Unpacking Critical Race Theory – A Comprehensive Overview
People are discussing critical race theory (CRT) these days. It’s been all over the news — debates in school board meetings that get heated and arguments about laws to ban teachers from discussing racism.
But many people need to understand CRT. It’s essential to unpack the scholarship that forms this approach and understand its aims.
As the debate over how to teach K-12 students about racism rages, law professor Kimberle Crenshaw says there’s much confusion about what critical race theory (CRT) is. Essentially, it is the belief that racism operates in the context of laws, structures, and systems that perpetuate inequality. It’s the rejection of popular understandings of racism that confine it to a few “bad apples.” It recognizes how people of color preserve their lived experiences through storytelling and opposition to deficit-informed research that fails to consider their epistemologies.
It’s a radical skepticism that the passage of civil rights legislation has done enough to secure the rights of minority groups. It’s a belief that old systems need major restructuring to address inequality and the relegation of certain groups to second-class status.
It’s a rejection of colorblindness that maintains white supremacy by feigning neutrality. And it’s a refusal to accept that some forms of discrimination are not racist, such as the segregated and under-resourced schools argued over in the Gary B. Milliken case. That’s why the Trump administration and other critics say that embracing CRT leads to divisive ideas about race, collective guilt for dominant groups, and the assignment of racial significance to seemingly neutral concepts.
What is CRT?
Many educators support culturally relevant teaching and other approaches that elevate students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds. But those practices differ from CRT despite being related in some ways.
CRT is a framework for legal analysis developed in the 1970s and 1980s by scholars including Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and others. It rejects the idea that a white person’s race doesn’t matter. Instead, it views racial disparities in law, education, and economic outcomes as evidence of institutional racism and an invitation to impose racially equitable results directly.
Some critics claim that CRT encourages anti-white bias. Still, defenders argue it helps dominant groups understand how the structures and institutions they create replicate racial inequality and can be a tool for dismantling them. The disagreement stems from differing conceptions of what racism is, how it should be addressed, and how that should be accomplished in real-world settings. For example, some view the fact that racial disparities in law and education persist as proof of racism, while others consider them an inherent consequence of laws or systemic issues.
What is CRT’s Purpose?
Despite attempts to stifle this much-needed national dialogue, many educators are still discussing the ills of racism. Buzzwords like “implicit bias” and “systemic racism” have been featured in school district diversity statements, corporate training, and educational materials.
Racial inequality in privileges, rights, and resource access is a fundamental principle of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which holds that race is a social construct exploited to legitimize group-based exploitation. It rejects popular understandings of racism that limit it to a few bad apples and views it as a systemic, pervasive, covert, and often invisible phenomenon that is codified in law and embedded in structures.
It also recognizes that oppression works on and through intersections of identity, which is why it embraces the lived experiences of people of color through narratives and storytelling monologues. Finally, it recognizes that white supremacy is at the root of all racial inequality and strives to counter the metanarratives that maintain it.
Some critics have argued that CRT teaches hatred of white people, but scholars like Bell, Delgado, and Lani Guinier do not advocate hatred of anyone. Instead, they call for a more empathetic society that takes into account the traumatic history of oppression that many whites do not remember and understand.
What is CRT’s Methodology?
Although many people use the term to refer to a school of thought, CRT is not a movement or an organization. Instead, it is an analytical framework that examines the roots of persistent and structural racism in laws, policies, and institutions.
The framework focuses on systems and institutions perpetuating racial inequality, such as law, education, finance, housing, and health care. It also recognizes the role of racial microaggressions, which are daily acts of prejudice that often go unnoticed by many people.
CRT is a complex and multifaceted analysis supported by decades of scholarship. It grew out of a need to better understand why the passage of civil rights legislation failed to eradicate racial disparities. Scholars used long-standing scientific research and a mix of data, theory, and personal narrative to explain how racism is systemic and individual.
These scholars posited that the success of civil rights legislation proved that laws alone were not enough to eliminate racial inequality. Other institutionalized forces were at play, such as societal beliefs in meritocracy and colorblindness that sustain liberal ideas of race neutrality and objectivity.
What is CRT’s Conclusions?
Despite being misunderstood and attacked, critical race theory is here to stay. Its tenets, such as the idea that our nation is inherently racist and lectures on conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression, are rooted in a postmodern academic school of thought known as critical theory.
CRT recognizes that the laws, policies, and institutions that uphold racial inequalities must be dismantled. It also acknowledges that societal issues like the higher death rates of Black people outsized exposure to police violence, the prison pipeline, and denial of affordable housing are not isolated events or anomalies.
While critics on social media erroneously claim that CRT teaches hatred of white people, the theory does not endorse racism. Scholars who embrace the tenets of CRT often seek to bring their work into more equitable partnerships with communities affected by health disparities. They also emphasize the importance of embracing individuals’ lived experiences and knowledge and reject deficit-informed research.