What is ‘Critical Race Theory’?

Since the death of George Floyd, political and news commentators have often mentioned Critical Race Theory (CRT), apparently assuming their audience would be familiar with the term.  Here’s one audience member who had never heard of it.  Now, after a few Google searches, I think I’m up to speed.  It’s an interesting and provocative theory. The web contains many hours of reading material on the subject, so this brief post is a summary, relying on liberal use of material from Wikipedia and other online sources. 

There are many definitions of CRT, but here is one:

‘Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic study and movement in the U.S. that began in the 1980’s.  The main proponents of the movement have been a group of law professors and civil rights activists.  The theory examines law, social and political power through the lens of race.  CRT theorists believe 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. CRT began as a study of race in the legal system but has expanded to examine all aspects of life. CRT scholars believe that race affects just about everything.

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, authors of Critical Race Theory textbook

A small group of law professors first formulated the theory. One of the thought leaders was Derrick Bell, a Harvard professor. Over the past 30 years CRT has become much more widespread. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, two professors at Texas A&M University wrote one of the most often-quoted books on the subject entitled simply “Critical Race Theory”. CRT has perhaps been the catalyst for recent NY Times bestseller “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, a professor of “White Studies” at University of Washington.  Like CRT, White Fragility is being taught in law schools, universities, high schools, corporations and government agencies.  Many would like to dismiss CRT theorists as a fringe group, a bunch of ivory-tower crackpots. In fact, CRT thinking is becoming mainstream. Some of its principles appear to be embraced by many of our political leaders.   

“The word “critical” in CRT is rooted in critical theory, a Marxist social philosophy which argues that social problems are influenced and created more by societal structures and cultural assumptions than by individual and psychological factors.” 

The easiest way to describe CRT is with a list of its main tenets:

  • Race is socially constructed, not biologically natural.
  • Racism in the United States is normal, not aberrational: it is the common, ordinary experience of most people of color.
  • Legal advances (or setbacks) for people of color tend to serve the interests of dominant white groups
  • White Supremacy exists and maintains power through the law.
  • White privilege is the notion of myriad social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race (i.e., white people). For example, a clerk not following a person around in a store, or people not crossing the street at night to avoid a person, are viewed as white privilege.
  • Affirmative Action, color blindnessrole modeling, or the merit principle; are rejected.  Instead power is achieved through political organizing
  • Meritocracy is a white supremacy concept.
  • Mathematics is a tool of white supremacy.
  • Data and the scientific method are tools of white supremacy.  Instead, CRT relies on storytelling, counter-storytelling, and “naming one’s own reality”, which is the use of narrative (storytelling) to illuminate and explore experiences of racial oppression.
  • Racism exists in every aspect of life in the U.S. CRT theorists put forth the idea that the white-dominated culture is designed (in a conspiratorial manner) to be biased against blacks.
  • U.S. civil-rights legislation was not passed because people of color were discriminated against. Rather, it was enacted in order to improve the image of the United States in the eyes of third-world countries that the US needed as allies during the Cold War
  • Only members of minority groups have the authority and ability to speak about racism.  This exposes the racial neutrality of law as false. (Comment: Odd that some of the foremost CRT authors and teachers are white. )
  • CRT theorists posit that our current system cannot redress certain kinds of wrongs; it must be completely restructured. (Rep. Ilhan Omar and other Squad members say things like this.)
  • Empathy is not enough to change racism.
  • Non-white cultural nationalism/separatism: The exploration of more radical views that argue for separation and reparations as a form of foreign aid (including black nationalism).
  • An offshoot of CRT is the 1619 Project which attempts to re-write American history from a black-centric point of view.  As part of the new history, the founding of America was in 1619 when the first blacks arrived from Africa.

CRT comes in different versions, some more radical than others.  Some “CRT Lite” versions that are often mentioned by the press sound very much like something Martin Luther King Jr. might have said – statements about seeking equality and color blindness. On the other hand, the tenets of CRT listed above are very different from MLK’s teachings. These beliefs sound closer to Malcolm X’s or maybe Louis Farrakhan’s. The most radical CRT spokespeople believe that African Americans should overthrow white tyranny by whatever means necessary and, in the process, take control.  It’s not too hard to imagine how this might happen after witnessing the riots of 2020.

Again, thinking of the George Floyd riots, CRT believers understand that intimidation works. People will generally do only what’s in their best interest.  Were politicians quick to speak out against the Floyd death out of genuine sympathy or because they were afraid of mob violence or bad publicity?  Did corporations contribute hundreds of millions to BLM because reducing police violence against minorities is one of their top priorities or because they wanted to avoid being targets of BLM?    

Because some of the main tenets of Critical Race Theory are anathema to traditional western thought, it has been critiqued by many. Here’s a sampling of questions/criticisms:

  • Washington Post political commentator, George Will, quips that if justice is always biased against blacks, how would one explain the O.J. Simpson trial.
  • Law professors, Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry argue that CRT lacks supporting evidence, relies on an implausible belief that reality is socially constructed, rejects evidence in favor of storytelling, rejects the concepts of truth and merit as expressions of political dominance, and rejects the rule of law. Additionally, they posit that the anti-meritocratic tenets in critical race theory, critical feminism, and critical legal studies may unintentionally lead to antisemitic and anti-Asian implications, (for example, in discriminatory admissions to Harvard and Yale.)
  • Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals argues that critical race theory “turns its back on the Western tradition of rational inquiry, forswearing analysis for narrative,” and that “by repudiating reasoned argumentation, (critical race theorists) reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.

    Odd that a theory originated by law scholars should reject evidence, reason and data in favor of feelings and storytelling.
  • Because CRT beliefs are based on storytelling, counter-storytelling and naming one’s personal reality, debate to reach a common understanding is impossible.
  • The fact that Indians and Nigerians in the U.S. earn on average more than whites casts doubt on the idea that skin color is a disadvantage.
  • CRT maintains that whites (especially white men) unfairly maintain many positions of power and therefore should be overthrown.  To this, one might respond that by virtue of affirmative action, EEO, job quotas, university admission preferences, etc. the U.S. is the one place in the world where minorities are given more than an equal chance to excel.
  • CRT criticizes the current legal system, culture, government programs and even the idea of meritocracy, but apparently offers no alternatives for consideration other than perhaps overthrow of white-dominated society.
  • CRT puts forth the idea that race is not biological but cultural.  That seems an odd claim.  Race is clearly biological.  Maybe this idea stems from the observation that African blacks do much better in the U.S. than U.S.-born African Americans because of enculturation.   This is true.  Likewise, it’s also true that whites who conform to the culture tend to do much better than those who demonstrate their nonconformity by covering their bodies with tattoos.  (The exception of course being professional basketball players and WWF wrestlers.)
  • CRT spokespeople claim that police are racist and are more likely to kill blacks than whites. Examining FBI data, this claim is true on a per capita basis, (i.e., ‘ # killed by police by race’/ ‘population by race’) but a better measurement (‘ # killed by police by race’/’# of violent crime arrests by race’) suggests no racial bias exists.

    Convincing CRT leaders that their perception is wrong would be impossible because they reject statistical measures as tools of white supremacy.


richard_delgado_jean_stefancic_critical_race_thbookfi-org-1.pdf (wordpress.com)

Critical race theory – Wikipedia

critical race theory | Definition, Principles, & Facts | Britannica

A Lesson on Critical Race Theory (americanbar.org)

Delgado_and_Stefancic_on_Critical_Race_Theory.pdf (jordaninstituteforfamilies.org)

Critical Race Theory (miami.edu)

Critical Race Theory // Purdue Writing Lab

Counter-storytelling Highlights Minoritized Voices – Noise Project

PowerPoint Presentation (unc.edu)

Race, difference, meritocracy, and English: majoritarian stories in the education of secondary multilingual learners (unl.edu)

The Myth of Meritocracy and African American Health (nih.gov)

The Truth About Police Shootings in America | MacIver Institute

What the data say about police shootings (nature.com)

Deaths Due to Use of Lethal Force by Law Enforcement (nih.gov)

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