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Is Critical Race Theory Too Complex for U.S. Politics?

Today’s problems call for less binary and more systems thinking

July 20, 2021

The flag of the United States in the wind against a blue sky

The United States has long struggled with the topic of race and racism. No surprise, then, that the controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) has blown up over the past few weeks.

This controversy not only illustrates how pervasive the problem still is. It also points to a broader issue affecting discussions of race, history, climate change, pandemics and economics.

At issue is the ability of politics to confront issues that academia has begun using more complex methods to examine.

The binary thinking of U.S. politics

Today, the U.S. political system largely relies upon establishing a binary choice for voters.

Meanwhile, for many of today’s problems, researchers use models that consider multiple causes, feedback loops and systemic structural influences.

Yaneer Bar-Yam, President of the New England Complex Systems Institute, has stated it this way: “…our democratic institutions are still designed around historic limitations that ignore complexity and are increasingly misaligned with the modern hyper-connected world.”

Critical Race Theory

The controversy over CRT began in 2019 with the Trump administration’s efforts to combat the influence of the 1619 Project’s reframing “the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

The Trump administration responded with the 1776 Commission. The White House described the Commission’s report as a “dispositive rebuttal of reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”

The report calls out Critical Race Theory as stressing racial divisions and imparting an oppressor-victim narrative. The text also conflates the theory with the bogeyman of communism.

These points are repeated in speeches of pundits and politicians on Fox News and Newsmax, and in heated discussions between parents and school boards. The problem is that the understanding leaves out the nuance of CRT.

CRT versus the human rights approach Gary Peller, a specialist in CRT, wrote an article for Politico in which he points out that the theory looks at the shortcomings of the human rights approach to understanding racial power in the United States.

CRT examines how subtle “racial power structures work, how they often pose as ‘neutral’ institutions in law and society, and how to undo the injustices they’ve been causing.”

The theory’s opponents on the right, however, tend to describe CRT using the lens of the more accessible human rights approach, in which racism requires a racist, and thus they claim that CRT implies that every white American is racist.

Economics is not just right or left

In the political sphere, economics in the United States tends also to be looked at from the right or the left. This is readily seen in the focus on equality of opportunity or equity of distribution.

It is also apparent in the debate over the ability of the market to self-regulate or the need for government to insert itself from time to time.

However, a growing number of economists, particularly those associated with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, are looking at economics from perspectives that don’t completely fit within this binary choice.

Are people purely rational and are markets efficient?

Eric Beinhocker of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School notes that economists are beginning to question the idea that people are purely rational, that markets are efficient and that economies are self-correcting. He points to the 2008 financial crisis as an example.

Instead of using the old methods of analysis that have been feeding into the American system, these economists are becoming more interdisciplinary.

They draw on research in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, physics, biology, mathematics, and computer science. Their aim is to make economic theory better represent reality.

These methods have resulted in support for some claims on the right, such as the ability of markets to self-correct, and on the left, such as the need for institutions to intervene when markets fail to self correct.

People are complex social creatures

These voices have also come up with new ways of viewing economics that don’t fit the left right views, Beinhocker writes in his article that rather than people being “selfish individualists” or “noble altruists,” they are “complex social creatures who engage in a never ending dance of cooperation and competition.”

Discussions in the political sphere seem to leave these economists out, and economic policy has resulted in a zero-sum game with the side in power trying to implement its view of the world and overturning what was implemented when the opposition was in power.

The politics of complexity

The United States is not the only country that tends to neglect complex methods of analysis in its politics.

Britain’s Brexit debate suffered from the same issue. In his analysis of the Brexit issue, Bar-Yam recommends abandoning the one-size fits all philosophy. That recommendation can also be made for the United States in its dealing with certain issues.

But for the United States, it is most important to rethink the requirement of the parties to take hard oppositional policy stances to take control of the government.

U.S. politics needs to do nuance

A system that integrates complex methods would need to allow for nuance — something that hard stances tend to preclude — and would require the parties and the individual representatives to go into the policy making process with the idea that data come before theory.

Further, their prescribed policies might need to be changed based on what hard data tell them.

Bar-Yam, scientists from the New England Complex Systems Institute and volunteers around the world are currently working to get policymakers to use data from complexity science for eliminating COVID-19.

Be ready to experiment

The change to integrate more complex methods will require that politicians not claim to predict the future based on ideology or theory.

Instead, the focus should be put on conducting experiments on smaller scales to develop an understanding of how a policy works out in the real world, or to experiment with several policies to see which solves a problem better.

Voters, education and the media

The change will increase the U.S.’s ability to address complex problems, but it will make the lives of the electorate more difficult.

Voters will no longer have a simple binary choice. Rather, they will need to understand the problem better to vote for those policies that will help them get to the best solutions.

Arming voters for complexity

To achieve such a level of understanding will require the educational system to integrate a broader understanding of mathematic — not simply geometry, algebra and calculus. It also involves statistics and probability — as well as the ways that mathematics done by computers helps us understand complex phenomena.

High school and college students will need to better understand systems thinking.

The media will need to play a role in such a change as well. Rather than portraying issues as partisan battles, they will need to help viewers understand the nuances and the context of problems and examine the underlying data behind the proposed solutions.


Embracing complexity would be a big change, but this development would help democracies find lasting solutions.

It would also help their electorates better understand the experts when they offer solutions, possibly resulting in the overturning of what Tom Nichols has called the death of expertise.


The Trump White House claimed critical race theory (CRT) stresses divisions and conflated it with communism.

The U.S. political system establishes for voters only a binary choice for a single cause or solution to a problem.

U.S. politics also looks at economics from the right or the left, a binary choice between equality versus the free market.

Economists are drawing on psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, physics, biology, mathematics and computer science to make economics better represent reality.

The U.S. is not the only country that neglects complex methods of analysis in its politics. Britain’s Brexit debate suffered from the same issue.

The U.S. educational system needs to integrate a broader understanding of mathematics and how mathematics done by computers helps us understand complex phenomena.

High school and college students will need to better understand systems thinking.