What is Critical Race Theory?

By Nonnie Egbuna

While you may not have heard of “critical race theory” in those exact terms, you’ve likely been privy to the recent buzz surrounding the concept.

Have you heard about public schools banning certain aspects of racial history from the classroom? 

What about the limits on racial sensitivity training imposed on federal agencies?

All of this stems back to this one controversial but seemingly inescapable school of thought. Here’s the breakdown on critical race theory: what it is, why it matters, and why we should be talking about it.


Origins of the Movement

Critical race theory spans back to the late 1970s, when University of Washington Law School Professor Derrick Bell and his contemporaries began writing about how the advancements of the Civil Rights Movement had been stopped and, in some cases, reversed. Combining critical legal studies, critical and feminist theory, postmodernism and cultural studies, critical race theory challenges the idea that legal strategies, as they exist today, are able to deliver true socioeconomic justice. The movement “calls for legal approaches that take into consideration race as a nexus of American life” (Demaske).

In addition to Bell, key proponents of the theory include Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw (famous for coining the term “intersectionality,” which inevitably ties into this discussion), Angela Harris, and Patricia Williams. The ideologies implicit in the movement call upon the perspectives of W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer, Pauli Murray, and more.


Tenets of the Movement

Perhaps the most important tenet of critical race theory is its proposition that racism is an integral part of American society, not simply a historical occurrence to be glazed over. Critical race theory argues that any given culture builds its social reality in the interest of the majority; in the U.S., this means that the system is built by and for white elites. Thus, progress for minorities (specifically, people of color) is only encouraged insofar as it promotes the self-interest of white people with a high socioeconomic status.

Critical race theory also directly challenges the Constitution, prioritizing Fourteenth Amendment equality over First Amendment liberties, specifically the protection of hate speech. The movement argues that:

  1. There is no objective or neutral interpretation of the law as it stands;
  2. Some speech must be considered for the harm that it causes; and
  3. There is no equality in freedom of speech, when social stratification is taken into account.

Richard Delgado is one of the most prominent scholars on this topic. He argues that “the answer to disfavored speech cannot simply be more speech” because, when power structures are considered, certain groups do not have the same agency to respond. 

Modern advocates for critical race theory have made solving the issue of hate speech one of their most pressing tasks. Charles Lawrence asserts that hate speech violates the Fourteenth Amendment by “[making] heroes out of bigots and [fanning] the flames of racial violence.” To address this, Mari Matsuda has proposed the creation of legal doctrine to limit hate speech that preaches racial inferiority or that is otherwise hateful, persecutorial, degrading and directed toward a historically oppressed group.

Another key aspect of the movement is the recognition of the constructed social world. Critical race theory scholars recognize racism as “a quotidien component of American life” that manifests in literature, film, law, etc. In other words, this is all made up, and done so in favor of the majority.

Critics of critical race theory argue that it is a “divisive discourse that pits people of color against white people'' (Sawchuck). They view it as a Marxist ideology attacking the American way of life, undercutting our core values and driving division within society. Those who stand in opposition to the movement do so just as strongly, if not moreso, than those who stand for it. And here is where things get messy.


Relevance to Today

Texas House Bill 3979 seeks to ban public schools from teaching students about systemic racism. Representative Steve Toth, the primary author of the bill, argues that teaching children about racism is racist in and of itself. The bill comes in the midst of a wave of similar limitations on curriculum around the country, as critical race theory (or anything associated with it) has been banned in the public school curriculum of states like Tennessee, Wisconsin, Utah and Idaho. The Georgia Board of Education is taking similar steps “to prohibit schools from teaching that the U.S. is fundamentally racist” (Dorman). Parents around the United States are doing everything in their power to ensure that their children are not being taught this school of thought.

And the classroom isn’t the only sector being affected. Towards the end of his time in office, former President Donald Trump banned racial sensitivity training in federal agencies. He cited the training as “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex and race-based ideologies.” “Anti-American propaganda,” he said, has no place in government affairs.


Does Talking About Race Have to be Divisive?

Regardless of where you stand on the subject, these questions still stand: must talking about race always increase division? And might advocates and critics of critical race theory share some common ground?

Kimberle Crenshaw, a Black American lawyer who coined the term “intersectionality,” takes critical race theory a few steps further. In her eyes, the movement hinges on the importance of diverse individuals sharing their experiences not only as they relate to race, but also to gender, class, sexual orientation, and any and all identities. This is something we at Civic Dinners can get on board with.


What Can We Do About It?

We all have different lived experiences which are inextricably linked to the groups with which we identify. To ignore this truth is to undermine the various facets of our beings that make us each who we are. The key, then, is to facilitate constructive conversation that invites people to bring their whole selves to the table, while also acknowledging the entire selfhood of others. 

Conversation is not all that is needed to change the world, but it is surely a good place to start. Consider bringing one of our carefully crafted discussions on race to your company or organization. We offer topics such as “Understanding Race,” “Reckoning with Racial Injustice,” “Bridging the Racial Divide” and “Racial Equity,” which all ultimately have one aim: to bring diverse voices together for greater understanding. 

Take it from a guest who participated in a conversation about Bridging the Racial Divide:

“The more of other people’s stories that I hear, the more I realize that I don’t (and can’t) have a thorough understanding of the human experience. There is always another perspective, another experience, another viewpoint that adds to the wonderfully complex tapestry of humanity.”



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