The core concepts of critical race theory

Written by Derek Monson

September 3, 2021

Disclaimer: This post informs readers about the main ideas of critical race theory by describing them in the words of critical race theorists, without intending any commentary on those ideas. The descriptions below should not be viewed as either critique or endorsement of the ideas described.

Which ideas actually come from critical race theory (CRT)? The question spurs plenty of debate and even more confusion. And understandably so: One person will see in critical race theory a list of over 100 words and concepts, while another person will not see many of those concepts. Compounding the confusion is disagreement among CRT adherents about what CRT includes, and the fact that some concepts embraced by many critical race theorists predate the establishment of the CRT movement.

Of course, CRT itself can be a distraction from the deeper underlying problem: the need to restore rigorous, sequential and prioritized civics and history curriculum and teaching. Nevertheless, understanding the core ideas of CRT is important for resolving the controversy surrounding CRT and Utah’s public schools. If policymakers and citizens are going to determine whether and how CRT is influencing schools, they must first comprehend the main ideas of CRT.

The best way to understand those ideas is to read the words of critical race theorists. The “core concepts” or “basic tenets” of CRT are described in introductory texts on CRT for college students written by the political position’s founders and practitioners. Two are quoted from here.[i] These concepts include: (1) the social construction of race, (2) structural or institutional racism, (3) implicit bias, (4) microaggressions, (5) white privilege, and (6) intersectionality.

Race is a social construction

“Races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality … races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.” (Delgado and Sefancic, 8). In terms of empirical research:

The Human Genome Project [revealed] in 2003 that all persons, irrespective of racial ascription or identification, share 99.9% of the same genes … the 0.1% of genetic differences among humans does not function to divide the inhabitants of the globe into four or five discrete races. Instead … the 0.1% difference is spread across the globe in a spectrum – making the demarcation of the human population into four or five (or more, or fewer) races an exercise in arbitrariness. (Bridges, 124-125)

The social construction of race associates “mental, emotional, and political capacities” with physical traits, such as skin color or facial features. (Bridges, 128-129) Differences in material outcomes between races (wealth distribution, poverty rates, etc.) can serve to reinforce these associations. (Bridges, 130)

The law also plays an important role in the social construction of race. Historically “the law could give and take away whiteness.” (Bridges, 133) “Early in our history Irish, Jews, and Italians were considered nonwhite. … Whiteness, it turns out, is … shifting and malleable.” (Delgado and Stefancic, 86-87) In modern times, the law has “create[d] a world where the racial ideas that we have ‘make sense’” through things like over-policing and incarcerating specific racial groups. (Bridges, 138)

Despite efforts to eliminate racism, the social construction of race and attendant racism remain a normal part of American society in part because “our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.” (Delgado and Stefancic, 7)

Structural or institutional racism

Institutional racism is “what happens when institutions and structures operate in a race neutral manner that nevertheless perpetuates historical racial disadvantage and produces new forms of racial disenfranchisement.” (Bridges, 173) Institutional racism is an unintentional system of “unspectacular,” race-neutral “laws, policies, procedures and programs” that “sustain[] the racial hierarchy that was intentionally constructed and maintained during the pre-civil rights era” without any “evil ‘man behind the curtain’ designing and operating the institutions that form the stuff of institutional racism.” (Bridges, 148)

One example of institutional racism is the funding of public schools by property taxes, which perpetuates the historical disadvantage placed on communities of color by the old redlining practices of the housing industry. Redlining “prevented blacks from owning homes, particularly in desirable neighborhoods” and therefore limited where communities of color could send their children to school. (Bridges, 150; Delgado and Stefancic, 120-121) A second is the use of merit as a standard for college admissions (GPAs, test scores, etc.) given that the measures of merit have strong correlations with wealth and the fact that “people of color have significantly less wealth than white people.” (Bridges, 152)

The idea of structural or institutional racism has clear implications for many critical race theorists. “Many critical race theorists and social scientists hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white member of society seems quite so innocent.” (Delgado and Stefancic, 89)

Implicit bias

“Where explicit biases are those feelings and attitudes of which a person is completely aware, implicit biases are those same feelings and attitudes of which she is not cognizant.” (Bridges, 157) Implicit biases “are a better predictor of behavior than explicit biases … an individual’s behavior is not dictated by her conscious associations and aversions, but rather by her unconscious associations and aversions.” (Bridges, 159)

Implicit racial biases “may play a key role in the persistence of racial inequality in the post-civil rights era” because “the likelihood that people oftentimes are not aware of their disaffection towards historically disadvantaged groups, like black people, may reveal why the law has arguably been an incompetent tool for addressing racial inequality.” (Bridges, 161-162)

Microaggressions

Microaggressions are “stunning small encounter[s] with racism, usually unnoticed by members of a majority race.” (Delgado and Stefancic, 167) They are the “visible manifestations of the more indiscernible structures and systems of white dominance that people of color navigate throughout their lives … microaggressions serve as evidence of white supremacy.” (Bridges, 183) There is “a close relationship between microaggressions and implicit bias” that make microaggressions “the substance of today’s racism.” (Bridges, 182) They can include verbal or nonverbal, interpersonal or institutional interactions that send a message to a person of color that they are viewed with suspicion, as an outsider or as a threat to the safety and security of others. (Bridges, 183-184)

The impact of racial microaggressions (which can be microassaults, microinsults or microinvalidations) “accumulate over time,” and any interaction is “just one of many frequent – some researchers say daily – indignities” that people of color experience throughout their lifetime. (Bridges, 183, 187-188) The outcome of the strain of constantly negotiating microaggressions includes negative psychological (anger, resentment, hopelessness), physiological (headache/backache, high blood pressure, insomnia) and behavioral (social withdrawal, self-doubt, diet) effects that can perpetuate racial inequality. (Bridges, 183, 190)

White privilege

“White privilege refers to the myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race.” (Delgado and Stefancic, 87) White privilege “makes goals more accessible. It makes harms more avoidable. While it does not ensure that every white person will win, it makes it harder to lose.” (Bridges, 195)

Examples of white privilege include greater ease securing a loan or favorable terms for a loan, lower likelihood of being stopped by police while driving or walking somewhere, and better rates of maternal and infant mortality. (Bridges, 196) White privilege accumulates in part because “characteristics that white people have considered important have become the standards against which all people are judged.” (Bridges, 198)

Further:

Because most institutions in society today were built by white people with white people in mind, they reflect white norms. As a result … white norms have been structured into society – placing all white people, who are better situated than nonwhite people to behave consistently with these norms, in a favorable position. (Bridges, 198-199)

This should not lead to the “mistaken conclusion that the possession of white privilege equals the possession of a charmed life.” (Bridges, 201) “White people are a varied group, and the racial privilege that any one individual enjoys will depend on his social circumstance.” (Bridges, 208)

Intersectionality

Intersectionality is “the interaction between gender, race, and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these interactions in terms of power.” (Bridges, 233) Put more simply, it is “the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings. These categories – and still others – can be separate disadvantaging factors.” (Delgado and Stefancic, 57)

Through this lens, the racial discrimination that a Black woman experiences in her life will be different from the racial discrimination that a Black man may experience in his because of the additional dimension of gender. Intersectionality has an “interest in ‘a politics of social location’” and offers “a theoretical lens that could redress [the] limitations” of ways of approaching systematic oppression based on broad categorizations of diverse groups of people, such as antiracism and feminism. (Bridges, 235, 238)

Conclusion

If we are going to understand if or how CRT may be influencing or entering public schools, we first must understand what we are looking for. The core concepts or basic tenets of CRT can ground that understanding, and those concepts are captured by the words of critical race theorists.

Importantly, CRT is a symptom of a larger problem in public education and social studies curriculum: insufficient and incomplete instruction in American history and civics. We must teach the truth; we must also teach the critical thinking skills necessary for students to understand the why and how of racial disparities. And we must teach America’s founding virtues, which offer the path to closing those disparities.

 

[i] All quotes in this post come from two books. Khiara M. Bridges, 2019, Critical Race Theory – A Primer, Foundation Press: St. Paul, Minnesota. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, 2012, Critical Race Theory – An Introduction, 2nd edition, New York University Press: New York.

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