Critical race theory:

So, what is Critical Race Theory (CRT)? Answering this question can be difficult. As Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw has written, “the notion of CRT as a fully unified school of thought remains a fantasy of our critics.”[1]

Nevertheless, CRT founders and practitioners like Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, Devon Carbado, and others, have offered explicit answers to “What is critical race theory?” (See Words That Wound, pp. 2 – 3,  Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, pp. 4 – 6, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, pp. 8 – 10, and “Critical What What,” pp. 1607 – 1615.)

The following are their suggested “tenets,” or as I prefer, “commonplaces,” ordered and presented more or less thematically. Their own words, quoted verbatim, are included in the footnote for each commonplace.

  1. Race is Socially Constructed

Race is not a natural, biological, “out there” entity such that it exists independently of law and society. Rather, it is a product of human social interaction, a construction of social reality. Further, race and racial categories were historically created to justify and maintain social hierarchy, slavery, and other forms of group-based exploitation, as well as to distribute rights, citizenship, privileges, access, and disparate advantages/disadvantages.[2]

  1. Differential Racialization

Race, as an historically contingent artifact, was constructed to serve different social needs for differing social purposes at different times and in different places throughout history. Therefore, not all “races” were historically constructed along the same lines, nor imbued with the same set of characteristics, nor are these constructions particularly stable through time.[3]

  1. Intersectionality

Further, because race has been socially constructed to serve different purposes for different groups at different times, race is inextricably linked with other social constructions and/or social arrangements developed by dominant groups to distribute protections, rights, citizenship, privileges, access, advantages, and disadvantages. As such, “race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena.”[4][5]

  1. Racism is Endemic to American Life

Because race was historically constructed by, in tandem with, and as integral to other central formative American systems and institutions—including American law, government, nation, politics, religion, human geography, economic structure, and distributive schemas—the attendant racial hierarchies and ideologies are likewise integral to American life and its institutions.[6]

  1. CRT is Skeptical of Claims to Neutrality, Objectivity, Color-Blindness, and Meritocracy

Because racism is endemic to American life, concepts like neutrality, objectivity, color-blindness, and meritocracy are viewed by CRT scholars as sites of racial formation and preservation, as historical artifacts containing their own racial ideologies and racial logics, and are therefore legitimate sites of racial critique. CRT judges decision procedures by their remedial effectiveness in addressing the subordinated circumstances of people of color, rather than judging them by their formal appearance of race-neutrality or facial objectivity.[7]

  1. Racism is a Structural Phenomenon and Explains Current Maldistributions

As such, racism is primarily a problem of historically racialized systems—created for the distribution of social, political, and economic goods—continuing to perform as created, even in a supposedly “post-racial” legal era.[8]

  1. CRT is Discontent with Liberalism and the Standard Racial Progress Narrative

On the other hand, liberalism conceptualizes racism as an aberration, a departure from the social norm. Therefore, liberalism tends to idealize the problem of racism as (1) prejudice, bias, and stereotype, (2) discrimination, or “allowing race to count for anything,” and (3) mere physical separation of races. Liberal answers to racism, accordingly, are (1) increased knowledge, (2) color-blindness, and (3) racial “mixing”; and, of course, plenty of time to allow “enlightenment” to run its natural course.

CRT scholars, alternatively—due to the contingent history of racial construction and the embedded nature of racism—view such liberal diagnoses and remedies as means of preserving the status quo, viz., preserving and legitimating the current maldistribution of social power and the racially subordinated circumstances embedded within.[9]

  1. Interest Convergence

Because of the embedded nature of racism, due to the historical nature of racial construction, racial progress is often ephemeral, and always prioritized in contrast with the rest of the traditional liberal program—i.e., individual freedom, freedom of association, free markets, vested interests, property rights, etc. Significant change normally occurs only when the latter interests are threatened by racist policy and thereby converge with the interests of people of color. When these interests change, the fortunes of Black Americans are in turn reversed. The dialectic of racial reform and retrenchment is a central CRT analytic.[10]

  1. Unique Voice of Color Thesis

Those who have been, and continue to be, marginalized through social identification with historically constructed groups are thereby uniquely placed to address their unique social, legal, political, and economic subordination, as they “are more likely to have had experiences that are particularly epistemically salient for identifying and evaluating assumptions that have been systematically obscured or made less visible as the result of power dynamics.”[11] In this manner, embedded, seemingly invisible, systems of racism can be made more visible to those who have been socialized as members of other historically constructed groups.[12]

  1. CRT Aspires to be Interdisciplinary and Eclectic

Further, since race is not a natural entity but a social construct, and since racism is thereby embedded in American society through its historical construction, race and racism are particularly amenable to fruitful interrogation by aspects of both Critical Theory and post-modernism/structuralism. Accordingly, CRT scholars seek to deconstruct these systems and ideologies, but with an eye toward reconstruction and liberation. More broadly, CRT seeks to incorporate a wide range of traditions and disciplines in order to address the various and sundry ways racialization is embedded throughout society.[13]

  1. CRT is Both Theory and Praxis

In the end, CRT seeks not only to understand race and racial subordination, but to change the subordinated circumstances of marginalized peoples. CRT scholars understand that consistent, effective, liberative critical social theory cannot separate the construction of social knowledge from the active redistribution of social power.[14]

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is, at bottom, the radical civil rights tradition critically transformed to address a post-Civil Rights legal era rooted in the liberal ideology of “color-blindness” and “equal treatment,” which have together preserved and legitimated the continuation of racially subordinated circumstances.

For more, please see: “What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading)”

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[1]The First Decade,” p. 1362

[2] Race is Socially Constructed:

CRT also weighs-in directly on the very idea of race, rejecting the conception of race as a biological fixed social category and arguing instead that race is socially constructed. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[T]he ‘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. (Delgado & Stefancic, Introduction)

[3] Differential Racialization:

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. (Delgado & Stefancic, Introduction)

Critical Race Theorists pursue this project across racial groups, and in the context of doing so try to avoid what Angela Harris might refer to as the ‘pitfalls of essentialism.’ While some would say CRT scholars are anti-essentialist, it would be more accurate to say that we aspire to be antiessentialist. The distinction is important. Because to invoke any social category is already to essentialize, the question is not whether we engage in essentialism but rather the normative work we deploy that essentialism to perform. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[4] Patricia Hill Collins, “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas,” p. 1

[5] Intersectionality:

No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity. … Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances. (Delgado & Stefancic, Introduction)

Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression. Racial oppression is experienced by many in tandem with oppression on grounds of gender, class, or sexual orientation. Critical race theory measures progress by a yardstick that looks to fundamental social transformation. The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself. This recognition of intersecting forms of subordination requires multiple consciousness and political practices that address the varied ways in which people experience subordination. (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, Words That Wound)

The theory is thus committed to what Crenshaw has called ‘intersectionality’—and, more specifically, to an intersectional engagement of structural hierarchies. This engagement endeavors not only to ‘look to the bottom,’ to borrow from Mari Matsuda; it also seeks to ‘look to the top.’ In other words, the theory seeks to make clear that there is a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’ to discrimination and that, historically, racism has been bi-directional: It gives to whites (e.g., citizenship) what it takes away from or denies to people of color. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[6] Racism is Endemic to American Life:

Critical race theory recognizes that racism is endemic to American life. Thus, the question for us is not so much whether or how racial discrimination can be eliminated while maintaining the integrity of other interests implicated in the status quo such as federalism, privacy, traditional values, or established property interests. Instead we ask how these traditional interests and values serve as vessels of racial subordination.” (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, Words That Wound)

It is, to put it the way Daria Roithmayr might, ‘locked-in.’ This locked-in feature of racism is linked to our very system of democracy. Which is to say, historically, racism has been constitutive of, rather than oppositional to, American democracy. This does not mean that racism is an expression of American democracy. That would be putting the point too strongly. It is more accurate to say that racism was built into the constitutional architecture of American democracy. As Rachel Moran and I explain elsewhere, ‘[t]he drafters of the Constitution took a sober second look at the rhetoric of radical egalitarianism in the Declaration of Independence, and they blinked. The adoption of the Constitution in 1787 and its ratification one year later depended on a compromise, one that integrated slavery into the very fabric of American democracy.’ The lingering effects of this foundational moment—or the ongoing relationship between racial inequality and American democracy is precisely what Gunnar Myrdal referred to as an ‘American dilemma.’ (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[7] CRT is Skeptical of Claims to Neutrality, Objectivity, Color-Blindness, and Meritocracy:

Critical race theory expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, color blindness, and meritocracy. These claims are central to an ideology of equal opportunity that presents race as an immutable characteristic devoid of social meaning and tells an ahistorical, abstracted story of racial inequality as a series of randomly occurring, intentional, and individualized acts. (Matsuda, Lawrence III, Delgado, & Crenshaw, Words That Wound)

One way the theory does so is by challenging two dominant principles upon which American anti-discrimination law and politics rest—to wit, that colorblindness necessarily produces race neutrality and that color consciousness necessarily produces racial preferences. By historically contextualizing existing racial inequalities, CRT is able both to contest the [colorblindness/race-neutrality]/[color-conscious/racial preferences] alignments and to reverse them. The theory effectuates this reversal by demonstrating how colorblindness can produce racial preferences and how color consciousness can neutralize and disrupt embedded racial advantages. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

CRT rejects the view that race precedes law, ideology, and social relations. Instead, Critical Race Theorists conceptualize race as a product of law, ideology, and social relations. According to CRT, the law does not simply reflect ideas about race. The law constructs race: Law has historically employed race as a basis for group differentiation, entrenching the idea that there are ‘in fact’ different races; law has helped to determine the racial categories (e.g., Black, White, Yellow) into which institutions and individuals place people; law sets forth criteria or rules (e.g., phenotype and ancestry) by which we map people into those racial categories; law has assigned social meaning to the categories (e.g., Whites are superior; Blacks are inferiors; Japanese Americans are disloyal); law has employed those meanings to structure hierarchical arrangements (e.g., legalized slavery for inferior people (Blacks) and legalized internment for people who are disloyal (people of Japanese descent)); and those legal arrangements, in turn, have functioned to confirm the social meanings that law helped to create (e.g., the people who are enslaved must be inferior; that is why they are enslaved; the people who are interned must be disloyal; that is why they are interned). (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[8] Racism is a Structural Phenomenon and Explains Current Maldistributions:

Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law. Current inequalities and social/institutional practices are linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear. More important, as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service. Our history calls for this presumption. (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, Words That Wound)

CRT repudiates the view that status quo arrangements are the natural result of individual agency and merit. We all inherit advantages and disadvantages, including the historically accumulated social effects of race. This racial accumulation—which is economic (shaping both our income and wealth), cultural (shaping the social capital upon which we can draw), and ideological (shaping our perceived racial worth)—structure our life chances. CRT exposes these inter-generational transfers of racial compensation. Building up over time to create racial shelters (hidden and protected racial privileges) and racial taxes (hidden and unprotected racial costs), racial compensation profoundly shapes and helps to support the contemporary economies of racial hierarchy. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

Each of these efforts is part of a broader CRT project to articulate racism as a structural phenomenon, rather than as a problem that derives from the failure on the part of individuals and institutions to treat people formally the same. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[9] CRT is Discontent with Liberalism and the Standard Racial Progress Narrative:

Virtually all critical race theory is marked by a deep discontent with liberalism, a system of civil rights litigation and activism characterized by incrementalism, a faith in the legal system, and hope for progress, among other things. (Delgado & Stefancic, Cutting Edge)

CRT rejects the standard racial progress narrative that characterizes mainstream civil rights discourse—namely, that the history of race relations in the United States is a history of linear uplift and improvement. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[10] Interest Convergence:

’[I]nterest 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. (Delgado & Stefancic, Introduction)

The broader point is that one of CRT’s key claims is that racial reform and racial retrenchment are defining aspects of American law and politics. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

[11] Kristen Intemann, “25 Years of Feminist Empiricism and Standpoint Theory: Where Are We Now?,” p. 791

[12] Unique Voice of Color Thesis:

Critical race theory insists on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color and our communities of origin in analyzing law and society. This knowledge is gained from critical reflection on the lived experience of racism and from critical reflection upon active political practice toward the elimination of racism. (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, Words That Wound)

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 & Stefancic, Introduction)

[13] CRT Aspires to be Interdisciplinary and Eclectic:

Critical race theory is interdisciplinary and eclectic. It borrows from several traditions, including liberalism, law and society, feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism, critical legal theory, pragmatism, and nationalism. This eclecticism allows critical race theory to examine and incorporate those aspects of a methodology or theory that effectively enable our voice and advance the cause of racial justice even as we maintain a critical posture. (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, Words That Wound)

[14] CRT is Both Theory and Praxis:

Even our most celebrated constitutional frameworks, such as ‘equal protection’ and ‘due process,’ can function as repositories of racial power. CRT reflects ‘a desire not merely to understand . . . [these and other] vexed bond[s] between law and racial power but to change … [them].’ The theory is both pragmatic and idealistic. It grapples with the immediacies of now without losing sight of the transformative possibilities of tomorrow. (Carbado, “Critical What What”)

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