What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading)

Derrick A. Jr. Bell
Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell (C) walking w. a group of law students on campus after taking a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to protest the law school’s practice of not granting tenure to minority women professors. (Photo by Steve Liss//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

[This article is a revised and expanded edition of “In Short, What is Critical Race Theory?”]

In 1989, when I was a boy of eleven years—born into an all-White church, attending an all-White elementary school in all-White town, well on my way to believing that racism was in the past, that America had achieved equality, and that inferiority of racial circumstance simply reflected inferiority of racial “culture”—more than twenty legal scholars met in Madison, WI to discuss how we ended up here and what should be done about it. This “Workshop” was titled “New Developments in CRT,” the first formal use of the now oft maligned acronym.[1]

1. Civil Rights Retrenchment: Why?

Just over twenty years following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Acts, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the stated goals of this historic legislative package seemed further and further out of reach. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who spearheaded the first CRT Workshop along with Neil Gotanda and Stephanie Phillips, was sadly able to report in 1988 that,

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The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 8: the Harvard Story and the Birth of “Critical Race Theory”

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The eighth post in my series, The Christian and Critical Race Theory, is now up on The Front Porch!

We’ve discussed how Critical Race Theory was a “race intervention in a critical space”; we now turn to how CRT was a “critical intervention in a particular institutional contestation over race,” specifically the academy (p. 1288). “The eruption that served as a point of departure in CRT’s trajectory,” according to Kimberlé Crenshaw, “was the institutional struggle over race, pedagogy, and affirmative action at America’s elite law schools” (p. 1264).

Please take a look and let me know what you think!

Part 1: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the ‘Traditional Civil Rights Discourse’

Part 2: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment

Part 3: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 3: A Bridge: Dr. Derrick Bell”

Part 4: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 4: Alan Freeman and the Contribution of CLS

Part 5: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 5: A Misalignment of Frames: Integrationism

Part 6: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 6: A Misalignment of Frames: The ‘New Right’

Part 7: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 7: A Race Intervention Into Critical Legal Studies

Part 8: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 8: the Harvard Story and the Birth of ‘Critical Race Theory’

And if you want to go back to Critical Theory more broadly, please start here: “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt

More to come!

Follow @AlsoACarpenter

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

Article 7 at TFP

The seventh post in my series, The Christian and Critical Race Theory, is now up on The Front Porch!

In short, the “race intervention in a critical space” that is Critical Race Theory was deeply and inescapably informed by the tension between the (literal) life and death commitment to traditional Civil Rights ideology and the postmodern critique inherited from Critical Legal Studies.

Please take a look and let me know what you think!

Part 1: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the ‘Traditional Civil Rights Discourse’

Part 2: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment

Part 3: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 3: A Bridge: Dr. Derrick Bell”

Part 4: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 4: Alan Freeman and the Contribution of CLS

Part 5: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 5: A Misalignment of Frames: Integrationism

Part 6: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 6: A Misalignment of Frames: The ‘New Right’

Part 7: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 7: A Race Intervention Into Critical Legal Studies

Part 8: “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 8: the Harvard Story and the Birth of ‘Critical Race Theory’

And if you want to go back to Critical Theory more broadly, please start here: “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt

More to come!

Follow @AlsoACarpenter

Carl Trueman’s CRT, Conclusion: Why the Critiques Keep Missing the Mark

In our last post, I addressed Dr. Carl Trueman’s claim that Critical Race Theory (CRT) assumes the premise that “life is a zero-sum game.” I further critiqued his understanding of CRT and racial “power” dynamics, digging into the ideological history of “Black Power” vs. “Liberal Integrationsim.”

Today we move onto his sixth claim and conclude this series. (I will note again that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

And, last, (6) CRT claims to offer a “comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.”

To my lights, the most appropriate answer to Dr. Trueman’s final claim here is simply, “Where?” Where does any CRT scholar claim this? In what way does CRT ideology even suggest this to Trueman? I simply have no idea.

My best guess is that Trueman is conflating a totalizing interpretation of, for example, traditional Marxism, or maybe even the Frankfurt School, with Critical Race Theory. This would be consistent with the error of most of his other claims, so probably a good guess. As stated before, his critiques, though weak and fundamentally unargued, might be better suited for some figures in the European critical tradition, including some of their White American Left offspring. If you recall from Part 3, CRT scholar Robert Williams offered a critique of Critical Legal Studies’ (CLS’s) Eurocentric reading of “rights” discourse that proved similarly illuminating for understanding Dr. Trueman’s failed critiques of CRT. Again, we read,

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 5: CRT Portrays Life as a Zero-Sum Power Game?

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In our last post, we grappled with Carl Trueman’s claim that CRT is just Marxism with “class” replaced by “race.” I showed that CRT, following CLS, rejects this “vulgar Marxism” as both “essentialist” and “racialist.”

Today we move onto his fifth claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

(5) “Critical race theory rests on simple, therapeutic premises,” including that life is a “zero-sum game”: “Some people do not have power. They struggle and do not ­flourish. This happens because somebody else has seized power from them and oppresses them in an ongoing and unrelenting way.”

To begin with, no CRT scholar I’ve ever heard of “portrays life as a zero-sum game.” I think we could leave this at “citation needed,” were I that type of guy. But since Trueman believes Ibram X Kendi is somehow representative of CRT (he is not), he should actually read him on this. In this case, Kendi captures well the sentiment of most CRT scholars:

Racial reformers have customarily requested or demanded that Americans, particularly White Americans, sacrifice their own privileges for the betterment of Black people. And yet, this strategy is based on one of the oldest myths of the modern era, a myth continuously produced and reproduced by racists and antiracists alike: that racism materially benefits the majority of White people, that White people would lose and not gain in the reconstruction of an antiracist America. (Stamped From the Beginning, loc. 7980)

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 4: Is CRT the Same Marxist Horse Ridden by a Different Jockey?

In our last post, we considered Dr. Trueman’s claim that CRT “relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo,” concluding that CRT has taught much the opposite. We further suggested that Trueman might be succumbing to the same Eurocentric reading of the Civil Rights inspired critical tradition that led CLS to “trash” rights discourse. The unique voice of color, due to “double consciousness,” was suggested as remedy.

Today we move onto his fourth claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

(4) “Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare”; that is, CRT simply replaced the role of “class” in Marxism with “race” (as Trueman’s offensive Mao example is supposed to illustrate).

Carl Trueman’s claim here is all too familiar to CRT theorists. One of the first major critiques of CRT came from within the ranks of Critical Legal Studies (CLS), the movement from which CRT emerged in the late 1980s, and it was precisely this claim.

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 3: False Consciousness or Double Consciousness?

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In our last post, we assessed Trueman’s claim that the “basic claims” of CRT are self-certifying, unargued axioms, concluding that he either is misconstruing the nature of social theory or lacks familiarity with CRT’s many thousands of pages of peer reviewed argumentation. Today we move onto his third claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

3. CRT “relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo.”

Here I presume Dr. Carl Trueman is referring to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony,” as taken up by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is “the social, cultural, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group over other groups.”

This influence stems from the perception of legitimacy afforded the dominant group by the subordinate groups. Hegemony is an active process whereby legitimacy is sought and maintained by the dominant group through the balancing of consent (that is, tacit support for the dominant group) and coercion (that is, the threat or use of forms of force). (Beyond Critique, pp. 52-53; emphasis mine)

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 2: The “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory Are Unargued Axioms?

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Yesterday we covered Trueman’s first claim, concluding that his purported “basic claims” show little awareness of either Critical Race Theory or the broader tradition within which it was developed. Today we move onto his second. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

2. The “basic claims” of CRT are “self-certifying,” they are “axioms,” and are “not conclusions drawn from argument.”

There are a couple ways to take this. We could take it to mean that the actual commonplaces of CRT are self-certifying axioms not drawn from argument, or we could take it to mean that what Trueman believes to be “basic claims” of CRT are self-certifying axioms not drawn from argument. If he means the former, I would first point him to the many thousands of pages of law review articles making the very arguments he believes are lacking. It is an incredulous, laughable claim, to be honest. If this is what he is suggesting, maybe he could begin with a Derrick Bell reader, then move on to some collections like Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, then Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. That would get him hundreds of articles into the vast literature making the supposedly non-existent arguments.

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Carl Trueman’s CRT, Part 1: “Basic Claims” of Critical Race Theory?

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Carl Trueman’s recent article, “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” purports to be about Critical Race Theory (CRT)—I think. He offers no definitions, no citations, and doesn’t even mention a single CRT scholar. He does, however, make a series of unargued claims which might constitute a characterization for our purposes. From what I can gather, Dr. Trueman believes the following:

(1) CRT contains a set of “basic claims,” among them are “racism is systemic” and “being non-racist is impossible.” (2) the “basic claims” of CRT are “self-certifying,” they are “axioms,” and are “not conclusions drawn from argument.” (3) CRT “relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo.” (4) “Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare”; that is, CRT simply replaced the role of “class” in Marxism with “race.” (5) “Critical race theory rests on simple, therapeutic premises,” including that life is a “zero-sum game”: “Some people do not have power. They struggle and do not ­flourish. This happens because somebody else has seized power from them and oppresses them in an ongoing and unrelenting way.” And, last, (6) CRT claims to offer a “comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.”

Presuming the article is supposed to be about CRT, I plan to take a look at each of these claims in turn over the next several days, rather than cram it all into one article. As someone said to me recently, it takes one paragraph to spread bad information and a dozen to correct it. And while I don’t think Trueman’s article merits these full responses, especially on CRT, I do think it useful to leverage its warm reception as an opportunity to answer some quite common, though quite misguided, claims. For a broader reaction to Truman’s article, I commend Valerie Hobbs‘s article, “Is Critical Race Theory a Religion? Responding to Carl Trueman.” I intend only to address his characterization of CRT in these posts, but will assuredly draw some more general conclusions in the end.

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In Short, What is Critical Race Theory?

[Though my attention is fixed on my series on The Front Porch, “The Christian and Critical Race Theory,” I thought it might be helpful to offer a brief answer to “What is Critical Race Theory?” in the meantime, especially given the immense attention the topic has received of late. Now, of course, “brief” and “in short” are relative terms. This is not a quick one, but it is about as condensed as I could imagine while still being faithful to the content. Last, I don’t intend to offer any appraisal of these ideas, Biblical or otherwise, but will leave that for later in my series on The Front Porch. I pray this is of service!]

When I was a boy of eleven years—born into an all-White church, attending an all-White elementary school in all-White town, well on my way to believing that racism was in the past, that America had achieved formal equality, and that inferiority of racial circumstance simply reflected inferiority of racial “culture”—more than twenty legal scholars met in Madison, WI on July 8, 1989 to discuss how we ended up here and what should be done about it. This “Workshop” was titled “New Developments in CRT,” the first formal use of the now oft maligned acronym.[1]

Continue reading