Critical Race Theory Defined
Critical race theory is a school of thought that draws on both critical legal studies and cultural anthropology to understand how the law has been used to perpetuate racism. It identifies certain characteristics in our society, structures, institutions, social practices, and ways of thinking – what it calls “race thinking” – that work together to maintain white privilege.
So, what is the definition of critical race theory? Critical race theorists believe that racism cannot be reduced to mindsets held by individuals or even biased laws or policies. It has been designed into the very fabric of society.
a. The area of critical race theory studies that analyzes how the law is used as an instrument to maintain inequality between racial groups.
b. A movement that seeks to question conventional legal norms and methods, especially in regards to their effects on minorities, within a larger social context.
c. Critical Race Theory incorporates legal scholarship with critical analysis of the purpose, meaning, and impact of the law.
Critical Race Theory explores how the law is not neutral and objective but has worked to privilege white people while subjugating people of color.
d. Critical race theory is a legal methodology that was created by legal scholars who sought to eradicate structural racism within our society… Critical race theory is based on the notion that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of law.
Colloquially, critical race theory holds that African Americans and other people of color are oppressed by the law and its enforcers, such as police officers. The message is clear: People of color are inferior, wrong, irrational, dirty, less intelligent, need to be corrected or punished – and have always been this way.
The theory also maintains that racism is not limited to acts of individual bias or prejudice. Rather, it is a set of concepts and practices deeply embedded in the structure of society, which are maintained through policies, laws, customs, and institutions.
Keep reading to learn more!
Defining Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory (CRT) is a lens that critically analyzes the intersection of race and law. As an interdisciplinary field, it uses legal scholarship to examine how systemic power differentials are produced and maintained in contemporary society. Critical race theory adopts an integrated approach to intersectional issues prevalent in today’s society through its examination of the overlapping systems of oppression.
History of Critical Race Theory
CRT deconstructs the structural and epistemological premises that support inequality by race, national origins, color, gender, sexuality, religion, ministry affiliation, age, and ability.
It initially grew out of the legal scholar’s critical perspectives on traditional civil rights advocacy in the 1970s that focused on individualized issues such as employment discrimination, school desegregation, and voting rights. CRT highlights the importance of social issues that individualized perspectives often overlooked or perpetuated.
Critical race theory identifies power imbalances along multiple dimensions of society, including within judicial decision-making processes. CRT holds that there is no single perspective for how to analyze law because the political-economic context in which law operates is constantly changing.
Thus, CRT argues for multiple perspectives that allow us to understand the larger picture of how race operates within the ever-changing political-economic context.
CRT is critical of traditional legal liberalism because it assumes neutrality and equality in adjudication processes, failing to recognize how laws are not neutral despite their claims to neutrality. On the contrary, CRT recognizes that law is heavily influenced by political and economic context.
An Interdisciplinary Approach to Law
CRT often adopts an interdisciplinary approach to legal scholarship (e.g., history, philosophy, sociology) because it acknowledges that all disciplines contribute to our understanding of systemic oppression. Therefore, traditional perspectives are not sufficient in explaining how various forms of oppression operate in the larger society.
CRT is a normative legal theory because it offers suggestions on how to rectify real-world issues for marginalized individuals and groups, like law students who might encounter institutionalized racism. CRT reminds us that there are no impartial positions under the law.
Rather, it provides multiple perspectives that can help us understand how certain positions are inherently more valued than others due to historical and contemporary contexts.CRT is also critical of traditional liberal legal scholarship because it fails to recognize how liberalism itself comes with its own set of limitations even though it purports to be neutral.
Beliefs of Critical Race Theorists
Critical race theorists consider it essential to address the intersections between race and other aspects of society including sex/gender, socioeconomics, and nationality. They also believe that race is socially constructed and historically created.
While Caucasians have typically been the privileged group in American society, this has not always been the case as many of the slave-owning societies considered Africans to be inferior.
Critical race theory makes a clear distinction between those factors deemed as “socially constructed” and those deemed as “socially inherent.” They argue that the former can be challenged, changed, or eliminated through political mobilization, law, and education; while the latter cannot.
Critical race theorists claim that racism (and other forms of subordination) is fundamental to American society. This means that racial minorities are never able to become equal with whites.
Therefore, the goal of critical race theory is to create a racially conscious society whose major goal is to eliminate racism not just from laws but also from society in general, resulting in true equality for everyone.
Who Created Critical Race Theory?
Although the foundations of CRT can be traced to the Civil Rights Movement, some scholars argue that its birth is more accurately dated to the publication of Richard Delgado’s article “The Imperial Scholar” (Delgado, 1995). Delgado was an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Law when he wrote this seminal essay.
However, the date could be pushed back even further to Derrick Bell’s 1971 article “Silenced: The Alienation of the Black Faculty“, which appeared in The New York Times (Bell, 1971).
The leading Black scholar of education during the 1960s and a vociferous advocate for greater faculty diversity, Bell was so discouraged by the lack of progress toward equality among Black academics that he quit his job early in the Nixon administration.
In addition to these milestones, another important event occurred in 1978: Cheryl Imani Perry graduated from Yale Law School. Perry was also Black, but her experiences as a woman of color could not have been more different from Bell’s.
Changes Over The Years
Critical race theory was developed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of its key arguments have not changed significantly since that time, including its central thesis regarding the power dynamics between whites and people of color. But there have been some changes to how it has been applied by scholars…
In the last decade or so, critical race theory has gone through a series of evolutions, some of which have been spearheaded by scholars who are people of color.
Newer iterations of critical race theory consider the “intersectionality” between race, gender, class, and other social categories. There has also been growing interest among scholars in studying how whiteness shapes individual behavior without the presence of people of color.
Intense Debates in Critical Race Theory
One of the most intense debates happening in critical race theory is about whether it should embrace intersectionality or reject it. Intersectionality, which was a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, examines how different power structures interact with one another to affect minorities’ lives.
Critical race theorists have been debating their application of intersectionality in the field for about a decade. Some of the major criticisms of critical race theory’s failure to incorporate intersectionality: it has allowed white scholars and students to co-opt and use critical race theory without fully understanding how their social locations shape their perspectives, and thus engender further racial inequality.
It has come to represent only the interests of people of color or blacks; it has focused too much on black-white dynamics, which constitute only one part of the whole spectrum of racial dynamics.
Critical race theorists have mostly responded to these criticisms by first noting that they were not necessarily committed to interracial critical race theory at all, but simply critical race theory. Second, many scholars have worked to consider how understanding intersectionality better can help them achieve their own goals.
The debate surrounding the theoretical meeting point between critical race studies and queer theory may be another emerging application of CRT [critical race theory]. Although the conceptual project of each field is distinct, there are also “points of contact,” where they converge in various ways.
Interlocking Systems of Oppression
One example is the critique of interlocking systems of oppression. This concept has influenced queer scholarship in this way, helping to conceive how categories of sexuality and gender are embedded within other structures of power, privilege, and domination.
But marginality exists on a continuum, not restricted to identity-based categories alone. For instance, critical race scholars have raised important questions about how class, gender, and citizenship inform the formation of racial categories.
Another intersection between queer theory and critical race studies is anti-essentialism. As scholars working at the intersections of multiple forms of power see it, essentialist arguments do not help to explain particular phenomena or experiences.
For example, claims that same-sex desire is “inborn” or somehow naturally occurring are refuted by the social construction of sexuality.
Critical race theory scholars have applied similar reasoning to questions of racial identity. The more one learns about how racism has shaped the formation of racial categories, the more laughable it becomes to suggest that there is some sort of pure, “authentic” black racial identity.
Critical race theory has also expanded the scope of what counts as legitimate social science inquiry. For example, critical race theorists call attention to issues like “racial passing,” where individuals who are perceived to be white (or another privileged racial status) have a non-white ancestry that they obscure or deny.
Such topics may not fit easily into more mainstream sociological categories, which privilege the experiences of dominant racial groups.
Why Study CRT?
Critical race theory’s examination of the legal system and American society into modern times interrogates how it has been structured through its birth in slavery.
For critical race theorists, the past is not just a time before civil rights but a time when different rules applied to whites than blacks – a time cloaked with racism and discrimination. This belief is based on the argument that racism – and, more specifically, white supremacy – is a structural system of control and dominance of people of color by whites.
This theory is thus based on the belief that racism is an integral part of American society, not a product of a specific historical time or event.
What Does It Reject?
Critical race theory, therefore, rejects theories based solely on racial discourse and also those that do not engage with critical analysis of structural inequality.
What Does It Adopt?
Critical race theory adopts the view that the law has a broad and significant impact on society, and furthers social inequalities along the lines of race. It argues that existing norms and laws should be analyzed, and crucially reimagined, to ensure that outcomes are more equitable.
Critical race scholars use storytelling as a method of advancing the field. These stories detail critical race theory experiences, including the authors’ personal experiences with racism, and their motivating factors to pursue this scholarship.
These stories also testify to how critical race theory has advanced knowledge of racialized experience through re-telling by those who have not historically had access to or control over the narration of their experience or perspective.
Critical race theory is an academic field that builds upon the intersectional experiences and legal claims of minority groups in America. It was especially influenced by the legal analysis brought by Jews, women, gays/lesbians/bisexuals/transgender people, Africans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Arab Americans.