One hears about the battle going on in the US to keep Critical Race Theory out of public institutions.  Rather than relying media soundbites of what CRT is, I figured it was time to go searching for the definition myself.

As with most academic literature sorting through the palavers is a time consuming and often arduous chore, but I’ve found that James Lindsay has done a fair job of contextualizing and explaining what CRT (theory) is and how it operates in society (praxis).


This definition is taken from James Lindsay’s website – New Discourses.

“Critical race Theory is a Critical Theory of race. It distinguishes itself explicitly from previous approaches to race and racism, such as the liberal ones characterizing the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (but not the Black Power movement—see also, black liberationism). For example, in the introduction to the textbook Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, critical race Theory is characterized explicitly in these terms:

The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law. (p. 3, emphasis added)

A few salient points stand out in this paragraph. First, critical race Theory is centrally concerned with power, which it holds in higher regard than truth (indeed, it holds the postmodernist position that claims to truth are assertions of power by specific means). Second, it distinguishes itself from “traditional” civil rights and instead favors identity politics (in the radical sense). Third, it is not interested in progress but revolution. Fourth, it calls into question “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” That positions critical race Theory as explicitly anti-Western and, in the narrower context in which it arose and mostly applies, anti-American. Critical race Theory favors equity over equality, where equity specifically refers to a particular understanding of social equity theory and not a more generalist notion of fairness. Indeed, it explicitly characterizes the idea of (racial) equality as a kind of conspiracy theory that leads people, especially people of color (double especially BIPOC), to accept the status quo and their systemically oppressed state of affairs (see also, internalized dominance, internalized oppression, and internalized racism, i.e., false consciousness).

Critical race Theory began in critical legal studies in frustration that the legal wins over institutional racism in the 1960s did not more quickly succeed in ending racism (see also, cultural racism and new racism) or repairing disparate outcomes by race (see also, equity). It draws significant input from black scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from Frederick Douglass to W. E. B. Du Bois as well as black feminists from the latter part of the 20th century, including bell hooks, Patricia Collins, and, most notably, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term together with her mentor, Derrick Bell of Harvard Law. The postcolonial French psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon was also a significant influence. There are, of course, many kernels of truth within critical race Theory, or that critical race Theory is built upon, but there is little reason to accept that its analysis is serious or rigorous and less reason to believe that its recommended solutions can ameliorate rather than inflame racial issues in society.

As can be observed in the examples (above and below), critical race Theory begins with a cynical view that race is the predominant structural element of American (and other) societies, and that all analyses of race must incorporate systemic power, which is to say systemic racism. This, it insists, is everywhere, ordinary, permanent, and mostly (and badly) hidden, a kind of racism that is just beneath the surface (see also, code, mask, internalized dominance, internalized oppression, and internalized racism). Indeed, it tends to proceed from Derrick Bell’s assumption that racism has a permanence to it (or, sometimes, is permanent) and thus is not overcome and does not end but instead changes forms to something more subtle and harder to find. A consequence of this belief is that racism does not improve in society or stay the same but actually gets worse by virtue of staying roughly the same while becoming more insidious. One duty of the critical race Theorist is to expose this hidden racism wherever it can be found.

Critical race Theory begins with core presumptions such as that racism is ubiquitous in (American) society and its ordinary state of affairs (rather than an aberration from them). It therefore believes that all interactions across racial difference must account for the influences of structural racism. Under the first core presumption of critical race Theory, the question is not “did racism take place?” but “how did racism manifest in that situation?” for all social phenomena. That is, the racism is presumed to be present and in need of a critical race Theorist to find it and point it out. Critical race Theory does not just presume that society is fundamentally racist in its very structure, but also that it is intrinsically organized upon “anti-Blackness” in particular, leading to seemingly peculiar concepts like “brown privilege,” “brown complicity,” and “brown fragility” alongside the more obvious “white privilege,” “white complicity,” and “white fragility” upon which they are modeled. These posit that white and brown people have a vested interest in anti-Blackness because it affords them privilege, which makes them complicit in white supremacy and too emotionally fragile to cope with challenges to that social order. In other words, it is a conspiracy theory that everyone and, indeed, all of society (independently of the people in it, in a systemic sense) is organized against black people.

As a result of this line of thinking, all people within these systems must be aware of and engage their positionality relative to Theorized racial power dynamics intentionally and at all times (see also, intersectionality). As such, critical race Theory advocates increasing the social significance of racial categories in order to engage in identity politics (see also, identity-first and racism). An example of this assumption being put into action is the Black Lives Matter movement, which springs from the assumption that our police and criminal justice systems are wholly corrupted by systemic racism. Another would be the wide array of nominally “anti-racist” programs and trainings on offer (and mandate) throughout much of our society.

Critical race Theory stands apart from other kinds of Theory in that it is usually written quite clearly and has simple tenets. These include the central theme that racism is ordinary and permeates everything. It therefore needs to be uncovered and addressed using critical methods (see also, critical theory and mask). This is done in the form of Theory being applied to historical texts, societal representation, or current discourses. An example of the first includes Derrick Bell’s Interest-Convergence Thesis, in which he argues that advances have only been made for black people when it has been in white people’s interests to allow them. This is, in fact, listed among the core presuppositions of the Theory. This causes Bell to argue that progress of race relations is largely a myth. This is a radical and empirical (although interpreted with a specific ideological bias) approach to critical race Theory. The critical study of whiteness (see also, whiteness studies) is, in this sense, under the broad umbrella of critical race Theory.

One consequence of this view is that critical race Theory explicitly endorses historical revisionism, as it proceeds from the assumption that history was written by dominant (white) people who have, as a result of their privilege and its influences, not represented it accurately. A contemporary example of this effort is the 1619 Project, which was promoted by the New York Times starting in August 2019, with the explicit agenda of reframing the founding of the United States as a project in maintaining and exploiting slavery (see also, post-traumatic slavery syndrome).

A strongly postmodern approach to critical race Theory also exists, is currently dominant, and owes much to black feminists like bell hooks and Patricia Collins. These scholars sought to understand racism and its connection to gender by taking a “multi-layered” approach, which included some postmodern concepts about experiential knowledge(s) and multiple consciousness (see also, Matrix of Domination). The black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw was hugely influential as well (and is recognized along with Derrick Bell as the originator of critical race Theory).

Crenshaw is best known for her concept of “intersectionality,” which she describes as “a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory.” Under intersectionality, race, gender, sexuality, and other matters of identity are seen as cultural constructs in keeping with postmodern cultural constructivism, but, in deviation from the radical deconstruction of earlier forms of postmodern thought, oppression on those grounds is seen as objectively real.

Because of its postmodern influence, “discourse analysis” is also strong within critical race Theory. This involves a highly interpretive approach to interactions between a white person and a person of color that begins with the assumption that a power imbalance will exist and racism will be present and the person of color will be more able to detect it (see also, position, standpoint epistemology, and close reading).

Another central tenet of critical race theory is the critique of liberalism. This comes as a shock to most American readers who mistakenly identify critical race Theory as something associated with liberals and liberalism, but CRT is openly an anti-liberal theoretical and political project. The liberal approach to anti-racism is to divest race categories of social significance and treat everyone equally. That is, race is to become largely irrelevant and we, as a society, come to see skin color as having no more significance to a person’s worth or abilities than their hair color. This is referred to by critical race Theorists as “colorblindness” and is deemed highly problematic (see also, racism-blindness). A liberal society aims to make sure that everybody is treated equally by ensuring that race, gender, or sexuality does not prevent anyone from accessing any opportunity and then evaluates each individual on their abilities. This is known as “meritocracy,” which is viewed as a highly problematic ideology white people use to maintain their cultural dominance and justify their own white supremacy.

Critical race Theorists reject colorblindness and meritocracy as myths and illusions that allow white people to perpetuate their own privilege by failing to see racism operating beneath the surface of systems (see also, white ignorance). Essentially, they see liberalism as the belief that equality, colorblindness, and meritocracy have already been achieved or enable white people to pretend it has or to be satisfied with a painfully slow incremental change, which is inadequate, while misleading people of color by hiding from them the realities of their oppression (see also, false consciousness).

Critical race Theorists therefore advocate not being colorblind or meritocratic. Instead, they recommend that we all focus on race and racism specifically at all times and prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in hiring and other opportunities. In practice, this often means to run mandatory implicit bias tests and training in workplaces and ensure that more people of racial minorities are represented in any (prestigious) workplace that lacks them.”