Critical race theory – in the words of critical race theorists

Written by Derek Monson

July 9, 2021

Teachers unions offer legal defense for teachers who adopt the critical race theory perspective. NBA All-Stars seek to meet with state legislators about critical race theory. Every week there seems to be a new effort announced to attempt to increase understanding around critical race theory (CRT) or engage in the political fight over it.

Of course, while there are problems with CRT, the real source of our problems is the need to reform civics education in Utah.

Most news sources describe CRT simply as an academic legal theory focused on race and racism. But it is rare to see an ivory tower theory drive such controversial and passionate argument, both in its defense and in criticism of it. This leads to a reasonable question: Is CRT just an academic legal theory, or is there more to it?

When partisan politics has grabbed hold of an issue like CRT for electoral gain, it can become exceedingly difficult to wade through the misinformation and disinformation to find answers. However, one way we gain understanding is to go to the source.

Various academic and popular sources offer recommended lists of books written by the creators, proponents and practitioners of CRT. These books offer an understanding of CRT from the viewpoint of those who embrace it.

One of CRT’s earliest figures is Richard Delgado, who co-authored an introductory text on CRT with his wife, Jean Stefancic. They describe it in various ways.

CRT is described as “a movement” or “approach to civil rights” that includes “a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.” They find its intellectual origins in critical legal studies, radical feminism, European philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and the “American radical tradition” as represented by figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Cesar Chavez (among others).

Delgado and Stefancic explicitly point out how CRT is, in fact, different than typical academia:

Unlike some academic disciplines critical race theory contains an activist dimension. … It sets out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies but to transform it for the better.

A movement that feeds activism and considers itself as building upon radical intellectual, political and social figures: This does not seem to fit the description of an academic legal theory.

Other sources confirm much of what Delgado and Stefancic write and contribute additional insight into what CRT is. In the introduction to her primer on critical race theory, law professor and critical race theorist Khiara Bridges writes of CRT that:

If one defines a “theory” as an idea that one can test with experiments in order to prove its truth or falsity, then CRT is not a theory. … However, if we embrace a more expansive definition of “theory” – defining it as an analytical framework that can be used to explain or examine facts or events – then CRT would qualify.

In this sense of the word “theory,” Bridges says that CRT is a social theory “like Marxist or Foucauldian social theories.” She “understands CRT to be a political position from which to criticize the racial status quo,” describes critical race theorists in academia as “progressive race scholars” and states that “CRT is dedicated to the production of politically engaged scholarship.” Regarding the political dimension of CRT, Bridges states that “the architects of Critical Race Theory have described the theory as a ‘left intervention into race discourse and a race intervention into left discourse.’”

A leftist political position comparable to Marxist social theory that progressive race scholars use to produce politically engaged scholarship: Again, this does not read like the description of an academic legal theory – political ideology or philosophy may be a more accurate descriptor than legal theory.

Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence suggesting that CRT is not simply an academic legal theory is how its proponents tout how it expanded beyond that long ago. In the foreword to Delgado and Stefancic’s book, critical race theorist Angela Harris notes how “critical race theory has exploded from a narrow subspecialty of jurisprudence chiefly of interest to academic lawyers into a literature read in departments of education, cultural studies, English, sociology, comparative literature, political science, history, and anthropology around the country.” CRT’s adherents, it would seem, see CRT as having moved beyond being simply an academic legal theory.

This, of course, does not make banning CRT a good or effective policy idea. In the end, CRT (or the next activist push to influence public school instruction in history and civics) will remain divisive and controversial until civics education in Utah is made rigorous, sequential, and prioritized on a level with subjects like English and math – like both parents and teachers think it should be.

However, seeing CRT from the viewpoint of its proponents does make parents’ concerns about it more understandable. And if genuine solutions to controversial issues are possible, they will begin with understanding.

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