Defining Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory is defined as “a body of legal scholarship which challenges racism, particularly as institutionalised in and by law, and promotes equalitarianism.” (Bell, 1995) Critical Race theorists state that racism is an inherent facet of the law and many legal institutions, particularly in the United States, which is its geo-cultural-historical context. Critical race theory proposes that these laws and institutions function to create and maintain forms of inequality between White people and non-White people. These forms of inequality are often socio-political and economic in nature. 

Ultimately, Critical Race Theory argues that non-White individuals are often disadvantaged in terms of income, legal protections, rights and social positioning due to prejudices in the social systems around them. 

 

Why is Critical Race Theory Important?

Critical Race Theory is important, because it addresses a need for new approaches in civil rights activism. Critical Race Theory emerged from the ‘post civil rights era’ climate in the United States of America and was first formally recognised as a theory in the late 1990s in the work of prominent American legal scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. In their groundbreaking publication Critical Race Theory: Past, Present and Future (1998), Delgado & Stefancic credit Derrick Bell with the origins of this scholarly movement. Bell was the first Black scholar to teach at Harvard Law School. Delgado & Stefancic write that, at the time of Bell’s generation of this movement, 

 

“traditional methods such as litigation, exhortation, and marching were yielding fewer and fewer gains. New approaches were necessary to cope with the less sympathetic public and the more nuanced forms of racism that were developing.” 

 

Critical Race Theory represents a shift away from a focus on more overt presentations of racism, and the need to address racism’s co-existence within more supposedly ‘progressive’ social circles. Delgado & Stefancic use the example of ‘anti-racist’ academics not citing the writing of Black scholars when discussing racism as a way in which these “nuanced” forms of racism can manifest. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (Third Edition) (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017), it is stated that,

Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) by Delgado & Stefancic

 

 

“Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses 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.” (2017)

 

 

 

When we consider what racism ‘looks like’, Critical Race Theory can assist us in looking beyond more obvious examples- such as harassment or racial segregation. As is outlined in the above quote, Critical Race Theory encourages us to challenge concepts like what is “neutral” or unbiased in systems like the law. This means we can begin to see patterns of behaviour which expose racism; for example, routinely harsher sentencing for African Americans than for White Americans when on trial for the same charges. This exposes a system where multiple individuals involved in law enforcement collectively perpetuate inequality.

 

What are the Key Misconceptions of this Theory? 

Two key misconceptions persist surrounding Critical Race Theory. The first is that Critical Race Theory suggests that race is not “real” as it is described as a social construct. The second is that Critical Race Theory is somehow the cause of increased education on and awareness of racial inequality – and that this increased awareness perpetuates racism.

In order to understand how race is understood in Critical Race Theory, we must first establish the difference between the argument that race is a social construct and the argument that race is not real. Social constructs are best defined as “Abstract concepts which are constructed to explicate (describe, explain) and measure many facts of human life.” (Saeedi, 2008).

If we were to use an example in real life, we might say that how we measure time is socially constructed. Time passes – but how it passes and how much is passing has been defined by us, humans. A minute of time is an arbitrary measure – we decided that sixty seconds accumulate to one minute. This doesn’t mean that time isn’t real – but that we have assigned value to it to make it something we can understand and talk about. Race as a social construct is the same. Race is grounded in facets of ethnicity, heritage and cultural practices – but these are also concepts we have developed to make sense of the world around us and the people in it. Race exists, but what it means and how it is defined has been constructed, socially, by people. 

Secondly, it is important that we understand what Critical Race Theory is and isn’t used for. Incorrectly, Critical Race Theory is often argued to be related to (or responsible for) increased education around racism in schools and diversity & inclusion training in workplaces. As a consequence, people sometimes perceive this increased education to be contributing to racial inequality. 

Many of the concerns surrounding Critical Race Theory started after the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which brought the Black Lives Matter movement back into the spotlight of mainstream media. An interview on Fox News between conservative scholar Christopher F. Rufo and host Tucker Carlson in September 2020 led to Rufo describing Critical Race Theory as a form of “cult indoctrination”; this interview has since been attributed with the explosion in dissemination of media around the subject of Critical Race Theory in the subsequent year and a half. When questioned about this increased mainstream media discussion of Critical Race Theory, scholar Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw addressed this misinterpretation of Critical Race Theory as the mechanism behind racial education and increased racial inequality. She attributed this to the incorrect belief that acknowledging racism is inherently racist; she went on to state that,

“the rhetoric allows for racial equity laws, demands and movements to be framed as aggression and discrimination against white people.” (Gabriel & Goldstein, 2021). 

What Crenshaw did was simply explain that Critical Race Theory allows us to understand unfair systems which are already in place; how people are educated on these systems is beyond its scope.

 

How does Critical Race Theory Relate to Other Social Theories?

Critical Race Theory is strongly contingent with Intersectional Feminist Theory, otherwise referred to as intersectionality. Intersectional Feminist Theory stipulates that systems of power exist through facets of our identity (and how they are perceived) such as race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic status. To put it simply, Intersectional Feminist Theory and Critical Race Theory both address and investigate systems of power in society. Both suggest these systems of power determine and control the supposed value of individuals based on the various aspects of their identity. 

Critical Race Theory also relies on the philosophical concept of Standpoint Epistemology. This concept means that members of particular racial minority groups have an “authority” when talking about racism. Individuals cannot be neutral on subjects such as racism because of the impact of their own ‘lived experience’. Individual race always informs our individual perspective on racism. When applying Critical Race Theory in a real-world context, firsthand accounts of this lived experience of racism are often considered some of the most valuable assets in understanding racist power structures (Leonardo, 2013). It developed to incorporate Standpoint Epistemology after Patricia Hill Collins’ writing on the value of the Black feminist standpoint- to explore this further, we recommend reading her publication, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism

 

An Example of Critical Race Theory in Contemporary Society 

In order to understand Critical Race Theory, we need to look at how it explains situations which occur in the real world. A great example comes from Critical Race Theory in England by Namita Chakrabarty, Lorna Roberts and John Preston. This book explores how the British Government in the early 2000s often focused on the plight of the White Working Class, but overlooked or refused to investigate how Black Working Class individuals were impacted by socioeconomic inequality. Furthermore, they illustrate the inherent racism surrounding conversations on socioeconomic inequality in this quote,

Critical Race Theory in England edited by Chakrabarty, Roberts & Preston

 

“The interests of the white working class are habitually pitched against those of minority ethnic groups and immigrants, while larger social and economic structures are left out of the debate altogether…there is a fairly consistent message that the white working class are the losers in the struggle for scarce resources, while minority ethnic groups are the winners – at the direct expense of the white working class”. (2016)

 

 

 

Critical Race Theory shows that systems of power provide advantages and disadvantages to different racial groups. This directly opposes the idea that it is racial difference itself that causes these polarities. So when Chakrabarty, Roberts and Preston state that “both success and failure are deemed to be a function of family – and/or community-specific dispositions”, they are addressing unacknowledged and unchallenged belief systems. They illustrate the belief that how well-off/successful other people are is down to their personal background, and not how systems such as education, employment or even healthcare treat people based on racial assumptions. 

Critical Race Theory simply invites us to look at the bigger picture. It tasks us with looking beyond the trends of inequality often blamed on innate differences between groups based on race. It tasks us with looking towards the idea that the world we have socially constructed means that, regardless of personal skill, ambition or determination, individuals from some racial backgrounds will always be denied particular resources, freedoms or support. It asks us to consider what an individual is truly capable of with regards to defining how others see them, and challenges the notion of individual neutrality or “colour blindness”. As radical as this theory has been treated by mainstream media, it merely stipulates that racism has influence and power within many social systems designed by people- people who, based on their own backgrounds, will fundamentally lack impartiality. Critical Race Theory was and remains a powerful device for social critique and an invaluable framework for progressive, ethical research and impactful social activism. 

 

Key Writers and Theorists in the Field 

One cannot speak on Critical Race Theory without crediting Richard Delgado’s work. His writing on the subject now spans two decades and he has continually updated his work to account for evolving social climates and significant events and developments, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) was published in 2017 and is available on Perlego. In this book, Delgado & Stefancic credit a number of theorists with contributing to the development of Critical Race Theory; notably Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term ‘intersectionality’.

Crenshaw herself writes on Critical Race Theory in Seeing Race Again– where she discusses the impact of the theory on the US legal system. Delgado & Stefancic also credit Angela Harris for her contributions. Harris is a feminist legal scholar whose exploration of the intersection of race, gender and class was foundational in formulating a Critical Race Theory that accounted for the impact of gendered and socioeconomic divides. You can read more on this subject and Harris’s contributions to Critical Race Theory in Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections for Race and Class for Women in Academia. Delgado & Stefancic also credit multiple early thinkers around Critical Race Theory including Jacques Derrida, Sojourner Truth and W.E.B. Dubois; selected relevant texts from these scholars are available below on Perlego. 

In addition to the above we have suggested some additional relevant reading and resources available on Perlego below.

 

Further Resources & Reading on Perlego 

Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader on Race and Empire – Alfred J. Lopez

The Racialised Social System – Ali Meghji

On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness – Jacques Derrida

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth – Sojourner Truth

The Souls of Black Folk – W.E.B. Dubois

 

Critical Race Theory FAQs

  • What is Critical Race Theory in simple terms?

    Critical Race Theory is defined by Derrick Bell as “a body of legal scholarship which challenges racism, particularly as institutionalised in and by law, and promotes equalitarianism.” (Bell, 1995). Critical race theory proposes that (chiefly American) laws and institutions function to create and maintain forms of inequality between White people and non-White people. These forms of inequality are often socio-political and economic in nature.

  • Who are the key writers on Critical Race Theory?

    Among the most noted authors and developers of this theory are:

    • Richard Delgado
    • Jean Stefancic
    • Kimberlé Crenshaw
    • Sojourner Truth
    • W.E.B. Dubois
    • Jacques Derrida
  • Why is Critical Race Theory Important?

    When we consider what racism ‘looks like’, Critical Race Theory can assist us in looking beyond more obvious examples- such as harassment or racial segregation. Critical Race Theory encourages us to challenge concepts like what is “neutral” or unbiased in systems like the law. This means we can begin to see patterns of behaviour which expose racism; for example, routinely harsher sentencing for African Americans than for White Americans when on trial for the same charges. This exposes a system where multiple individuals involved in law enforcement collectively perpetuate inequality, consciously and unconsciously.

  •  

    Bibliography

    Bell, D. A. (1995). Who’s afraid of critical race theory. U. Ill. L. Rev., 893.

    Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (1998). Critical race theory: Past, present, and future. Current legal problems, 51(1), 467.

    Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (Vol. 20). NyU press.

    Gabriel, T., & Goldstein, D. (2021, June 1). Disputing racism’s reach, Republicans rattle american schools. The New York Times. Retrieved October 22, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/01/us/politics/critical-race-theory.html 

    Leonardo, Z. (2013). The story of schooling: Critical race theory and the educational racial contract. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 34(4), 599-610.

    Saeedi, M. (2018). Historical-Comparative Research on Social Constructs A Methodological Point with a Historical Example. Social History Studies, 8(2), 1-17.

     

    Written by: Georgie Williams

    Georgie WilliamsGeorgie Williams is a deferred doctoral student in the field of Social Justice at University College Dublin and founder of gender & sexuality research hub, /Queer. Georgie’s research predominantly focuses on the development of gender and sexuality related social practices in post-colonial countries and the application of reflexive feminist methodologies to anthropological and sociological field research.