What Is Critical Race Theory? Definition, Principles, and Applications

A challenge to the rhetoric of color-blindness

Activists Protest Death Of Stephon Clark During Day Of Action In Sacramento.

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Critical race theory (CRT) is a school of thought meant to emphasize the effects of race on one's social standing. It arose as a challenge to the idea that in the two decades since the Civil Rights Movement and associated legislation, racial inequality had been solved and affirmative action was no longer necessary. CRT continues to be an influential body of legal and academic literature that has made its way into more public, non-academic writing.

Key Takeaways: Critical Race Theory

  • Critical race theory was a response by legal scholars to the idea that the United States had become a color-blind society where racial inequality/discrimination was no longer in effect.
  • While "race" as a notion is a social construction and not rooted in biology, it has had real, tangible effects on African Americans and other people of color in terms of economic resources, educational and professional opportunities, and experiences with the legal system.
  • Critical race theory has inspired various other sub-fields, such as "LatCrit," "AsianCrit," "queer crit," and critical whiteness studies.

Definition and Origins of Critical Race Theory

Coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, the term "critical race theory" first emerged as a challenge to the idea that the United States had become a color-blind society where one's racial identity no longer had an effect on one's social or economic status. Just two decades after the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, many politicians and institutions were co-opting the aspirational, color-blind language of Martin Luther King, Jr.—i.e., the idea that we should judge someone on the content of his character rather than the color of his skin—while omitting the more critical aspects of his speeches that emphasized discrimination and economic inequality.

There were also beginning to be attacks on affirmative action policies, with conservative politicians arguing that they were no longer needed. CRT as a school of thought is designed to highlight the ways that supposedly color-blind laws have allowed racial oppression and inequality to continue despite the outlawing of segregation.

CRT originated among legal scholars like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, who argued that racism and white supremacy were defining elements of the American legal system—and of American society writ large—despite language related to "equal protection." Early proponents argued for a contextual, historicized analysis of the law that would challenge seemingly neutral concepts like meritocracy and objectivity, which, in practice, tend to reinforce white supremacy. The fight against oppression of people of color was a major goal of early critical race theorists; in other words, they sought to change the status quo, not just critique it. Finally, CRT was interdisciplinary, drawing on a wide range of scholarly ideologies, including feminism, Marxism, and postmodernism.

Derrick Bell is often thought of as the forefather of CRT. He made important theoretical contributions, such as arguing that the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education was a result of the self-interest of elite whites instead of a desire to desegregate schools and improve education for black children. However, Bell also critiqued the field of law itself, highlighting the exclusionary practices at elite schools such as Harvard Law School, where he was on faculty. He even resigned from his position to protest Harvard's failure to hire female faculty of color. Other early important figures were Alan Freeman and Richard Delgado.

Black feminists have been particularly influential proponents of CRT. Beyond coming up with the name of the field, Crenshaw is even more well-known for coining the now-very-fashionable term "intersectionality," meant to highlight the multiple and overlapping systems of oppression that women of color (in addition to queer people of color, immigrants of color, etc.) face that make their experience different from that of white women's. Patricia Williams and Angela Harris have also made important contributions to CRT.

Race as a Social Construct

The notion that race is a social construct essentially means that race has no scientific basis or biological reality. Instead, race as a way to differentiate human beings is a social concept, a product of human thought, that is innately hierarchical. Of course, this does not mean that there are no physical or phenotypical differences between people from different regions of the world. However, these differences make up a fraction of our genetic endowment and do not tell us anything about a person's intelligence, behavior, or moral capacity. In other words, there is no behavior or personality that is inherent to white, black, or Asian people. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic state, "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."

While race is a social construct, this does not mean that it hasn't had real, tangible effects on people. The impact of the notion (as opposed to the reality) of race is that black, Latino, and indigenous people have for centuries been thought of as less intelligent and rational than white people. Ideas about racial difference were used by Europeans during the colonial period to subjugate non-whites and force them into subservient roles. This socially constructed notion of race, which was used to exercise and reinforce white supremacy, was the backbone of Jim Crow legislation in the South, which relied on the one-drop rule in order to separate people by race. Race as an idea continues to have a wide range of effects with respect to educational outcomes, criminal justice, and within other institutions.

Applications of Critical Race Theory

CRT has been expanded to various fields within and beyond law. Two offshoots are Latina/o Critical Theory—whose leading scholars include Francisco Valdes and Elizabeth Iglesias—and "AsianCrit," whose proponents include Mari Matsuda and Robert S. Chang. "LatCrit" in particular has relied heavily on queer theory and feminism, and both of these variants address issues relevant to the Latinx and Asian populations in the U.S., such as immigration and language barriers. In this way, CRT has many overlaps with and is often a defining feature of Ethnic Studies programs in many colleges and universities.

CRT scholars have also turned their attention to a critique of whiteness, the ways it is socially constructed (as opposed to the standard by which all other groups should be measured), and how its definition has expanded or contracted historically. For example, various European groups—such as Irish and Jewish immigrants—were originally racialized as non-white when they began arriving in large numbers in the United States. These groups were eventually able to assimilate into whiteness or "become" white, largely by distancing themselves from African Americans and adopting the Anglo mainstream's racist attitudes toward them. Scholars like David Roediger, Ian Haney López, and George Lipsitz have all contributed important scholarship to critical whiteness studies.

Sub-fields of CRT focusing on gender identity and sexual orientation have also emerged in recent decades. Some of the most important scholars fusing CRT with feminist theory are featured in the anthology Critical Race Feminism: A Reader. As should be evident, there are many overlaps between critical race feminism and intersectionality, as both focus on the overlapping and multiple marginalizations of women of color. Similarly "queer crit," as theorized by scholars like Mitsunori Misawa, examines the intersections of non-white identity and queerness.

Apart from the legal field, education is where CRT has had the largest impact, specifically in terms of the ways race (and often class) intersect to create worse outcomes for black and Latino students. CRT has also become a more influential ideology in the new millennium as the scholars of color who were its first proponents have been tenured at major American law schools.

Criticisms

Crenshaw (in Valdes et al., 2002) and Delgado and Stefancic (2012) detail the opposition to CRT in the 1990s, principally from neo-conservative opponents of affirmative action who saw CRT scholars as leftist radicals, and even accused them of anti-Semitism. Critics felt the "legal storytelling movement," an approach focusing on stories by people of color and used by CRT law scholars to challenge dominant narratives, was not a rigorous method of analysis. These critics also objected to the notion that people of color were more knowledgeable about their own experiences and thus, better equipped to represent them than were white writers. Finally, critics of CRT were suspicious of the movement's tendency to question the existence of an "objective truth." Notions like truth, objectivity, and meritocracy are all challenged by CRT scholars, who point out the often invisible workings of white supremacy, for example, the ways whites have always enjoyed a form of affirmative action within higher education through policies like legacy admissions.

Sources

  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, editors. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: The New Press, 1995.
  • Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, editors. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Hill-Collins, Patricia, and John Solomos, editors. The SAGE Handbook of Race and Ethnic Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2010.
  • Valdes, Francisco, Jerome McCristal Culp, and Angela P. Harris, editors. Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.