Critical Race Theory

The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

After the first decade, critical race theory began to splinter and now includes a welldeveloped Asian American jurisprudence, a forceful Latino-critical (LatCrit) contingent, a feisty LGBT interest group, and now a Muslim and Arab caucus. Although the groups continue to maintain good relations under the umbrella of critical race theory, each has developed its own body of literature and set of priorities. For example, Latino and Asian scholars study immigration policy, as well as language rights and discrimination based on accent or national origin. A small group of American Indian scholars addresses indigenous people’s rights, sovereignty, and land claims. They also study historical trauma and its legacy and health consequences, as well as Indian mascots and co-optation of Indian culture. Scholars of Middle Eastern and South Asian background address discrimination against their groups, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. (See, e.g., Khaled A. Beydoun, Between Indigence, Islamophobia and Erasure: Poor and Muslim in “War on Terror” America, 105 Calif. L. Rev. ___ [2016].

Early Origins

Critical race theory sprang up in the 1970s, as a number of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars across the country realized, more or less simultaneously, that the heady advances of the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled and, in many respects, were being rolled back. Realizing that new theories and strategies were needed to combat the subtler forms of racism that were gaining ground, early writers, such as Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado, put their minds to the task. They were soon joined by others, and the group held its first workshop at a convent outside Madison, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1989. Further conferences and meetings took place. Some were closed sessions at which the group threshed out internal problems and struggled to clarify central issues, while others were public, multiday affairs with panels, plenary sessions, keynote speakers, and a broad representation of scholars, students, and activists from a wide variety of disciplines.

Relationship to Previous Movements

Critical race theory builds on the insights of two previous movements, critical legal studies and radical feminism, to both of which it owes a large debt. It also draws from certain European philosophers and theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, as well as from the American radical tradition exemplified by such figures as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Power and Chicano movements of the sixties and early seventies. From critical legal studies, the group borrowed the idea of legal indeterminacy—the idea that not every legal case has one correct outcome. Instead, one can decide most cases either way, by emphasizing one line of authority over another or interpreting one fact differently from the way one’s adversary does. The group also incorporated skepticism of triumphalist history and the insight that favorable precedent, like Brown v. Board of Education, tends to erode over time, cut back by narrow lower-court interpretation, administrative foot dragging, and delay. The group also built on feminism’s insights into the relationship between power and the construction of social roles, as well as the unseen, largely invisible collection of patterns and habits that make up patriarchy and other types of domination. From conventional civil rights thought, the movement took a concern for redressing historical wrongs, as well as the insistence that legal and social theory lead to practical consequences. CRT also shared with it a sympathetic understanding of notions of community and group empowerment. From ethnic studies, it took notions such as cultural nationalism, group cohesion, and the need to develop ideas and texts centered around each group and its situation.

Principal Figures

The late Derrick Bell, formerly at Harvard Law School but serving as visiting professor of law at New York University when he died in 2011, became the movement’s intellectual father figure. Most famous for his interest-convergence thesis, Bell authored many of CRT’s foundational texts.

Alan Freeman, who taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School, wrote a number of leading articles, including one that documented how the U.S. Supreme Court’s race jurisprudence, even when seemingly liberal in thrust, nevertheless legitimized racism. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Harris, Cheryl Harris, Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams were major early figures, as well. Leading Asian scholars include Neil Gotanda, Mitu Gulati, Jerry Kang, and Eric Yamamoto. The top American Indian critical scholar is Robert A. Williams, Jr.; prolific Latinos of a critical persuasion include Laura E. Gómez, Ian Haney-López, Kevin R. Johnson,Gerald López, Margaret E Montoya, Juan Perea, and Francisco Valdes. Influential black scholars include Paul Butler, Devon W. Carbado, Lani Guinier, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig.

The movement counts a number of fellow travelers and writers who are white, notably andré douglas pond cummings, Nancy Levit, Tom Ross, Jean Stefancic, and Stephanie Wildman.

Spin-Off Movements

Although CRT began as a movement in the law, it has rapidly spread beyond that discipline. Today, many scholars in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues of school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, affirmative action, high-stakes testing, controversies over curriculum and history, bilingual and multicultural education, and alternative and charter schools. (See, e.g., Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education [Edward Taylor, David Gillborn & Gloria Ladson-Billings eds., 2d ed. 2015].) They discuss the rise of biological racism in educational theory and practice and urge attention to the resegregation of American schools. Some question the Anglocentric curriculum and charge that many educators apply a “deficit theory” approach to schooling for minority kids.

Political scientists ponder voting strategies coined by critical race theorists, while women’s studies professors teach about intersectionality—the predicament of women of color and others who sit at the intersection of two or more categories. Ethnic studies courses often include a unit on critical race theory, and American studies departments teach material on critical white studies developed by CRT writers. Sociologists, theologians, and health care specialists use critical theory and its ideas. Philosophers incorporate critical race ideas in analyzing issues such as viewpoint discrimination and whether Western philosophy is inherently white in its orientation, values, and method of reasoning.

Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It tries not only to understand our social situation but to change it, setting out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies but to transform it for the better.

Basic Tenets of Critical Race Theory

What do critical race theorists believe? Many would agree on the following propositions. First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group. The first feature, ordinariness, means that racism is difficult to address or cure because it is not acknowledged. Color-blind, or “formal,” conceptions of equality, expressed in rules that insist only on treatment that is the same across the board, can thus remedy only the most blatant forms of discrimination, such as mortgage redlining or an immigration dragnet in a food-processing plant that targets Latino workers or the refusal to hire a black Ph.D. rather than a white college dropout, which stand out and attract our attention.

The second feature, sometimes called “interest convergence” or material determinism, adds a further dimension. Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it. Consider, for example, Derrick Bell’s shocking proposal that Brown v. Board of Education—considered a great triumph of civil rights litigation—may have resulted more from the self-interest of elite whites than from a desire to help blacks.

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient. People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment, are dwarfed by what we have in common, and have little or nothing to do with distinctly human, higher-order traits, such as personality, intelligence, and moral behavior. That society frequently chooses to ignore these scientific truths, creates races, and endows them with pseudo-permanent characteristics is of great interest to critical race theory.

Another, somewhat more recent, development concerns differential racialization and its consequences. Critical writers in law, as well as in social science, have drawn attention to the ways the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market. At one period, for example, society may have had little use for blacks but much need for Mexican or Japanese agricultural workers. At another time, the Japanese, including citizens of long standing, may have been in intense disfavor and removed to war relocation camps, while society cultivated other groups of color for jobs in war industry or as cannon fodder on the front. In one era, Muslims are somewhat exotic neighbors who go to mosques and pray several times of day—harmless but odd. A few years later, they emerge as security threats.

Popular images and stereotypes of various minority groups shift over time, as well. In one era, a group of color may be depicted as happy-go-lucky, simpleminded, and content to serve white folks. A little later, when conditions change, that very same group may appear in cartoons, movies, and other cultural scripts as menacing, brutish, and out of control, requiring close supervision. In one age, Middle Eastern people are exotic, fetishized figures wearing veils, wielding curved swords, and summoning genies from lamps. Later, after circumstances change, they emerge as fanatical, religiously crazed terrorists bent on destroying America and killing innocent citizens.

Closely related to differential racialization—the idea that each race has its own origins and ever-evolving history—is the notion of intersectionality and antiessentialism. No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity. A white feminist may also be Jewish or working class or a single mother. An African American activist may be male or female, gay or straight. A Latino may be a Democrat, a Republican, or even black—perhaps because that person’s family hails from the Caribbean. An Asian may be a recently arrived Hmong of rural background and unfamiliar with mercantile life or a fourth-generation Chinese with a father who is a university professor and a mother who operates a business. Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.

A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism. The “legal storytelling” movement urges black and brown writers to recount their experiences with racism and the legal system and to apply their own unique perspectives to assess law’s master narratives.

Delgado, Richard, Jean Stefancic, and Angela P Harris. Critical Race Theory An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2017. Print.

Ayres, Ian, Pervasive Discrimination: Unconventional Evidence of Racial and Gender Discrimination (2003).
Bell, Derrick A., Race, Racism, and American Law (6th ed. 2008).
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (3d ed. 2009).
Carbado, Devon W. & Mitu Gulati, Acting White: Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America (2013; repr., 2015).
Cho, Sumi & Robert Westley, Critical Race Coalitions: Key Movements That Performed the Theory, 33 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1377 (2000).
Critical Race Studies in Education Association, (official website).
Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge (Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic eds., 3d ed. 2013).
Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller & Kendall Thomas eds., 1995).
Critical Race Theory in Education: All God’s Children Got a Song (Adrienne D. Dixson, Celia D. Rousseau & Jamel K. Donnor eds., 2d ed. 2016).
Curry, Tommy, Will the Real CRT Please Stand Up? 2 The Crit: J. Crit. Legal Stud. 1 (2009).
Delgado, Richard, Liberal McCarthyism and the Origins of Critical Race Theory, 94 Iowa L. Rev. 1505 (2009).
Edelman, Benjamin G., Michael Luca & Daniel Svirsky, Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy (Harvard Business School Working Paper, Jan. 6, 2016).
Gelber, Katharine & Luke McNamara, The Effects of Civil Hate Speech Laws: Lessons from Australia, 49 Law & Society Rev. 631 (2015).
Haney López, Ian F., The Social Construction of Race: Some Observations on Illusion, Fabrication, and Choice, 29 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 1 (1994).
Moschel, Mathias, Law, Lawyers and Race: Critical Race Theory from the United States to Europe (2014).
Omi, Michael & Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (3d ed. 2014). Perea, Juan F., Buscando América: Why Integration and Equal Protection Fail to Protect Latinos, 117 Harv. L. Rev. 1420 (2004).
Race and Races: Cases and Resources for a Diverse America (Juan Perea, Richard Delgado, Angela Harris, Jean Stefancic & Stephanie Wildman eds., 3d ed. 2015).
Race Is . . . Race Isn’t: Critical Race Theory and Qualitative Studies in Education (Laurence Park, Donna Deyhle & Sofia Villenas eds., 1999).
Trubek, David, M., Foundational Events, Foundational Myths, and the Creation of Critical Race Theory, or How to Get Along with a Little Help from Your Friends, 43 Conn. L. Rev. 1503 (2011).

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5 replies

  1. ‘. . . [minority experience] brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.’

    Don’t minorities – as anyone – have a right to speak regardless of ‘competence’? Isn’t experience and resultant expressions of such experience an intrinsic part of race and thus critical race theory?

    In other words, ‘a presumed competence’ seems rather elitist. (Admittedly, I view the expression as mistaken for I don’t view the rest of the post as elitist.)


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