What Is Critical Race Theory?

What are the basics of CRT and where do Christians stand on the issue?

sign reading racism is a pandemic
(Photo: Jon Tyson/Unsplash)

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, has emerged as a hot topic after several states issued bans on the subject being taught in classrooms. Teachers and other critics insist CRT isn’t taught to young students, while those in academia say the anti-CRT movement is based on misinformation and lies.

What Are the Basics of Critical Race Theory?

One of the best sources for understanding the basics of CRT is probably the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (third edition, NYU Press, 2017). The book is written by husband-and-wife duo Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, who are both legal scholars. The book’s foreword was written by another legal scholar, Angela P. Harris. Critical Race Theory has emerged as perhaps the most popular or frequently purchased book on the subject.

Another popular book on the subject is Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (The New Press, 1996), which includes foundational essays and is edited by “principal founders and leading theoreticians.” Although this book has been a top pick for those with a sudden interest in understanding CRT, The Key Writings That Formed the Movement seems to temporarily be unavailable at many online retailers. It’s likely, however, that the publisher has a new printing planned for an updated edition of the book.

That being said, much of the following content on the basics of CRT are based on Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.

critical race theory an introduction book by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2017. NYU Press)

Delgado and Stefancic tells us, first off, that critical race theory is a movement involving “activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.”

While CRT is currently used to examine the interests of numerous minority groups (e.g., Latin Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ persons, and Muslims), the original concept first emerged in the 1970s among legal communities. They understood that despite the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in terms of protecting African American rights, racism still remained a factor in various sectors of American life.

In addition to the author Delgado, Derek Bell and Alan Freeman are named as being among this initial group. Bell, a law professor and civil rights activist who also identified as a Christian, is considered the movement’s “intellectual father figure.” The Critical Race Theory authors identify Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams as other notable early figures in the movement.

The core concepts of the original movement are that:

Racism is ordinary“the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country” and “is difficult to address or cure because it is not acknowledge”

Self-interests play a major part“Because racism advances the interest of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically) large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it.”

Race is a social construct“races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient”

Racial usefulness and stereotypes shift“the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market”

People have multiple identities – the concepts of intersectionality and antiessentialism suggest that everyone “has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”

People of color have unique knowledge on racism – because of their different experiences and histories with oppression, ethnic minorities “may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know.”

Again, this is a very basic overview of what critical race theory is. And, of course, when one begins to focus on how CRT has been adapted to speak to the experiences of different minority groups (Arab Americans, LGBTQ people, Black women, etc.), the framework becomes more convoluted.

What Is CRT in Simple Terms?

Understandably, many of the concepts undergirding critical race theory can be challenging, especially when academic jargon comes into play.

As a result, some of CRT’s proponents have offered the public what they think are simple definitions of critical race theory.

For example, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, credited with coining the term “intersectionality,” has offered that CRT is “an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”

In addition, Villanova University professor Dr. Glenn E. Bracey has told Faithfully Magazine that CRT is “a theoretical perspective born out of law schools in the late 1970s through the 1980s that looked at how race shapes the law, and how law shapes racial dynamics in society.”

Why Is Critical Race Theory Getting So Much Attention?

For the backstory on critical race theory’s sudden rise in fame, we excerpt a section from the “News With Nicola” podcast episode on CRT:

Republican lawmakers in at least 15 states have passed or are proposing laws that would ban Critical Race Theory and, in some cases, The New York Times “1619 Project” from school curricula.

These state bills echo an executive order former President Trump handed down in 2020 that called for “patriotic education” and another executive order that put limitations on diversity training for federal workers. By the way, President Biden has canceled both of those executive orders.

What these state bills are attempting to regulate, on paper anyway, is how educators talk about racism, sexism, and other social issues in light of the nation’s history. And it’s not just K-12 teachers being impacted; higher-ed instructors in several states are facing similar regulations.

Where did this sudden preoccupation with CRT come from? Why is history education getting so much attention in the political arena? Well, according to an article on the New Republic’s website, we can thank quote “an obscure documentarian” named Christopher Rufo for this witch hunt against Critical Race Theory.

According to the New Republic article: “Last September … 36-year-old … Christopher Rufo landed a slot on ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’ Knowing the president would be watching, he sounded the alarm about an ideology almost as obscure as he was: ‘Critical Race Theory.’ Rufo, who describes the theory as the notion that the United States was ‘founded on white supremacy and oppression,’ begged Donald Trump to take action. Critical Race Theory, he warned, had become ‘the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy.’ The next morning, Rufo got a call from Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff; just a few days later, the White House issued a bizarre memo instructing public agencies to root out the theory from government trainings.”

Rufo has reportedly “provided feedback on at least 10 of the Critical Race Theory bills moving through state legislatures.”

This close-up look at debates on CRT in Texas may also be helpful.

What Do Christians Think About CRT?

Faithfully Magazine has published quite a few articles on critical race theory, including ones reflecting the perspectives of different Christians.

More recently, we published a transcript of a July 2021 message by Pastor Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship church in Dallas, Texas. In his sermon, Evans provides definitions of CRT and systemic racism, and provides copious examples to illustrate his claims.

Although he acknowledges that some aspects of CRT are useful, Evans insists that the movement doesn’t offer meaningful solutions, especially where Christians are concerned. Evans makes the case for what he calls Kingdom Race Theory, which uses the Bible as a foundation for how followers of Jesus Christ should view and treat each other when it comes to matters of ethnic or racial partiality.

For example, Evans tells his listeners:

God is not colorblind, but He doesn’t want us to be blinded by color. He doesn’t want our hue to define our relationship. We are going to be different. We’re supposed to be different. But he says Christ is supposed to be all in all. So the issue are what are his rules, Kingdom rules that all of us also are supposed to abide by. And he says when you decide to do that, you become part of one new man. 

You can read more of Evans’s message, “The Truth About Critical Race Theory,” here.

Another article that may be helpful on making Christian sense of CRT is a set of articles by Wheaton College professor Dr. Nathan Luis Cartagena. In his essays, Cartagena calls on fellow Christians to be truthful about what CRT is and isn’t, and honestly assess the movement’s merits.

In his conclusion of part one of “What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory” Cartagena writes:

How should Christians respond to these common interests and conclusions? They should begin by recalling that Christ and the apostles call the Church to foster justice and mercy, giving special attention to the marginalized and oppressed (see Matthew 25; James 1). Because marginalization and oppression in pigmentocracies operate along racialized lines, Christians should share the common interests of critical race theorists.

And they should recognize that assessments of those scholar’s conclusions must be robust and nuanced. An endorsement or rejection of CRT requires examining a lot of U.S. history—especially U.S. legal history—political philosophy, sociology, and theology. And either require treating the varied positions tied to these conclusions.

You’d never know these requirements by reading Christians’ pithy rejections or shallow endorsements of CRT. We must do better. We must repent of our shoddy, unjust presentations of CRT. We must labor to understand and evaluate CRT in light of history, political philosophy, sociology, and theology and the movement’s internal diversity. This is what neighborly love demands.

Readers have the option of downloading the three-part series as a pdf booklet. Dr. Cartagena also participated in a live Q&A about CRT with Faithfully Magazine, which you can listen to on the publication’s Soundcloud page.

 

Finally, Dr. Bracey, whose nut-shell definition of CRT was shared above, is a Christian and sociologist who has used the theoretical framework in his research. When asked how he believes CRT can be useful for the church, he said:

So learning to see where our institutions … have a bias built into them that reproduces racial inequality is something that I think CRT can show the church, and that the church has an interest in learning, because the church is invested, or should be invested, in preventing exploitation and preventing inequality because we’re all made equally in the image of God.

As for the tenets of CRT and the tenets of Christianity, Bracey said there are things he believes they have in common:

First, the notion that … for Christians we’re made in the image of God. For Critical Race Theory, [it’s] the notion that race is socially constructed, meaning that we are not fundamentally different creatures. We are all one, that there’s…that our racial differences are a product of history, and not a product of our nature or of our creation. That’s one. Two, I think that they share, like I said before, an interest in preventing exploitation, right, that the church [has in common]. I don’t think you have to dig very far in the Bible to see prohibitions against exploiting your neighbor, exploiting foreigners, exploiting, you know, you could go on. And Critical Race Theory is also concerned about preventing exploitation. So whether that happens individually through prejudice or bigotry, or whether that happens institutionally, I think the church and CRT agree that that’s something that they want to prevent.

Bracey also challenged claims that CRT is Marxist. You can find his full comments here.

Conclusions

Critical Race Theory emerged a half century ago. It has been used by its original architects in academia and the legal sphere in an attempt to understand why, despite the enactment of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights laws of the mid-1960s, racial disparities adversely impacting the nation’s minority populations remain. Though laws have changed to protect people’s rights, the attitudes that allowed for disenfranchisement and white supremacy have not gone away and continue to society’s minority members on an institutional level.

One angle that this article does not spend a great deal of time on is the debate on whether CRT is being taught to young students — which educators deny, though there have been some noted exceptions. The uproar among parents, in predominantly Republican-led states, center on concerns about how students are being taught U.S. history and the role that racism played in the nation’s foundational years.

Some detractors who resent or fear the nation’s turn toward antiracism efforts and increasing calls for institutional changes have been using critical race theory as a bogeyman or an effigy. Any efforts aimed at calling for honest assessments of U.S. history and righting historical wrongs committed against racial minorities are being pushed under the “critical race theory” umbrella. This insidious fight against racial truth and reconciliation is being waged under the guise of a righteous campaign against CRT.

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