In the last post, I introduced the concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and raised questions about where it came from and how it was born. This post answers these questions by explaining the origins of CRT and introducing some of its key figures. The following account is drawn primarily from my reading of Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. This book is written by Critical Race Theorists, and I lean on it in an effort to represent CRT on its own terms. I also rely on Andrew Hartman’s excellent book, A War for the Soul of America, for some important historical context.
Origins of Critical Race Theory
Where did CRT come from? Critical Race Theory was not born out of a university department. It did not emerge from a political party, think tank, or policy center. It was a natural reaction to the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While overt forms of racism such as discriminatory hiring practices and voter intimidation had been made illegal thanks to civil rights activists, new forms of racism emerged that required new forms of resistance and new forms of legal defense. For instance, where the legal response was obvious in the cases of states or municipalities that sought to bar people of color from the voting booth on the basis of race, how could lawyers, activists, scholars, and politicians address the disparities in incarceration between white men and black men? How could they fight laws that disproportionately affected people of color when the laws themselves said nothing explicit about race? The main channel of CRT thus lies in law, with tributaries stretching into political activism, community organizing, and other academic disciplines such as history, sociology, and literary theory.
As a range of people from different professions and academic disciplines began to address these issues and trace their histories, a common cause led to a workshop in 1989 in Madison, Wisconsin on something called “critical race theory.” The birth of CRT was motivated by many different factors, but the theme that seemed to underlie them all was the concept of colorblindness. Colorblindness rejects the idea that race should ever be taken into account. If you’ve ever heard someone say something like “I don’t see race,” or “I don’t believe in any race except the human race,” then you’ve experienced a colorblind theory of race.
Proponents of CRT saw (and continue to see) colorblindness as the most powerful enemy of racial justice because of its refusal to recognize how race plays a significant role in both the past and the present. In response to those who would say we should be colorblind, activists sought to expose the inherent racism in our political thinking. Legal scholars set out to reveal how colorblind laws actually depended on age-old prejudices. Historians, sociologists, and literary theorists traced the slow but steady submersion of racism from the blatant forms of the past to the more covert forms of the present in major events, cultural phenomena, and literature. CRT came into being as a loose confederation of activists and scholars found common cause in their efforts to demonstrate how a society supposedly committed to colorblindness was, in fact, deeply dependent on and fractured by color.
Key Figures of Critical Race Theory
Because CRT was born out of questions about the law and the field of legal studies, most of its key figures tend to work and study in the field of law. Perhaps the most influential early figure in CRT was Derrick Bell, who taught at Harvard, the University of Oregon, Stanford University, and New York University. According to Andrew Hartman, Bell’s appointment at Harvard represented progress, but his long stint there as the sole tenured minority came to seem like tokenism rather than a true breakthrough. His frustration led to the development of a key belief of CRT called “interest convergence,” which I will take up in one of the next posts on the core values of CRT.
Neil Gotanda, another law professor, has written extensively on the concept of color blindness. Two other important figures, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, have written an introduction to CRT that is fairly accessible to nonspecialists, and which I’m drawing on in this post. Angela Harris is a professor of law who studied at the University of Chicago in the 1980s when CRT first took off. In her foreword to the most recent edition of Delgado and Stefancic’s book, she offers her own narrative of CRT’s inception. If you want to read a short and accessible overview of the origins and key figures of CRT, I recommend chapter four of Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America entitled “The Color Line.” Delgado and Stefancic also offer a brief history, as well as some of the main objections to CRT in their introductory volume.
Now that we know something about CRT’s origins and prominent voices, in the next post we’ll turn our attention to its core beliefs.