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What is Critical Race Theory?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1005052 — On Jun 09, 2021

It has always been thus. You get the good, the bad and the ugly. Maintain one third of each, and life is balanced. The human condition will never be perfect. Never forget Charles Darwin and his theory. The answer is blowing in the wind, my friend.

By anon990082 — On Apr 05, 2015

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

By anon989682 — On Mar 17, 2015

When does the argument end?

Regardless of where I came from and was culturally raised, the point is we are not moving forward by constantly arguing about the past. My ancestors were starved, beaten, raped, and murdered. Why? Greed.

But the past is like water under the bridge. I cannot change the past. It has flown by us. We should never forget where we come from, but cannot continue living in the past that cannot be changed.

Live for the future. Cherish life today and every day. It may be gone tomorrow.

By jessiwan — On Nov 13, 2013

@post no. 6: You make a lot of sense.

@Post no. 13: While I also think that it is bad and unfortunate that white people's ancestors (note: not present-day whites) stole land from the natives, I don't think the right way to right the wrongs of the past is to give native students preferential treatment in terms of university admission. What is the role of a college/university? It is to accept the best, smartest, most capable students and then train them. It is not the role of universities to right social wrongs. It just isn't, and the way we have been doing it is all wrong. If we lower admission standards in order to have more of certain races of students despite their being less capable, what we will end up with is less capable nurses/teachers/doctors/engineers/you-name-it in our societies.

I mean, if people truly feel this bad about mistreating the natives, maybe they can give them more stuff, like maybe put them on bigger reserves, or give them more land and things like that to appease their consciences. Anything but messing with universities' admission standards.

@Post no. 22: I couldn't agree more. Liberals are actually the most racist people on earth and they don't even know it.

By anon280941 — On Jul 20, 2012

As someone who has indigenous blood (Alaskan Native) I found it somewhat offensive that I was encouraged to take advantage of certain federally funded services (Medicare, a university, internship) ascribed to Native people. My tuition for a semester in a campus university in Kansas was only $215. The cost of the ticket to travel: $1000. They bed you, feed you, allow you to take accredited classes and earn degrees at only $215 for a half a year. It included room, boarding, electricity, Internet, extra-curricular programs, 'free movie tickets', a large gym and a pool. (and not even one payphone).

Bottom line is: I could've funded the entire time I spent at the school using my available resources, but instead it was paid by taxpayers. Not only that but the PELL grant is even more ridiculous. Every semester, the student receives a large spendable check that goes to clubbing and buying alcohol (or pot). There are those who are responsible and can carry their own weight, but they are busy as with anyone else doing things to get the next paycheck.

By anon262885 — On Apr 21, 2012

I tried to understand CRT and I came to the conclusion this is a "Heads I win, Tails you lose" argument for blacks.

For example, under CRT, If I tell you I do not see you as a black person, then I am denying you your history and failing to accept your blackness, but if I say I see you as Black then I am seeing you based on the color of your skin.

This is another self indulgent theory that is used to promote the black race and give them a leg up in any argument.

By anon257124 — On Mar 25, 2012

200 places - It's not treating the whites unfairly, but is lowering the quality of graduates and thus harming itself. If you were an employer, do you hire the best candidate or the one with the right color?

By anon254223 — On Mar 12, 2012

The Indians have been overpaid as far as I am concerned. They lived and used a fraction of the U.S., yet they are given rights no one else can have. Blacks want to blame whitey for their problems when a lot of the leaders of the black community know what the problem is, and it isn't whitey. It is about being too cool to go to school and bullying those who do. They think they get respect from a gun! Black men leave their families at an alarming rate. They have been given jobs and spots in universities because of their race when many whites have much better grades. They kill each other like it's nothing.

They need someone to instill pride in them so they will want to take care of their families and want an education and a good job to provide for their children and show by example what being responsible is all about and truly earning respect because they are honest, hard working people who want better for their children.

The Democratic Party has them right where they want them: depending on them for everything! What would they call white folk who voted for a white man instead of a black because he was white? A racist, but 90 percent of blacks voted for Obama, and if not for the millions of whites who also voted for him, he never would have been elected. That is why Obama, Wright, Bell, Farrakhan, and the white communist radicals he associated with, like Ayers, Flagler, Saul Alinsky have shaped Obama's' politics since he was young!

By anon253414 — On Mar 09, 2012

Racism and its byproducts, like the KKK, reparations, Black Panthers, Jim Crow, etc., are as laughable now as horrible then. Let's move forward please.

By Crackerhead — On Mar 09, 2012

Born white, I was raised in the deep south and overall, most things stay the same, even racial disposition.

However, if I were to be born again, as an African American, then I reckon I would want the same opportunities as everyone/anyone else would have.

Soon, over smaller and smaller amounts of time as it passes, race, etc. will no longer be a problem.

Majority numbers have already significantly changed and rather soon, there will be no true color either way(as if there were one now).

Interbreeding, once considered unsavory, is now unavoidable.

Their work is almost complete. It is surely too late. I have no illusions.

Therefore, worry only about what you can change, which is whatever your personal views are. Forget the rest.

Love your neighbor and avoid the trash, whatever color it may be.

There is good and bad in everyone and everything.

Live your short, pointless life and attempt to be as happy and thankful as you can, while you have the chance.

Whether one is a believer or a non believer, the endgame is imminent.

In my view, whoever runs the country is insignificant. If they were straight, they would not want the position anyway.

By anon253314 — On Mar 08, 2012

This is all nonsense. The fact is those who benefit from racism are Euro-Americans, what some mistakenly call "whites". So long as they and their progeny benefit from racism it will never end, CRT and all other theories notwithstanding.

Upper class Caucasians benefit both materially and emotionally from racism. Middle class Caucasians also benefit materially, but to a lesser degree. The value of their emotional benefit is higher. The working class Caucasians, the "trash" do not benefit at all materially from racism. For them, the emotional benefit is the ego salve, without which their self-esteem would be under water. So, it is worth hanging on to at whatever cost.

Even at the cost of perennial misery, disease and illiteracy for themselves and their progeny, because, you see, life would not be worth living if they were forced to face the reality of the fact that the color of their miserable hides gave them no natural advantage whatsoever over anyone else. These are the majority in America. They are the ones who give us "union busting" anti working class, anti middle class politicians like Reagan and his Republican successors. This also explains why the South, which has the highest rate of poverty among the working and middle classes, is also the most heavily Republican.

By anon253256 — On Mar 08, 2012

Like so much liberal baloney, it's an academic justification for blaming one's problems on any and every group except one's own self - and group is key, because for liberals, the individual has no meaning, no rights and no identity except as a member of a group.

By anon253245 — On Mar 08, 2012

Guess what? Whites are not racists.

By anon253207 — On Mar 08, 2012

This is pretty funny as satire. Er, it is satire, no?

By anon253183 — On Mar 08, 2012

I'm so tired of people spouting prejudicial statements like Bell in his book “The Space Traders,“ where aliens arrive and offer the United States ”enough gold to retire the national debt, a magic chemical that will cleanse America’s polluted skies and waters, and a limitless source of safe energy to replace our dwindling reserves.” The U.S. just has to give the aliens one thing in return: all of our black people. (Guess what white Americans decide?)

Has this idiot never heard of The Civil War?

By anon253177 — On Mar 08, 2012

Years ago, my ex-roommate from college and I were talking. I had gone on to med school and he had gone on to law school. We began to discuss the differences between the two disciplines. We concluded that, in med school, there was more than one correct answer to any given question; in law school, there was no correct answer to any given question. After reading about CRT, I'm convinced that we were right.

By anon252951 — On Mar 07, 2012

This is all just "hate whitey" baloney. And of course, Obama is an adherent.

By anon162962 — On Mar 25, 2011

@ anon84627: Who did this law school steal the land from? Mexico, which was created by imperialist Spaniards, to which even to this day claim old imperialist land claims in the name of anti-imperialism? Unsurprising that CRT would attract such.

By anon162961 — On Mar 25, 2011

DPH, I don't see how anyone who has studied CRT at all can deny the influence of Marxian class theory in it. Its basically a whole-cloth rip, with the bourgeois being white and the proletariat being all others.

By anon162960 — On Mar 25, 2011

Actually, in all the CRT materials I've read, I've never seen one instance in which acceptable white pride was mentioned at all. Whiteness is equated with evil, and thus whiteness needs to be done away with. CRT is also one-sided in terms of what racism is: its a one-way only street, and whites are never the victims. It's about as crap of a so-called academic field you can find.

By anon150402 — On Feb 07, 2011

The white applicant has not had anything stolen, erased, hidden or altered. They are the majority, not indigenous. If it weren't for [their] discriminatory ways, the need for these policies would not be there. These are "let's help the people we @#$%ed out of everything they had" policies, that do not begin to correct the wrongs that are still prevalent today.

By anon124441 — On Nov 05, 2010

#6, it's not necessarily the application of Marxist theory to race, it's the application of critical theory to race. It's similar to feminist theory, "queer" theory, and the like. And it's based on the "foundation" of post-structural discourse like all these other modern approaches to critique.

That's not to say that it wasn't influenced by Marxism, as were most other schools of criticism, but it's not unduly Marxist. And Marxist approaches to race relations would not necessarily be trash, even though I would take a long hard look at them before supporting them.

Now, I would be very surprised if CRT is indeed being used in court, for the very reason you mention. I can't think of a persuasive legal argument that would be based on it. I scarcely think judges and juries would have the patience to listen to the deconstruction of white/non.

#7, that would be okay, right? It's a free country, and people subscribe to their chosen political views here.

best, DPH

By anon84627 — On May 17, 2010

No. What is unfair is the law school sitting on stolen land and then only giving 10 places to indigenous people who were paid nothing for all that was taken from them in the name of manifest destiny.

By anon57759 — On Dec 27, 2009

I'll also add that the Brendan McGuigan who wrote this article on CRT may be a Marxist himself.

By anon57757 — On Dec 27, 2009

Critical Race Theory is the application of Marxist Critical Theory to race. It's Marxist garbage through and through. I'll add that CRT arguments in courts of law get laughed out of court every single time, and the only place this trash is taken seriously is leftist-dominated campuses.

By Question1 — On May 31, 2009

You bet he was treated unfairly! Now, you just need to fill in the other 594-644 words.

By anon32710 — On May 26, 2009

Ahahaha... busted Anon! No one escapes the long arm of the law academic!

By anon32332 — On May 20, 2009

Hi Anon,

I suggest you find a more private forum to ask such questions as any response if found in a submission for university, would be deemed plagiarizing and subsequently result in your failure in the upcoming assignment.

Regards Archana

By anon32194 — On May 17, 2009

A law school has 200 places for incoming law students. It sets aside 10 places for which only indigenous students may compete. The required UAI is lower for these students. A white student who applies for one of the remaining 190 places is rejected but the law school concedes that his UAI is high enough that if he had been indigenous he would have been accepted. Do you think that the law school’s policy treated the white applicant unfairly?

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