Anyone trying to answer this question will soon come to find that it is an impossible task. There is no clear definition of Critical Race Theory (CRT) readily available to the public without extensive research. This is partly because CRT is a field of study, and also strategically done in order to Trojan Horse fringe ideas, while being able to retreat from these when politically convenient. In order to understand what CRT is, lets establish the legal scholars that founded the framework and some key facts about them.

The Founders:

Derrick Bell

Generally attributed as the father of Critical Race Theory, which he developed in the 1970 at Harvard Law School as an offshoot of Critical Legal Studies. Bell developed the term Interest Convergence Dilemma, which is the idea that whites would not support efforts to improve the position of blacks unless it was in their interest.

Though many will tell you that CRT is a legal analysis lens (or at least that was its original goal), Bell favored storytelling far more than legalese . One of his famous published works is a science fiction short story title “The Space Traders” from 1992. The story tells of aliens coming to earth and offering the US money, unlimited energy, and technological advances in exchange for its black citizens. In the end, the trade is accepted by 70/30 margin. Hard to classify this story as anything other than absurdity, however, it offers a reflection into the mind of Bell. See quotes by Derrick Bell for some more insight.

Bell’s influence on CRT will be obvious as we get into the core tenets.

Alen Freeman

Along with Bell, Freeman makes up the other half of the first generation of the CRT movement, joining in 1989, although Freeman’s was working on similar topics even in the 1970’s.

Freeman’s most notorious work is “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination through Antidiscrimination Law: A Critical Review of Supreme Court Doctrine” a scholarly paper published in 1978. Early in the work, Freeman outlines the Perpetrator and Victim Perspective, which is later developed, in conjunction with many other items, into one of the core tenets of CRT. This is essentially a plagiarism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic, the oppressors (read as “whites”) can only see from the perspective of the oppressors while the oppressed (replace with “blacks”) can see from both the oppressed and oppressors’ point of view due to their unique lived experience. Freeman goes on to outline that even those who do not participate in discriminatory practices are participating in its system, and thus cannot be innocent.

Freeman interprets the Law as not a third-party application of justice but as “an evolving statement of acceptable public morality” that “serves largely to legitimize the existing social structure and, especially, class relationships within that structure.” This essentially mirrors to Bell’s Interest Convergence Dilemma applied to law with some undertones of neo-Marxist power structures added in.

Kimberle Crenshaw

Is attributed as the coiner of the term Critical Race Theory and is likely the most widely-known and most influential of the group. She also created the term Intersectionality, from feminist theory, meaning traits can sometimes relate to advantages and disadvantages in life and the overlap of multiple traits can compound these advantages/disadvantages. Intersectionality was originally used in a legal sense in cases of discrimination, but has continued to evolve to its current use which ensures that in order understand hierarchies all traits must be analyzed.

Key work of Crenshaw include:

  • Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Woman of Color” published in 1991
  • “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement” published in 1996

Take a look at this recent interview with MSNBC’s Joy Ried where Crenshaw is unwilling to answer the question if CRT’s roots are based in Marxist ideology, nor provide a coherent definition of what CRT is.

Richard Delgado

Another founder of CRT, Delgado has perhaps done the most good to describe and highlight exactly what CRT is by publishing, with his wife Jean Stefancic, “Critical Race Theory an Introduction” in 2001. Delgado is also known for his stance on limitation of the first amendment (of which he has written 4 books and numerous articles on this topic) with regards to hate speech, stating that the “price for freedom is too high.”

Key works of Delgado include:

  • “Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror,” book published in 1997, coauthored with Jean Stefancic
  • “When Equality Ends: Stories About Race and Resistance,” book published in 1999
  • “The Imperia Scholar: Reflections on a Review of Civil Rights Literature,” journal published in 1984
  • “Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative,” journal published in 1989

Mari Matsuda

Matsuda has been an integral voice in CRT since its inception and has works on affirmative action, reparations, and the importance of Asian-Americans to fight becoming the racial bourgeoisie. She has also written on topics of law with regard to race and gender, along with limitations on the first amendment with regard to hate speech.

Key works of Matsuda include:

  • “We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action,” book published in 1997 with coauthor Charles R. Lawrence, III
  • “Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment,” book published in 1993 with coauthors Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberle Crenshaw

Charles R. Lawrence III

Lawrence is best know for his work in antidiscrimination law and equal protection as it relates to unconscienced racism/bias. His main argument is that the law and courts have not taken all the possible systems of discrimination while simultaneously arguing that affirmative action is needed in society, two seemingly contradictive positions. He has argued against societal colorblindness and free speech.

Key works of Lawrence include:

  • “We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action,” book published in 1997 with coauthor Charles R. Lawrence, III
  • “Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment,” book published in 1993 with coauthors Mari Matsuda, Richard Delgado, and Kimberle Crenshaw
  • “Who are We? And Why are We Here? Doing Critical Race Theory in Hard Times,” book published in 2002 with Valdes, Culp, and Harris
  • “The Epidemiology of Color-Blindness: Learning to Think and Talk About Rage Again,” article published in 1995
  • “The Id, The Ego, and Equal Protections: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism,” article published in 1987

Cheryl Harris

Primarily known for her paper “Whiteness as Property,” published in June 1993, Cheryl relates skin color to a commodity for trade, yet again linking in neo-Marxist thoughts on power systems with relation to race.

Patricia J. Williams

Lani Guinier

CRT from Founders and Followers

This section has two primary goals, (1) using the work of CRT founders, determine the core tenets of CRT and (2) briefly track where this theory emerged from in hopes to better understand the goals of CRT through its parent system. Much of this is taken from Dr. James Lindsey’s lecture series on CRT.

The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourse take up, but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

Critical Race Theory an Introduction, first edition (2001) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic: Chapter 1, Section A “What is Critical Race Theory,” Paragraph 1

CRT is anti-incrementalism and looking for a fundamental cultural transformation. Essentially, our current liberal society has too many constraints, including individual freedoms, to usher in utopia. Rule of law, constitutional law, neutrality of law, are all a conspiracy created by whites to hold power. Enlightenment rationalism is critical thinking and is attributed to the greatest strides, over the shortest period, in human history. CRT directly rejects Enlightenment rationalism and thus critical thinking.

Although CRT began as a moment in law, it has rapidly spread beyond that discipline. Today, many in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues of school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, controversies over curriculum and history, and IQ and achievement testing. Political scientists ponder voting strategies coined by critical race theorists. Ethnic studies courses often include a unit on critical race theory, and American studies departments teach material on critical white studies developed by CRT writers. Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It not only tries to understand our social situation, but to change it; it sets out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies, but to transform it for the better.

Critical Race Theory an Introduction, first edition (2001) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic: Chapter 1, Section A “What is Critical Race Theory,” Paragraph 2

First, we see that even in 2001 when this book was being written it was apparent that CRT or a version of it was being introduced into university classroom. Twenty years later, is it so far fetched for parents to have concerns that CRT is being introduced to a younger generation? However, its the last two sentences that really give away the game. Not only is CRT a lens to view the world, one of its chief goals is to change society and indoctrinate others into the movement. It is a requirement of someone that believes that CRT is a useful tool to then go and become apostles of its doctrine. True scholarly disciplines do not contain an activist dimensions, in fact they often set up barriers within their systems to avoid these things, think of doctors use of double-blind placebo testing. Does a physics professor need to advocate on behalf of gravity?

Compare the last sentence to the following quote.

The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx, 1845.

Many of these movements [antiwar, feminist, gay rights, Black power, Indigenous peoples, The Chicano Movement, disability rights, and other movements for social justice] initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace) but quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism. The logic of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow.

Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Just Education, first edition (2012) by Ozlem Sensory and Robin DiAngelo

In summary, the authors think that the most recent change away from liberal humanism is what has accomplished the most for their causes. You be the judge; who do you believe did the most good for the Civil Rights movement? Martin Luther King Jr. the man that stood for equal human rights or Malcolm X the Black Nationalist that many CRT advocates find themselves aligned with today?

The authors go on to say, if you have privilege or perceived privilege, you are implicated in creating structures and systems that have repressed those who don’t. It doesn’t matter your intent or if you hold any form of actual power in society, everyone is culpable based on, in most cases, innate characteristics.

The Core Tenets of CRT

Just from Delgado’s first two paragraphs we can develop nearly all of the core tenets of CRT:

1. A belief that racism is ordinary and permanent in society

  • This is nearly a direct quote from “Critical Race Theory an Introduction.”
  • Another quote from Delgado’s book, “Crits [Critical Race Theorists] are highly suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights.” The founders of CRT believe that rights and liberalism are ways to mask oppression, thus perpetuating racism in society.

2. Acceptance of the Interest-Convergence Thesis of Derrick Bell

  • Denys progress in racism over the history of society.
  • Progress is only made when it coincides with the progress of those in power.
  • Racism merely hides itself with progress, making it harder to overcome.
  • Civil Rights Acts, Brown v. Board of Education, Plessy v. Ferguson were all done explicitly for whites with little thought to blacks.
  • As progress is made, racism is harder to spot, thus Critical Race Theorists are needed to spot it, making CRT a self-empowerment program.
  • If you agree with Interest-Convergence Thesis and take up the cause of Anti-Racisms, then you are doing so in your own self-interest. Thus, making racism harder to spot and doing more damage. This is a Kafka trap.

3. Belief in material determinism by racial category

  • Derrick Bell and Allen Freeman specifically were looking at the material conditions of society (impacts of law, impacts of economics, impacts of institutional structures, impacts of cultural society) and they believed that based on those conditions it is possible to predict the range of what you can accomplish.
  • Essentially removing free-will from the conversation with the implication that race determines everything.
  • This is the point where Marxist and neo-Marxist theories being to implant.

4. Social construction (and imposition) of race

  • Belief that race is a social construction that does not exist in biology and was only created in order for whites to maintain power and system of oppression.
  • Liberal minded people would look to deconstruct race and eliminate the categories in favor of treating all as equals. CRT says this is impossible because whites impose these categories on all other races.

5. Belief in structural determinism by racial category

  • Using the above tenets in combination, your place in society and mobility in society is determined by race. Thus, creating classes of society based on race, with the upper-class (whites in this case) imposing power over the lower-class (blacks) and the lower-class requiring a liberation to overthrow the upper-class. Again, near explicit implications of Marxism.

6. A unique voice of color (positional standpoint epistemology)

  • Logical flaw here in conflict with tenet 4, if race is socially constructed, then how can there be a unique voice of color? CRT gets around this by saying that there is an “experience” associated with the social construction of race.
  • People of color experience oppression based on their lived realities and can understand the position of whites because they are in a unique position. Whites because they live in the world of the oppressor can only understand the world from their perspective, unable to understand the oppression or speak to it.
  • Standpoint epistemology (from GWF Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic) essentially stating that the Masters live in the Masters’ world so they are able to experience the Masters’ perspective two-fold while the Slave lives in the Masters’ world so they are able to experience the Salves’ and Masters’ perspective which is opposed upon them. This was modified and adopted by Alan Freeman in “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination through Antidiscrimination Law: A Critical Review of Supreme Court Doctrine.”
  • This tenet is most closely related to the recent implementation of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in schools. Because of the “unique” experiences of some groups the way in which children learn and understand must be adjusted to take into consideration their feelings and perspectives.
  • Thought experiment: Imagine having a panic attack, rushing to the hospital, and having the doctor hook you up to an EKG machine, at which point you say, “I don’t need that, I’m having a heart attack, just grab the defibrillator.” Just because you feel like you are having a heart attack, and that is your “lived experience,” does not mean it is always accurate. A single, or even multiple experiences, need to be rationalized and explored before simplifying accepting it as fact. Feelings can be true, but that does not mean they are reliable.

7. Advance their ideas through storytelling, narrative-weaving, and counter storytelling rather than empiricism and rational thought

  • Stories can be convincing and play on emotions rather than evidence. Emotions can be used to relate to a story but also can be used to connect to a story and retain its message much easier than facts, statistic, and Empiricism.
  • Derrick Bell was famous for trying to explain the “black experience” though fictional story telling and then using these stories to effect legal action.

8. Historical revisionism

  • Examples: Nicole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” and Howard Zinn’s “A Peoples History of the United States.”
  • Critical historiography of history – meaning revising history to be critical of what has happened and its implications, rather than telling history from a neutral perspective.
  • This is not the same as adjusting historical references based on new evidence nor is it telling accurate history from both perspectives. CRT advocates will no doubt use the phrase “CRT just wishes to tell history from both perspectives and to discuss both the good and the bad,” of which everyone agrees. Do not fall for this.

9. A critique of liberalism and the very foundations of liber order

  • CRT is anti-liberal, in the classical sense of liberalism meaning protection of the rights of individuals, liberty, consent of the governed, and equality under the law.
  • These are the founding principals of the United States, while they have not always been realized, every day we move closer to reaching their full potential. CRT would have us throw these ideas out and the concept of common humanity for a type of collectivism.
  • CRT would remove rights and replace it with privileges granted by the state.
  • See the third sentence of “Critical Race Theory an Introduction” and the except from “Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education” both provided above.

10. Whiteness as a form of property

  • From “Whiteness as Property” scholarly paper (1993) by Cheryl Harris, Harris traces the origins of whiteness as property, via two main points: the fungibility of whiteness by whites and the exclusivity of whiteness. Thus, equivocating whiteness to a form of currency.
  • This is why in 2020 when protests and riots were happening in major cities, many stood by and some even justified the burning of establishments as a way to fight back against whiteness.
  • Needless to say, this is just a repackaging of Marxist Theory. From “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, “The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most compete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Specifically, this is the abolition of bourgeois property, upper-class property, which CRT defines the upper-class as whites (see previous tenets).

11. Intersectionality as sensibility

  • Intersectionality makes it impossible to understand any one form of oppression without understanding all of them, since all oppression is linked.
  • Therefore, you must always look at identity relevant power dynamics to understand anything.
  • While some will have you believe Intersectionality is not a core tenet of CRT it was created in the same place (Harvard Law) by the same person (Kimberle Crenshaw) who coined and theorized on both terms. Crenshaw created Intersectionality in order to relate feminism to CRT, thus expanding the reach of CRT into feminism and visa versa.

12. Antiracism as praxis (to act, to put theory into practice)

  • Antiracism simply means being and applying CRT. In schools this is implementation by pedagogy and by subliminal messaging.
  • From “Critical Race Theory an Introduction,” you cannot simply teach CRT, you must do/apply CRT constantly.
  • CRT wants whites to be antiracists but understand they can never not be racists. This is an internal contradiction or struggle (further ties to Marxism via Leninism).

13. Critical Whiteness Studies (CWS)

  • “White Fragility” 2018 by Robin DiAngelo, “Nice Racism” 2021 by Robin DiAngelo, one of the primary takeaways from these books is that the author is a racist, which appears to be the case for many other authors of CWS as well. DiAngelo discusses going to a gathering where she knew there would be a majority black people and the anxiety that she experienced vs the same type of event with majority whites. Does this seem normal to you?
  • From “Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Just Pedagogy” 2010 by Barbara Applebaum

Whiteness benefits all those ascribed whiteness and it is white people’s investment in whiteness that can obscure how white people even with the best of intentions are implicated in sustaining a racially unjust system. It is the complicity of well-intentioned white people that is the central focus of this book. The concept of white complicity turns up in various manifestation in the critical whiteness scholarship. There are at least two types of the white complicity claim that should be discerned. First, white complicity is often addressed as the product of unconscious negative attitudes and beliefs about non-white people that infect all white people and has an effect on their practices. This is one way to explicate how well-meaning white people pay a role in the perpetuation of systemic racism…

White privilege protects and supports white moral standing and this protective shield depends on there being an ‘abject other’ that constitutes white as ‘good.’ Whites, thus, benefit from white privilege in a very deep way. As Zeus Leonardo remarks, all whites are responsible for white dominance since their ‘very being depends on it.’…

The relevant point for now is that all white people are racist or complicit by virtue of benefiting from privileges that are not something they can voluntarily renounce.

Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy, (2010) by Barbara Applebaum
  • In summary, white people perpetuate white supremacy by virtue of being white, there is no way to not be complicate if you are white.

CRT Summarized

CRT is a faith system founded on the belief that the fundamental organization principle of society is racism created by white people for the benefit of white people. CRT rejects colorblindness, liberalism, Empiricism, and rationality in favor of antiracism, social and economic equity, storytelling and lived experiences. By dint of your skin color and participation in society you are automatically classified as an oppressor or oppressed.

Categories: Theory


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