A (Relatively) Brief Introduction to Critical Race Theory

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

1. Racial Reform and 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 these historic legislative packages seemed further and further out of reach. The measurable disparity between Black and White Americans in wealth, income, education, home-ownership, and nearly every other social and economic category had not only proven persistent, but many hard-fought gains appeared to be in retrenchment. Further, with the rise of the “New Right” to national power and prominence in the 1980s, the civil rights philosophy of the majority of Americans had become clear: the work was complete, discrimination was illegal, and equality had been achieved through Brown v Board of Education and the subsequent national Civil Rights Acts. For the legislature and courts to intervene any further, it was commonly presumed, would cause more harm than would the very few remaining vestiges of racism. In fact, whatever racial inequality that remained in the 1980s would soon be understood as simply the natural fall-out of legally equal people-groups acting unequally in an open and equal society. Thus, the vast society-wide social and economic disparities seen throughout the nation were by then rationalized as legitimate, natural, and even just.

How, just twenty years following the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, had America come to such ideological and existential reversals?

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Is Critical Race Theory Marxist?

Base Superstructure

Is Critical Race Theory (CRT) Marxist? I see this claim multiple times per day. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which nearly every modern social theory is working within a Marxist tradition; sociology itself is the intellectual legacy of, primarily, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. On the other hand, Marxist social theory is far removed from Marx’s own metaphysical, economic, and political ideology—not to mention Leninism, Stalinism, or Maoism. Further, and as an added complication to answering this question, CRT scholars simply don’t write much about Marx or Marxism, despite being treated like his ideological puppets.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which contestation with Marxism in the arena of law was formative in the development of Critical Race Theory. But in order to properly tell this story, and hopefully answer our question in the process, it is first necessary to understand how Critical Legal Studies (CLS) related to Marxism; for, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, Critical Race Theory might best be understood as a “spin-off” of CLS, having been distinguished as an unique movement by its alignment and misalignment therewith. In the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw,

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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 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’

Interlude: “The Christian and CRT, an Interlude: The Most Segregated Hour and Liberal Integrationism

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!

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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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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. (A revised and expanded version is also available HERE.) 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

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

Alan Freeman

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

… [A]s the law has outlawed racial discrimination, it has affirmed that Black Americans can be without jobs, have their children in all black, poorly funded schools, have no opportunities for decent housing, and have very little political power, without any violation of antidiscrimination law. …

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’

Interlude: “The Christian and CRT, an Interlude: The Most Segregated Hour and Liberal Integrationism

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

Follow @AlsoACarpenter