader academic tradition referred to as “critical theory.” So, what is critical theory? There are a lot of different iterations of it. Critical race theory being one of them. There’s also critical gender theory, critical pedagogy theory that’s applied to education. They are often interrelated in their ideological objectives. But CRT is a critical theory applied to race.

This goes all the way back to about the 1930s and 40s. There was a group of western Marxist academics in Germany at the University of Frankfurt who referred to themselves as the “Frankfurt School.” What they attempted to do was identify a difference between two different types of theory: Critical theory and traditional theory. By definition, in the loosest sense, they say a critical theory is one that is emancipatory, and one that advocates undoing suffering and harm caused by capitalism.

They take the term itself out of two sources. One is Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Karl Marx‘s Das Kapital. So they use Kant and Marx as examples of critical theories grounded in tearing down and emancipating from a prior traditional theory. A traditional theory is one that props up the status quo, that props up those that are in power, props up the elite. So in this loosely-defined framework, a critical theory is one that tries to topple the status quo, which they see as reinforcing whatever power structures happen to exist that cause a discriminatory or an unequal outcome for the particular group that critical theory is focused upon.

Jump forward to about the 1960s through the 80s and there is a movement that emerges out of legal scholarship that then spread into the humanities, and that is to take this critical theory framework and apply it strictly to the structure and question of race. They used this as a response to legal approaches that view race and racial discrimination through what most people think of as a violation of rights.

They challenged that though you can have something legally protecting against it, discrimination can still persist and can persist in institutional arrangements. There is a case to be made that institutionalized discrimination absolutely exists, even when it is illegal, and we need to understand that, but they jump from that entirely agreeable observation into what you see in things like the Kendi book. The conclusion then is if institutional forms of racism exist we must topple capitalism, rid ourselves of individualism, and embrace this far left political narrative as the only solution to it.

CRT entices liberty-loving people for challenging the status quo

It’s more about identity politics

Magness: Absolutely true, you can take any category here but it is a collective mindset from the very beginning. Not only is it anti-individualistic in that sense, it is also explicitly hostile to free market economics. Richard Delgado and Kimberly Crenshaw are two of the big figures that are founders of the critical race theory tradition and in the 80s they were stating openly that some of the formative conferences where they started floating this approach were basically Marxist gatherings.

And the goal of CRT is for us to accept that yes, there is institutionalized discrimination and racism that we should pay attention to, but also to accept a far-left economic tradition that is hostile to everything that I think we believe in.

What is the connection between CRT and postmodernism?

Magness: Postmodernism often elevates a notion of truth as not a fixed objective reality, but as a construct what you see often in the critical race theory literature is an embrace of that methodological rejection of empirical reality, and a tendency to treat factual assertions as if they are constructs. There are postmodernists that are anti-CRT and there are proponents of CRT that are not primarily postmodernists. But I think the tools are compatible in many ways.

Is John Mcwhorter correct to call race activism a religion?

Magness: Expositors of CRT present it as something that’s very innocuous sounding and actually something that most people would would agree with: We want to end racism, we want to end discrimination, we want to study the legacy of slavery, and come to terms with the problems that it created. I think almost all listeners would agree we want to end racial discrimination, and they will present CRT is simply trying to end those problems. But that’s not what they’re doing at all. Then it is off to the races with the green new deal, radically overhauling the American economy, destroying American capitalism, and replacing it with a system that redistributes income.

Explain more about CRT and the Motte-and-Bailey-Fallacy

Magness: The Motte-and-Bailey-Fallacy is a thought experiment from philosophy. In the medieval times when you built the castle you would put the keep of the castle on the tall hill because it is the most defensible spot. So the enemy army has to go uphill to conquer your castle, and the whole time you are shooting arrows down at them.

So it is the strong position in the argument, but around every castle there was also the bailey, and the bailey is the flatland at the bottom of the hill where the town is where the peasants would work for the king in the castle, and it is intentionally less defensible. The idea here is that whenever an enemy comes along everyone in the bailey retreats up to the motte on top of the hill. This is used conceptually to describe a type of a fallacy where there is a pivot in the argument between the defensible position, the motte, and then the less defensible is harder to sell.

But it is also imported through the back door of the bailey, so, what CRT does is that their motte will be “racism is wrong and we need to study institutionalized forms of discrimination, we need to reckon with the history of slavery,” and most people will agree with that. And then what is going on is then they try to use that strong position in the motte to sneak in everything in the bailey through the backdoor. The bailey is the green new deal, and income redistribution, and overthrowing capitalism, and a marxist labor system.

All this baggage they are trying to bring in without actually having to defend it, and then they will pivot between the two because when you point out that CRT from its earliest origins is explicitly identifying itself as a marxist movement. Then they retreat to the motte and say “oh no, we are not that at all. And they are actually lying about what they are, and what they are seeking.

What portions of CRT are valid observations/approaches?

Magness: Where CRT has somewhat correctly diagnosed injustice in the institutions that inflict greater harm on black people than they do on white people is a starting point to a conversation of asking “why do these institutions exist? Why do they persist?” One thing I think we should pay greater attention to is that there are often alternative explanations to some of these problems that critical race theorists see, but they are more robust alternative explanations.

They offer a better understanding of why racism persists. So I will give you an example we can draw from economics and if you go back to the early twentieth century when the minimum wage was established as this progressive tool to improve the working classes. What you find if you dig deeper into the minimum wage literature is that it was often explicitly espoused on racial lines because when they said we are trying to help the working classes, what they really meant is they were helping the white working classes.

These are progressive racists that see black people as worthy of exclusion from the economy, and what they do is they rationalize that if the minimum wage is raised it is going to put some people out of work. Basic economics is going to tell us that and if you do it in a segregated society the very first people that will be fired are Black Americans, and it is going to be Black individuals that are harmed the most by minimum wage legislation.

If you are an advocate for the white working class, which many of these people were at the time, that was their tool to raise wages among white workers as you take away the jobs of black workers.

Doug: So you’re saying minimum wage is racist and we should cancel it?

Magness: Well if you look at if you use the same logic you go Historically it absolutely was at the turn of the century.

What is the New York Time’s 1619 Project and how did you interact with it?

Magness: It started in August of 2019 as an investigative issue of the New York Times magazine to explore the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in Jamestown, Virginia; and in doing so the magazine issue was framed as a historical reckoning of the long legacy of slavery from 1619 to the present day. You have slavery from 1619 until its abolition in 1865. There is the era of slavery, and then the legacy of slavery are the problems that have persisted.

Because of slavery ever since then and again in the most innocuous sense. When I started to read it The 1619 Project was so unlike any prior effort by the New York Times on this subject. The Times did a series on the150th anniversary of the American Civil War so they called the the series Disunion, and it was a scholarly investigation of what had happened since the Civil War to explain slavery’s legacies, the outcomes of the war, and the day by day history of the war. Disunion was a multi-part series that ran for 5 years and it was done from a scholarly perspective, with many perspectives represented.

I was one of hundreds of contributors to this project, and here we are five years later, and what could have been like a successor project to Disunion, instead went completely in the other direction. They told a one-sided echo chamber of a highly ideologized project coming from the far-left that claimed they were going to investigate the history and legacy of slavery, but every conclusion that is drawn out of it is geared towards the 2020 progressive-left electoral agenda. And that is essentially what comes forth in the project.

Instead of investigating the past they weaponize it to advocate for 2020-era progressive politics like income redistribution, socialized medicine, and the green new deal. And slavery reparations is another component that they build in there very strongly but it is a modern, political advocacy masquerading as history, and is a sloppy history as a result because they manipulated the evidence that they drew from the past to make it fit the political argument that they are trying to make today.

How did you begin your online interactions with Nikole Hannah-Jones?

Magness: I have tangled with her on Twitter since early on in The 1619 Project controversy, and really one of my earliest encounters with her was right after she came under fire within the first couple of weeks of The 1619 Project for raising the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s role in the colonization movement in the Civil War-era, and this was basically the effort to resettle ex-slaves in the Caribbean, some went back to Liberia and Africa, but the idea was that you solved the the racial problem in the United States by encouraging and subsidizing freed African Americans to leave the United States.

This approach was intertwined with the antislavery movement because the colonizationists saw this as a way to get rid of slavery. They also saw it as a way to protect black people from what they saw as almost certain racial discrimination in the postslavery-South. So she raises this issue in The 1619 Project, she comes under fire, turns out that she was basing some of her arguments in this project’s interpretation of Lincoln and colonization on my own historical scholarship within a book that I had written in 2011, and several accompanying academic articles.

In reaction, she began tweeting out links to my work, saying “look, the scholarship supports me on this,” but she had not realized that Phil Magnus was also a critic of other aspects of the project, particularly its economics. Someone pointed this out to her, and suddenly she went silent on the Lincoln colonization issue. Later, she pops up and begins trashing my reputation.

Sadly, the same approach she has used for all of her critics. Any historian that has gone after her on a factual or substantive basis has come under personal defamatory attacks. She called Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Victoria Bynum, and Jim Oakes – very prominent Civil War/Revolutionary War historians that could critique her – just white historians we should reject.

So I assume your work did not make it into the footnotes of her new book!

Magness: No, it did not. Even though in 2019 she was citing my work to substantiate her argument on Lincoln and colonization. She revised that in the new book that came out just a few weeks ago, and in my place she swapped in a citation to Ibram X Kendi who has just a passing commentary on Lincoln and colonization. Kendi’s book doesn’t seem to be a deep historical analysis of Lincoln’s colonization efforts; rather he is repeating talking points from the popular media and secondary sources.

Also, the Matthew Desmond essay on capitalism and slavery. Desmond is a far-left sociologist who has never written on the history of slavery before he was tasked with this article. The article is almost entirely about trying to destroy capitalism by linking it to the history of slavery. He says that modern day accounting practices, as exemplified by Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, trace back to the accounting books of the plantations. Basically, he attempts to show that capitalism today is still using the legacy of the plantations just because we still use Microsoft excel.

He also cites a book by Caitlin Rosenthal called The Counting for Slavery, which is a history of how accounting was done on the plantations. Desmond misread Caitlin Rosenthal’s book, because she states that she wants to clarify something for her readers, that she is not claiming that Microsoft Excel traces back to the plantation books.

Yet, the New York Times refused to make any corrections, and if you go to the same passage in Desmond’s essay in the new book he has quietly deleted the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet line; however, he has yet to change the text in the rest of the essay where he continues metaphorically referring to plantation accounting books as spreadsheets.

What should be done about the trend toward use of propaganda in history?

Magness: I mean my whole approach to it is to point out the errors, point out the factual shortcomings, point out the bad behavior of the New York Times. This is a newspaper that ghost edited the text of The 1619 Project to hide controversial passages in the lead up to Pulitzer prize season, and actively ignored critiques to the validity of their information.

This is another discovery I made last year when Nikole Hannah-Jones was denying that she ever made certain claims about replacing 1776 with 1619 and it is like, “wait a minute, I remember reading that in the print edition back in 2019,” and then you go back to it on the website and that text has been quietly edited out. The fallout of the controversy has so thoroughly discredited the project that we’re no longer engaged in a historical debate over what is accurate.

We are engaged in a fundamental debate about scholarly and journalistic ethics, and I think they have breached basic fundamental norms of journalistic ethics in the same sense that we would condemn a historian who engaged in plagiarism in one of his works. We should condemn the New York Times for ghost editing, its journalism, and for its behavior in the aftermath of The 1619 Project controversy.