What is Critical Race Theory?

From niche legal theory to wedge issue in a year. What’s happening with CRT?

Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic legal theory that originated in the 1970-80s from the work of Black scholars such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. CRT is a body of scholarship that provides a framework for critically examining institutional structures and practices such as the legal system. CRT also considers the historical contexts that created those systems. In this article, we will provide much needed clarity on CRT, discuss what it is and what it isn’t, and unearth the root causes of the continuing controversy.

First things first

An encyclopedia definition states:

Critical race theory is an intellectual movement and a framework of legal analysis according to which (1) race is a culturally invented category used to oppress people of colour and (2) the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities between white and nonwhite people.

Within the last two years, this fairly obscure academic theory took on a new life. “Critical race theory” has fallen into popular usage meaning something far broader than the academic works that some law students study. Although lawmakers have been careful not to define CRT in much of the recent anti-CRT legislation, there are many new laws that limit how teachers conduct their classes. Some call these efforts memory laws – laws meant to guide what the public thinks of past events.

In libraries, we have seen an increase in challenges to programs, services, and materials that are mischaracterized as CRT or are similarly “divisive,” as part of a larger movement to censor and deny the racist realities of US history, which includes increased book bannings. The censorship of the frank discussion of race (and in some cases other topics like sexuality) creates a fear of backlash and contributes to the insecurity many teachers and library staff feel during this already-tense cultural moment.

We’re seeing a fairly well-coordinated campaign among a number of partisan organizations who oppose LGBTQ rights, who believe that critical race theory represents some kind of existential threat to our democracy to limit access to those ideas in our schools and libraries.

– Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association

What do we mean when we say “CRT”?

CRT, in the real world, describes the diverse work of a small group of scholars who write about the shortcomings of conventional civil rights approaches to understanding and transforming racial power in American society. It’s a complex critique that wouldn’t fit easily into a K-12 curriculum. Even law students find the ideas challenging; we ourselves struggle to put it in understandable terms. We embrace no simple or orthodox set of principles, so no one can really be ‘trained’ in CRT. And if teachers were able to teach such analytically difficult ideas to public school students, it should be a cause for wild celebration, not denunciation.

– Gary Peller, constitutional law professor at Georgetown.

Although it is clear that CRT is really a body of scholarship, the hijacking of the term to mean just about anything to do with race is not a straightforward matter with a straightforward solution, so it’s helpful to remember that definitions matter, facts matter. At this time, the phrase “critical race theory” is often misused by CRT-opponents as a catch-all for any curriculum or curriculum component, initiative, book, or policy that acknowledges structural racism as a historical and present fact. The waters have been muddied so much that CRT has acquired almost a new popular definition bearing little resemblance to the scholarly works that actually deserve the name. Some originators of CRT are bewildered that their previously niche theory is the subject of so much controversy (yet, they are not surprised at the backlash).

Here are three important points to remember:

  • CRT is not the same as teaching, discussing, or providing access to historical facts about racism and its ongoing legacy.
  • CRT is not in itself a racist ideology of anti-whiteness, but a college-level framework for analyzing the law through a racial lens.
  • As a result of its complexity and content that is challenging to grasp even for college students and academics, CRT is not specifically taught in K-12 schools.

A counter argument to the third point is that CRT may not be taught by name, but the ideas of CRT are imbued in curricula and teaching standards, or that there is a prevailing culture in teaching that is biased and accepts CRT principles as self-evident facts. It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove, disprove, or measure the extent to which CRT scholarship has influenced teaching, but it is fair to assume it has had some influence, along with a host of other theories or ideas relating to pedagogy. It would be disingenuous to assert CRT has had absolutely no influence over education. Similarly, it would be wrong to say that the theory has completely overtaken education.

An overview of CRT

It is worth bearing in mind that there is no complete agreement on the principles of CRT, even among critical race theorists, but for a breakdown of loosely agreed upon tenets, consult Britannica. Here they are adapted to be concise.

  • First, race is socially constructed, not biologically natural.
  • Second, racism in the United States is normal, not aberrational: it is the ordinary experience of most people of color.
  • Third, owing to what CRT scholars call “interest convergence” or “material determinism,” legal advances (or setbacks) for people of color tend to serve the interests of dominant white groups.
  • Fourth, members of minority groups periodically undergo “differential racialization,” or the attribution to them of varying sets of negative stereotypes, again depending on the needs or interests of whites.
  • Fifth, according to the thesis of “intersectionality” or “antiessentialism,” no individual can be adequately identified by membership in a single group.
  • Finally, the “voice of color” thesis holds that people of color are uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of other members of their group (or groups) regarding the forms and effects of racism.

Redefining CRT 

As mentioned, the debate surrounding CRT is a hotbed for misinformation due to the oversimplification, conflation, or misrepresentation of a complex body of scholarship and the misuse of the term. It’s fairly obvious why this deliberate strategy has been employed by CRT-opponents: lumping all policies, curricula, materials, or discussions that relate to race or racism together under one term “CRT” is a means of denying or dismissing historical oppression, racism in contemporary society, and the lived experiences of people from historically marginalized groups.

This map of Denver is one of thousands of “area descriptions” made by agents of the federal government's Home Owners' Loan Corporation between 1935-1940.
This map of Denver is one of thousands of “area descriptions” made by agents of the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation between 1935-1940. It shows a historical case of systematized racism by the federal government, known as redlining, which prevented investment in so-called “hazardous” areas, neighborhoods with higher levels of people of color. This practice impacted the generational wealth and prosperity of minorities that has ramifications to this day.

Anti-CRT activists and pundits have created something of a strawman fallacy: the theory has been misrepresented and attacked based on that misrepresentation. For example, one of the main arguments against CRT rests on the incorrect assumption that it is taught in K-12 schools. As already stated, CRT is not explicitly taught in schools, but many detractors are adamant that it is not only taught, it is being used to make white children hate themselves or otherwise promote racial tensions. CRT in practice does no such thing – it is questionable even to call it a coherent or unified theory, not to mention a widespread ideology that actively promotes racial hatred. Illustrating the need for diverse perspectives in education, the hyperfocus on white children’s purported anxieties sidelines children who are not white or ignores them altogether.

How did we get here?

The opposition to and laws banning what is being broadly labeled as CRT (again, often falsely) comes in backlash to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and what followed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Heeding these protests and recognizing the prevalence of systemic racism, institutions across the country felt the need to respond. They updated their policies and practices to reflect the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and to state their antiracist stance, or they embarked on anti-bias initiatives or other reparative work.

In response to this movement to make institutions more equitable, accountable, and beholden to historical truths, CRT was quite suddenly brought to the forefront as an umbrella term for practically any policy where EDI or antiracism is included, or even just the mention of race. However, those who pushed this term into the popular imagination failed to properly acknowledge what CRT is and instead used it to galvanize opposition to the progressive changes sweeping the nation.

This particular backlash is indicative of greater tensions originating in the 20th century and before, which some call the culture wars. Cable and social media influencers essentially manufactured or stoked the conflict surrounding CRT, ensuring it trended by simply mentioning CRT as often as possible and with constant negativity. This is a good reminder of the role of a news/media landscape that prioritizes clicks, views, and narratives that appeal to certain ideologies over the unbiased reporting of events.

It makes sense that the depictions of CRT by its opponents bear so little resemblance to our actual work and ideas. Like the invocation of Willie Horton in the 1980s and affirmative action after that, the point of those who seek to ban what they call ‘CRT’ is not to contest our vision of racial justice, or to debate our social critique. It is instead to tap into a dependable reservoir of racial anxiety among whites.

– Gary Peller

Wait, what are we talking about?

How you define CRT depends heavily upon what radio station you listen to, what news source you trust, and/or what your newsfeed looks like. That is to say, we are all carrying around newly minted biases on this subject. Those biases may be unconscious or conscious, but they have impacted the public’s view of CRT, the conversation about racism and inequity, and the laws of the land.

If you are in a situation where CRT is mentioned, you might ask a clarifying question: “What do you mean by critical race theory?” If needed, you might need to remind another person what exactly CRT is, and what it isn’t. The point isn’t to change hearts and minds, make others feel bad, or to sound like a know-it-all, but to acknowledge and deconstruct the language being used in real time, because it is in the language itself where many conflicts take root. All too often, the words we use and the way we conduct ourselves can be a very real barrier from finding all-important common ground.

Like it or not, critical race theory is now extremely charged language for a lot of people and its polarizing redefinition demands us to be courageous enough to acknowledge historical as well as present-day truths.