CARJ Briefing on Critical Race Theory (CRT)
Critical Race Theory began to emerge in the USA during the 1970s in the work of Derrick Bell and others who felt that the progress gained by the Civil Rights Movement had stalled and in some cases was being rolled back.
The first meeting of the CRT Movement was in 1989. The meeting included 24 Scholars of colour, and after that meeting the movement continued to develop, drawing on feminism, critical legal studies, the civil rights tradition and other sources. The movement came to the UK around 2002..
The following is a brief introduction to CRT in the USA and the UK.
Critical Race Theory in the USA
Derrick Bell and the Origins of Critical Race Theory
Derrick Bell (1930 – 2011) is known as the Father of Critical Race Theory. Bell was born in 1930 and grew up in a black neighbourhood of Pittsburgh. He graduated from university in 1952, served two years in the Air Force and earned a law degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1957.
From 1960 – 1966 Bell worked on the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. During his years with the Fund, Bell worked on some three hundred school desegregation cases across the southern states.
Bell joined the Harvard Law faculty in the fall of 1969. A few years later, he obtained tenure and became the first black law professor at Harvard Law School.
In 1980, he was offered the position as Dean of the University of Oregon Law School. He accepted the offer and stayed there for five years. Bell returned to Harvard in 1986 and resumed his teaching, writing and advocacy on racial issues.
From 1993, Bell taught at New York University Law School. That was a productive time for him. He produced nearly a book a year.
Bell is critical of the standard version of American history as it is commonly understood. Where some might see steady progress towards equality and racial justice, Bell sees occasional symbolic advances followed by retrenchment.
This can be seen in Bell’s discussion of the history of a number of symbolic events –
eg the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision: Brown v the Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. In all of these, Bell explored the compromises that had been made in the wording of these key documents and in their implementation.
Bell saw storytelling as an important means by which people could be invited to pause and reflect on American history and the historical struggle for equality. The Chronicle of the Constitutional Contradiction is one example of the many fictional Chronicles that Bell included in his writing. In this Chronicle Geneva, a fictional character, is time-travelled back to the time and place of the Constitutional Convention where she challenges the founding fathers over why they are compromising and allowing slavery in the Constitution
Since CRT is often attacked for its rigid, anti-racist approach, it is interesting to note that Bell became known for his very participative pedagogical approach. In speaking of his pedagogy, he mentioned the approach of Paulo Freire – where students become teachers and teachers become learners.
The importance of religion in Bells writing became increasingly overt in books such as Gospel Choirs and Ethical Ambition. Bell spoke of his religious upbringing in the Protestant black church and his continuing religious faith. He describes himself as ‘Christian’, but his faith is not narrowly contained within traditional Christian doctrine.
Bell sees critical race theory as a serious attempt to change American culture, but changing culture must begin with a radical assessment of that culture. Radical assessment can involve illustration, anecdote, allegory and imagination, as well as analysis
For Bell, CRT is a body of scholarship, a majority of whose authors are both people of colour and committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalized in the law. CRT is often disruptive because its commitment to anti-racism goes well beyond civil rights, integration, affirmative action and other liberal measures.
The first meeting of the CRT Movement was a 1989 Critical Race Theory workshop in Madison, Wisconsin, attended by 24 scholars of colour. The Workshop was entitled “New Developments in Critical Race Theory”. The Workshop was spearheaded by Kimberle’ Crenshaw and organized by her, Neil Gotanda, and Stephanie Phillips. Among the participants were Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams and others. The following are very brief descriptions of a few participants who became important figures in the CRT Movement as it grew and developed from 1990.
Born in 1959 in Canton, Ohio, Kimberle’ Crenshaw Is an American lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher and scholar of ‘Critical Rights Theory’. She went on to write and speak about ‘inter-sectionality’. She is today a Professor at Columbia Law School and UCLA School of Law.
Richard Delgado is the son of a Mexican American immigrant. He is a legal scholar who taught at the University of Alabama. He edited The Derrick Bell Reader with his wife Jean Stefancic. He is interested in some of the different racial minorities in the United States, and in ‘how society racializes one group at the expense of another.’
Patricia Williams was born in Boston in 1951, received her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College in 1972, and went on to study at Harvard Law School, where she was research assistant to Derrick Bell. Soon after the 1989 Workshop, Patricia Williams published The Alchemy of Race and Rights, (Harvard University Press, 1991).
The Critical Race Theory Movement has continued to develop in the USA. In or around 2002, it came to the UK and has developed here over the past twenty years.
Critical Race Theory in the UK
Critical Race Theory (CRT) crossed the Atlantic, from the US to the UK, in the early 2000s, where it was educationalists, rather than lawyers, who were at the forefront of the Movement.
In November 2006, the first CRT International Seminar took place in the UK, at the Education and Social Research Institute (ESRI) at Manchester Metropolitan University. It sought to explore CRT’s value as an analytical tool for making sense of enduring inequalities across the globe.
In the following year, 2007, at The British Education Research Association (BERA), at least six CRT-focused papers were presented. In addition, there was a symposium entitled, “Guess Who’s Coming to BERA? Has Critical Race Theory Arrived in UK Education Research?”
This was a clear indication of a growing interest among educationalists in the CRT movement.
Since then, CRT has become a significant intellectual space for race-conscious scholars and activists, and it has made its way into public life and institutions in Britain.
Its practical influence in mission statements, professional development and human resource policies, has grown much more widely, especially since the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.
Many educationalists and activists find CRT to be a useful way for thinking about contemporary British inequalities. They are drawn towards CRT’s structural understanding of racism, which makes it possible to understand certain persistent inequalities, such as the overrepresentation of people from minority ethnic communities in underemployment, and the fact that nearly half of these households in the UK are living in poverty.
CRT views these inequalities as the result of structural factors in British society, including migration histories, housing segregation, unequal funding of schools, and the makeup of the economy.
CRT became headline news in October 2020, following a debate in the House of Commons, motioned by the Labour party, to discuss Black History Month. The focus was to look at structural racism in education and explore ways of decolonising the curriculum.
In the ensuing debate, Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister, stated emphatically that Critical Race Theory had to be rejected because it was “an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood, and their whiteness as oppression. And I want to be absolutely clear that this government stands against Critical Race Theory.”
Despite Government objections, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many factors that perpetuate the vulnerability of minority ethnic communities in the UK.
A report by the Runnymede Trust found that people from minority ethnic communities are more likely to work in ‘key worker’ jobs. They are also more than twice as likely to rely on public transport to get to work, and, despite on average living in smaller properties than white British people, are more than twice as likely to live in households of four or more people.
Consequently, members of minority ethnic communities are more likely to be exposed to the virus in getting to their jobs, and more likely to pass on the virus to household members, due to overcrowding.
CRT scholars examine carefully the complex causes that lead to and perpetuate such disparities, what actions might positively change the situation, and what actions might be ineffective or counterproductive.
CRT requires us to rethink how we approach topics like racism and anti-racism. If racism is not an issue of individuals, but of structures, then successful anti-racism is not about the conversion of individuals, but rather about the much more complex task of transforming how our economic, political, educational, and social institutions work.
This Briefing and the earlier Webinar video here meant to provide an informed introduction to Critical Race Theory in the USA and the UK. CARJ takes the view that CRT is an important movement of people and ideas that deserves to be heard. We can learn much from CRT. We may sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but it presents us with a critical point of view on the important but complex issues of Diversity, Equality and Racism. There are many voices in the CRT Movement. We may find ourselves closer to some than others, but we intend to continue this dialogue and hope it helps us to see the way forward to bring about a more just, more equal, more cooperative society.
The above Briefing draws mainly on the following publications:
Critical Race Theory: the Key Writings that Formed the Movement. Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil T Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas. Forward by Cornel West. New Press, 1995.
The Derrick Bell Reader. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. New York University Press. 2005
Critical Race Theory – An Introduction. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Dev Publishers and Distribution, 2017.
Over-Exposed and Under-Protected: The Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in Great Britain, The Runnymede Trust 2020