Understanding Critical Race Theory Through the Lens of Structural Determinism

The United States witnessed a renewed discussion on issues of racial discrimination, police brutality and criminal justice reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May of last year. While a number of issues came to the public fore, one issue that amassed tremendous amount of attention was Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is more aptly an academic concept, whose body of scholarship has 40+ years of history. It is based on the foundation that race is a social construct and that racism in modern societies is not just a result of individual prejudice but is something that is deeply rooted in legal systems, government policies and bureaucratic structures. This overarching theoretical foundation, especially the notion that racism is produced and reproduced by structures around us, has come under heavy criticism

Under such circumstances, a broader discussion on this particular tenet of CRT is essential, and here I’ll evaluate the notion of structures, taking note from another academic concept used widely by sociologists and political scientists (and CRT scholars), namely structural determinism. This can add breadth of knowledge to the debates centred around CRT, and more importantly, can prevent misinformation surrounding this academic concept. 

What is Structural Determinism? 

Structural determinism is an academic concept that holds that actions, events, and processes as products of structural factors. The concept was pioneered by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela who wrote that the general order of living systems is maintained through an ongoing process of self-referral and self-creation, and the changes they undergo are defined by their own organization and structure. Such changes are not ascertained by the elements of the disturbing agent, as each disturbance will only trigger responses in respective systems. These responses are then determined by each system’s own structure

An illustration of car/tree example with a Formula 1 spin

Possibly, the best way of understanding the concept is through the car/tank example as put forward by Maturana and Varela themselves. So, a car that hits a tree would be destroyed, however, a tank would be able to withstand the impact of collision with a tree. In simple words, changes do not reside within the trigger (the ‘tree’), instead, they are determined by the structure of the organism (‘car or tank’) interacting with the trigger. Additionally, Maturana and Varela as biologists were more interested in the impact of their theory on an individualistic level. They wrote that (on a very individual level) actions of human beings are not determined by outward factors; it is their own mental state and emotions—essentially the internal structure—that influences their actions. 

How Does Structural Determinism Relate to CRT?

When the theory of structural determinism is applied on a broader societal level, things change. It is not the ideological foundation of the theory that changes, however, just the mode of interaction. So, for example, on an individual level, the trigger could be any set of outward factors, but the internal structure of the individual determines the response (according to Maturana and Varela). On a macro-level, the trigger could be anything such as changes in societal culture, economic recession, or a new legislation, and existing legal and political structures would determine the response. 

It is this application of the theory of structural determinism on a broader societal level that makes it vital for CRT, both the academic concept and the broader movement. CRT scholars have long highlighted the American criminal justice structures that produce and reproduce racial disparities through, for example, police brutality, racial profiling, and mandatory minimums. In this regard, structural determinism, with very similar ideas to CRT (vis-à-vis structures), extends ideological weight to the larger concepts put forth by CRT scholars. Collectively, this is also one of the reasons why structural determinism now has become one of the main tenets of CRT scholarship. 

Can Political and Legal Structures Produce Racism?

They most certainly can. In the U.S., black minority groups are subject to various kinds of racism that extends both from the unfair application of the law and the silence of the law—including by note-worthy ‘structures’ such as Congress and the Supreme Court. Strong scientific evidence shows that black people are discriminated against in all aspects of the criminal justice system, including in terms of severe punishments, bail-setting, and police encounters. Additionally, black people are also discriminated against in other aspects such as when it comes to residential living by a segregation mechanism called ‘redlining.’ Redlining—which was introduced by the Home-Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933—involves separating residents and communities on the basis of various reasons, including colour, to essentially ascertain mortgage worthiness. The application of this move created separate underfunded residential communities for black people, who are also at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring mortgages as compared to white people. Similar discriminations based on colour persist in the healthcare system as well. 

The aforementioned examples extend credence to the arguments presented by structural determinists and CRT scholars on the interrelation of structures and racism. Despite that, not everybody agrees with these concepts. For example, some political conservatives highlight that various black people and individuals from other races such as from the Asian and Jewish community, have become successful under the same supposedly racist system. It is true that scores of Black Americans have become very successful under the same current system, however, examples of a few individuals do not mean that things are changing for the majority. Nor does it indicate, as the above linked studies show,  that American political and legal structures have stopped perpetuating racist outcomes.

There are other viewpoints that contrast with structural determinism as well. Libertarianism (aka classical liberalism), for example, downplays the significance of deterministic forces in shaping social and political life. Instead, libertarians argue that individuals uniquely have the capacity to act and make choices, and that this human agency can bring about meaningful change despite stringent structural conditions. Additionally, conservatism and foundationalism also contrast with structural determinism. 

Final Remarks

Structural determinism is itself a complex phenomenon, one that—like CRT itself—is going through theoretical evolution. As seen above, the concept has its fair share of critics as well. Despite this, there is no denying that structural determinism is, by and large, a robust theoretical framework that CRT scholars and others can learn from. 

Having said so, I hope that this blog post would lead to a better understanding of structural determinism, and by extension, CRT as well. Both these concepts have highlighted the structural nature of racism, and have paved way for honest discussion about race and racial discrimination in the USA. Disagreements aside, I believe this open discussion should continue. Finally, feel free to join the conversion on structural determinism and CRT in the comments section below.

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