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The Noise Over Critical Race Theory: The Back-History, Part Two

By Dr. Josef Ben Levi

Presented by Omni-University

".. racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it."[1]

First and foremost, Critical Race Theory developed out of Critical Legal Studies that served as the intellectual, genealogical parent in which Critical Race Theory appears as a simple hybrid of the two. It is a catalyst for a practice of investigating the role of race and racism in society. It emerged from the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.

Professor Kimberle Crenshaw is credited with coining the term “CRT”. She notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It is an action verb, i.e., something that is done. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition because it is an evolving and malleable practice. It evaluates the means by which race- a social construct- and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers of society. "CRT" also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. "CRT" recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery and segregation, as well as the imposition of second-class citizenship, on Black Americans and other people of color, continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.

It is important to state -at the outset- that "CRT" has been taught at major law schools in the United States for several decades. The University of California Law School was the first to implement "CRT'' via its legal curriculum. Courses at Georgetown, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Evergreen College, Wabash College, Western Washington University- and many more- can also be found.

In 1980, former Harvard Law professor, now Ancestor, Derrick Bell, explored the very interesting concept of “interest convergence” in his analysis of the "Brown v. Board of Education, II" majority opinion."Interest convergence" stipulates that Black people achieve civil rights victories only when white and black interests converge. Essentially, this means that until Black people can agree on terms of interest that are established by white people, a power relationship will ensure the maintenance of White supremacy. Only when Whites perceive a benefit(s) to themselves can Black people receive any meaningful largess from society. This kind of interest convergence is not new as it can be studied in the relationship between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison which led to their parting of ways. Other examples were Martin Delaney and Frederick Douglass as well as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington whose ideological confrontations were challenges to the convergence of their interests even though the term had not come into fruition.

Segregated schooling is a particularly profound and timely demonstration of the persistence of systemic racism in education. For example, "Brown", i.e., Brown v Board of Education, is often couched in terms of American exceptionalism. But, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and other CRT originators in the field of education, recognize that "Brown" was the culmination of over a century of legal challenges to segregated schooling and second-class citizenship and far from a natural occurrence or inevitable result of racial progress.

To reiterate, Ancestor Derrick Bell, in "Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma", noted that the Fourteenth Amendment alone could not effectively promote racial equality for Black people where such a remedy threatened the superior social status of wealthy White people. Further, Bell noted that the decision in "Brown" was the way it was because of what he termed “interest convergence,” which is the recognition that the interests of Black people in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of white people.

Furthermore, there are terms associated with CRT such as “intersectionality”, the term coined by Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, that is considered synonymous with CRT. In fact, there may not be a word in American conservatism that is more hated right now than “intersectionality.” On the right, "intersectionality" is seen as the "new caste system” placing non-white, non-heterosexual people on top. To many conservatives, intersectionality translates as: “because you’re a minority, you get special standards, special treatment in the eyes of some." It promotes solipsism- a theory that the self is all that can be known to exist- at the personal level and division at the social level."

Of course, solipsism is at the foundation of Western notions of individualism. That conservative definition is at the heart of Western political philosophy. Intersectionality is this "really dangerous" concept which is often regarded as a "conspiracy theory of victimization."This is a highly unusual level of disdain for a word that, until several years ago, was a relatively obscure legal term outside academic circles.

“Intersectionality” has, in a sense, gone viral over the past half-decade, resulting in a backlash from the right. In contrast to Professor Crenshaw, there is Patricia Hill Collins, who has a different slant on “Intersectionality”. In "Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory" (2019), Patricia Hill Collins offers a set of analytical tools for those wishing to develop intersectionality's capability to theorize social inequality in ways that would facilitate social change. While intersectionality helps shed light on contemporary social issues, Collins notes that it has yet to reach its full potential as a critical social theory. She contends that for intersectionality to fully realize its power, its practitioners must critically reflect on its assumptions, epistemologies, and methods. She places intersectionality in dialogue with several theoretical traditions from the Frankfurt school to Black feminist thought to sharpen its definition, thereby providing a capacious interrogation into intersectionality's potential to reshape the world.

Where was the disdain so obvious and vitriolic about CRT and intersectionality in 1980 or 1989? Critical Race Theory certainly didn’t just fall from the sky over the last four or five years! There are many “talking-heads” across the media- social and otherwise- who are providing their own form of venom to a gullible audience whose willful naivete seems almost appalling. However, there is a bigger issue. The people who are attempting to challenge CRT have yet to quote any of the authorities on this subject. It could even be argued that none of them have even read a single sentence by a single CRT scholar on this subject. Nor have they, as far as I can tell, picketed and/or harassed anyone at any of the Law schools, previously mentioned, where CRT is taught. In its most explicit definition of its operation in education, Gloria Ladson-Billings uses Critical Race Theory to name and highlight the function of White supremacy through five tenets. Essentially, the CRT Project in education becomes the attempt to:

1. Name and discuss the pervasive, daily reality of racism in US society which serves to disadvantage people of color.

2. Expose and deconstruct seemingly ‘colorblind’ or ‘race neutral’ policies and practices which entrench the disparate treatment of non-White persons.

3. Legitimize and promote the voices and narrative of people of color as sources of critique of the dominant social order which purposely devalues them.

4. Revisit civil rights law and liberalism to address their inability to dismantle and expunge discriminatory socio-political relationships.

5. Change and improve challenges to race neutral and multicultural movements in education which have made White student behavior the norm (Ladson-Billings, 1998).

The question that should arise here is, how did the concepts listed above get so distorted in the minds of parents, particularly white parents, as the new "boogeyman"?

Well, as with all forms of propaganda, there must be an antagonist who knows how to manipulate very uninformed people to reinforce false conceptions and illusions that they have already stored deep in their subconscious. In this case, that antagonist appears to be a man named Christopher Rufo who helped incite an uproar over racism in education with dramatic and dodgy reporting. By extension, he converted his attack into a specific focus on Critical Race Theory and the ways in which it is going to negatively impact the orientation of young educable minds-especially young white educable minds.

In the summer of 2020, Christopher Rufo seemed to come out of nowhere, arriving on the scene, after a national uprising against racism, to lead the charge against the supposed excesses of anti-racism education, branding it all with a once-obscure academic term: Critical Race Theory. Armed with a prolific Twitter account and the backing of the Conservative Establishment, he brandished “scoops” about the widespread infiltration of the theory and eventually caught the attention of the Trump White House. In short order, he had transformed himself from a limited kind of "Twitter star'' to a bona fide conservative influencer. The proof lies offline in the new moral panic he helped instigate. Republican operatives, legislators, and commentators- all professing concern for young hearts and minds- claim that children are being taught to hate white people.

Though he refers to himself as an "investigative journalist", writing dramatically of whistleblowers and documents, Rufo often appears to be responsible for propagating false or misleading accounts and has arguably helped to incite a nationwide panic over the alleged presence of Critical Race Theory in public schools, the federal government, and the workplace.

In this context, Rufo’s role is clear. He takes Critical Race Theory as a concept, strips it of all meaning, and re-purposes it as a catchall for white grievances. “The goal,” he tweeted “is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” In an interview with the Washington Post, he said the tweet described an “obvious” approach: “If you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign."

Herein lie some of the answers to the questions raised at the outset; What is Critical Race Theory? and Why the Big Fuss Now?

"If you don't know, now you know." The Notorious B.I.G.

Blog Notes

[1] Cobb, Jelani. "The Man Behind Critical Race Theory". in The New Yorker( September 20, 2021). The Limits of Liberalism.

References/ Recommended Readings

Bell, Derrick "Serving Two Masters" in the Yale Law School Journal, March 1976.

Cruse, Harold. "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual".

Hudson, Wilson. "Mississippi Harmony".

Bennett, L., Jr. (2000). Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company.

  • Bell, Derrick. Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor, in the Derrick Bell Reader (Critical America, 75).

  • Bennett, L., Jr...Before the Mayflower.

  • Carruthers, J.H. (1985). The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution. Chicago: The Kemetic Institute.

Crenshaw, K., Et al. (ed.) (1995). Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: The New Press.

Delgado, R. & Stefancic, J. (2001). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.

Dixon, A.D. & Rousseau, C.K. (ed.) (2006). Critical Race Theory in Education: All God’s Children Got a Song. New York: Routledge.

Jacobs, P. & Landau, S. & Pell, E. (1971). To Serve the Devil: Volume 1: Natives and Slaves. New York: Vintage Books.

Jones, S. (2021). How to Manufacture a Moral Panic: Christopher Rufo helped incite an uproar over racism in education with dramatic, dodgy reporting.

Karimi, F. (2021). What Critical Race Theory Is -- and Isn’t? CNN.Com, May 10, 2021,

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). What is Critical Race Theory and What’s It Doing in a Nice Field Like Education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1): 7-24, January 1998.

  • Du Bois, W.E.B. The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Early Essays.

  • Crenshaw, Kimberele. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.

  • Bell, Derrick.Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.

  • Bell, Derrick. Faces at the Bottom of the Well.

  • Delgado, Richard & Jean Stefanic, editors.The Derrick Bell Reader (Critical America,75).

  • Matsuda, Mari J. Looking to the Bottom: Critical Legal Studies and Reparations.

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