What is Critical Race Theory?

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In the UK, until recently, the term “critical race theory” (CRT) had never been mentioned in the House of Commons chamber. On 20 October 2020, however, it was of such importance that the government declared itself “unequivocally against” the concept. In this article, we try to understand how CRT emerged, the support for and against it in the UK and the US, and why it has gained so much attention recently.

We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,‘ warned the UK equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, at the end of a six-hour debate to mark Black History Month. This was a staggering statement from the UK government, not least as the minister who delivered it was, perhaps predictably, a Black woman.

With recent incidents of police violence against Black people in the US generating global concern because of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, legal scholars and activists had in fact been urging greater discussion centred on critical race theory to understand the situation. Such incidents of violence against Black people sparked protests and cultural outrage across the West. The result was a polarised conversation.

Speaking at a recent conference held by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative political advocacy non-profit organization in the United States, US Senator Ted Cruz compared CRT to the Ku Klux Klan however, saying the curriculum it proposes is ‘every bit as racist’ as the white supremacist hate group. ‘Critical race theory,’ the senator said, ‘says every white person is a racist.’ However, this is inaccurate. 

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With the aim of tackling prejudice, CRT explains and challenges racial discrimination throughout the world, addressing issues such as racism, post-colonialism, and systems of apartheid. For scholars such as Professor Mari Matsuda, a critical race theorist at the University of Hawaii, CRT is the roadmap for change that Western countries truly need to deploy: ‘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’. British academic Kojo Koram further notes that the term has become a shorthand in US politics for an approach to race relations that asks white people to consider their structural advantage within a system that has, historically, been profoundly racist.

In the UK, despite claims to be in a post-racial era, equality laws are under threat, and evidence of racism persists in life and work, according to EmbraceRace(EmbRace), the London School of Economics’ Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff network, and Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, LSE’s developmental centre of education.

Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell (C) walking w. a group of law students on campus after taking a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to protest the law school's practice of not granting tenure to minority women professors.  (Photo by Steve Liss//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell (C), founder of Critical Race Theory, walking w. a group of law students on campus after taking a voluntary unpaid leave of absence to protest the law school’s practice of not granting tenure to minority women professors. (Photo by Steve Liss//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

However, a recent study published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities described Britain as a model for race relations and found there to be ‘no institutional racism in the country. ‘Put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities’, the report said. This was met with intense backlash as critics argued that racism and discrimination against Black people is imbedded in British culture and institutions. For many people, the combination of such a report and the strong opposition to the open conversations that CRT could provide is proof that all is not as the report suggests. 

To understand CRT a little more let’s dive into its origins, how it has developed and the criticisms that people have had about it at various times.

Critical Race Theory originated as a field of legal study in the 1970s. It was spearheaded by Derrick Bell, Harvard University’s first permanently-appointed Black law professor. He worked to address what he saw as shortcomings in understanding how discrimination and inequity are perpetuated in the law by exploring the legal codification of racism in America. He argued that legal inequities shape outcomes in society, the economy, culture, and politics. 

By the early 2000s, the term CRT began to gain common currency as more scholars joined the conversation. Bell was considered a pioneer: “he broke open the possibility of bringing Black consciousness to the premiere intellectual battlefields of our profession,” said Professor Matsuda. 

After Professor Bell left Harvard Law School, the truth of his own theories were plain to see: in 1983, the New York Times reported the school had 60 tenured law professors. All but one were men, and only one was Black. A group of students began protesting the faculty’s lack of diversity. 

‘It was our job to rethink what these institutions were teaching us and to assist those institutions in transforming them into truly egalitarian spaces,’ said Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the student activists who has now become a prominent legal professor and central figure in the development of CRT and intersectionality. 

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Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, Law Professor at Colombia University

In a recent interview, Professor Crenshaw discussed the importance of CRT stating, ‘Critical Race Theory is more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because we believe in the promises of equality. And we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality.’

However, it is important to note that CRT does not offer a single worldview – the people who study it disagree on some of the finer points. As Professor Crenshaw put it, ‘CRT is more a verb than a noun’.

While critical race theorists do not all share the same beliefs, the basic tenets of CRT include that racism and disparate racial outcomes are the result of complex, changing, and often subtle social and institutional dynamics, rather than explicit and intentional prejudices in individuals. 

For supporters of CRT, it is an important framework for understanding the way systemic racism can perpetuate discrimination and disadvantage. For opponents, it’s a subversive plan to indoctrinate young Americans to reject their country and its history.

What is clear is that a nuanced way forward is needed. 

In her book, ‘On Being Included’, feminist writer, independent scholar on race studies, and former Professor at the Goldsmiths University, Sara Ahmed argues that diversity initiatives are not enough. Instead companies and institutions should have to acknowledge the systemic, institutional, and residual effects of racism and white supremacy embedded in the country and as a result, their corporation.

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Sara argues that companies and institutions would also have to put their money where their mouths are. This means investing in hiring and retaining a diverse staff, promoting radical racialized people to senior leadership positions, making working conditions better for their diverse staff through safer corporate cultures, fair pay, showing respect with initiatives like affordable childcare and paid sick days, and supporting diverse brands and designers and many others. Importantly, Ahmed argues that all of this would need to be measured and calculated to ensure progress was being made, instead of vague promises being made with no material evidence.

Over recent times, management of companies and institutions, in response to the outcry of racism and discrimination of Black people in the workplace, have implemented Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) training for their employees. However, this training has seen little or no result. Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, Dr. Frank Dobbin, explains this by saying: “You can’t train away bias. Biases are mostly subconscious, and exposure to training can sometimes activate them rather than help to suppress them.”

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Steve Biko, Revolutionary and Founder of the Black Consciousness Movement

In a recent article, Dobbin, who has been studying diversity training for years alongside joining a host of other academics who have written over a thousand papers on the subject, reiterated that most D&I training simply doesn’t work.

Diversity and inclusion training usually focuses on government and company policies that discriminate against people of colour, especially Black people. I would argue that for an organisation to ensure that they are racism-free and fully inclusive, it would be vital to approach issues of racism and discrimination against Black people by first consulting the people in question, the Black people, and engaging them on how best to go about this. Black thinkers on Black Consciousness such as Edward Blyden, Steve Biko, and Frantz Fanon have spelt out and suggested how some of these issues should be tackled or addressed. Exposure to these great Black minds will enlighten and conscientise corporations and institutions to ensure that all people of colour, especially Black people, feel ‘included’ in their respective organisations.

What is clear about CRT is that it refuses to accept that we can simply “move on” from the racialisations of the past and present. In a way, CRT is a call for unpacking, digging up, and digging out legacies of a lamentable past – it is a call for greater consciousness in out society.