A Semi-Review of Bridges’ Critical Race Theory: A Primer

In lieu of a full review of Bridges’ Critical Race Theory: A Primer, I’ll list a handful of key points and then conclude with selected quotes.

First, Bridges’ book was published in 2019, making it one of the most recently published comprehensive texts on critical race theory. Consequently, it sheds light on how CRTs think about contemporary issues like the shootings of Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile, “mass incarceration,” and Trump’s presidency. For the same reason, it offers important evidence of CRT’s evolution and growth since its founding in the late 1980s.

Second, entire chapters are devoted to concepts like “structural/institutional racism” (Chapter 7), “implicit bias” (Chapter 8), “microaggressions” (Chapter 9), and “white privilege” (Chapter 10), which technically were developed outside of CRT. There is no better illustration of why it is misleading to define CRT strictly in terms of its origins in legal studies or the particular language of its founders. CRT adapts and readily incorporates other concepts while still maintaining its basic outlook on race and racism. Moreover, as Bridges herself comments, one need not embrace the label of “critical race theorist” in order “produce scholarship that undoubtedly qualifies as CRT” (p. 229, emphasis added). Anyone engaging Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X. Kendi‘s work should commit this statement to memory.

Third, Bridges gives a somewhat unconventional definition of CRT when she describes it in terms of four “essential tenets” (although she acknowledges there are others):

  1. CRT believes that race is not a biological entity, but rather is a social construction” (p. 10)
  2. CRT believes that there is a race problem, that racism is a normal feature of American society (and not a deviation from an otherwise fair and just status quo), and that institutions, like the law, have worked to perpetuate racial inequality” (p. 11)
  3. CRT rejects traditional liberal understandings of the problem of racism and how racism will be defined” (p. 12)
  4. CRT believes that scholarship is not, cannot, and should not be disconnected from people’s lives on the ground. Thinkers using a CRT framework produce their scholarship with the hope of dismantling systems that subordinate people of color. CRT believes that all knowledge is political. It believes that scholarship that ignores race is not demonstrating ‘objectivity’ or ‘neutrality,’ but rather is demonstrating its own political commitments to the existing racial order” (p. 13)

Oddly, Bridges devotes little space in this section to “lived experience,” “intersectionality,” “storytelling,” and “interest convergence” as core components of CRT, but still mentions them throughout her book as ideas to which CRTs are deeply committed. Such comments demonstrate that conservative critics of CRT are not the only ones who feel comfortable making generalizations like “CRTs believe X,” even if X is not affirmed by every CRT who ever lived.

Finally, Bridges’ treatment of racial disparities with respect to health (Chapter 16), criminal justice (Chapter 18), welfare (Chapter 19), and education (Chapter 20) is both highly relevant and deeply frustrating. In each of these sections she offers legitimate insights into both historical and contemporary phenomena. For example, her discussions of the Supreme Court’s reasoning on affirmative action or how “welfare” was originally associated with rural whites is fascinating. But when it comes to explaining racial disparities or offering policy solutions, she is inevitably blinkered by her commitment to the basic principles of critical race theory. Over and over, she assumes that because a particular non-race-based factor (like “class” or “culture”) cannot explain a racial disparity in totality, a race-based explanation ought to be preferred. This is an unhelpful way to approach complex problems, which are inevitably the cumulative product of numerous causes. We should not rule out discrimination or more nebulous “systemic” factors as a cause of racial disparities. But neither should we insist for ideological reasons that systemic forces are the sole cause of disparities.

Overall, Bridges’ book is probably the most accessible and up-to-date of any CRT text I’ve read. While she doesn’t have the scholarly cachet of Delgado or Crenshaw, she makes up for it with her clear presentation of the material.

Selected quotes:

If one defines a ‘theory’ as an idea that one can test with experiments in order to prove its truth or falsity, then CRT is not a theory. There is no test that can prove that CRT is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it argues that the law constructs, naturalizes, and justifies racial inequality. However, if we embraced a more expansive definition of ‘theory’ — defining it as an analytical framework that can be used to explain or examine facts or events– then CRT would qualify” (p. 7-8)

“[Critical race theory] insists that one cannot understand the inequalities within society if one fails to understand classism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia, transphobia, etc.” (p.14)

“[Critical legal scholars] were interested in the law as ideology; they were interested in the law as a body of thought that served to legitimate an unequal status quo” (p. 26)

“CRT recognizes that in order to achieve… substantive equality, there must be some dissimilar treatment of the dissimilarly situated individuals and groups in society” (p. 45)

CRT is simply skeptical that a ‘neutral’ standard, an ‘objective’ rule, or a ‘rational’ regime exists. Neutrality, objectivity, and rationality are supposed to be outside of power. But, CRT proposes that power –white racial power, to be precise– created these concepts…The result is that CRT tends to understand ‘neutrality’, ‘objectivity,’ and ‘reason,’ to be traps. They are excuses for maintaining the current maldistribution of racial power” (p. 49)

“[QueerCrit] challenges racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and xenophobia as vigorously as it challenges heteronormativity and cisnormativity” (p. 107)

intersectionality was not offered as a corrective to CRT; instead, it is CRT” (p. 116)

Many [antiracist] organizations have failed to recognize that homophobia and cisnormativity must be challenged if racism and racial disenfranchisement are to be defeated” (p. 255)

“Disability Studies rejects [the] medical model and, instead, offers a ‘social model of disability.’ This model proposes that while people may have impairments, it is society that disables people… while an individual may have a mental impairment, we disable her when we do not make allowances for incapacity–when we expect everyone to go to work every day to earn a wage and to care for their children when they return home at night.” (p. 302)

“some Disability Studies scholars would challenge the distinction between impairments and disability… Subini Annamma and co-authors argue that there is nothing ‘objective’ about impairments… in order to know what counts as an ‘impairment,’ we have to identify those bodies that are not impaired–that are ‘normal.’ The identification of the ‘normal’ — like the identification of the ‘impaired’– is not a value-free exercise…In this view, impairments are just as subjective and socially constructed as are disabilities.” (p. 302)

“A critical eye might also be skeptical of the notion that white persons denied job opportunities or refused seats in incoming classes are ‘innocent.’ As one progressive scholar observes, ‘…the rhetoric of innocence obscures this question: What white person is “innocent,” if innocence is defined as the absence of advantage at the expense of others?‘” (p. 356)

“To critical thinkers, departures from traditional definitions of merit are different standards that, crucially, disrupt the transgenerational transmission of power and privilege to wealthy white men.” (p. 368-369)

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