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Critical race theory is an intellectual and political movement within legal studies to transform the legal academy in terms of its analysis of racial inequalities and use the law to transform society in markedly antiracist directions. The intellectual breadth of critical race theory presages a much larger contribution to the social sciences aimed at understanding race relations in more interdisciplinary manners. Arising from the critical legal studies movement, critical race theory is identified in terms of two separate origins stories. Kimberlé Crenshaw (Crenshaw et al. 1995, 2002) identifies its origins in the work of Derrick Bell and the Harvard Law School. Sumi Cho and Robert Westley (2002) identify the development of critical race theory on the West Coast and the law school of the University of California Berkeley, Boalt Hall, and the free speech and Third World student movements that gripped college campuses in the 1960s.
Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Angela Harris identify the official beginning of critical race theory (CRT) in 1989, with the first workshop on the topic held in Madison, Wisconsin. Many of the scholars associated with critical race theory attended this and subsequent workshops. The impetus for a gathering of law faculty and students of color was their shared frustration over the colorblind veneer of critical legal studies.
Critical legal studies and critical race theory share a commitment to understanding the role that law plays in shaping social relations. Challenging the centrist model of jurisprudence that assumes law to be a self-contained, objective, rational entity designed to make maximally efficient decisions under the rule of law, critical legal studies scholars argue that law often structures social inequalities. Law operates like a bureaucratic iron cage that limits equal access and shapes economic and political hierarchies in society.
Focusing specifically on racial inequalities, critical race theory scholars share a commitment to viewing the law as exacerbating inequalities while maximizing its transformative potential. The foremost scholar in critical race theory is Derrick Bell, whose legal storytelling method has shifted scholarly boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, autobiography and legal analysis, legal and social science scholarship, and law and society. Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987) and Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992) feature the fictional character Geneva Crenshaw, a civil rights lawyer who enters into a dialogue with Bell the law professor on the role that race continues to play in a post–civil rights era. Similar dialogues have been composed by Richard Delgado and his fictional student Rodrigo in The Rodrigo Chronicles (1995) and The Coming Race War? (1996).
For Crenshaw, the origins of the 1989 critical race theory workshop rest in the Harvard Law School and Bell’s decision to leave Harvard over the law school’s unwillingness to tenure a woman of color. The Alternative Course was a course on civil rights, race and law designed to continue Bell’s intellectual legacy and push to diversify a homogenously white, male faculty. Harvard law students of color fought hard through the 1980s to study race from a critical perspective and diversify the law school’s students, faculty, and curriculum.
Other legal scholars, particularly Cho and Westley, identify the origins of critical race theory in the Free Speech and Third World consciousness-raising student movements of the 1960s. Particularly on the West Coast, university students from a plurality of minority communities came together to challenge the white, male patterns of privilege and reproduction. Harvard was not the only law school where students challenged the patterns of racial exclusion. The Boalt Coalition for a Diversified Faculty orchestrated the Nationwide Law Student Strike on April 6, 1989, to publicize the dearth of faculty of color at the nation’s law schools (30 percent had never hired a faculty member of color, and 34 percent had made only a token or single hire as of 1981).
Today, many of the most influential law professors identify with critical race theory or its progenies. Derrick Bell, Sumi Cho, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jerome Culp, Richard Delgado, Neil Gotanda, Lani Guinier, Ian Haney Lopez, Angela Harris, Kevin Johnson, Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, Margaret Montoya, Michael Olivas, Robert Westley, Alfreda Robinson, Dorothy Roberts, Mary Romero, Jean Stefancic, Francisco Valdes, Patricia Williams, Robert Williams, and Eric Yamamoto are widely recognized scholars associated with critical race theory. This list is clearly not exhaustive but simply illustrative of a few of the many names associated with the intellectual movement.
Critical race theory finds its most influential, current expression in the New York University Press’s Critical America Series, edited by Delgado and Stefancic. Critical race theory is also cultivating offshoots that are blossoming into their own research programs. Current offshoots include: LatCrit, addressing Latinos, law, and identity; OutCrit, addressing the legal predicaments of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities; critical race feminism, which takes an intersectional approach to law, race, and gender; NatCrit, addressing Native Americans and law; ClassCrit, addressing social class and law; critical white studies, challenging white privileges inscribed in law; and mixed-race crit, addressing law from biracial and multiracial identities.
The topics of inquiry in critical race theory vary but include hate speech, hate crimes, reparations, diversity in higher education and the legal academy, racial categorizations and law, identities theorized in relation to anti-essentialisms and multi-positionalities, corporate social responsibility, immigration enforcement, racial profiling, civil rights legislation, race-based backlash, and retrenchment. Many CRT scholars were instrumental in the successful reparations claim on the part of Japanese American internees. Reparations for African Americans (based on slavery and Jim Crow institutions), Native Americans (artifacts, land, and treaties), Mexican Americans (for mass repatriation during the Great Depression and the temporary worker or Bracero Program from 1942 to 1964), and Jewish Holocaust survivors represent critical race theory movements where law and politics intersect to advocate for social change.
The contributions to the social sciences include new approaches to narrative inquiry, the legal storytelling tradition, identities, and politics. The narrative storytelling tradition and its validation in the academy serve as major contributions not only to legal studies but to most fields of the humanities and social sciences. The fundamental epistemological claims of whose knowledge is deemed valid, how we come to “know truth,” and the privileged position of outsiders in understanding power relations are revolutionary contributions to an alternative philosophy of science that informs the social sciences.
Finally, fields such as education and interdisciplinary studies in law and society have incorporated critical race theory into their analytical frameworks. University of Wisconsin educators Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate’s 1995 call for the application of critical race theory to the fundamental issues of race in education has been answered by scholars such as Sofia Villenas, Tara Yosso, and Daniel Solorzano.
- Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds. 1995. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: New Press.
- Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. 2001. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.
- Hernández-Truyol, Berta, Angela Harris, and Francisco Valdes. 2005. LatCrit X Afterword, Beyond the First Decade: A Forward-Looking History of LatCrit Theory, Community, and Praxis. LatCrit.Org. http://www.arts.cornell.edu/latcrit/welcome/history/latcritxaft erword_v_21.pdf.
- Ladson-Billings, Gloria, and William F. Tate, IV. 1995. Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education. Teachers College Record 97 (1): 47–68.
- Valdes, Francisco Valdes, Jerome McCristal Culp, and Angela P. Harris, eds. 2002. Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
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