Delgado and Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory is a summary of the movement’s history, its application, and its impact on other fields.
– Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a broad, multidisciplinary approach to race, but I hadn’t appreciated just how broad the movement was, at least as these authors construe it. The authors begin by listing four major themes of CRT:
– First and most obviously, CRT is concerned with racism. However, the authors maintain that some within the CRT community believe that “racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude, and discourse” which we can eliminate by “changing … images, words, attitudes, unconscious feelings, scripts, and social teachings” (p. 21). In contrast, the “realist” school of CRT maintains that “racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status” and that it is driven by economic concerns and white self-interest (p. 21). Given that these understandings of racism are largely incompatible, I was surprised that the authors considered both to be legitimate expressions of CRT.
-Second, CRT’s emphasis on “revisionist history” is concerned with “replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations .. with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences” (p. 25).
-Third, CRT frequently critiques liberalism, particularly its emphasis on “colorblindness” and “rights.” CRTs insist that “Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change” will end racism and that rights focus excessively on “equality of opportunity” while failing to “assure equality of results” (p. 29).
-Fourth, CRTs believe that racism cannot be adequately addressed within our system because it is consequence of that system: our language, our institution, our laws. Thus, racism can only truly be addressed when these structures are fundamentally changed.
– The authors tend to be far less dogmatic than other authors I’ve read, possibly because they’re trying to represent the full spectrum of views rather than the one they think is correct. I generally appreciated their willingness to acknowledge diverging opinions, even if those opinions usually came from other CRT scholars.
– There are numerous, fascinating excerpts throughout the book from legal decisions related to CRT, both how it was applied or how it was rejected by the courts.
– The authors did engage occasionally with critics of CRT, both on the right and on the left, but not very frequently. More notable was their willingness to push readers to think through marginal cases which stretched and tested the constructs of CRT. For example, after their discussion of “white privilege” they asked readers to imagine a “Russian Jewish girl, orphaned at the age of two” who immigrates to the U.S. at fifteen with no money, but who is “white with blue eyes and blond hair.” They ask: “Is she privileged?” They then drily suggest that readers divide into groups and ask “whether privilege has any application beyond a narrow circle of elite prep-school products.” (p. 92) This kind of self-conscious humor is rare and commendable.
– The book contains no footnotes or references. This failure is so abysmal that it’s almost a deal-breaker. Two law school professors should know better than to write a 199-page book whose claims are supported only by listed of “Suggested Readings” at the end of every chapter!
– Worse yet, the authors often make specific and even controversial empirical claims with no citations. Consider this statement “Police shooting and killings of unarmed black men have risen so rapidly that even a leading medical journal recognizes them as growing health concerns” (p. 124). Think about how much elaboration is needed here: How many shootings were there ten years ago? How many shootings are there today? Which medical journal made this statement? When did they make this statement? How did they define a ‘health concern’? (FWIW, the data I could find shows that deaths by legal intervention for both blacks and whites have decreased steadily from 1970-2010: http://harvardpublichealthreview.org/190/ Similarly, the number of unarmed black people killed by police in 2015-2017 according to the WaPo database was 38, 17, and 19 respectively.) Even if the authors feel that a detailed explanation of this claim is beyond the scope of their text, a citation is needed to provide some kind of accountability. The same is true of numerous statements about the unreliability of test scores, the validity of Implicit Association Tests, or the prevalence of racial profiling. Without references, we have no way to know whether these statements are correct or incorrect or even what they’re based on.
– To summarize all these concerns, the book was good when it came to theory, but bad when it came to empirical evidence. This tendency is exemplified on p. 143 where the authors discuss the concept of “stereotype threat” which “impairs the ability of minority test-takers to do their best work” (p. 143). The authors lament the fact that “courts have been slow to apply the teachings of this new form of knowledge [emph. added]” (p. 143). Yet they then include a passage from Grutter v. Bollinger explaining why ‘stereotype threat’ was not being used to discredit test scores: “Due to the sparseness of the evidence… the court is unable to determine whether stereotype threat explains any part of the gap between Caucasian and underrepresented minority LSAT scores… Professor Steele does not quantify the effect of stereotype thread… If there is evidence showing that stereotype threat accounts for some of the LSAT gap, it was not produced in this case [emph. added].” (p. 143) It seems that the court, which still ultimately decided in favor of Michigan’s Affirmative Action policies, had the same qualms that I did. Does ‘stereotype threat’ affect test scores? I have no idea. We can’t say whether it does or not without evidence or, at the very least, references to literature in which the evidence can be found.
The book offers a good summary of CRT. The authors show how CRT can offer genuine insights into power dynamics and racism, even if I would still question some of its techniques and assumptions. The book’s major weaknesses were an underreliance on quantitative data and an inexcusable lack of references.
See all content on critical theory here.
- Recognizing Critical Theory – and Why It Matters
- A Long Review of Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock – Part 1
- Christianity and Social Justice
- A Short Review of Adams’ Readings for Diversity and Social Justice