What is Critical Race Theory?


The late Harvard law professor Derrick Bell joins the list of radical bogeyman influences on Barack Obama – alongside the activist and educator Bill Ayers and the Chicago community leader and pastor Jeremiah Wright. Bell, one of the originators of "critical race theory," has been recently "discovered" by conservative commentators, who claim that Bell was a “radical” and a “racist” – and a dangerous influence on the young, naïve then-student Obama.

Riled-up conservatives got some things right: Bell was, undoubtedly, a radical in that he dared to challenge the prevailing idea and notions of society on which this society was based. And he did have an influence – as he did on many of his students – on Obama, possibly for the better. The issue where his detractors stumble is the notion of "critical race theory," lumping in a genuinely progressive view on society with radical, violent racism. Bell never advocated for a violent overthrow of society; he only asked that society consider what prejudices it secretly carried.

Critical race theory assumes that the causes of racial inequality were not necessarily the products of institutionalized legal oppression alone – from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation – but were also perpetuated by social institutions, attitudes, and ideologies. Dismantling legal racism was only the first step in a long road to equality.

Tearing down formal racial barriers was one thing. That was the goal of the Civil Rights movement, requiring the bravery, selflessness, and strength of millions to shame and discredit racism’s legal protection. It took a tremendous, coordinated national effort – and finally, in some cases, the long arm of the federal government and the military – to shatter segregation but this was done at little cost – except maybe a blow to inflated egos and pride – to dominant white society. Political, economic, and social power was still – overwhelmingly and disproportionately – in the hands of the white middle- and upper-classes.

The next step – and what critical race theory prescribes – is to make progress in establishing justice for all, ensuring – in some distant future – that equal opportunities are truly available regardless of background. This is where things get rather tricky and where critical race theory made its most important criticisms. Racism wasn’t embedded in any single legal structure – it wasn’t just prevalent in slavery, or segregation, or in always and only electing a white president – it had, and has, deep-seated roots in perceptions, ideas, and society. In other words, it was institutional. Race, and issues about race, pervades practically all interracial interactions, distorting – consciously and subconsciously – attitudes and policies.

This idea isn’t so far-fetched or outdated as critics of Bell’s work might make it out to be. It wasn’t so long ago that the dominant narrative on welfare depicted a sub-class of government-dependent African-Americans. Perceptions of criminality – and attendant conviction and incarceration rates – also paint a heavily racially-skewed picture in contemporary America. Immigration laws in certain Southern states may no longer explicitly mention race but instead rely on other racially-suggestive criteria to demand “one’s papers."

And race still divides society at large. In a supposedly-national economic downturn, African Americans still suffer the highest unemployment rate. 

So when conservatives decry Bell as a radical, it’s true. He was radical in the sense that he wanted society to truly understand how race and racism had shaped America – and in that way, he wanted to revolutionize society. He saw the fight for justice as an ongoing struggle, requiring constant evaluation and reevaluation. The dismantling of legal structures of oppression was not enough – and never sufficient in of itself. Justice, instead, required a constant struggle and vigilance – and courage, always courage to see what was needed and what could be done – to probe and analyze the deeper, underlying mechanisms of race.

And if Obama picked up that lesson, then it made him a better man and – possibly – a better president.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons