What is Critical Race Theory?

The Theory.

Critical Race Theory was developed out of legal scholarship. It provides a critical analysis of race and racism from a legal point of view. Since its inception within legal scholarship CRT has spread to many disciplines.  CRT has basic tenets that guide its framework. These tenets are interdisciplinary and can be approached from different branches of learning.

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege.  CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.”[1] This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.

Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.[2] Counterstories take their cue from larger cultural traditions of oral histories, cuentos, family histories and parables.[3] This is very important in preserving the history of marginalized groups whose experiences have never been legitimized within the master narrative. It challenges the notion of liberalism and meritocracy as colorblind or “value-neutral” within society while exposing racism as a main thread in the fabric of the American foundation.

Another component to CRT is the commitment to Social justice and active role scholars take in working toward “eliminating racial oppression as a broad goal of ending all forms of oppression”. [4] This is the eventual goal of CRT and the work that most CRT scholars pursue as academics and activists.

The Movement.

The Critical Race Theory movement can be seen as a group of interdisciplinary scholars and activists interested in studying and changing the relationship between race, racism and power. [5] This is crucial to understand in order to fully realize the goals of CRS in SPA. CRT is an amalgamation of concepts that have been derived from the Civil Rights and ethnic studies discourses. In the 1970s, a number of lawyers, activists, and scholars saw the work of the Civil Rights as being stalled and in many instances negated. They also saw the liberal and positivist views of laws as being colorblind and ignorant of the racism that is pervasive in the law.

The works of Derrick Bell and Alan Freeman have been attributed to the start of CRT.[6] Bell and Freeman were frustrated with the slow pace of racial reform in the United Sates. They argued that the traditional approaches of combating racism were producing smaller gains than in previous years. Thus, Critical Race Theory is an outgrowth of Critical Legal Studies (CLS), which was a leftist movement that challenged traditional legal scholarship. These CRT scholars continued forward and were joined by Richard Delgado. In 1989, they held their first conference in Madison, Wisconsin.[7] This was the beginning of the CRT as movement.

CRT has more recently had some spin-offs from the original movement. Latina/o Critical Theory (LatCrit), feisty queer-crit interest group, and Asian American Legal Scholarship are examples of the sub-disciplines within CRT. These sub-disciplines address specific issues that affect each unique community. For LatCrit and Asian American scholars they examine language and immigration policies, whereas, a small emerging group of Indian scholars examine indigenous people’s sovereignty and claims to land. This displays the diversity even within the CRT disciplines that hold CRT to maintain its multidisciplinary approach.

[1] Delgado et al (2001, p. 51)


[2] Dixson et al (2006, p. 4)

[3] Solórzano (1998)

[4] Solórzano (1998)

[5] Delgado et al.  (2001, p. 2)

[6] Ladson-Billings (1998, p. 10)

[7] Delgado et al.  (2001, p. 4)

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