What Is Critical Race Theory Anyway?

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

critical race theory protest
Children hold up signs during a rally against critical race theory (CRT) being taught in schools in Leesburg, Virginia, June 12, 2021. Critics there say CRT trains white children to see themselves as oppressors. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Surely by now you've heard the term critical race theory. Just in the last several months, U.S. state and local GOP legislators have enacted laws and introduced policies attempting to ban critical race theory from being taught in public schools.

To date, 20 states have introduced bills limiting teaching critical race theory (CRT) in public schools and seven have enacted these bans. The latest is Arizona, whose governor Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2906 into law July 9, which prohibits CRT from being taught in Arizona public schools and other government entities.

The term seemed to appear out of nowhere, so why is critical race theory suddenly part of the daily conversation (see sidebar) and what is it anyway?

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What Is Critical Race Theory?

"Critical race theory is a movement in legal thought," says David Miguel Gray, assistant professor of philosophy at the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis. It's an academic framework that legal scholars use to critically examine the legal history of the United States, including everything from the U.S. Constitution to the Mayflower Compact, as well as legislation from the Supreme Court or lower courts, through a lens of racism.

CRT was developed during the mid-1970s by a handful of legal scholars after they determined that, despite the gains of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, progress toward racial equality had been slow or in some cases was being rolled back. These scholars, in particular the late Derrick Bell and the late Alan Freeman, realized that a new conceptual framework was needed to better understand the complex relationship between race, racism and the U.S. legal system.

In 1989, more than 20 like-minded scholars "who were interested in defining and elaborating on the lived reality of race, and who were open to the aspiration of developing theory" created the first CRT workshop in Madison, Wisconsin. The original purpose of CRT was to think about how the law contributed to racial inequality in the United States — both in the past and present.

The theory they developed, which is that racism is systemic in the institutions of the United States and that these institutions function to preserve the dominance of white people in society, has continued in academic inquiry through today.

For instance, in the legal field and other disciplines, critical race theorists "address the role of racism in the law and the work to eliminate it and other configurations of subordination," Janel George wrote for the American Bar Association (ABA). As a theory, CRT provides scholars with a framework from which to review past and existing legal decisions.

Before diving deeper into the principles of CRT, it is important to understand the purpose of academic theories like critical race theory.

Derrick Bell
The late Derrick Bell was the first tenured African American professor of Law at Harvard University, and is largely credited as the originator of critical race theory.
Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

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What Is an Academic Theory?

Theories are used in both scientific and non-scientific research, and they are used to explain complex things in ways that others can apply the same ideas to another situation, according to researchers Scott Schneberger, Carol Pollard and Hugh Watson in their 2009 paper Theories: For Academics and Practitioners.

Various academic disciplines engage with different theories, although many theories cross over into multiple disciplines. Anthropologists might use theories like structuralism, structural functionalism and postmodernism. Media scholars use theories like agenda setting, cultivation and framing.

Not all scholars within a discipline utilize the same theories or even use them in the same way, which allows many viewpoints to discuss each discipline.

Critical race theory is one such academic theory. It was initially developed within legal studies but is now discussed within many other academic disciplines. From the American Bar Association:

CRT is not a diversity and inclusion 'training' but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, and the legal scholar who coined the term "critical race theory," explained it in a June 21, 2021, interview with Joy Reid on MSNBC. "Critical race theory is not so much a thing, it's a way of looking at a thing," she said. CRT, Crenshaw explained, is a way of looking at race to understand why after so many centuries since emancipation, patterns of inequality have endured for people of color and Indigenous people. The goal of CRT is to get everyone closer to the promises that are embedded in the Constitution.

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Principles of Critical Race Theory

Gray says many people have conflicting views about critical race theory, and others who support ideas around it some do not. However, it does include some basic fundamental views.

Some of these basic views include the idea that racism is a part of American society, not just a flaw that can be easily fixed with laws. Gray says in the U.S. legal and governmental institutions, for example, racism isn't an anomaly or aberrant feature, it's just normal. While racism may be more present in some areas than others, it has existed throughout U.S. history and continues today.

CRT focuses only on legal and other institutions in general, not on individuals. It attempts to learn how racism exists in society and where improvements can be made, as well as provide an analysis of what perpetuates racism in U.S. systems.

The theory also maintains the idea that the foundation of the United States was based on doctrines that could be considered racist, for example, the Virginia laws about slavery and servitude. In other cases, though, race might not have been explicitly included but was nevertheless implied, like the three-fifths compromise. The agreement made during the 1787 Constitutional Convention determined that enslaved individuals counted as three-fifths of a person for both representation and taxation.

As stated in Article I Section 2 of the Constitution:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.

Later and contemporary laws and policies about housing, voting rights, education and segregation can also fall into this category, Gray says.

"[Critical race theorists] have argued that our country is largely founded upon doctrines that are in direct opposition with what we normally hear our country is all about," he says, ideas like liberty and equality. And in addition to just studying these discrepancies, critical race theorists also aim to change them.

critical race theory protest
Demonstrators gathered outside the Texas State Capitol during a rally on the first day of the 87th Legislatures special session July 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called the legislature into session, asking lawmakers to prioritize his agenda items that include overhauling the states voting laws and critical race theory, among other issues.
Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

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Critical Race Theory and Education

Scholarship about education has taken up critical race theory by arguing that racism is entrenched in U.S. education practices and policies, Gray explains. That concern for pedagogy was embraced by education scholars who asked how the educational system might be unjust with respect to race. Even if there is no racist intent, certain practices might have different impacts on the community.

For example, the late critical race theorist and Harvard law professor Bell explored the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court ruling, which legally determined racial segregation of children in public schools unconstitutional. Bell asserted that the SCOTUS decision was based on improving the international image of the United States during the Cold War. Furthermore, the ruling was effectually limited "and the persistence of racial inequality following the civil rights era implicates the law in maintaining racial inequality."

This is an example of the relationship between CRT and education; the theory is used to critically analyze the history and present state of education in the United States.

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Is CRT Being Taught in Schools?

However, there is little evidence that critical race theory itself is being added to the U.S. curriculum in K-12 schools. One reason CRT is not being taught in K-12 is children are unlikely to comprehend advanced academic theories. Structural functionalism and cultivation theory have also not been added to K-12 curriculum. Neither has stochastic calculus for that matter.

On the other hand, some of the documents and court decisions CRT has critiqued are likely to be taught at various levels, such as the three-fifths compromise and the enduring effects of slavery.

Critical race theory is a law school course. And the theory is used in university courses of other disciplines like philosophy and literary criticism, often at the graduate level.

Nevertheless, CRT has received a lot of attention recently with people and politicians expressing concern that it is being taught in schools, including elementary schools. It has "become a catch-all phrase among legislators attempting to ban a wide variety of teaching practices concerning race," Gray writes in a separate article for The Conversation, "Critical race theory: What it is and what it isn't." However, the concepts being banned by proposed legislation under the guise of prohibiting the teaching of CRT aren't part of CRT principles.

For example, in Tennessee, HB 0580 states that public and charter schools may not teach or use materials that assert one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual's race or sex.

Critical race theory does not uphold these ideas either, Gray says. What seems to have happened is those opposing CRT have taken the fact that the theory is not colorblind — because it recognizes the effects of race and racism and asserts that the only way to improve racism is to address it through legal and institutional changes — and ascribed erroneous racist characteristics to the theory.

In other words, many people are espousing that critical race theory is trying rewrite American history to convince white people that they are inherently racist.

"It's a hot mess, to use a really good Southern phrase," he says.

critical race theory protest
In Tennessee, legislators passed a law stating that public and charter schools may not teach or use materials that assert one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual's race or sex. Those are not the principles of critical race theory.
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

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