It’s likely you’ve heard the term “Critical Race Theory,” or “CRT” for short, more than a few times in the last couple of months, to say the least. CRT has been brought to the front stage of American culture after a summer of racial turmoil, and because former President Trump issued an executive order banning federal contracts from including the framework in diversity and inclusion training in September 2020. Though the theory has been in existence since the 80s, and its intellectual forefathers in existence since the 70s, we now see an extraordinary amount of interest, and controversy, surrounding CRT.
White Evangelical Christians have been at the center of much of the controversy around CRT. Despite this continued interest, there seems to be a woeful lack of understanding around what CRT even means, and why it may be incompatible with the Christian faith. In consideration of its immense popularity and controversy that The Exchange is hosting a series on Critical Race Theory, similar to other conversations on the book “White Fragility” and on PhDs. We have invited several authors of varying backgrounds and views on CRT to discuss its merits, flaws, and to offer their thoughts on how Christians should engage with the popular school of thought.
However, before we hear from our contributors, it is helpful to at least try and delineate a framework for understanding Critical Race Theory as a whole. Since its beginning, CRT has grown far beyond its original conceit, and co-opted by movements which might expand, or simply not align with, its original tenets. CRT is vast, at times convoluted, and I cannot hope to fully explain it in a 1,000-word article today. Furthermore, it may be helpful to keep in mind that this is a deliberately charitable explanation of CRT. This particular article is meant to explain instead of analyze, but perhaps most importantly remember, it is not meant to vilify. With these considerations in mind, let’s begin our brief overview of Critical Race Theory.
Tracing the Origins of CRT
The term “Critical Race Theory” is formally credited to scholar and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, yet the movement began many years before then. American lawyer and professor Derrick Bell is commonly known as the father of Critical Race Theory, with many of its core tenets being found in his celebrate work Race, Racism & American Law, which was published during his tenure at Harvard Law School. Though Bell is known as the father, CRT was developed by many other scholars as well, including Crenshaw, and others like Cheryl Harris, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, Neil Gotanda, Mari Matsuda, and more. With this many founding figures, it is no wonder that CRT is often hard to define.
It is important to recognize that CRT was created in and by legal academia, more specifically as a continuation of Critical Legal Studies (CLS). As defined by the American Bar Association, CLS argued that law was neither objective nor apolitical. The laws and legal system of a society are key in shaping the society as a whole, for better or for worse. Critical race theorists recognized that this core ideal is particularly relevant to the creation and maintenance of an unjust, racialized legal system. CLS and CRT scholars differ in their recognition of the reproduction of racism through law, and also because CRT scholars believe that the law can actually be used to ratify these injustices.
CRT has been defined many different ways by many different people, and there’s a high chance that our contributors will have varying definitions on what CRT is as well. Scholars and laypeople alike have used this term with reckless abandon, resulting in quite the mess of definitions. For this reason, I am including the iterations of several different authors as we define CRT today. Interestingly, Crenshaw herself defines CRT as a verb, not a noun. It is not a static thought, but an ever-evolving practice of critiquing how race and racism is perpetuated by our legal system and other institutions. The malleable nature of CRT is also a large part of the reason it is so difficult to define. CRT can’t really be labeled as one particular theory, but more as a movement.
For those who are not satisfied with this answer, you may find an examination of its core tenets as an easier way of understanding. Dr. Nathan Cartagena, professor at Wheaton College, defines CRT as “a movement aimed at providing an antiracist understanding of the relationships between ‘race’ and law.” According to Cartagena, critical race theorists, at their most generalized, are united by two shared tenets and five common conclusions. The first interest is to understand how white supremacy has been created and maintained in the U.S. The second interest is that CRT scholars are not just interested in understanding the functions of racism, but actually in changing these injustices.
The five common conclusions are more far-reaching. First, CRT scholars reject the idea that legal scholarship in particular can or should be objective, because humans themselves aren’t objective. Similarly, the second conclusion is that because of the subjectivity of scholarship, the formal production of knowledge in scholarship is inherently political. Third, our U.S. history of law should promote a dissatisfaction with the civil rights discourse we’ve had thus far, because we’ve settled for minor wins instead of reconstruction. Fourth, these minor, perceived “wins” for racial justice actually led to the reconceptualization of racism into de facto racism and the rise of the “colorblind” mentality, which swept race issues under the rug instead of actually solving them. Finally, this reconceptualization of racism encouraged “social forgetting” or rewriting of history that paints a meritocracy as the solution to racism, relying on exceptionalism to prove racism is gone instead of asking why it was so difficult for that person to reach success in the first place. As a reminder, please read his three part series on the subject here. Cartagena is also writing a book on the subject with IVP Academic. In the meantime, you may read more of his thoughts on CRT on his blog.
These brief definitions only give a birds’ eye view all that CRT is, and does not even begin to address the various intersections which CRT scholars study (like gender and sexuality), though I hope that it will provide helpful context as we embark on our conversation here on The Exchange. For those who are interested in learning more about CRT, I highly encourage you to explore the following resources:
- “What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory” by Dr. Nathan Cartagena: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3
- “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory”, from the American Bar Association
- Race, Racism and Law by Derrick Bell
- Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement by Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, and Thomas
- Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Delgado and Stefancic