Critical Race Theory (CRT) is something you may have heard about in the news with frequent calls from the alt right to ban CRT from the K-12 curriculum. In reality, CRT is a scholarly legal theory that is usually not even a part of most major law school curricula. It was developed as a critique of the dominant way law was taught and interpreted in the U.S. CRT has its roots in activism, because it “is grounded in the particulars of a social reality that is defined by [the] experiences [of people of color] and the collective historical experience of…communities of origin” (Matsuda et al. 3).
In the 1970s, a number of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars realized that the advances made by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were halted or regressing. Early scholars of the CRT movement, including Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado, begin to theorize new ways to fight against the coded racial language being used to extend and perpetuate racism in the legal system. In the early 1980s, Derrick Bell left Harvard Law School and the school’s failure to hire another professor of color to teach his course, “ Race, Racism, and American Law,” led to a student-organized protest. The school administration did not concede to student demands, which led to the students– including Kimberlé Crenshaw – organizing an alternative course. They invited scholars and practitioners of color, such as Richard Delgado and Charles Lawrence, to guest lecture and lead discussions on Bell’s work. The course grew into an intellectual community of progressive scholars and practitioners interested in racial justice across the U.S. Their theory and movement sharpened in contrast to critical legal studies, which was composed of mostly white, progressive law professors, who were not interested in issues of race, racism, or white supremacy.
The history behind CRT is vital to understanding CRT itself, as its core values and beliefs developed out of the shared experiences of racialized people in the legal field. CRT is not meant to be just abstract theory functioning in an isolated, academic circle of scholarship. It has spread, and was meant to spread beyond legal studies, to social sciences and humanities, notably in ethnic studies, public health, sociology, philosophy, education, and library and information science/studies.
Some of the evolutions of CRT within law, education, and other disciplines created space to attend to the specificity of experience within racialized, oppressed groups to be further theorized. Some of these arose out of the lack of CRT scholarship to include other racial groups beyond the Black and white binary. As CRT scholar Khiara Bridges writes, they "ought to be thought of as specific areas of emphasis within the larger CRT project--as opposed to theories that were merely inspired by, and are not separate from, CRT" (Bridges 101). Some of these other crits include Asian Pacific American Critical Race Theory (APACrit), Latinx Critical Race Theory (LatCrit), Tribal Critical Race Theory (TribalCrit), Black Critical Theory (BlackCrit), Queer Critical Race Theory (QueerCrit), Quantitative Critical Race Theory (QuantCrit), Disability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit), and Critical Race Feminism.
Critical Race Theory is a theory of practice based on a series of tenets or elements that can vary, depending on the discipline. The tenets/elements named below do not encompass all the tenets; this is meant to serve as an introduction to the major ones.
Racism is normal, ordinary, and endemic. Racism is such an everyday part of our lives, our normal way of doing things that we often don’t notice its existence or recognize it as extraordinary. CRT realizes and acknowledges this reality and moves forward from this reality.
Race is a social construct, like class or gender. It is given meaning in society because of power and social relations. It is not a fact of biology. CRT is interested in examining how the law has constructed race while using a color-evasive (“color-blind” being the ableist term) ideology. It confronts the interpretation that “insinuates that recognizing race is problematic and therefore the solution is to discount race” (Annamma et al 147).
CRT requires a contextual/historical analysis of the law. It must be understood that the current inequalities and the way structures and systems currently operate are connected to the past. We cannot construct an understanding of the law as it currently exists without also understanding how and why the law came to be this way.
Central to CRT’s methodology is challenging and critiquing dominant ideologies, including those of color-evasiveness, objectivity, neutrality, and meritocracy. These are all tools of whiteness that advance the goals of white supremacy to dominate and control our society.
Interest convergence. Derrick Bell’s seminal article, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interests Convergence Dilemma,” argues that movement towards racial equality will only happen when it converges with the self-interest of elite whites.
Whiteness as property. Cheryl Harris wrote the landmark article in 1993, where she claims that whiteness is a set of legal rights that can be deployed as a resource. She argues that in the U.S., race and property as social constructs were created in conjunction. The nation’s foundation depended upon the enslavement of Black people as property owned by whites and the elimination of Indigenous peoples (and their cultures) by whites in order to colonize Indigenous lands.
Critical Race Theory is interdisciplinary by nature and “borrows from several traditions, including liberalism, law and society, feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism, critical legal theory, pragmatism, and nationalism” (Matsuda et al 6). CRT is a living theory that continues to grow, develop, and expand to “advance the cause of racial justice even as we maintain a critical posture” (Ibid).
Kimberlè Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality in her groundbreaking article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” It is a lens and framework through which we can reveal how overlapping oppressions at the social intersections of race, gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity, age, citizenship can create devastating social inequalities and inequities. Intersectionality is also a methodology by which we can devise interventions that take into account the ways in which all marginalized groups are deeply impacted by current and ongoing structures and systems in our society.
Critical Race Theory emerged from the knowledge and experience of Black, Indigenous and People of Color and through its very existence asserts the significance and necessity of BIPOC experiential knowledge to the analysis of law and other structures of dominance. In particular, this knowledge and experience are crucial to the eradication of racial oppression. Counterstorytelling is a methodology that grew out of this tenet and serves as a tool to challenge the dominant narrative of whiteness.
CRT’s ultimate goal is the elimination of racial oppression and all forms of oppression, as it understands that they are all connected and require one another to sustain themselves and thrive. As Matsuda et al write, “The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself” (7).
Annamma, S. A., Jackson, D. D., & Morrison, D. (2017). Conceptualizing color-evasiveness: Using dis/ability critical race theory to expand a color-blind racial ideology in education and society. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(2), 147–162. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016.1248837
Bell, D. A. (1980). Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 93(3), 518–534.
Bridges, K. M. (2019). Critical Race Theory: A Primer. Foundation Press.
Crenshaw, K., Gotanda, N. T., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (Eds.). (1995). Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement. New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton. https://thenewpress.com/books/critical-race-theory
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (Third edition). New York University Press. https://nyupress.org/books/9781479802760/
Leung, S. Y., & López-McKnight, J. R. (2021). Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies Through Critical Race Theory. MIT Press.
Matsuda, M. J., Lawrence III, C. R., Delgado, R., & Crenshaw, K. W. (Eds.). (1993). Words that wound: Critical race theory, assaultive speech, and the First Amendment. Westview Press.
Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/107780040200800103?journalCode=qixa