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?
When we presented the tenets—or, as I prefer, “commonplaces”—of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in, “What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading)” (see section 16), I closely followed the order given by Mari Matsuda, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Charles Lawrence III, and Richard Delgado as found in Words That Wound. Here I would like to rearrange these same commonplaces in a way that suggests a logical development of the central ideas of CRT, somewhat in contrast to my previous presentations based more on the historical development of the movement. While it does leave the enterprise looking woefully anemic, I nevertheless believe it is a helpful path for the more analytic among us to grasp some of CRT’s basic commitments.
The next post in my series, The Christian and Critical Race Theory, is now up on The Front Porch! Here we make some application of what we’ve learned.
Are we to assume that churches and denominations—whose leaders and members had enslaved, segregated, and/or barred their own Black parishioners from institutional authority for centuries—could simply remove the shackles, take down the signs, open the doors, and nothing else internally would need to be changed? These institutions had held their doctrinal standards, understandings of virtue and justice, their qualifications for leadership, their diaconal commitments, and their order of service, music, and preaching to be consistent with racial enslavement and segregation for all the time they had participated. Are we then to believe that none of these inherited “race-neutral” ideas, practices, and institutional commitments are legitimate sites of racial critique? I think not.
[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. 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,