Critical Race Theory

CRT is not a “diversity training.” It’s a framework for seeing the world & doing scholarship.

CRT was developed by legal scholars seeking a new way of thinking about America, justice & the law in a way that acknowledges the nation’s racist history rather than debating it. These scholars include Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, and many others.

Since its inception in the legal field, CRT has been taken up by many across the social sciences. In the field in which I was trained, education, many many many of us use it, spearheaded by Gloria Ladson-Billings & William Tate’s seminal article in 1995 connecting CRT to ed.

CRT is not new. It’s been around for like 40 years. As such, there are many different scholars who define it and describe it in various ways. It’s been extended into different offshoots such as TribalCrit, LatCrit, and DisCrit.

Eve Ewing on Twitter

Critical Race Theory’s founders sought to understand how a society that had officially disowned racism managed to continue being racist. Academically, Critical Race Theorists departed from Critical Legal Studies (CLS), which arose from legal thinkers realizing that law and the courts existed in the same sociological, economic, historical and political reality as the rest of society. Therefore, to understand how law impacts society, we must understand how law exists in society, which means applying insights from the fields that study society: the social sciences. One key insight of CLS is that law is not just an outcome of statutory authority, nor is it a system of deductive reasoning leading objectively to one “right,” outcome; but that the way it is applied, enforced and interpreted is an outcome of social power. This insight made Critical Legal Studies a logical jumping off point, within legal academia, for those seeking to understand law’s application as an outcome of racial power.

Civil rights lawyers using legal scholarship to pursue justice in legal academia, and racial justice-minded law students demanding law schools give them the resources to continue the work of generations before them, created Critical Race Theory out of Critical Legal Studies. 

Derrick Bell, the acknowledged progenitor of Critical Race Theory, who started his legal career with the NAACP’s legal department working under Thurgood Marshall, pioneered the study of law as an instrument of racial power. Law student, now professor, Kimberele Crenshaw and her comrades built on Bell’s insights to create an activist-intellectual movement. This is Critical Race Theory’s dual genealogy: Social science perspectives informing the study of law meets the quest for racial justice as a framework for studying the law. 

Guest post: The Negro Subversive on 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.

Critical race theory sprang up in the 197os, as a number of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars across the coun try realized, more or less simultaneously, that the heady advances of the civil rights era of the 196os had stalled and, in many respects, were being rolled back. Realizing that new theories and strategies were needed to combat the subter 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.

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic :: SSRN

Critical Race Theory is at bottom properly “critical,” which in this sense means also to be “radical”—to locate problems not at the surface of doctrine but in the deep structure of American law and culture.

The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction

Critical Race Theory owes its intellectual inheritance to critical race legal theory developed in the 1970s, which sought a systemic framework for understanding race and law outside of direct action against specific racist laws. It was an evolution in the strategic thinking about civil rights incrementalism which called for targeted direct action – the equivalent of cutting off each individual and successive head of the Hydra, so to speak – to identifying and dismantling the structures that allowed racist laws to flourish, cauterizing the wound to destroy the beast. Likewise, understanding education and addressing inequitable outcomes in a racialized society requires a framework that centers and makes visible race and racist structures that contribute to inequitable outcomes.

A Teacher’s Case for Critical Race Theory | Human Restoration Project | Nick Covington

We have seen a demonstration that the law is not best understood as a stable and transcendent arbiter of Justice needing only technical application to achieve Just results, but is in practice, rather, a reflection of evolving public morality and a preserver of predominating social structures and ideologies. We have seen also that the law is deeply indeterminate, with multiple, even contradictory decisions available within the accepted legal form. And, most importantly, we have seen that this law can be used to remedy, but has more often been employed in service of the status quo, presenting society as it is currently structured as necessary, normal, natural, and perfectly justifiable, racially subordinated circumstances and all. By the end of the so-called “Era of Rationalization,” vast society-wide racial disparities were easily justified as how the cookie crumbles; either that, or the victims themselves were to blame. The extreme relative poverty of African Americans prior to Brown was deplored as the work of evil racists; yet identical conditions just 10 – 20 years later were considered simply neutral facts of life. Right.

This understanding of law is integral to CRT’s answer to the questions we’ve been asking since Part 2 of this series: How, within the space of just twenty years, was the Civil Rights revolution so successfully stymied in making lasting substantive changes to the circumstances of African Americans? The signs had indeed come down, formal equality had been legally established, massive victories were won for civil rights throughout the nation at every level of government, yet the historically expected and inevitable social and economic disparities suffered by African Americans seemed obstinate, even entrenched. The answer from CLS, and Freeman in particular, is that the law, as a site of reform, is more likely to legitimize racism and racist systems than it is to remedy them, since it is only a reflection of a society’s dominate morality, existing distributive systems, and power structures. That is how law functions in real life. And, therefore, there should be no surprise that what originally appeared to be remedy only served in the end as justification.

In conclusion, I think this summary of Freeman’s article, by the founders of Critical Race Theory, reflects well CRT’s interest in Freeman’s work:

In direct challenge to the reigning idea of civil rights discourse as a rational and neutral development of uncontroversial norms of justice, Freeman presents Supreme Court doctrine as evoking two competing, and starkly contrasting, ideologies for presenting “racism”: the narrower, perpetrator perspective he argues, has been privileged over the more expansive vision. In contrast to Bell’s instrumental approach—within which doctrinal developments are seen to reflect fairly directly the relative balance of social interests—Freeman contends that legal doctrine must be understood as part of an ideological narrative about how race is understood, a narrative that can legitimate racial power by presenting it as neutral and objective. As he argues, the legal adoption of the perpetrator perspective is part of an ideological process through which forms of racial power that do not register on the perpetrator framework get implicitly represented as “not racism” and, thus, are pushed beyond the scope of remediation.

(Critical Race Theory, p. 3)
The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 4: Alan Freeman and the Contribution of CLS – The Front Porch

All that was necessary was a race-conscious perspective that focused on the effect of integration on the black community. That change in perspective is the intellectual starting point of Critical Race theory.

Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed a Movement

CRT shifts the research lens away from a deficit view of Communities of Color as places full of cultural poverty disadvantages, and instead focuses on and learns from the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged. Various forms of capital nurtured through cultural wealth include aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial and resistant capital. These forms of capital draw on the knowledges Students of Color bring with them from their homes and communities into the classroom. This CRT approach to education involves a commitment to develop schools that acknowledge the multiple strengths of Communities of Color in order to serve a larger purpose of struggle toward social and racial justice.

Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth

CRT is conceived as a social justice project that works toward the liberatory potential of schooling (hooks, 1994; Freire, 1970, 1973). This acknowledges the contradictory nature of education, wherein schools most often oppress and marginalize while they maintain the potential to emancipate and empower. Indeed, CRT in education refutes dominant ideology and White privilege while validating and centering the experiences of People of Color. CRT utilizes transdisciplinary approaches to link theory with practice, scholarship with teaching, and the academy with the community (see LatCrit Primer, 1999; Solórzano & Yosso, 2001).

Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth

Critical Race Theory provides accessible, common language and a unifying understanding of the relationship of race and power. It empowers collective action against the outcomes of systemic racism and the desire to fracture our understanding and isolate our response. Conscientious readers will recognize the focused attacks on CRT and culturally relevant pedagogy as an unusually self-aware admission that programming rooted critical frameworks is an inoculation against authoritarian attitudes and the maintenance of education as a hierarchical system of predictably distributed achievement without agency. Educators should be especially resistant to any attempt to disarm this discourse at the intersection of pedagogy and power. As Ladson-Billings & Tate ask:

“What constitutes student success? How can academic success and cultural success complement each other in settings where student alienation and hostility characterize the school experience? How can pedagogy promote the kind of student success that engages larger social structural issues in a critical way? How do researchers recognize that pedagogy in action? And, what are the implications for teacher preparation generated by this pedagogy?”

A Teacher’s Case for Critical Race Theory | Human Restoration Project | Nick Covington

CRT was not, however, simply a product of a philosophical critique of the dominant frames on racial power. It was also a product of activists’ engagement with the material manifestations of liberal reform. Indeed, one

might say that CRT was the offspring of a post-civil rights institutional activism that was generated and informed by an oppositionalist orientation toward racial power. Activists’ demands that elite institutions rethink and transform their conceptions of “race neutrality” in the face of functionally exclusionary practices engendered a particularly concrete defense of the status quo. These defenses in turn produced precisely the apologia for institutionalized racial dominance that critics of the dominant thinking on “race relations” had voiced both historically and in more recent struggles over the terms of knowledge production in the academy. These institutional struggles presented post-reform critics with the hands-on opportunity to create an affirmative account of racial power and to mark the limits of liberal reform. How the first generation of Race Crits came to understand these limits and to create space to generate a fuller account of racial power in law and society are key dimensions of the CRT story.

“Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking back to Move Forward Com” by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

Thus, we may conclude that one major aspect of the misalignment that led to the creation of CRT was the clash between the integrationist ideology of the traditionalists within the Civil Rights Establishment and the burgeoning young anti-racist legal scholars in the late 1980’s. According to these latter scholars, the ideology of integrationism had stunted the work of civil rights activists since the mid 1970’s and had facilitated the retrenchment observed over the decade and a half leading up to the first CRT conference. Rather than addressing the subordinated circumstances of Black Americans, the CRE had long been employing the analytics of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation, thereby eschewing race-consciousness in favor of “neutral standards” and idealized “merit.” Sure, some endorsed remedies like affirmative action, but only in order to overcome “ignorance” through “diversity,” an extension of a broader liberal project. And further, as we have seen, the ideology of integrationism had also served to remove the historical specificity of “race” and racism in America, to legitimize ongoing vast social and economic disparities, to blame subordinated peoples for their own suffering, and to counsel more time and patience as the enlightened solution.

And what we absolutely must see is that none of this needed to be so. Our ideas about race, racism, “race relations,” what have you, are simply not transcendent ideologies. They have a history and a context. Integrationism, again, was not discovered in the Bible, nor in nature or conscience. It was a convergence of group interests and an ideological appropriation. Even more, we could say it was a successful effort to maintain the dominance of White liberal categories and to reject any radical changes to the status quo. The rejection of race-consciousness, therefore, is a recent historical development—not an eternal verity—and it exists to dull the radical edges of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 5: A Misalignment of Frames: Integrationism – The Front Porch

As discussed in our LAST POST, CRT co-founder Kimberlé Crenshaw argued in 2011 that “what nourished CRT and facilitated its growth from a collection of institutional and discursive interventions into a sustained intellectual project was a certain dialectical misalignment” (“Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory,” p. 1259). We saw that one central component of this misalignment was the clash between the “integrationist ideology” of the traditionalists within the civil rights establishment (CRE) and the burgeoning young antiracist legal scholars of the late 1980’s. According to these latter scholars, the ideology of integrationism had facilitated the rapid civil rights retrenchment discussed in Part 2 of this series. White liberals, with the support of many within the Black middle class, had successfully reinterpreted the message of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), dulling its radical edge and sowing the seeds of its rapid demise. Rather than addressing the subordinated circumstances of Black Americans, the CRE centered their continuing civil rights work on the analytics of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation, thereby eschewing race-consciousness in favor of “neutral standards” and idealized “merit.”

Accordingly, both mainstream civil rights conservatives and liberals alike saw (and continue to see) our society somewhere on an arc bending inevitably toward racial harmony as we are increasingly civilized and enlightened. As Derrick Bell, mentor to many of CRT’s founders, has noted,

Unquestioned belief in the eventual resolution of the country’s racial conflicts is an accepted article of American faith. In political terms, there is a national assumption that in several more years (the conservatives), or after the enactment of still more civil rights laws (the liberals), remaining obstacles to liberty and justice for all will finally fade away. (“Racial Remediation,” p. 5)

But, as Kimberlé Crenshaw reported in her 1988, “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law,” “[c]ommentators on both the Right and the Left … have begun to cast doubt upon the continuing vitality of this shopworn theme” (p. 1334). The civil rights ideologies of both the “New Right”—”developed in the neoconservative ‘think tanks’ during the 1970’s”—and the “New Left”—”presented in the work of scholars associated with the Conference on Critical Legal Studies (‘CLS’)”—alike rejected the “steady and inevitable progress” view of a continuing civil rights movement, with the Right arguing that the work of civil rights had been completed with the reforms of the late 1960’s and the Left arguing that the work of civil rights had been faulty from the start, having been built on the legal canard of “rights” (p. 1337). But, as with the integrationist ideology of the CRE traditionalists, so the civil rights ideologies of both the Left and the Right likewise presented additional points of misalignment for those young legal scholars who would soon form the first conference on Critical Race Theory. Having covered the “New Right” in our last post, we will here cover this alignment and misalignment with the “New Left,” namely, the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement.

The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 7: A Race Intervention into Critical Legal Studies – The Front Porch

I would argue that for any theory or system of ideas to be considered properly “critical,” it must at least see (1) group-wide inequalities, hierarchical social stratification, and social ills generally as not simply the product of individual policies and individual actors, but deeply ingrained in the socio-historical development of institutions, norms, values, cultural expressions, and relations of power which operate thereby, (2) that these “pathologies” develop through historical processes of social creation and change, and that much of the furniture of social life and knowledge are therefore constructed and conditioned imminently, (3) that remedies require critique of the whole, and that the transformative action required to dismantle the systems and ideas which embody social dominance and pathology is inseparable from knowledge production itself, and, finally, (4) the theory or system of ideas ought to display a “radical reflexivity,” i.e., “reflective accountability concerning critical theory’s own practices” (Patrica Hill Collins, Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, Location 1314). It is this sense of “critical” of which CRT scholar Angela Harris wrote in 1994:

CRT inherits from CLS a commitment to being “critical,” which in this sense means also to be “radical”—to locate problems not at the surface of doctrine but in the deep structure of American law and culture. (“The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction,” p.743)

The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 7: A Race Intervention into Critical Legal Studies – The Front Porch