Critical Race Theory: A Two-page Overview

“Unlike traditional approaches to civil rights, which favor incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory calls into question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law.”
From Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, first edition (2001), by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, p. 3.

“Crits [Critical Race Theorists] are highly suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights.”
From Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, first edition (2001), by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, p. 23.

Critical Race Theorists describe Critical Race Theory as a movement (which is strange for a theory of society) designed to reinvent the relationships between race, racism, and power in society. To do this, they begin with the assumption that race is socially constructed and racism is systemic. This means that  they view racial categories as social and political fictions that have been imposed by white people on people of color, especially blacks, and that the “system” upon which all of society operates on every level unjustly produces “racist” outcomes that favor whites (and minority races that adhere to “whiteness”) at the expense of people of color, especially Latinos and, even more especially, blacks. Because racism is a property of the system, which includes everything from policy to behavioral norms to manners of speech to what we consider true, racism persists even if no individual or institution acts in a racist way or holds any racist beliefs. It is the way society operates that is racist, as can be determined by the fact that there are statistical differences in average outcomes by racial category.

Critical Race Theory proceeds upon a number of dubious assumptions and by means of a variety of questionable methods, including:

  • Racism is ordinary: Critical Race Theory holds that “racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society,” thus the question in Critical Race Theory is not “did racism take place?” but “how did racism manifest in this situation?” Thus, racism is relevant to all interactions and everything else that happens according to Critical Race Theory, and it is everyone’s duty to investigate, expose, and “disrupt” this racism once identified.
  • Immanence of racism: As a corollary to the above, racism is believed to be immanent in society, which means hidden just below the surface and everywhere, always, according to Critical Race Theory. Therefore, all acts of racism are not to be understood as isolated incidents by individuals or institutions but as specific manifestations of a pervasive system that defines society. (This is why justice is not achieved by finding a police officer guilty; the system must be remade instead.)
  • Interest convergence: Critical Race Theory holds that dominant racial groups (whites) will not help more oppressed racial groups (blacks, in particular) unless it is also in their own self-interest to do so. Therefore, racism does not go away but is just reproduced in new ways, usually ways that hide it more successfully and require more work to identify in the future (through Critical Race Theory). Therefore, racism doesn’t get better and, in a sense, gets worse over time because it gets harder to identify and call out.
  • Motivated ignorance: Dominant racial groups (whites) are positioned as benefiting from the system of racism Critical Race Theory assumes pervades everything and therefore have little to no motivation to challenge or change it. Instead, they have motivation to intentionally ignore racism (“willful ignorance”) , to maintain it, and to rationalize it as justified (say, by claiming success is the result of merit). Refusal to “interrogate” one’s own “white complicity” in the racist system is often treated as a character flaw (e.g., “white fragility”) and a feature of white privilege. This trait, together with the above, gives racism a permanence, according to Critical Race Theory.
  • Structural determinism: Critical Race Theory holds that the systems of oppression in society determine one’s outcomes in life. Therefore, people of color (especially blacks) are positioned by the allegedly white supremacist system to be kept down, and it is the deterministic power of those power structures (rather than individual traits like character or merit) that determine success or failure in life.
  • Authentic racial experiences (engaging positionality): Critical Race Theory holds that systemic racism creates identifiable racial experiences for members of all racial groups. Further, Critical Race Theory is the only social theory in existence that properly understands how one’s racial social position with respect to these power dynamics can be rightly understood. Therefore, members of each racial category have an authentic racial experience as determined by Critical Race Theory that describes their lived experience within an allegedly white supremacist and systemically racist system that is, especially, “anti-Black.” When these perspectives are put forth by a member of the relevant racial category, they cannot be questioned. When a contradictory perspective is put forth by a member of the relevant racial category, that person is said to have some form of false consciousness, such as “internalized racism” or a cynical desire to “act white” for personal gain.
  • Unique voice of color: Corollary to the above, Critical Race Theory holds that critically conscious (Woke / Critical Race Theorist) members of minority racial groups possess a unique voice of color that speaks to the lived experience of systemic oppression by race, as Critical Race Theory defines it. This is another tool for asserting that Critical Race Theorists cannot be doubted in their declarations of their experience “as a” member of a particular race.
  • Identity politics: Critical Race Theory is unabashedly involved in identity politics in the sense of creating special interest groups and political coalitions out of racial identity groups. This tends to take the form of a small number of Critical Race Theory activists speaking for certain racial “communities,” using the points above as justification.
  • Impact over intent: Critical Race Theory holds that if a (critically conscious) member of a minoritized racial group has experienced racism in some word or deed, then that’s the correct explanation for what happened, and it cannot be questioned. This empowers hypersensitivity and a victimhood-seeking frame.
  • Anti-liberalism: As can be read in the quotes at the top of the page, Critical Race Theory holds that the philosophy of liberalism is, in fact, a racist system because it creates conditions under which existing inequities (inequalities in outcomes) increase while misleading people to believe that things are more fair than they are.
  • Narrative and counterstorytelling: Critical Race Theory favors the telling of stories, especially stories that challenge prevailing wisdom or reject established knowledge (usually resting in lived experience and/or statistical exceptions and outliers) as a means of challenging and rejecting facts in favor of politically useful statements and beliefs. Narrative is considered superior to careful, rigorous methodologies, which are believed to have been established from within the “white racial frame,” for example, and that therefore uphold white supremacy, either intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Revisionist history: Critical Race Theorists believe it is their obligation to rewrite history to tell it from the perspective of Critical Race Theory (even if factually inaccurate—because of the reliance on narratives and counterstories) rather than fact-based or official history, which is deemed to have been written from within the “white racial frame,” which is believed to uphold systemic racism and white supremacy. This is the role of the 1619 Project.
  • Intersectionality: All forms of oppression by all forms of identity are linked into one broad, pervasive “Matrix of Domination,” thus necessitating solidarity across all forms of oppression.

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