Critical race theory is a way of looking at race relations, particularly within the United States, in a broader context than the traditional civil rights approach. The theory began sometime in the mid-1970s, as a number of people in the legal profession began to worry about the slow rate at which laws were changing to promote racial equality. These legal professionals also worried that many of the early victories of the civil rights movement were already eroding.
Learning to look critically at race relations is a key part of critical race theory. Examining everyday interactions, and finding the racial component in them, can help move the racial equality cause forward perhaps more than a sometimes simplistic "color blind" approach. Looking carefully at what sociologists call micro-aggressions can help to see the true extent of racism in the United States, and through critical analysis, it is hoped people can begin to work past it.
To better understand the theory, an individual can consider a scenario where two people pass one another while walking down a street and the first person smiles at the second. Let us imagine that the second person either smiles in response as they pass, or stares down at the pavement and shuffles past. In the case where the second participant shuffles by uncomfortably, an observer's first instinct may be to imagine that they are simply unfriendly or have had a bad day. But what if the first participant is a person of color, and second is white? An observer will probably be wary of some form of racist micro-aggression. What if both participants are people of color? What if the first participant is white, and the second is black? In each of these situations, the observer's understanding of the society's race relations may be more nuanced than under a traditional approach.
Although critical race theory began within the legal profession — and legal professor Derrick Bell, easily the most important thinker within the movement — it has since spread to many other disciplines. Educators may find this theory very important to their understanding of classroom dynamics, academic testing, and curriculum bias. People involved in the political sphere may find it useful in understand voting discrepancies, race-based campaigning, and other issues.
One of the more interesting recent developments in critical race theory is a questioning of the normative acceptance of "whiteness." This theory looks at such things as how certain groups — the Irish, for example — began as an "othered" category, before "becoming" white. It looks at how racial pride in being white can manifest in acceptable ways, and how it can manifest as white superiority. Additionally, it may consider what whites can legitimately do to assist the critical examination of race, without abusing their position of power.
Critical race theory is a constantly evolving field. One of the most well-known experts in this field is Richard Delgado, author of several books including Critical Race Theory: An Introduction with Jean Stefancic. Other thinkers and devoted activists have dedicated themselves to the cause of a better understanding of race and its role in our society. Although the problems faced are truly monumental, fields such as this offer hope to realizing a more equitable world.