Critical Race Theory: A Tale of Two Disciplines

While FOX News continues to fulminate against ‘Critical Race Theory’ and while the commentariat continues to denounce and defend it, I’ve been reading CRT. 

Actually, that reading project started a decade ago in the midst of some academic freedom issues at Earlham.  Defending academic freedom, I found myself reading those who would put limits on free speech.  One blog post from 2011 that gathered up key readings for and against such limits is here.  The argument for limiting speech came from CRT. 

More recently, I’ve read Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (NYU Press, third edition, 2017).  The authors are among the founders of CRT and provide a sympathetic overview of the key ideas and also some of the disagreements within critical race theory.  I’ve used their suggestions to read some of the key articles that formed CRT, most of them in law journals.   

“Do you now know what critical race theory is?” a legal scholar I talk with often asked me. “Yes and no,” I said.  This is what I’ve come to understand critical race theory is: 

  • It’s a set of propositions about race in the U.S. and the world. 
  • It’s a commitment to keep questions of race central especially in considering inequality and injustice. 
  • And it’s a strategy for making progress on race inequality. 

As I understand it, CRT began as an effort to say why we had not made more progress through the efforts and successes of the civil rights movement, and to understand what it would take to make further, real progress. 

Among the propositions are these: 

  • “Recognition that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant.”
  • “Acknowledgement that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality.”
  • “Rejection of popular understandings about racism, such as arguments that confine racism to a few “bad apples.” CRT recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy CRT recognizes that it is the systemic nature of racism that bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequality.”
  • “Recognition of the relevance of people’s everyday lives to scholarship. This includes embracing the lived experiences of people of color, including those preserved through storytelling, and rejecting deficit-informed research that excludes the epistemologies of people of color.”

[These propositions are drawn from Janel George, “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory,” Human Rights (a publication of the American Bar Association), January 12, 2021.  George attributes them to Khiara Bridges.] 

I agree wholeheartedly with the first three propositions.  The fourth gives me some pause.  I certainly believe in the relevance of people’s everyday lives to scholarship; it’s the reference to ‘epistemologies of people of color,’ that worries me.  Certainly, the stories and perspectives of people of color have been excluded from education, from culture, from political narratives, (etc.). We should try to correct that, but this doesn’t mean there are alternative ways of knowing that should be lifted up.  That gets into the terrain of the Okun/Jones handout I wrote about earlier. 

I also agree with the commitment to keep questions of race central.  If we believe in ‘liberty and justice for all,’ why haven’t we made more progress in achieving equality along lines of race.  That’s a question I made central to the various versions of the National Public Policy course I taught for many years. 

On the question of strategy: I’ll try to say more about that in another post. 

Reading Critical Race Theory, I’ve been struck at how much it has arisen within the discipline of law.  While it has drawn on and influenced other disciplines, especially education, I’ve been struck at how relatively little it draws on the social sciences.  Derrick Bell’s celebrated article, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma,” Harvard Law Review, v93,3 (1980), pp 518-33, has 87 footnotes, nearly all to law review articles and court decisions.  There are a few references to works of history (C. Vann Woodward, John Hope Franklin), but the sole reference to academic social science is to Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Regulating the Poor (1971) and Poor People’s Movements (1977). 

My own academic preparation was very much in the social sciences and hardly at all in law, though as I came to teach and do research in public policy, I came to read legal decisions (especially) and (less often) law review articles about important matters. 

Does this matter?  Perhaps it does in this matter of epistemologies – that fourth proposition.  Over the course of recent decades, law as a discipline has had its internal disputes about its basis: is it grounded in justice? Or in power?  At the same time, the social sciences have had their own internal disputes about the possibility of objectivity.  Though these draw from some of the same deep currents in philosophy, the disputes in the disciplines have been largely separate.  In the social sciences, though the worries about the impossibility of objectivity have never gone away, the stance of these disciplines has become unabashedly empiricist: the facts matter; better data is king. 

In law, I think (again, not my field) the prevailing view is that the law is what the courts and the legislatures say it is.  (Better data isn’t king.) The work of lawyers is to persuade.  When they don’t succeed, they need to look for better strategies of persuasion.  How?  Whatever works.  When CRT began asking why we had not made more progress through the efforts and successes of the civil rights movement, its answer was that we had been foolish to belief there were deep, sturdy principles (equality, rights) to which appeal could be made.  We needed, instead, to recognize that this was a political struggle. 

There’s a divide here between the two disciplines (or kinds of disciplines), I think.  Where I find myself agreeing with CRT and where I find myself reluctant to follow has to do with this divergence. 


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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