Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a “hot” (and controversial) topic in recent weeks as state governments across the US have sought to eliminate any mention of CRT in school curricula. In Idaho, for example, HB377, submitted during the 2021 regular legislative session, states that critical race theory serves to “exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens.” With this view, the bill would prohibit teaching the principles of CRT, as they are described in the bill, in Idaho public schools. Click HERE to see a draft of HB377.  

These legislative efforts are often based on a partisan interpretation of CRT. The purpose of this webpage is to provide a brief introduction to the basic principles of CRT in a way that is as non-partisan as possible. The primary source is Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (3rd edition), written by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic and published in 2017.

What is CRT?

CRT is defined by Delgado and Stefancic as a “progressive legal movement that seeks to transform the relationship among race, racism, and power.” It’s a theoretical framework that examines the experience of race and racism across society in order to understand how victims of discrimination and oppression are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice against them. To do this, critical race theorists build on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, César Chávez, and others.

CRT developed during the 1970’s, particularly among legal scholars attempting to understand the subtler forms of racial discrimination that began to gain ground in the aftermath of the advances of the 1960’s. Prominent CRT authors include Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. These writers, and others, work to challenge the beliefs and practices that help to sustain racial discrimination and oppression.

CRT is a form of “critical theory” that is also being applied to education, literature, art, gender studies, LGBTQ+ studies, and ethnic studies. Critical theories place society within a historical context and use information and insights from diverse fields, including history, philosophy, sociology, and law in order to explain the social problems that exist and offer practical solutions for responding to those problems. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the purpose of a critical theory is to provide a framework for social inquiry “aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.”

What do critical race theorists believe?

Here are six principles that are commonly held by proponents of CRT, as described by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (Critical race theory: An introduction, 3rd edition, 2017).

Ordinariness. This refers to the view that, rather than being a rare event, discrimination is a common (ordinary), everyday experience for most people of color. CRT argues that “color-blind” ideas about justice and equity are more harmful than helpful because they serve to obscure the many forms of racism, making them difficult to address because they limit discussion to only the more blatant, overt forms.

Interest convergence. This refers to the view that advances by people of color are most likely to occur when they are supported by powerful white people acting on their own, often economic, self-interests.

Social construction. This refers to the view that “race” is not innate or fixed, based on biology or genetics. Instead, it is a social construct that is manipulated and adjusted over time. While groups of people with common origins may have common physical characteristics, these within-group similarities are far less important than the between-group similarities that exist among all people.

Differential racialization. This refers to the view that the dominant group has “racialized” different groups at different times. For example, at different times in U.S. history, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Mexican, and Japanese people have been considered inferior “races.”  

Intersectionality and antiessestialism. This refers to the view that none of us is defined by a single “essential” characteristic or identity. Instead each of us is made up of several identities that “intersect” and interact with one another. These might include race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, education, and so on. These intersections can result in compound forms of discrimination, for example:  Black women.

A unique voice of color. This refers to the idea that members of marginalized groups have different histories and experiences than members of a dominant group that gives them a particular perspective and presumed competence to speak about race and racism from the vantage point of their lived experience. As a result, CRT makes frequent use of storytelling and counter-storytelling, often presented in the first person, to highlight the experiences of members of a racial group, individually and collectively.

What are common criticisms of CRT?

It can be difficult to separate CRT from politics because most proponents of CRT are politically progressive and most opponents are politically conservative. That said, here are 8 criticisms of CRT, as published in New Discourses, a journal that describes itself as “apolitical in the usual sense.” As described by James Lindsay, the author of the article, the problem with CRT is that it:

  • believes that racism is present in every aspect of life, every relationship, and every interaction.
  • believes that racism is present in every aspect of life, every relationship, and every interaction.
  • relies on “interest convergences” (white people only give black people opportunities and freedoms when it is also in their own interests) and therefore doesn’t trust any attempt to make racism better.
  • Is against free societies and wants to dismantle them and replace them with something its advocates control.
  • only treats race issues as “socially constructed groups,” so there are no individuals.
  • believes science, reason, and evidence are a “white” way of knowing and that storytelling and lived experience are a “black” alternative, which hurts everyone, especially black people.
  • rejects all potential alternative, like colorblindness, as forms of racism, making itself the only allowable game it town (which is totalitarian).
  • acts like anyone who disagrees with it must do so for racist and white supremacist reasons, even if those people are black (which is also totalitarian).
  • cannot be satisfied, so it becomes a kind of activist black hole that threatens to destroy everything it is introduced into.

Click HERE to read the full article.

Where can I learn more about Critical Race Theory?

  • Audie Cornish (2021). Academic Who Brought Critical Race Theory To Education Says Bills Are Misguided. NPR (Boise State Radio): All Things Considered. Click HERE for the link.
  • Faith Karimi 2021. What CRT is and isn’t. Click HERE for the link.
  • Matthew Nielsen (2021). When critical theory took on race. New Discourses. Click HERE for the link.

Where can I learn more about criticisms of CRT?

  • Critical Race Theory (2021). The Heritage Foundation. [This website provides a rich collection of resources arguing against CRT, including a Critical Race Theory Legislation Tracker that provides information about CRT-related legislation in every state.] Click HERE for the link.