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About Critical Race Theory

This resource does not seek to take a position on critical race theory but rather seeks to inform the American public about what critical race theory is, its history, and modern-day implications.

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical race theory is a field of intellectual inquiry that demonstrates the legal codification of racism in America.

- David Miguel Gray, Assistant Professor of Philosophy (University of Memphis)


Critical race theory (CRT) explained. The central idea of CRT is that racism is institutionalized and is embedded in America's history, legal systems, and policies. It acknowledges the continuing impacts of slavery and segregation in America and critiques how institutionalized racism perpetuates a caste system that is inherently unequal.


There are five principles of critical race theory (core tenets).


1. Race is a Social Construct. Many CRT scholars contend that race is not biologically real (as demonstrated in the Human Genome Project) but rather a social construct. According to scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, race is the product of social thought and is not connected to biological reality.


2. The Centrality of Racism. Many CRT scholars contend that racism isn't just based on the actions of individuals ("a few bad apples"), but rather that racism is embedded in America's culture, society, and legal codes. Racism and prejudice exists everywhere in American life from the workplace, to schools, and businesses.


3. Commitment to Social Justice. CRT seeks to address why racial disparity exists in America so to eradicate racism and eliminate oppression. A group of legal scholars in 1993 identified the end goal of critical race theory to go beyond just eliminating racial oppression and rather seeking to eliminate all oppression. That group wrote: “The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself.”


4. The Importance of Experienced Knowledge. CRT scholars explain that experiences (storytelling, biographies, parables, narratives, family histories, the list goes on) of People of Color are crucial to understanding racism and changing the American society for the better.


5. An Interdisciplinary Perspective. CRT contends that there is no one answer or one path to freedom. Instead, CRT says that we all ought to use all the tools we have to help educate individuals and fight for liberation. In fact, that same group of scholars in 1993 explained that CRT is “interdisciplinary and eclectic,” meaning it borrowed from a number of traditions such as feminism.


History of Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s as a response to Critical Legal Studies (CLS), which argued that law was not objective or apolitical. The backdrop behind critical race theory was a common belief in America that the way to solve oppression was to pass legal reforms that expanded existing rights and provided more pathways for victims of discrimination to receive remedy.


The scholars who formulated critical race theory sought to answer questions such as "why is it that racial inequality endures and persists, even decades after these laws have been passed? And "why is racism still enduring and how do we truly abolish it?".


The late Harvard professor Derrick Bell is credited with establishing critical race theory through his publications and groundbreaking course Race, Racism, and American Law. In 1989 CRT became a unified movement at the first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory.


Later in 1993, CRT was further cemented by a group of legal scholars - Mari Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw - when they published the book "Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment."


CRT has many accomplishments such as aiding in the passage of affirmative action laws, reforming urban planning to decrease segregation, and securing fair housing rights.

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Critical Race Theory in Schools

CRT has become a trending issue in the news especially in regard to its usage in K-12 school discussions. However, "There is little to no evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students, though some ideas central to it, such as lingering consequences of slavery, have been." (The Associated Press).


Regardless, many states have proposed passing legislative bans on CRT teachings. These states include Florida, Texas, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma, Ohio, Alabama, and Kentucky.

Further Resources on Critical Race Theory

There are a plethora of enlightening academic papers and books about understanding CRT.

Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, And The First Amendment (New Perspectives on Law, Culture, & Society) (1993) by Mari Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw.


In this book, the authors, all legal scholars from the tradition of critical race theory start from the experience of injury from racist hate speech and develop a theory of the first amendment that recognizes such injuries. In their critique of "first amendment orthodoxy", the authors argue that only a history of racism can explain why defamation, invasion of privacy and fraud are exempt from free-speech guarantees but racist verbal assault is not.


Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.

This book is a compact introduction to the field of CRT that explained, in straightforward language, the origins, principal themes, leading voices, and new directions of this important movement in legal thought.

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