Critical Race Theory

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Critical Race Theory is an intellectual and social 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 colour. Critical race theorists hold that racism is inherent in the law and legal institutions of the United States insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans. Critical race theorists are generally dedicated to applying their understanding of the institutional or structural nature of racism to the concrete (if distant) goal of eliminating all race-based and other unjust hierarchies.

Background and early history

Critical race theory (CRT) was officially organized in 1989, at the first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory, though its intellectual origins go back much farther, to the 1960s and ’70s. Its immediate precursor was the critical legal studies (CLS) movement, which dedicated itself to examining how the law and legal institutions serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalized. (CLS, an offshoot of Marxist-oriented critical theory, may also be viewed as a radicalization of early 20th-century legal realism, a school of legal philosophy according to which judicial decision making, especially at the appellate level, is influenced as much by nonlegal—political or ideological—factors as by precedent and principles of legal reasoning.) Like CLS scholars, critical race theorists believed that political liberalism was incapable of adequately addressing fundamental problems of injustice in American society (notwithstanding legislation and court rulings advancing civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s), because its emphasis on the equitable treatment under the law of all races (“colour blindness”) rendered it capable of recognizing only the most overt and obvious racist practices, not those that were relatively indirect, subtle, or systemic. Liberalism was also faulted for mistakenly presupposing the apolitical nature of judicial decision making and for taking a self-consciously incremental or reformist approach that prolonged unjust social arrangements and afforded opportunities for retrenchment and backsliding through administrative delays and conservative legal challenges. Unlike most CLS scholars, however, critical race theorists did not wish to abandon the notions of law or legal rights altogether, because, in their experience, some laws and legal reforms had done much to help oppressed or exploited people.

Basic tenets of critical race theory

According to the legal scholars Richard Delgado (one of the founders of CRT) and Jean Stefancic there are several general propositions regarding race and racism that many critical race theorists would accept, despite the considerable variation of belief among members of the movement. These propositions constitute a set of “basic tenets” of CRT.

The social construction of race and the normality of racism

First, race is socially constructed, not biologically natural. The biogenetic notion of race—the idea that the human species is divided into distinct groups on the basis of inherited physical and behavioral differences—was finally refuted by genetic studies in the late 20th century. Social scientists, historians, and other scholars now agree that the notion of race is a social construction (though there is no consensus regarding what exactly a social construction is or what the process of social construction consists of). Some CRT theorists hold that race is an artificial association or correlation between a set of physical characteristics—including skin colour, certain facial features, and hair texture—and an imagined set of psychological and behavioral tendencies, conceived as either positive or negative, good or bad. The associations have been created and maintained by dominant groups (in the United States, whites of western European descent) to justify their oppression and exploitation of other groups on the basis of the latter’s supposed inferiority, immorality, or incapacity for self-rule.