Critical race theory explained
| May 4, 2021 1:00 AM
All the talk about critical race theory — its merits and controversy, its appropriateness in curricula — begs the obvious question: What exactly is it?
Starting with that stalwart primer on most any subject, the encyclopedia Britannica defines it:
“Critical race theory (CRT) is an intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings, but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color. Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the U.S. are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.”
With so much implied in these words which people from various viewpoints disparately define, we need context.
At first glance one tends to feel defensive. Isn’t racism a bygone relic? Don’t we have state and federal laws preventing and punishing discrimination? Aren’t we centuries past slavery, and decades past “separate-but-(not so)-equal” policies?
Yes, and no.
Laws are only the beginning. Culture takes much, much longer.
Peer-reviewed scholarly and legal research indicates the application of those laws and policies, while improved across the years, still show disturbing differences across racial lines. In some cases, even non-CRT theorists have suggested almost a hidden caste system persists in the U.S., with people of color far more likely at the bottom tier.
Not all racism is systemic. Assuming we are different from one another according to set (and not individual) characteristics — hair type, food, religion, jobs, sports acumen, whatever — is racism, too. Americans of all races are so accustomed to doing that with each other, we’ve hardly noticed.
That’s CRT’s point: It’s hard to see unless we learn how to look and begin with the idea that it’s there. Even when we don’t mean for it to happen, or don’t have harmful intent. And even if those who aren’t on the receiving end of racism aren’t aware of it (that is what is meant by racial privilege — the privilege of not having experienced similar prejudice, therefore not being aware it’s there).
According to Britannica, CRT officially began in 1989 at the first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory, but its intellectual origins go back to America’s transformative 1960s. CRT aims to move beyond diversity and inclusion training into a practice of integrating race and awareness of racism in society. According to American Bar Association scholars, its proponents consider it more a verb than a noun.
Its key tenets include:
- Recognition that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant. It recognizes that science (as demonstrated in the Human Genome Project) refutes the idea of biological racial differences.
- Acknowledgment that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality. CRT dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.
- Rejection of popular understandings about racism, such as arguments that systems are colorblind and exceptions few. CRT holds that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy, responsible for reproducing racial inequality.
- Recognition of the relevance of everyday experiences to scholarship, embracing the lived experiences of people of color through storytelling (toward a better understanding by all).
CRT does not define racism the way we always have — as if it is exceptional, merely a consequence of specific bad acts committed by individuals.
CRT attempts to shine a light on the ways that racism is cloaked (including subconsciously) in terminology such as “mainstream,” “normal,” or “traditional” values; or “neutral” policies, principles, or practices.
Modern scholarship which attempts to be race-neutral, posits CRT, is just adhering to the existing racial hierarchy by pretending it isn’t there. This, and the disproportionate inclusion of the histories and experiences of people of color vs. “Western” history, is one of the criticisms of modern educational curricula which critical race theorists hope to balance.
Whittling it all down to a brief statement, it’s this:
In terms of racism, American institutions, systems and culture don’t see themselves as they are, but as they want to believe they are. To remove that racism, we first need to see it everywhere it exists. And the only way to really see it is to look for it from the inside out, by knowing it’s there.
That last bit is the tricky part.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.