Critical Race Theory I: What Is It?

Critical Race Theory I: What Is It? February 5, 2020



Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a movement that started among scholars in American law schools in the 1970s and has now influenced a wide variety of fields in the social sciences and humanities.  It has also affected much of American life outside of the academy, such as the broadly discussed “identity politics” in which people of the same race or sex or sexual orientation work together to gain power for their group. Since the 1990s CRT has produced a new emphasis on “whiteness” and “white privilege”—attitudes and privileges that whites are said to possess without realizing it.

Legal theorists at the beginning of this movement believed that the civil rights movement (CRM) of the 1960s did not go nearly far enough.  The CRM’s attachment to color-blindness in law and other fields of life masked, according to CRT, a deep and pervasive racism.  Affirmative action from the 1970s did not go far enough, either. While it helped people of color get access to opportunities that had been closed to them, it let white elites off the hook.  Affirmative action for the most part only helped whites feel less guilty for their systemic oppression of minorities in every aspect of American society.

CRT “draws from certain European philosophers and theorists, such as [Marxist] Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, as well as from the American radical tradition exemplified by such figures as . . . W.E.B. Du Bois, Cesar Chavez, . . . and the Black Power and Chicano movements of the sixties and early seventies” (5) [this and all other quotes are from Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, eds., Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rdedn. (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

CRT can be understood as teaching seven basic principles.

  1. Racism is ordinary, pervasive, and systematic in America. It is “ordinary, not aberrational—‘normal science’—the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country” (8).  It  “is a means by which society allocates privilege and status.  Racial hierarchies determine who gets tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools, and invitations to parties in people’s homes” (21).  Racism is so “embedded in our thought processes and social structures” that the ‘ordinary business’ of society . . . will keep minorities in subordinate positions.” (27).
  2. Race is a social construction with no basis in biology or genetics. “Race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality. . . . People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture.  But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment, [and] are dwarfed by what we have in common. . . . [S]ociety chooses to ignore these scientific truths, creates races, and endows them with pseudo-permanent characteristics” (9).

Not only is race merely a social construct but no individual can be identified with a single identity such as race. “No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity. . . . Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances” (10-11).

  1. There is a unique voice of color so that people of color must be presumed to have competence. “Because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism” (11).
  2. The liberal order is fundamentally oppressive, which means all of the following are complicit: Enlightenment rationalism, neutral principles of law, and the idea of merit. “Unliketraditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, CRT questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” (3)  “When we are tackling a structure as deeply imbedded as race, radical measures are in order—otherwise the system merely swallows up the small improvement one has made, and everything goes back to the way it was” (64-65).  In the 2001 first edition, the authors wrote, “Everything must change at once, otherwise the system merely swallows up the small improvement one has made” (57, italics added).
  3. Color-blindness should not be our ideal because it is a tool of oppression. “Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery” (27). Opponents of affirmative action who think it is reverse racism do so because they assume “innocence on the part of the white displaced by affirmative action” (91). But this “assumption characterizes whites as innocent” and blacks as “the opposite of innocent, namely, guilty” (ibid.) Since “racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained . . . then no white member of society seems quite so innocent, [for every white participates in] the interplay of meanings that one attaches to race; the stereotypes one holds of other people; the standards of looks, appearance, and beauty. [These plus] the need to guard one’s position all powerfully determine one’s perspective” (91).

Should affirmative action be based on class rather than race, as many critics have suggested?  For many beneficiaries of affirmative action come from families that are already successful. But CR theorists “believe that such a shift would devastate the chances of communities of color, because the number of poor whites greatly exceeds that of poor minorities” (133-34).

The US Supreme Court should “accept race-conscious measures in employment and education . . . a new federal Indian law policy [should] recognize Indian tribes, unequivocally, as sovereign nations . . . [and] reparations” should be paid by the government to Indians and blacks (158).

  1. White privilege is a reality and is at the heart of systemic oppression of people of color. The “white race in America [came] to exist” by defining whiteness as “often associated with innocence and goodness. Brides wear white on their wedding day to signify purity. ‘Snow White’ is a universal fairy tale of virtue. . . . In contrast, darkness and blackness often carry connotations of evil and menace.  One need only read Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness to see how strongly imagery of darkness conveys evil and terror. . . . Literature and the media reinforce this view of minorities as the exotic other.  Minorities appear in villain roles or as romantic, oversexed lovers.  Sci-fi movies and TV programs portray extraterrestials with minority-like features and skin-color” (85-86)

‘White privilege’ refers to the myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race. . . . Scholars of white privilege write that white people benefit from a system of favors, exchanges and courtesies from which outsiders of color are frequently excluded, including hiring one’s neighbor’s kids for summer jobs, a teacher’s agreement to give a favored student an extra-credit assignment that will enable him or her to raise a grade of B+ or to A-, or the kind of quiet networking that lands a borderline candidate a coveted position” (90).

  1. Minorities should not be expected to fit in to existing American society, such as giving up the priority of their native languages. Society should “cease requiring assimilation as a ticket for admission to jobs, neighborhoods, and schools. . . . [M]inorities who choose to retain their . . . language . . . or ways of dress may do so without penalty” (156). Activists should “pursue zealously the goal of economic democracy” so that people of color who “suffer intense poverty” will have a “decent level of services, health care, and education” (ibid.).

Next:  Critical Race Theory II: Is It Coherent?


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