Critical Race Theory
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Critical race theory (CRT) is an intellectual movement and organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color. Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.
Critical race theory (CRT) was officially organized in 1989, at the first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory, though its intellectual origins go back much farther, to the 1960s and ’70s. Its immediate precursor was the critical legal studies (CLS) movement, which dedicated itself to examining how the law and legal institutions serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalized.
Like CLS scholars, critical race theorists believed that political liberalism was incapable of adequately addressing fundamental problems of injustice in American society (notwithstanding legislation and court rulings advancing civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s), because its emphasis on the equitable treatment under the law of all races (“color blindness”) rendered it capable of recognizing only the most overt and obvious racist practices, not those that were relatively indirect, subtle, or systemic.
In their work Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, first published in 2001, the legal scholars Richard Delgado (one of the founders of CRT) and Jean Stefancic discuss several general propositions that they claim would be accepted by many critical race theorists, despite the considerable variation of belief among members of the movement. These “basic tenets” of CRT, according to the authors, include the following claims:
(1) Race is socially constructed, not biologically natural.
(2) Racism in the United States is normal, not aberrational: it is the common, ordinary experience of most people of color.
(3) Owing to what critical race theorists call “interest convergence” or “material determinism,” legal advances (or setbacks) for people of color tend to serve the interests of dominant white groups. Thus, the racial hierarchy that characterizes American society may be unaffected or even reinforced by ostensible improvements in the legal status of oppressed or exploited people.
(4) Members of minority groups periodically undergo “differential racialization,” or the attribution to them of varying sets of negative stereotypes, again depending on the needs or interests of whites.
(5) According to the thesis of “intersectionality” or “antiessentialism,” no individual can be adequately identified by membership in a single group. An African American person, for example, may also identify as a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, a Christian, and so on.
Finally, (6) the “voice of color” thesis holds that people of color are uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of other members of their group (or groups) regarding the forms and effects of racism. This consensus has led to the growth of the “legal story telling” movement, which argues that the self-expressed views of victims of racism and other forms of oppression provide essential insight into the nature of the legal system.