Critical Race Theory Defined

The following article is excerpted from Writing Commons: The Encyclopedia for Writers, Researchers, and Knowledge Workers, created and maintained by Dr. Joseph Moxley; he asked me to compose a definition essay on Critical Race Theory almost a year ago, & since DeSantis’ latest venture to block the Advanced Placement College Board’s African American studies course, I thought it was time to get my hands “dirty.”

cropped-kendra-bitmoji-2.pngYo! I’m just plantin seeds so we can harvest a revolution. Free ur minds Black & brown people! KNOWLEDGE is power.

What Is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?

Critical race theory (CRT), which is often defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality, is — at its most basic explication — a lens, a perspective through which folks, traditionally legal and sociological scholars, examine race matters and power dynamics.

Critical race theorists think deeply about how the socially constructed concept of race shapes people’s lived experiences. They note that racism is not a biologically natural construct but is an ideological construct — a specific form of oppression that operates through “superstructures” — a Marxist term referring to institutions, beliefs, and rituals expressed and practiced in culture, politics, religion, media, and education. These superstructures, which can be cornerstones of a democratic society, inform how citizens relate to one another—how they socialize. Or, in the classroom, how writers engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning in order to determine what they need to say and how they need to say it in their compositions.

However, when racism — “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized” — operates in and is supported by superstructures of institutional power and authority, America infringes upon its democratic promise. For, racism “encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systemize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and peoples of Color” (Özlem and DiAngelo 2017), which counters democratic ideals. As an interdisciplinary examination, therefore, CRT aims to unsettle the racist status quo that supports what feminist critic bell hooks termed America’s “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”—a term that often threatens white folks, who may not be racist themselves, but who are implicit, and thereby benefit from, America’s racist constitution.

Thus, as a critical theory, CRT analyzes America’s social conditions, specifically its race matters, within overlapping contexts. In no way, therefore, does the theory create racism or racist people, institutions, and practices; instead, CRT examines society’s current and historical conditions. Like many scholars and classroom teachers in Writing Studies, CRT theorists analyze by way of the Socratic method—asking questions—which supports the ongoing study and practice that critical race theory requires.

Questions CRT scholars may ask include:

  • What are the social and institutional dynamics that re/produce racism?
  • How are racially unjust social orders maintained and duplicated?
  • Who is empowered and disempowered by the social and legal construction of race?

Despite CRT’s recent popularity, perhaps stimulated by the 2020 George Floyd murder and COVID-19 pandemic, critical race theory is as old as Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech; however, CRT was ratified, if you will, during the 1970s—at which time activists and legal scholars (e.g., Derrick Bell, Cheryl Harris, Richard Delgado) realized the stall in civil rights movement advancements.

Recently, however, because of CRT’s propensity to disrupt white supremacy, politicians like Donald Trump, Ronald DeSantis, and other conservative, neoliberalist republicans vilify woke culture and aim to cancel critical race theory and similar modes of thought offered in state-funded schools, colleges, and universities. Should such politics become America’s reality, being woke to CRT won’t be as significant to its citizenry than will be the inevitable deadening of its unfulfilled democracy.

Is CRT a Reverse Racism That Privileges Only Black and Brown People?

No. Reverse racism is a myth. While Black and brown people can be racially prejudiced, racism’s systematic relationship to power prohibits Black and brown people from reversing racism in ways that completely disembowel white folks. CRT is not the cha-cha slide. In other words:

  • If a Black doctor expressed racist attitudes toward his white maternity patients, it would not reverse the racist medical practices that have led to a 44% maternal mortality rate in Black patients compared to 17% in white ones (“Maternal Mortality” 2020).
  • If a Black police officer’s racist behaviors caused him to regularly arrest more white folks than Black ones, it would not reverse the racist police practices that contribute to Black Americans being arrested 2.5x more frequently than white folks. More plainly put, in 2020, out of 100,000 arrests, 4,223 of them were Black and 2,092 were white (“Law Enforcement” 2020).
  • If Oprah Winfrey, whose net worth is 2.5 billion, cloned herself 10×10 to uplift the Black and brown race, it would not reverse the racist economic practices that contribute to America’s poverty rate: 24.3% of Native Americans, 19.5% of Black people, and 17.1% of Latin@s live below the poverty line compared to 8.2% of white folks (“Poverty Rate” 2021).
  • If North Carolina A&T State University, the largest HBCU in the nation, confirmed a bachelor’s degree to each of its enrolling Black students and denied every other race of student, it would not reverse the racist practices that ensure Black and brown people academic inequality: 28.1% of Blacks compared to 41.9% of white people 25 years and older obtain a bachelor’s degree 5 ; and 10.5% of Black people have a doctorate degree compared to 57.8% of white people (“Doctoral Student” 2021).
  • If every Black real estate agent secured property for its Black homebuyers, it would not reverse the racist practices that maintain homeownership gaps between white and Black Americans. In 2022, 74.6% of White households owned their homes, compared to 45.3% of Black households—a gap wider than it was in 1960, before the 1968 Fair Housing Act (“Black Families” 2022).

However, because opponents of critical race theory fear a Black planet, in their fragility, they spread fake news—a white noise ensuring folks stay asleep. What CRT does privilege, however, is a person’s critical thinking about themself in relationship to the rest of the world. For Black and brown people, along with white co-conspirators, such thinking interprets America’s policies and unearths its hypocrisies, thus empowering all of its citizens to make sense of their positionalities, to enlighten others, and to move intentionally towards creating more equitable, democratic experiences for themselves and their communities. As such, critical race theory has the capacity to privilege everyone.

Read the rest of the article here.

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