Critical Race Theory Essay

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Origins And Development

Critical race theory (CRT) began in the early 1980s as an insurgent intellectual movement within the American legal academy. The movement’s impetus was, according to Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gar y Peller, and Kendall Thomas, the editors of the 1995 book, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, “a deep dissatisfaction with traditional civil rights discourse” felt by students and younger professors, mostly of color, in top U.S. law schools. CRT students and scholars maintained that legal academic elites such as the Harvard Law faculty promulgated a naïve view of racial justice, which worked to preserve de facto white supremacy by underestimating the breadth and depth of racial injustice in the United States. CRT proponents held that an implicit social compact existed between liberals and conservatives in the American intelligentsia about how racial justice would be debated and understood. As described by Kimberlé Crenshaw and her colleagues in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, liberals and conservatives together would exclude “radical or fundamental challenges to [the] status quo . . . by treating the exercise of racial power as rare and aberrational rather than as systemic and ingrained” (xiv). Racism would be conceived as the “intentional, albeit irrational, deviation by a conscious wrongdoer from otherwise neutral, rational, and just ways of distributing jobs, power, prestige, and wealth. The adoption of this perspective allowed a broad cultural mainstream both explicitly to acknowledge the fact of racism and, simultaneously, to insist on its irregular occurrence and limited significance” (xiv). The intended effect of this tacit agreement was to forestall radical challenges to de facto white supremacy and to confine racial reform to liberal incrementalism.

The radicalism of CRT’s critique of American white supremacy elicited shock, outrage, and even ridicule from both the law school establishment and the American intelligentsia. But as CRT produced a steady stream of law review articles deconstructing the conventional wisdom of American legal liberalism—illustrating the gap between that conventional wisdom and real-life minority experience—the movement won adherents. Closely allied with critical legal studies (CLS), which sought to expose the ways American law systematically perpetuated and legitimated economic exploitation, CRT drew sustenance from the Marxist and poststructuralist insights of CLS while at the same time forcing it to move race closer to the center of its inquiry. CRT thus constituted of both “a left intervention into race discourse and a race intervention into left discourse” (Crenshaw et al., xix).Today CRT scholars hold tenured professorships in prestigious law schools and are making inroads in the disciplines of history, sociology, political science, and philosophy. While there is less resistance to CRT today than there was at its inception, many scholars and pundits still consider CRT to be conspiratorial and antiwhite.

Premises And Tenets

CRT is a diverse intellectual movement without a rigid orthodoxy. Its adherents nevertheless share some premises and tenets. First, critical race theorists insist that though race is bankrupt as a biological concept, it is significant as a social concept. For five centuries, changing conceptions of race legitimized the enslavement, dispossession, colonization, and oppression of African, Native American, Latino and Latina, Asian, and Jewish peoples; though those conceptions of race have been discredited, they still organize inequality and infect modern thought. To diagnose the ways those conceptions of race continue to distort social perception and structure inequality, it is necessary to employ race as a social category. In addition, to avoid essentialism and overgeneralization, it is important to study the various ways different groups have been racially categorized and characterized at different points in time.

Second, critical race theorists consider white supremacy to be constitutive of, and not anomalous to, the American polity. This premise overturns the mainstream belief that civil rights advances of the 1950s and 1960s—Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—purged the laws of racial injustice, removed all obstacles to racial equality, and restored the legitimacy of an otherwise just system. Critical race theorists opt for their historical view not out of eagerness either to discount the triumphs of the civil rights movement or to be reflexively anti-American, but rather out of a carefully considered belief that (1) their view more accurately reflects American historical and sociological reality, and (2) any sugarcoating of that reality provides a false sense of comfort and forestalls the achievement of racial equality. Critical race theorists also wish to emphasize that America’s achievement of racial justice is not destined and inevitable. History can and does move backward; realizing racial justice thus requires moral vigilance and political action.

Third, CRT is highly critical of the turn toward the ideal of colorblindness, both in the judiciary’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and in American political culture generally. While many critical race theorists agree that a colorblind society is the ultimate goal, all are skeptical that social and economic white supremacy can be dismantled without color conscious, results-oriented public policy. Maintaining that racial justice means substantive racial equality, they argue that those who opt for formalistic understandings of racial justice— intentionally or not—act to preserve the social and economic privileges white Americans accumulated over three centuries of de jure white supremacy. Against those who characterize prominority remediation as morally equivalent to antiminority discrimination, critical race theorists respond that the two are morally asymmetrical. They urge judges to consider social and historical context in adjudicating color-conscious public policies, and measure their constitutionality by whether they reinforce or undermine de facto white supremacy.

Fourth, CRT emphasizes the importance of attending to intersectionality—how individuals live within multiple identities. Because both antidiscrimination law and identity-based social movements typically are organized around single dimensions of identity—race or sex or sexual orientation, to name just three—our structures of law and protest are ill-equipped to address problems that arise from hybrid forms of oppression. If a black woman, for example, is denied a promotion because her boss feels special animus against black women, that boss can defuse her race-based or sex-based antidiscrimination claim by pointing to recent promotions of black men and white women. The law’s insensitivity to the fact that people suffer hybridized forms of discrimination leaves these victims without legal recourse. Scholars of intersectionality analyze these dilemmas and develop conceptual frameworks capable of addressing them.


  1. Bell, Derrick. And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1987.
  2. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
  3. Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: New Press, 1995.
  4. Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
  5. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
  6. Guinier, Lani. Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1994.
  7. Guinier, Lani, and Gerald Torres. The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  8. Haney López, Ian F. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
  9. Williams, Patricia J. The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Mad Law Professor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  10. Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.
  11. Wing, Adrien Katherine. Critical Race Feminism: A Reader, 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

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