The Origins and Evolution of Critical Race Theory in Universities
by Andrew Sansone
Essay originally from Counterweight.
Whether you’re scrolling through Twitter, listening to your favourite podcast, or sitting on Zoom for a university class, discussions surrounding race can be found everywhere. Oftentimes these are important conversations to have. Racism, although not nearly as prevalent as it once was, still remains an ugly blemish on Western civilization, a blemish most are interested in erasing for good. So, as an open-minded, sympathetic person, you believe that discussing the issues around racial discrimination is an honourable endeavour in which we should all participate.
But perhaps, like many others, you have started to grow sceptical of some of the arguments being espoused during these conversations around race. Maybe you’re beginning to question the pretty extreme ideas that are being expressed.
You’re not sure where all of these radical views on race and racism have come from, but you do notice a commonality between everyone advocating for them: they all subscribe to something called “Critical Race Theory”.
What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)? I mean, what is it really? You may have some idea based on what you’ve heard here and there, but perhaps you’re not entirely sure of its core tenets. Alternatively, it could be that you are aware of the principles of CRT, but you don’t know much about where it came from. To many, it seems that this theory — which, in reality, is much more akin to an ideology — sprouted out from nowhere. However, an evaluation of Critical Race Theory’s evolution demonstrates that this ideology is nothing new, and has slowly been infecting our universities over the last few decades.
Critical Race Theory’s Predecessor
To gain a true understanding of the origins of Critical Race Theory, it is important to understand that it evolved from an area of academia known as Critical Legal Studies (CLS), which came to prominence in the post-civil rights era of the early 1970s.
Although CLS would not be formally founded until 1977 at a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference, the 1971 appointment of Harvard University’s first tenured black professor, Derrick Bell, was an instrumental moment in the development of CLS. Bell, a fundamental figure in the creation of Critical Race Theory, used “storytelling and a more subjective, personal voice” in his lectures to discuss and critique how the law shaped the lives of racial minorities.
Bell’s reliance on subjectivity and anecdotal evidence, as opposed to the objectivity and empiricism which is commonplace within academia, is a theme that remains constant throughout Critical Race Theory. Rather than testing the theory’s claims through data analysis, CRT scholars, and CLS scholars before them, prefer to focus on the “lived experiences” (a popular CRT trope) of black and brown Americans.
Throughout the 1970s, Bell’s method of evaluating the law grew in popularity. Increasingly more academics adopted this approach in order to criticize American legal institutions and shaped their legal ideology by borrowing from an array of radical thinkers, including Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Karl Marx. Judging by this cast of characters that inspired Critical Legal Scholars, it should be no surprise that many of them have described CLS as “a critique of objectivism, meritocracy and the prevailing liberal vision.”
The importance of this point cannot be overemphasized. Critical Race Theory’s predecessor, Critical Legal Studies, is identified by its own scholars as a critique of liberalism and its fundamental principles. The abandonment of liberalism—the foundation of our democracies which has emancipated countless individuals, ensured the protection of their inalienable rights, and given them the ability to pursue happiness—is not a small part of CLS and CRT, then. Quite the contrary, it’s a selling point of this ideology. So, how did such an illiberal movement spread throughout our universities?
Critical Legal Studies’ Transformation
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, individuals who had self-identified as “activist professors” (certainly a red flag) began to expand the application of CLS into areas of academia beyond law classes. These activists started introducing its tenets into sociology, theology, and political science, which only increased its following.
This growth coincided with the publishing of Derrick Bell’s 1980 article in the Harvard Law Review, which is widely considered an essential text in CRT’s expansion. Bell suggested in the article that the decision of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended segregation in U.S public schools, was not decided for the interests of black and brown Americans; rather, the case was decided in order to serve the interests of white elites. This criticism is the foundation of one of Critical Race Theory’s key principles, which Bell called “interest convergence”.
The notion of “interest convergence” asserts that efforts to achieve progress towards racial equality are only possible when the interests of black and brown Americans converge with the interests of white Americans. Therefore, any effort by white Americans to combat racism, such as attending a Black Lives Matter protest, is not motivated by a genuine desire to help people of colour, but rather, must be inspired by selfish aspirations to advance their own white, racist agenda.
It doesn’t take someone with a PhD in psychology to see why this is a reprehensible notion. The message this sends to the students learning CRT is a troubling one: genuine progress towards racial equality is unattainable unless it serves to benefit white elites, and even when white people try to advance racial equality, they are only acting out of racist intent. More plainly, it tells white students they are racist regardless of their efforts to combat racism, and it tells black students that they need white people in order to enact change. Quite a far cry from the positive messages of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.
The next vital moment in CRT’s evolution was when Bell resigned from Harvard to become the dean of the University of Oregon Law School in 1981. After Bell resigned, a well-respected white civil-rights scholar named Jack Greenberg was chosen by Harvard to teach Bell’s class on race. Despite the class having a majority white enrollment, the few black students in the class complained to the school administration, demanding that the school replace Greenberg with a black professor to teach the course.
Harvard stood its ground and refused to oust Greenberg in favour of a professor of color. The black students then boycotted the class and organized to have an alternative class to teach Bell’s course. The boycott was organized by another integral CRT scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw is most famously known for coining the term “intersectionality”, which is the notion that people who belong to multiple marginalized groups suffer more discrimination due to their multiple identities. However, at a workshop she organized for the Harvard students in 1981, she was also the one to declare that Critical Legal Studies and the works associated with Bell’s original teachings would go by a new name: “Critical Race Theory”.
Critical Race Theory Expands
After the official creation of Critical Race Theory, it only continued to grow in popularity in the different areas of academia over the 1980s and 1990s. Two schools of thought developed amongst CRT’s scholars: “idealists” and “realists”.
Idealists believe that racism is manifested through images, words, attitudes, and social teachings within society. Therefore, racism can be dismantled by changing these elements within our world, so that the prevalence of ideas that suggest certain groups are superior or inferior to others based on their race is diminished. This perspective seems to be a rational one, so where’s the problem?
The problem lies in the fact that this school of thought is not the dominant one amongst Critical Race Theorists. The more prominent line of thinking comes from the “realists”. Realists believe racism is a means of allocating status and privilege, which all members of society constantly participate in. They also emphasize the notion that racism is not aberrant or abnormal — no, they claim that racism is typical, and is entrenched in our civilization.
In other words, racism is not an ugly blemish on our society that we can combat together. The dominant group in CRT claims that racism is perpetually embedded into all facets of the Western world, established within racial hierarchies that have been created and shaped over hundreds of years. This approach to CRT greatly outpaced the idealist school of thought and has essentially rendered the idealists a negligible faction within CRT.
Critical Race Theory experienced another milestone in 1988, when Crenshaw’s article in the Harvard Law Review criticized equal process for black and white Americans and expressed that it was “illogical” to treat members of different groups the same when some groups were treated unfairly historically.
This is no exaggeration: Kimberlé Crenshaw claimed that people should be treated differently in a court of law based on the colour of their skin, because of historical differences. This is starkly illiberal and contradicts the rule of law which is the bedrock of our civilization. It is even more concerning that Crenshaw also claimed that liberalism and its recognition of the human rights we all possess are inadequate to remedy racism because they endorse equality of opportunity, but ignore any assurance of “equality of results”. CRT openly advocates for the equality of results, the same disastrous principle which serves as the basis for communism, championed by some of history’s most hated despots, such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Kim Jong-il.
CRT Today and in the Future
The completely illiberal principle of equality of outcome espoused by Crenshaw and other Critical Race Scholars throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s continues today, advocated most famously by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who make exorbitant amounts of money off of their ideology-ridden books such as How to Be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility, respectively. Diangelo also profits from the delivery of unscientific subconscious bias training, such as teaching Coca-Cola employees to “try to be less white” to the tune of thousands of dollars.
At the moment these words are being written, over 200 colleges and universities across all fifty of the United States are teaching CRT in one form or another. The number of U.S public schools teaching the content is uncertain, but CRT is increasingly appearing in K-12 education across the country.
This should have us all worried. However, courageous individuals are starting to fight back. More faculty members at universities and teachers in public school boards are combatting the toxic CRT epidemic that has plagued our education system. People like Jodie Shaw, Aaron Kindsvatter, and teachers in Loudoun County, Virginia are speaking out against the teaching of CRT in our schools. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis even came out recently and said that Florida would not be teaching Critical Race Theory in its schools.
This is uplifting news, but the war is certainly not won. Critical Race Theory will only be expunged from educational systems if more people have the courage to stand up against it, and express that it is not something we want to teach our children. It is absolutely necessary that we educate our youth about racism and how we must eradicate it in order to create a more just society. Racial equality is an endeavour that we should all seek to achieve, for the sake of all humanity and future generations. However, it is clear that Critical Race Theory is not suitable for tackling this problem, and we should stop its spread before it becomes any larger — and any more dangerous — than it already is.
Andrew Sansone is a freelance writer interested in politics, crime and culture. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AndrewSansone15