List of CRT Scholars
Principal figures of the theory include Derrick Bell, Patricia J. Williams, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Camara Phyllis Jones, Angela Harris, Charles Lawrence, Alan Freeman, Neil Gotanda, Mitu Gulati, Jerry Kang, Eric Yamamoto, Robert Williams, Ian Haney López, Kevin Johnson, Laura Gomez, Margaret Montoya, Juan Perea, Francisco Valdes, Dean Carbado, Cheryl Harris, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Tom Ross, Stephanie Wildman, Nancy Levit, Robert Harman, Jean Stefancic, andré cummings, and Mari Matsuda.
Common Themes Baked Into CRT
Common themes that are characteristic of work in critical race theory, as documented by such scholars as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, include:
- Critique of liberalism: Critical race theory scholars question foundational liberal concepts such as Enlightenment, rationalism, legal equality, and Constitutional neutrality, and challenge the incrementalist approach of traditional civil-rights discourse. They favor a race-conscious approach to social transformation, critiquing liberal ideas such as affirmative action, color blindness, role modeling, or the merit principle with an approach that relies more on political organizing, in contrast to liberalism’s reliance on rights-based remedies.
- Storytelling, counter-storytelling, and “naming one’s own reality”: The use of narrative (storytelling) to illuminate and explore lived experiences of racial oppression. Bryan Brayboy has emphasized the epistemic importance of storytelling in Indigenous-American communities as superseding that of theory, and has proposed a Tribal Critical Race Theory (TribCrit).
- Revisionist interpretations of American civil rights law and progress: Criticism of civil-rights scholarship and anti-discrimination law, such as Brown v. Board of Education. Derrick Bell, one of CRT’s founders, argues that civil-rights advances for black people coincided with the self-interest of white elitists. Likewise, Mary L. Dudziak performed extensive archival research in the U.S. Department of State and Department of Justice, including the correspondence by U.S. ambassadors abroad, and concluded that 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.
- Intersectional theory: The examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination (i.e., their intersections) plays out in various settings, e.g., how the needs of a Latina female are different from those of a black male and whose needs are the ones promoted.
- Standpoint epistemology: The view that a member of a minority has an authority and ability to speak about racism that members of other racial groups do not have, and that this can expose the racial neutrality of law as false.
- Essentialism vs. anti-essentialism: Delgado and Stefancic write, “Scholars who write about these issues are concerned with the appropriate unit for analysis: Is the black community one, or many, communities? Do middle- and working-class African-Americans have different interests and needs? Do all oppressed peoples have something in common?” This is a look at the ways that oppressed groups may share in their oppression but also have different needs and values that need to be looked at differently. It is a question of how groups can be essentialized or are unable to be essentialized.
- Structural determinism: Exploration of how “the structure of legal thought or culture influences its content”, whereby a particular mode of thought or widely shared practice determines significant social outcomes, usually occurring without conscious knowledge. As such, theorists posit that our system cannot redress certain kinds of wrongs.
- Empathetic fallacy: Believing that one can change a narrative by offering an alternative narrative in hopes that the listener’s empathy will quickly and reliably take over. Empathy is not enough to change racism as most people are not exposed to many people different from themselves and people mostly seek out information about their own culture and group.
- 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).
So What Is Critical Race Theory, Anyway? A Historical Look
Critical race theory traces its origins to a framework of legal scholarship that gained momentum in the 1980s by challenging conventional thinking about race-based discrimination, which for decades assumed that discrimination on the basis of race could be solved by expanding constitutional rights and then allowing individuals who were discriminated against to seek legal remedies. However, some legal scholars pointed out that such solutions – though well-intentioned – weren’t effective because, they argued, racism is pervasive and baked into the foundation of the U.S. legal system and society as a whole.
Take the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, for example, in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate is not equal and that state laws protecting segregated public schools are unconstitutional. While the ruling gave Black children the right to attend schools that had long prohibited them, it also resulted in some white families enrolling their children in private schools, moving to the suburbs or redrawing school district boundaries in an effort to resist integration.
Even now, more than half a century after the Brown v. Board decision, efforts are still underway by some wealthy and majority white communities to create their own school districts, and there exists a $23 billion gap between majority white and majority Black school districts out of which spills an array of inequalities.
Today, critical race theory is used by academic scholars – and not just in law schools – to describe how racism is embedded in all aspects of American life, from health care to housing, economics to education, clean water to the criminal justice system and more. Those systems, they argue, have been constructed and protected over generations in ways that give white people advantages – sometimes in ways that are not obvious or deliberately insidious but nonetheless result in compounding disadvantages for Black people and other racial and ethnic minorities.
Many Americans, especially white people, believe racism is the product of intentionally bad and biased individuals, but critical race theory purports that racism is systemic and is inherent in much of the American way of life, no matter how far removed we are today from its origins.
Over the last two decades, academic researchers and policymakers have increasingly focused on issues of equity, linking how systems were established in the U.S. with how and why they serve different groups of people differently.
In education, for example, that effort took off after Congress passed No Child Left Behind, which for the first time required states to disaggregate academic achievement data by race, income and disability status. From there, policymakers began linking the racial makeup of school districts to state and local education funding, or lack thereof, and their broader academic profiles – not just math and reading scores but also access to high quality teachers, Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities and school counselors, graduation rates and much more.
Today, policymakers are shining a light on glaring racial gaps in a whole host of domestic policy arenas, and as the country reckons with systemic racism and inequality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer, the term critical race theory is having a moment in the sun.