An Exploration of the Fundamental Points of Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory. Of the classes I’m taking this semester it is probably the simplest and the most difficult. I’m undertaking this task of trying to explain this discipline as I understand it because I want to share why I think that this movement and its key writings should be required reading and study for all. Please note that this post is non-exhaustive, but I do present the fundamental points of Critical race theory within.

So, what is Critical race theory? A simple Google search will lead you to Wikipedia and the following: “Critical race theory is a theoretical framework in the social sciences that uses critical theory to examine society and culture as they relate to categorizations of race, law, and power.” (Wikipedia) Even though Wikipedia fails to be an entirely reliable resource,[1] there is a great deal of truth to this definition, but it is not the whole story. CRT developed out of Critical Legal Studies, and the need to discuss how different policies and regulations affect differently those who fall into different race categories, often due to racism both explicit and implicit. The study of CRT is the study of how racism is entrenched in our legal systems and is insidious in how it affects the lives of everyone every day. For our purposes today I’ll be focusing on CRT as it pertains to the policies and cultures of the United States, since that is what I am most familiar with and we have not gotten to the section of the course where we discuss the bulk of the international interactions with CRT and race and racism outside of the United States.

The oppression that people of color face is based upon the notions of white superiority and racism entrenched in our structures of power. Everyone has prejudice. From the moment that we are born, we are socialized around how to live in our society. It is only by learning about the ways in which we have been socialized that we can understand how our roles have been harmful to one group or another, depending on which intersection we and they fall at.

This can be a hard pill to swallow for some people, as many consider themselves to be unprejudiced. Given the way that socialization functions in our society, this is functionally impossible, and so I urge you to deeply consider the negative ways in which you have been trained to think about different groups and people, and how you continue to do so (though perhaps unconsciously) as opposed to only thinking about your positive impact. For the purposes of CRT, let’s narrow our focus to look at racism in particular, and take a look at why racism is different from racial prejudice.

Racism is a systematic form of oppression. In his essay “Racism: Looking Forward, Looking Back” Ron Daniels explains that racism is distinguished from other kinds of prejudices “by the fact that it is systemic and it relates to the question of power and capacity. That is to say, racism is about having the power or capacity to translate prejudices and attitudes or feelings of superiority into practice, custom, policy, or law” (2). In other words, anyone of any race can have prejudice and ill will toward any other race.

In many instances, the term racism is incorrectly applied as a blanket term to describe this prejudice. This is a misuse of the term because that prejudice can only be called racism when it is reinforced, condoned, and upheld by a regulatory system of power. This misuse of the term “racism” is actively concealing the existence of this institutional power structure and thus perpetuating said structure. The false definition of this prejudice as racism in all cases is an abuse both psychological and physical against people of color. The psychological abuse comes from the mental and emotional labor that people of color have to bear from maintaining non-violent connections with people who adhere to this belief. This is because the stress of consistent interactions with people who participate in and believe in the truth and integrity of these structures is emotionally exhausting and requires a high level of mental compartmentalization that people of color have to exercise in order to interact peaceably with the people who uphold the system that oppresses them. The physical abuse comes from those who are a victim to the racist system which polices and controls the bodies of people of color. A work that investigates this abuse with depth is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which is a thorough exploration into how the criminal justice system functions as a system of racial subjugation and control, formally adhering to colorblindness but still functioning as a racial caste system.

But let’s take a step back to talk about colorblindness itself.  Colorblindness is purportedly a form of correction with regard to racism, as it calls for equal treatment across color lines. In reality, equal treatment is only corrective of the most blatant forms of racism and does little to combat entrenched systemic issues that pertain to things such as diversity, equity, and inclusion rather than the simple question of equality. Thus, color-blind racism is a form of subtle racism that results from people and structures of power that uphold racist policies and ideologies that are not explicitly racist, but nonetheless have discriminatory outcomes that fall along racialized lines.

An essential tenet of CRT is the harmful effects of white fragility and how those who might claim to be allies hamper progress and aid the racist and white supremacist systems of power. One crucial text that has been making great waves and positive impact is White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. So, what is white fragility? If it wasn’t a complex topic then DiAngelo wouldn’t have written a book about it, but the basic idea behind white fragility is that having conversations with white people about race is difficult because the majority of white people have hair-trigger defensiveness when it comes to discussions surrounding racism, particularly as it pertains to their own racist actions. As DiAngelo puts it,

“white fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress in the habitus becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to the racially familiar.” (103)

Challenges to color-blind racism often clash harshly with white fragility because of the ideologies behind diversity, equity, and inclusion. One such challenge is the calling for diversity under the aegis of saying that the systems of power are biased for whites and against people of color and that their unequitable starting points are a major factor in their exclusion and thus a strong barrier to entry and prohibitor of diversity. This challenges meritocracy, white centrality, and white authority, which are three of the types of triggering interruptions that DiAngelo lists in her book (104).

Another challenge to white fragility — and a basic tenet of CRT — that I have found informative is the theory of interest convergence, as discussed in Derrick Bell’s essay “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma.” In this essay, Bell argues that the Brown v. Board case was decided in favor of desegregation not because the White lawmakers wanted desegregated schools or improved education for Black children, but for economic and political reasons. This triggers white fragility because of the desire for belief in the good-natured, progressive and post-racial world; however, as Bell shows in his essay, this is not necessarily the case.

Firstly, the Brown v. Board decision provided “immediate credibility to America’s struggle with communist countries to win the hearts and minds of emerging third world people” (23). Secondly, Black soldiers returning home from WWII were disillusioned and angry after returning home to continuing discrimination and violent attacks after fighting on the ideals of equality and freedom, and the Brown decision “offered much-needed reassurance” (23). This is an example of what Bell calls interest convergence: the idea that progress and improvement in the lives of people of color only occur when there is a benefit for the White majority, and their interests align.

Once those interests are no longer in sync, people of color are left in the dust, which explains why in 2019, 65 years after Brown v. Board, most schools in the US are only minimally integrated, if at all. That the segregation continues is indicative of the systematic marginalization, minoritization, and oppression of people of color by the White supremacist structure of power.

 Understanding that varying forms of racism are part of a reinforced system by those in power is crucial to understanding CRT as a whole, because CRT is rooted in the idea that race is an integral factor in policy. That said, it is not the only factor in policy.

Another crucial aspect of CRT is the idea of intersectionality as coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Our professor has pointed out to us in class that the term “intersectionality” has often been used and abused as a buzzword and shorthand for discussing something having to do with diversity. I’m sure that I have done it myself, and over time the word has come to have a looser and more flexible meaning in the vernacular. In her seminal essay, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” however, Crenshaw uses the term with precision to discuss how women of color are uniquely pinned at the intersection of laws that discriminate on the basis of gender and of race in ways that uniquely and precisely devastate the lives of these women.  Injustice in the law hits hardest those who lie at intersections of social categories such as race, gender, and class. The systematic ways in which people at the margins are abused by the legal system are insidious because they are often self-perpetuating and while in some cases unintentional, they go ignored and unfixed because the people that they oppress are unheard and marginalized in our society.

I could spend an entire semester learning about CRT (and in fact I am) and I still don’t think it would be enough to cover the breadth of the field. But I hope that I have given you a taste of what I have been learning and thinking about this semester, and I would welcome further conversation if you are at all interested in doing so.



References and Further Reading (Non-Exhaustive):

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised ed., New Press, 2012.

Bell, Derrick “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma.” Crenshaw et al., pp. 20-29.

—. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Basic Books, 1992.

Boyd, Herb, editor. Race and Resistance: African Americans in the Twenty-First Century. South End Press, 2002.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Crenshaw et al., pp. 357-383.

—. “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law.” Crenshaw et al., pp. 103-122.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, et al., editors. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New Press, 1995.

Daniels, Ron, “Racism: Looking Forward, Looking Back.” Boyd, 1-20.

Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. 3rd ed., New York University Press, 2017.

DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press, 2018.

Harris, Cheryl. “Whiteness as Property.” Crenshaw et al., 276-291.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.

—. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books, 2016.

Morrison, Toni, editor. Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Pantheon Books, 1992.

Oluo, Ijeoma. So you want to talk about race. Seal Press, 2017.

Ortiz, Paul. An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2018.

Ward, Jesmyn, editor. The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. Scribner, 2016.


[1] That said, Wikipedia can be quite useful when used responsibly. See episode 5 of Crash Course Navigating Digital Information

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