What is Critical Race Theory?


With the passage of SBC Resolution #9 “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,” many Christians began asking question about the nature of Critical Race Theory. What is it? What are its central beliefs? Below, I provide quotes from the literature describing the central components of Critical Race Theory. I’ll offer no interpretation or commentary.

From Harper, Patton, and Wooden, Access and Equity for African American Students in Higher Education: A Critical Race Historical Analysis of Policy Efforts,” The Journal of Higher Education, 80(4), 2009, p. 389-414.

While no single definition exists for CRT, many scholars agree on the centrality of seven tenets:

[Tenet 1:] Racism is a normal part of American life, often lacking the ability to be distinctively recognized… A CRT lens unveils the various forms in which racism continually manifests itself, despite espoused institutional values regarding equity and social justice.

[Tenet 2:] [Ideas like] liberalism, neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness, and meritocracy… camouflage [how] racial advantage propels the self-interests, power, and privileges of the dominant group.

[Tenet 3:] CRT gives voice to the unique perspectives and lived experiences of people of color… CRT uses counternarratives as a way to highlight discrimination, offer racially different interpretations of policy, and challenge the universality of assumptions made about people of color.

[Tenet 4:] CRT recognizes interest-convergence, the process whereby the white power structure ‘will tolerate or encourage racial advances for Blacks only when they also promote white self-interests’.

[Tenet 5:] Revisionist History is another tenet of CRT [which] suggests that American history be closely scrutinized and reinterpreted as opposed to being accepted at face value and truth.

[Tenet 6:] CRT also relies on Racial Realists, or individuals who not only recognize race as a social construct, but also realize that ‘racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status.’

[Tenet 7:] CRT critiques [claims that]: (a) [colorblindness] will eliminate racism; (b) racism is a matter of individuals, not systems; and (c) one can fight racism without paying attention to sexism, homophobia, economic exploitation, and other forms of oppression or injustice

From Hartlep, “Critical Race Theory: An Examination of its Past, Present, and Future Implications,” ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 506 735, 2009

There are five major components or tenets of CRT: (1) the notion that racism is ordinary and not aberrational; (2) the idea of an interest convergence; (3) the social construction of race; (4) the idea of storytelling and counter-storytelling; and (5) the notion that whites have actually been recipients of civil rights legislation…

[Tenet 1] racism is ordinary: the overall ethos of majority culture promotes and promulgates a notion of ‘color-blindness’ and ‘meritocracy.’ These two notions are mutually intertwined and serve to marginalize certain enclaves of people—predominately people of color.

[Tenet 2] The beliefs created by the majority -the haves- oppress minority groups -the have-nots and have-too-littles. Stated more precisely, interest convergence is the notion that whites will allow and support racial justice/progress to the extent that there is something positive in it for them.

[Tenet 3] race has been constructed socially, much to the detriment of people of color. The ‘social construction thesis’ or declaration that ‘race is a social construct’ has been one of CRT’s hallmark mantras and core issues.

[Tenet 4] The idea of storytelling comes from its powerful, persuasive, and explanatory ability to unlearn beliefs that are commonly believed to be true. Without CRT’s counter-storytelling, the true stories would never be publicly proclaimed.

[Tenet 5] whites have actually been recipients of civil rights legislation… although whites have undeniably been the recipients of civil rights legislation, it has also been verified that affirmative action, too, best serves whites.

Under “Implications for further Research: Reflecting”, Hartlep adds:

CRT has grown in its movement. Off-shoots or hybrids have emerged that take into account various other issues such as linguistic and immigration oppression. CRT now includes: Critical Race Feminism (CRF), Latino Critical Race Studies (LatCrit), Asian American Critical Race Studies (Asian Crit) and American Indian Critical Race Studies (TribalCrit), Queer-Crit, etc.

From Kafi D. Kumasi, “Critical Race Theory and Education: Mapping a Legacy of Activism and Scholarship” in Levinson’s Beyond Critique (p. 209-213). Kumasi lists several ‘key concepts’ within CRT:

Double consciousness: … The push/pull social psychological syndrome that African Americans experience in trying to both accommodate and resist mainstream white society’s cultural and linguistic norms… blacks experience the power of second sight from the perspective of antiblack prejudice

Hegemony: The dominance or power of one cultural group over another [which can be] supported through the consent of the subordinate group, [when] the members of the subordinate group begin to accept, adopt, and internalize the values and norms of the dominant group.

Interest convergence: The thesis… that the white majority group tolerates advances for racial justice only when it suits their interests to do so.

Intersectionality: The fact that race does not function independently of other modes of domination, such as classicism or sexism… CRT scholars are critical of any sociological analyses that focus solely on race without recognizing that racial oppression exists in multiple layers based on gender, class, immigration status, surname, phenotype, accent, and sexuality.

Race: the characteristics ascribed to a particular race can and will change to fit a dominant group’s interest. In this way, racist behavior is not an aberration in everyday life; it is often normal practice in deeply racialized social systems.

Racial identity: The degree to which a person feels connected to or shares commonality with an ethnic or racial group. For African Americans, racial identity is noted to be shaped by historically oppressive and racist experience in relation to white supremacy.

Voice: From a CRT perspective, the ability of a group, such as African Americans or women, to articular their experiences in ways that are unique to it… A CRT framework recognizes the centrality of experiential knowledge of people of color and views this knowledge as legitimate, appropriate, and critical to understanding, analyzing, and teaching about racial subordination.

Whiteness: [According to Frankenburg] whiteness is a location of structural advantage, or race privilege. Second, it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others, at society. Third, ‘whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices, that are usually unmarked and unnamed.

Delgado and Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (p. 19-41) lists four “hallmark critical race theory themes”:

A. Interest Convergence, Material Determinism, and Racial Realism
…One camp [of CRTs] holds that racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude, and discourse… A contrasting school -the ‘realists’ or economic determinists- holds that though attitudes and words are important, racism is much more than a collection of unfavorable impressions of members of other groups. For realists, racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status.

B. Revisionist History
…Revisionist history reexamines America’s historical record, replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations of of events with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences.

C. Critique of Liberalism
…critical race scholars are discontented with liberalism as a framework for addressing America’s racial problems… Colorblindness can be admirable… But it can be perverse, for example, when it stands in the way of taking account of different in order to help people in need… Crits are suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights. Particularly some of the older, more radical CRT scholars… believe that moral and legal rights are apt to do the right holder much less good than we like to think.

D. Structural Determinism
…the heart of structural determinism [is] the idea that our system, by reason of its structure and vocabulary, is ill equipped to redress certain types of wrong.

Yosso’s “Whose Culture Has Capital?” has been cited over 5,000 times and lists “five tenets of CRT that can and should inform theory, research, pedagogy, curriculum and policy”:

1. The intercentricity of race and racism with other forms of subordination. CRT starts from the premise that race and racism are central, endemic, permanent and a fundamental part of defining and explaining how US society functions… CRT acknowledges the inextricable layers of racialized subordination based on gender, class, immigration status, surname, phenotype, accent and sexuality.

2. The challenge to dominant ideology. CRT challenges White privilege and refutes the claims that educational institutions make toward objectivity, meritocracy, color‐blindness, race neutrality and equal opportunity. CRT challenges notions of ‘neutral’ research or ‘objective’ researchers and exposes deficit‐informed research that silences, ignores and distorts epistemologies of People of Color…CRT argues that these traditional claims act as a camouflage for the self‐interest, power, and privilege of dominant groups in US society

3. The commitment to social justice. CRT is committed to social justice and offers a liberatory or transformative response to racial, gender and class oppression

4. The centrality of experiential knowledge. CRT recognizes that the experiential knowledge of People of Color is legitimate, appropriate, and critical to understanding, analyzing and teaching about racial subordination…

5. The transdisciplinary perspective. CRT goes beyond disciplinary boundaries to analyze race and racism within both historical and contemporary contexts, drawing on scholarship from ethnic studies, women’s studies, sociology, history, law, psychology, film, theatre and other fields

Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, and Crenshaw’s Words That Wound (p. 6-7) lists six “defining elements” that answer the question “What is critical race theory?” These authors all helped to found Critical Race Theory as a discipline:

1. Critical race theory recognizes that racism is endemic to American life… [W]e ask how these traditional interests [like federalism, privacy, traditional values or established property interests] serve as vessels of racial subordination.

2. Critical race theory expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, color blindness, and meritocracy

3. Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law…as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines

4. Critical race theory insists on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color…This knowledge is gained from critical reflection on the lived experience of racism

5. Critical race theory is interdisciplinary and eclectic. It borrows from several traditions, including liberalism, law and society, feminism, Marxism, poststructuralism, critical legal theory, pragmatism, and nationalism

6. Critical race theory works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression. Racial oppression is experienced by many in tandem with oppressions on grounds of gender, class, or sexual orientation. Critical race theory measures progress by a yardstick that looks to fundamental social transformation. The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself.

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