Critical race theory refers to a broad social scientific approach to the study of race, racism, and society. Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell popularised the notion of critical race theory within the subfield of critical legal studies in the 1980s. Both Crenshaw and Bell made reference to the fact that despite the civil rights legislation in the US, the social and economic conditions of African Americans had not improved. Through the concept of ‘interest convergence’, Bell even claimed that the reason why civil rights legislation passed in the first place was largely because it served the interests of America’s white elite.
In their seminal book, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Delgado and Stefencic introduced critical race theory to the social sciences more broadly. Delgado and Stefencic claimed that critical race theory is based around the following premises:
- Racism is ordinary, not aberrational.
- Racism serves important purposes.
- Race and races are products of social thought and relations [and] categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient’ (Delgado and Stefencic, 2001: 7).
- Intersectionality: ‘No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity […] everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties and allegiances’ (Delgado and Stefencic, 2001: 9).
More recently, Bonilla-Silva (2015: 74) has redeveloped the tenets of CRT to the following:
- Racism is ‘embedded in the structure of society’.
- Racism has a ‘material foundation’.
- Racism changes and develops over different times.
- Racism is often ascribed a degree of rationality.
- Racism has a contemporary basis.
Central to critical race theory is that racism is much more than individual prejudice and bigotry; rather, racism is a systemic feature of social structure. Given that racism is so deeply embedded in social structure, Bonilla-Silva argues that racial inequality often gets misrecognised as a natural process rather than a by-product of a system of racial domination (what he refers to as a ‘racialised social system’). One example Bonilla-Silva uses is the issue of white segregation in the US: while they remain one of the most socially segregated groups in the country; rather than explaining this through processes such as housing discrimination and whites seeking to ‘flock together’, this reality is often explained away through a colourblind logic such that ‘like-minded people naturally gravitate towards each other’.
Critical race theory offers an invaluable set of literature for scholars of race and society to engage with. As a social scientific approach, it encourages us to appreciate how races are constructed into hierarchies, with societal resources distributed unequally across this hierarchy. In a time often declared as ‘post-racial’, critical race theory helps remind us that race is omnirelevant – it may not always be the single determining factor of a given inequality, nor even the most important one, but ‘race’ is fundamental to understanding current regimes of inequality, and that analyses of inequality and its inverse (privilege and domination), are incomplete without a systematic discussion of race.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2015) ‘More than Prejudice: Restatement, Reflections, and New Directions in Critical Race Theory’, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1(1), pp. 73–87.
Crenshaw, K. W. (2011) ‘Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking back to Move Forward’, Connecticut Law Review, 43(5), pp. 1253–1354.
Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J. (2001) Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press
Gillborn, D. (2006) ‘Critical race theory beyond North America: Toward a trans-Atlantic dialogue on racism and antiracism in educational theory and praxis’, in Dixson, A. D. and Rosseau, C. K. (eds) Critical race theory: All God’s children got a song. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 241–265.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2013) ‘Critical Race Theory – What it is Not!’, in Lynn, M. and Dixson, A. D. (eds) The Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. London: Routledge, pp. 34–47.
How does critical race theory conceptualise racism?
Is critical race theory a coherent theoretical enterprise?
Is critical race theory U.S.-centric?
Submitted by Ali Meghji