“Systemic Racism,” in the Key of CRT

Systemic racism” can be a difficult concept to grasp, largely because “racism” is commonly understood as an exclusively individual and intentional affair. Thus, most Americans begin with an idea of racism as personal prejudice toward those of different skin color and then are left imagining how this intentional prejudice can somehow become a property of systems, institutions, or social structures. In the end, many are left believing systemic racism is a grand conspiracy of racist individuals, or an ethos which pervades a society, or a set of explicit laws and basic assumptions hidden somewhere deep in the books.

Others, alternatively, tend to think of systemic racism as any policy, whether state or private, which leads to or preserves racial disparity. This is a contender, to my lights, as the racial distribution of harm and/or advantage should certainly be recognized as a measure of a policy’s success. But is, for example, every fee hike or price increase a racist act?

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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, fleshing out Dr. Crenshaw’s description of CRT as “a way of seeing and thinking about race that denaturalizes racial inequality.” Additionally, the founders’ own words are included verbatim in the footnote for each commonplace.

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