What Is…Critical Race Theory (Part One)

Right now, it seems like everyone and their distant cousins have an opinion on critical race theory (CRT) in the United States. In particular, CRT seems to have garnered significant criticism on the American right.

In light of all this attention, I decided that it would be a good idea for me to learn about the theory. However, upon learning the theory, and upon learning that so many of us apparently know so little about the theory (myself included, before I did the research),[1] I decided that it would be a good idea to share what I’ve learned with others, hence a two-part series on CRT (because there’s just way too much information I have for one blog post of a reasonable length).

But what is CRT?

In the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (a frequently cited book when it comes to CRT),[2] there are several tenets to CRT. I am quoting these tenets verbatim, so that people can see them for themselves instead of a paraphrasing of them (I will explain certain tenets further where I feel it’s necessary):

  • “Racism is ordinary, not aberrational—‘normal science,’ the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.”[3]
  • “White-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material.”[4]
  • “Race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.”[5]
  • “The dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market.”[6] This “radicalization” that is referred to is really the applying of negative stereotypes on different groups of people, depending on the needs and interests of the dominant society (something we’ve seen with Chinese, Irish, Japanese, Mexicans, and many others throughout American history).
  • “No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.”[7] What this means is that a Hispanic individual could have a disability, or that a white woman could also be working class and a lesbian. The whole person has more than one identity.
  • “The voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know.”[8]

In performing research about CRT and its tenets, there were several interesting things that I found, and several things others may find interesting and/or surprising.

The first interesting thing I found was that not everyone who believes in CRT necessarily believes in all the tenets outlined above.[9] While the source I’ve been citing outlines tenets that many critical race theorists agree with, it’s interesting to know, and good to remember, the lack of a single, all-unifying definition for those seeking that single, all-unifying definition of CRT.[10]

The second interesting thing is that this theory has been around for decades. While CRT has gained a national spotlight in recent months, the theory has its origins in the 1970s, as a response to slow progress on racial equality after forward movement on African American Civil Rights in the 1960s.[11] CRT gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s.[12] And yet, in spite of this theory being around for decades, it has come into the spotlight quite prominently in the past fifteen or so months.

The third interesting thing about CRT is that, for all the ire some conservatives in America have directed at this, the theory is critical of many traditionally liberal approaches to racial issues. In fact, CRT often “questions the very foundations of the liberal order,”[13] in no small part because, in the view of many of these theorists, American liberalism has not shown itself capable to adequately address injustice or do anything more than an incremental/reformist approach that only prolonged certain racial injustices.[14] The fact that traditional American liberalism is a frequent target of criticism from critical race theorists should by itself dispel one myth: that CRT is some partisan theory.

Yet, for all the ire that some conservatives have directed at CRT, there are also some well-respected scholars in the racial justice arena who believe there are some theories better at explaining the dynamics of race and racism in the United States than CRT; this was the fourth interesting thing I found about the theory. For example, there are some scholars who gravitate towards something called racial formation theory,[15] which asserts that the importance of racial categories depends on a variety of factors, including social, economic, and political considerations.[16] And then there are other scholars who have critiques of various kinds of racial formation theory, as well—too many to document here and keep this post of a reasonable length.[17] Needless to say, disagreement and discourse about theories explaining modern-day racial disparities on race and racism in the United States go well beyond school board meetings where there’s yelling about CRT.

All of this begs four questions for me. First, what are people angry about with CRT in the current political discourse? Second, if this theory has been around for decades, why are people only now getting angry about this? Third, why is it conservatives who are getting angry about CRT when many of the most prominent critical race theorists critique liberal approaches to racism? And fourth, is this anger justified? Answers to these questions will be the subject of Part Two of my two-part blog post on CRT.

[1] In a national opinion survey taken over the summer, 57% of adults said they were not familiar with the term CRT. And among those who said they were familiar, only 5% of those respondents got all seven true/false questions about CRT correct, while 32% got 4 of 7 questions correct: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/many-americans-embrace-falsehoods-about-critical-race-theory-2021-07-15/

[2] The introduction of this book is online. Before people form opinions on CRT, I would highly encourage reading the introduction of this book and/or getting information on CRT from other scholars who are highly respected on that topic. In addition to the coauthors of this book (Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic), other highly respected figures on the topic include, but are not limited, to: Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Harris (who actually wrote a foreword to the aforementioned book), Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams. I should also note that Crenshaw’s name is one people may be familiar with as it is credited with another term we hear these days: intersectionality.

[3] https://jordaninstituteforfamilies.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Delgado_and_Stefancic_on_Critical_Race_Theory.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] That being said, I thought that it was worthwhile to go with the tenets listed by what is considered to be one of the most important writings in the field of CRT, from two of the authors most respected on this very topic.

[11] https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/critical_race_theory.html

[12] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/

[13] Ibid.

[14] https://www.britannica.com/topic/critical-race-theory

[15] https://education.temple.edu/news/2021/08/untangling-controversy-around-critical-race-theory

[16] Michael Omi and Howard Winant are often credited with this theory, through their book Racial Formation in the United States. The second chapter of this book, which defines what racial formation theory is, is publicly available here.

[17] http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol3no1/vol3num1art2.pdf

17 Replies to “What Is…Critical Race Theory (Part One)”

  1. The theory sounds like, how whites are, feeling more, superior, than, the rest of the population, and, when we differentiate each other like that, based off of our, skin color, sexual orientation, age, gender or whatever, things will only, get worse for the, entire, society.


  2. Like most right wing outrage, the outrage about CRT is completely manufactured.They know that simply saying the “big lie”over and over is all that is needed to whip up the base. There are no areas of outrage from the right that are based in any facts or evidence.You see, it does not matter what CRT actually theorizes, what the authoritarians recognize is that the big lie can “trump” any facts. A technique which has been the hallmark of dictators since time began.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So funny enough, my Part Two next Monday is going to go into whether all the anger is justified (so you will be interested in reading what I found). But what I will say is that it seems like what people think they’re angry about is different from what CRT actually is.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for posting this! I have been trying to explain to my family what CRT actually is, compared to what the far-right fear mongers have been selling. CRT is advocating for more than one point of view to be taught in schools. By teaching many points of view of a particular event, we get a multi-dimensional understanding of history and maybe we won’t be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sorry for missing your comment. I saw it landed in spam for whatever weird reason.

      I think a big problem is that a lot of the talk about CRT has been fear-based, more than anything else. And speaking of schools, I don’t know if you saw Part Two, but it’s mostly postgrad programs (and only certain ones at that) that teach CRT.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Smart Bomb. As a former Social Studies teacher I can guarantee that schools have been and continue to emphasize critical thinking. This has been the case even before I started teaching in the 1970s and continues today. But you hit the nail on the head. The anti-CRT movement is really about critical thinking as opposed to indoctrination. Those who oppose CRT (which has never been taught in high schools) are really opposed to honest evaluations of US history from multiple points of view. Intentionally misleading the public about “CRT” is useful to them as a punching bag . What they really oppose is the teaching of history.

    Liked by 1 person

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