Critical race theory has no place in the workplace

Andy Mayer

June 18, 2021

A difficult aspect to how institutions have responded to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests has been widespread updating of HR practice to reflect demands from campaigners to incorporate ‘antiracism’ principles into workplace rules.

In some cases this was immediate and unthinking; in others it was more cautious. Many, however, have accepted at face value what amounts to a shopping list of propositions rooted in the ideologies of critical theory and postmodernism, without researching their validity, effectiveness, or thinking through the consequences.

Critical theory is a school of philosophy that analyses social problems through the lens of power relationships. The structure of society and our norms can be understood mainly through the interaction of the ‘in group’ and ‘out groups’, or oppressor and oppressed. Postmodernism is a scepticism of enlightenment rationality and posits that all narratives of meaning in our lives are merely constructs and devices for those with power to maintain that power.

Under both doctrines, that you may be distantly descended from someone who may have been involved in the transatlantic slave trade 200-300 years ago is seen as having relevance today. Your liberal guilt for example is merely another device for maintaining your status as the in-group.

When these ideas are applied to the workplace it invites members of the ‘in-group’, generally white people, to contemplate their guilt. It invites them to consider issues like the unequal distribution of pay or ‘microaggressions’ as rooted in dominance behaviours and as social norms that can be considered structurally racist.

Staff can be invited to listening exercises, where it is expected they will listen to other staff members’ experiences of racism, without comment or criticism. They are invited to consider their unconscious bias, ‘white privilege’, ‘white guilt’, and ‘whiteness’.  In some cases, they are invited to apologise for their implicit prejudice, regardless as to any personal responsibility for malpractice or mistreatment, perceived or real.

The opening presumption to any claim of discrimination on this basis is that it must be believed, taken seriously, and addressed with positive action, rather than subject to inquiry, evidence gathering, and due process.

Suggestions that people should be treated as individuals and employment policies rooted in fair treatment are greeted with claims of structural bias, catastrophising appeals to emotion, protests, claims of being ‘tired of explaining’, and generally an attitude that if you don’t immediately agree to all demands made by campaigners, that you yourself are an explicit or implicit racist supporting a racist system. Corporate HR professionals, quite understandably have found this all rather terrifying. No one wants to be accused of racism, and they have reacted accordingly. Knees have been bent, statements of solidarity expressed, and HR codes updated.

This is unwise. The central problem with ‘Antiracism’ is that it become the thing it claims to be seeking to address. ‘Antiracism’ is racist. By treating people as members of hierarchies of privilege based on their identity traits it denies them autonomy and dignity as individuals. By according equal status to claims of offence with provable acts of serious harm they are denying proportionality. By demanding action without challenge or due process they are denying equity between accuser and accused. When they attack positive liberal concepts of inclusion, for example encouraging colour-blindness, they are demanding we ‘see race’ not people. By dividing listening exercises or staff groups along racial lines, they are encouraging a form of segregation. By demanding corrective pay awards on racial grounds rather than merit, they are denying fair treatment. By bandying about terms like white privilege, they are engaging in prejudicial racial profiling.

These are all bad takes, and when applied to a workplace encourage polarisation. Just as Leave voters did not react kindly to patronising Remainers using terms like ‘little Englander’, white workers do not react kindly to being falsely accused of being racist by an actual racist attaching that charge to them on the basis that they are white. This in turn breeds an eye-rolling defensiveness against actually listening to genuine problems lest the reaction to anything other than uncritical agreement  are further false allegations. ‘Antiracism’ in HR encourages racism and lessens the likelihood of it being dealt with fairly.

So what to do? It remains the case that allegations of discrimination should be taken seriously by employers, investigated and resolved, with fair treatment to both accuser and accused. It remains the case that bad practice and policy should be challenged and changed. In the case of antiracism campaigns however these are creating new problems not solutions.

At the Institute of Economic Affairs we have then created a very short and simple clarification to our Dignity at Work policy that makes it clear how we will deal with claims of racism on this basis, in line with current employment law:

“The company does not support critical theory or postmodernism as applied to claims of discrimination on the presumption of implicit or unconscious bias in individuals or groups. We regard it as a form of discrimination to presume someone holds particular views, without evidence that they do, based purely on identity traits.” 

We have not yet had to use it. It seems almost bizarre this needs to be stated, but the uncritical acceptance of the opposite view in rather too many other places suggests that it does. We very much hope this short corrective is helpful to other workplaces seeking to address genuine issues of racism, diversity and inclusion, without acceding to what amounts to a racist campaign for workplace strife rooted in a grievance culture.


  • Andy Mayer

    Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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