What Is Critical Race Theory?

I’ve been asked a million times for a short introduction to Critical Race Theory that hits the high points in a quick, straightforward way. Most people will have heard of Critical Race Theory by now, but in case you haven’t, it’s a particular way of thinking about race and racism that developed first at Harvard Law School from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Its stated objective is to question whether the Civil Rights Movement and Civil Rights Acts legislation improved the racial situation in Western nations, especially the United States. Its true objective is to re-organize the social, cultural, and legal playing field in a way that claims to reverse “historical injustices” around the issue of race, allegedly without reproducing them.

To keep this short and simple, I’ll provide you with two quotes from the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (third edition) by Critical Race Theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. These quotes summarize everything that Critical Race Theory is really about in its own words.

First, Critical Race Theory views race and racism this way: race is a political construction that was invented by white people to give themselves power while excluding all other races from it, and racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society, present in all interactions, institutions, and phenomena, and effectively permanent in society (short of a full sociocultural revolution that puts them in charge). That is, Critical Race Theory assumes that racism is present in everything under a doctrine known as “systemic racism.” Quoting from Delgado and Stefancic,

What do critical race theorists believe? Probably not every member would subscribe to every tenet set out in this book, but many would agree on the following propositions. First, that 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. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material. The first feature, ordinariness, means that racism is difficult to cure or address. … The second feature, sometimes called “interest convergence” or material determinism, adds a further dimension. Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class people (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it.

As you can see, Critical Race Theorists believe that people who they claim benefit from “systemic racism,” which they declare to be the ordinary state of affairs in society, want to maintain it, which is why Critical Race Theorists say virtually everyone is racist. People who are especially skilled at finding the “systemic racism” in everything are called “Critical Race Theorists.” They proceed according to a simplified version of this first assumption of Critical Race Theory, which can be expressed in the words of Robin DiAngelo this way: “The question is not ‘Did racism take place?’ but ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’” That is, they assume racism is present in everything and look for it “Critically” until they find it. Importantly, this is assessed subjectively according to the “lived experience” of racism and does not depend upon there being any evidence of racism.

Second, Critical Race Theory does not continue the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, as many incorrectly believe. It is against liberalism and the liberal order upon which Western societies are founded, and it rejects both equality and neutral principles of constitutional law (these were the backbone of both the abolitionist movement that ended slavery and the Civil Rights Movement). It also rejects legal reasoning and Enlightenment rationalism. This makes Critical Race Theory unreasonable, illiberal, against equality, and anti-American, by definition.

The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged 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 discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. 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.

Critical Race Theory believes these bedrock liberal principles upon which free societies are built are ways that discrimination can be hidden and maintained rather than overcome. As stated by Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo in their Critical Theory education manual Is Everyone Really Equal?,

[Critical] movements initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace) but quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism. The ideal 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.

As you can see, Critical Race Theory presents a radically different view of our society and of us than most of us recognize or accept. They begin with the assumption of racism and look to find it. They say everyone who doesn’t do this is complicit in the problem, including just for disagreeing with Critical Race Theory. And they reject the fundamental liberal, reasonable, legal, and scientific principles upon which liberal societies operate. That is, even though they touch on real truths about race and racism in our world, they are radicals in every sense of the word, and there’s almost no reason to believe they describe reality as it is and much reason to believe they get the issue almost exactly backwards.

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