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.
Broadly speaking, two visions of civil rights law emerged out of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). On the one hand, White progressives, along with the developing Black middle-class, centered their continued civil rights vision on the analytics of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. That is, the social problem of racism was understood to be personal prejudice and bias due to irrationally allowing physical and ancestral difference to justify partiality; discrimination was thought to be the specific, individuatable, and intentional actions resulting from personal prejudice—in particular, allowing race to figure into decision-making; and, last, segregation was thought to be the social, legal, and political manifestation of prejudice and discrimination.
Contextual Note to Our Readers: This is our third chop session on Critical Race Theory. For session one, see HERE or HERE. For session two, see HERE or HERE.
Prelude: Why Chop Session Three is on Robin DiAngelo
Conjunto: We ended our first chop session promising to discuss some of our favorite CRT works in the next chop session. But since publishing that piece, many have voiced their surprise about our not mentioning Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo in a session answering the question, “What is CRT?” Because this series es para el pueblo—“for the people”—we’ve decided to change course and use chop sessions two and three to explain why Kendi and DiAngelo did not appear in our first post, and why, apart from those sessions, they’re unlikely to appear in the rest of the series.
This chop session is on DiAngelo. The previous one was on Kendi. Enjoy!
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.”
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.
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.
[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,
[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.