I first heard of Critical Race Theory about two years ago. I wasn’t sure what it was, but some of the things attributed to it seemed familiar – like the idea of “institutional racism.” That’s something I’d first heard of back during the 1980s, I believe. And I remember hearing Spike Lee and others saying that Blacks couldn’t be racist.
What I’ve found out since then is that, in these parts, you don’t want to be labeled a Critical Race Theorist. It’s almost like being called a son of a bitch, or something worse.
“What exactly is a Critical Race Theorist?” I wondered.
Critical Race Theory originated among legal scholars, I discovered. It’s about what the law represents and how it is applied, with its focus on how it is applied when it comes to race. Law professor Richard Delgado was one of the founders of Critical Race Theory. Along with Jean Stefancic, he wrote Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, in which the authors explain how it came about.
Critical Race Theory sprang up in the mid-1970s, as a number of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars across the country realized that the heady advances of the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled and, in many respects, were being rolled back.
Realizing that new theories and strategies were needed to combat the subtler forms of racism that were gaining ground, early writers such as Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado put their minds to the task. They were soon joined by others, and the group held its first conference at a convent outside Madison, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1989.
Delgado and Stefancic inform us that Critical Race Theory borrows from two previous movements – critical legal studies and radical feminism.
From critical legal studies, it got the principle of legal indeterminacy – the idea that not every legal case has one correct outcome. Also, it borrowed the idea that favorable precedent (like Brown v. Board of Education, for example) tends to deteriorate over time.
From feminism, it borrowed insights into the relationship between power and the construction of social roles.
Among the central tenets of Critical Race Theory are beliefs – not uniformly agreed upon, by the way – that:
- Racism is normal, not aberrant, in American society.
- White-on-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material.
- Race and races are products of social thought and relations (“social construction” thesis).
- Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.
- Minority status brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism, so their stories should be told.
Derrick Bell is the intellectual founding father of Critical Race Theory. In 1980, he published in the Harvard Law Review an article that addressed the second central tenet listed above. Titled “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” the article put forth Bell’s contention that White elites will tolerate or encourage racial advances for Blacks only when such advances also promote White self-interest.
According to Delgado and Stefancic, Bell argued that sympathy, mercy, and evolving standards of decency amounted to little, if anything, when it came to civil rights advances for Blacks.
Audaciously, Bell selected Brown v. Board of Education, the crown jewel of U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, and invited his readers to ask themselves why the American legal system suddenly, in 1954, opened up as it did.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had been courageously and tenaciously litigating school desegregation cases for years, usually losing or, at best, winning narrow victories…Bell hypothesized that world and domestic considerations – not moral qualms over Blacks’ plight – precipitated the pathbreaking decision.
They go on to explain that by 1954, the country had ended the Korean War; the Second World War was not long past. In both wars, Black servicemen had performed in the service of democracy. Many were unlikely to return willingly to regimes where they would suffer social vilification. The possibility of mass domestic unrest loomed, they suggest.
In addition, the U.S. was in the Cold War, struggling with international communism for the loyalties of the “uncommitted” Third World. Continuous press accounts of lynchings, racist sheriffs, and murders such as that of Emmett Till would hardly serve U.S. interests abroad.
The interests of Whites and Blacks, for a brief moment, converged.
Bell’s article was greeted with outrage, as you might expect. But Delgado and Stefancic report:
Ten years later, the legal historian Mary Dudziak carried out extensive archival research in the files of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Justice. She analyzed foreign press reports, as well as letters from U.S. ambassadors abroad, all showing that Bell’s intuition was correct.
When the Justice Department intervened on the side of the NAACP for the first time in a school desegregation case, it was responding to a flood of secret cables and memos outlining the United States’ interest in improving its image in the eyes of the Third World.
So the Brown decision, like all other decisions favoring Black civil rights, was arrived at, to a large extent, due to political expediency, a key objective being what was good for White elites – and not out of any true concern for the sensibilities of Blacks.
Assuming that this is true, is it shocking?
It’s very interesting and thought-provoking, but after my brief assessment of Critical Race Theory, I don’t see why it provokes so much wrath from its detractors.
The grand revelation of Critical Race Theory seems to be that groups that hold power use every means at their disposal to maintain and extend it. What is so radical about that?
It seems to be the oldest truth out there. It’s not actually a feature of Whiteness that those who hold power and enjoy its attending privileges act in ways to preserve their power and privileges, and Critical Race Theorists know it. Who wouldn’t want to preserve their power and privileges?
For that matter, who doesn’t want to gain power and privileges for themselves?
The founding father of Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, eventually resigned himself to the existence of racism. In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, published in 1992, he posits that racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of American society. His message is that even though racism will never be eradicated, Blacks and others must still stand in the way of the powers that be:
Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor.
In other words, he’s telling Blacks, “Racism is here to stay. Deal with it.”
There’s a Critical Race Theorist some people out there ought to be able to handle.
- Bell, Derrick A. 1980. ““Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma.” Cambridge: Harvard Law Review. Bell, Derrick A. 1992. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York: Basic Books.
Delgado, Richard, and Stefancic, Jean. 2001. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.