Critical race theory is a hotly debated topic especially within the American media. A number of bills and legislations have been introduced to stop or limit the teaching of critical race theory. For instance, the State of Florida has recently passed a law that bans teaching critical race theory within schools. The issue has stirred so much controversy in the media and among educators and parents.
So, what the heck is critical race theory and why does it matter that much? What teachers and parents need to know about critical race theory? These and several other questions is what I attempt to answer in this post.
Drawing on my own academic experience as an educator and using a wide variety of research=based sources, I provide you with practical insights about this technical concept and show you how it has deeply shaped American educational policy.
What is critical race theory?
Let me start with these hypothetical events taken from Richard Delgado’s book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. I want you to take a moment and reflect on each of these scenarios and critically examine your inner thoughts as you go through them:
A child raises her hand repeatedly in a fourth- grade class; the teacher either recognizes her or does not. A shopper hands a cashier a five-dollar bill to pay for a small item; the clerk either smiles, makes small talk, and deposits change in the shopper’s hand or does not.
Now, I want you to think about these scenarios from two different perspectives: from the perspective of a white person and the perspective of a person of colour. If you were a white individual (the child, the shopper, jogger) and the responses came from fellow white people, how would you feel? Would race figure in the probable reasons while those people acted the way they did or would you think they were having a bad day.
How about if you were a person of colour at the receiving end of these acts? What is the first thing that comes to your mind when the actors are white? How about if the actors were fellow people of colour?
From my own experience as a person of colour, I can not help but think about race in such situations. And I have yet to find a person of colour in my circle of friends and relatives who does not do the same.
But what does all of this have to do with critical race theory?
Well, critical race theory is actually the investigation of acts where the dynamics of (mainly) race and power are involved. Racism is not as easy to prove as it might seem. Racist people can blame anything for their acts except racism, because racism carries severe social stigma and sometimes legal repercussions.
Critical race theory seeks to raise awareness of the implication of race in micro and macro aggressions leveled against people from a different race or with a different skin color. While racism is popularly associated with ‘whiteism’ but this is not always the case. In fact, racism is colourless. Anyone can be a racist as long as they discriminate based on a racial basis.
Definitions of critical race theory
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at the U.C.L.A., is the scholar credited with coining the term critical race theory. She defines it as “a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced…the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities”.
As for professor Matsuda (law professor at the University of Hawaii), critical race theory is “a method that takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in American law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just and healthy world for all.”
Yes, that is too much of academic jargon! In simpler terms, critical theory is an analytic framework that uses the social category of race as a tool to analyse social inequities.
While it was first conceived within legal studies, critical race theory has been widely adopted across the disciplinary spectrum from education to psychology. Critical race scholars seek to deconstruct structural racism and decompose racial hierarchies with the goal of establishing a racially equitable society. For these scholars, racism drive inequalities in all fields and at all levels.
Race as an analytic category referring to skin colour was used in scholarly works since at least the 18th century. In fact, the concept of racial groupings was first introduced in Carolus Linnaeu’ s Natural History in 1735 (Delgado). However, it was not until the emergence of what is known as the critical turn in the social sciences that scholars started taking note of the obnoxious impact of racism on social phenomena.
Critical race theory and critical theory
Critical race theory is informed by insights from critical theory, among other critical paradigms. Critical theory emerged during the first half of the 20th century and is especially associated with the Frankfurt School whose founding forefathers include Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Jurgen Habermas, and more (Bronner, 2011).
Critical theorists took it upon themselves to transform society and liberate the individual from the yoke of capitalistic and oppressive regimes and ideologies that, in their eyes, turned the human being into a cog in the machine and cast the entire humanity into a vicious circle of violence and barbarism (Bronner, 2011).
The critical race theory movement is therefore based on theoretical insights from critical theory. This movement encompasses a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.
The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self- interest, and emotions and the unconscious (Delgado).
Basic principles of critical race theory
While they might hold different worldviews on race-based issues, critical race theory scholars tend to agree upon a number of tenets which they consider as basic principles underlying the concept of critical race theory. These include:
1. Race is an analytic category because race, as Ladson-Billing and Tate stated, “continues to be a significant factor in determining inequity in the United States.
2. Race is a social construct and not a biological one. As a social construct, race is not biologically determined. There is no correlation between one’s skin colour and their degree of intelligence, ingenuity, economic or social status (as biogenetics tried for centuries to convince us). Race is an abstract conception constructed through an ideological belief in racial hierarchy among people. Race, is therefore, ‘a creation of society’ and not a biological given.
3. For critical race theorists, racism is not an individual act performed perfunctorily by a bigot towards a person from a racial minority group. It is rather an institutional problem. As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw stated, critical race theorists are mainly concerned with systematic and institutionalized racism. So the problem, as Mari Matsuda contended, is not bad people, rather it is “a system that reproduces bad outcomes.”
4. Rejection of colorblindedness. Racial color blindness promotes the idea that society has moved beyond the concept of race (post-race era) and that “the color of one’s skin does not matter in today’s society” (Neville, et al).
Critical race theorists and sociologists reject the ideology of colorblindedness because it “denies the negative racial experiences of people of color, rejects their heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.” Given that race topics are not always easy to discuss, the notion of color blindness, as Asare explains, is often used as a way to “disengage from conversations of race and racism entirely.”
Critical race and education
Critical race scholars in the field of education argue that racism is inherent in the institutional structure of the educational system and functions to maintain and propagate what Ladson-Billings and William Tate called ‘school inequity‘, a state in which schooling experiences of white students (especially middle class students) are favourable to those of African American and Latino students.
Educational critics deconstruct these racist structures within the education system and expose the academic inequities they create. For them, race is an important analytic tool in the analysis of educational inequality.
Critical race theory has been used to examine and address a range of issues related to racism in education. This includes:
1. Racial disparities in student achievement, school discipline, access to higher education and teacher quality.
2. The role of school accountability policies in perpetuating racial inequities.
3. The effects of racially biased testing and assessment.
4. The effects of racial identity development on student learning.
5. How race impacts school climate, culture and curricula.
6. The role of politics in education reform efforts that address racial inequities in schools, and many more.
Why critical race theory is important in education?
As an analytic framework, critical race theory can help teachers, educators, pedagoges, and parents to identify and understand the ways in which racialized systems of power contribute to educational inequality. Such understanding is key to building more equitable schools that serve all students and that further social justice in education.
Through the use of critical race theory, educational practitioners can begin to identify and address racism within their institutions and work towards a more equitable future. Only by understanding how racial power operates will we be able to make meaningful change in our schools and create more just learning environments for all students.
Richard Delgado, & Jean Stefancic. (2017). Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) : An Introduction: Vol. Third edition. NYU Press.
Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education [Edward Taylor, David Gillborn & Gloria Ladson- Billings eds., 2d ed. 2015.
Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate. Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education. Chapter in the book Critical Race Theory in Education).