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 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. “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.