If you have spent any time online or have attended a University, then you have probably run into the phrase Critical Race Theory. But if you are like me, you may not know what Critical Race Theory is. So in order to demystify the phrase and its meaning, I’ve written this short explanation.
What Is Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory studies racism and power to understand and to change the relationship between power and race (and racism). According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, “The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017: 3).
CRT includes traditional civil rights and ethnic studies matters but “places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017: 3).
What makes CRT radical, however, is in how it differs from earlier civil rights movements. Delgado and Stefancic explain, “Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017: 3).
Its two basic tenets are (1) the ordinariness of racism and (2) the majority white culture affects this dominant group (2017: 8). Thus, colour-blind equality will only work so far because society is intrinsically racist (2017: 8). And secondly white people have no incentive to stop racism: “Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it” (2017: 8).
Why Did It Start?
According to Delgado and Stefancic, the movement started in the 1970s when many realized that the civil rights advances from the 1960s were being rolled back (2017: 3). Racism still existed, albeit in subtler forms. So the movement started to deal with the world in which we live.
How Does CRT Understand Race?
Critical Race Theory argues that races are “products of social thought and relations” (2017: 8–9). Delgado and Stegancic write, “Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient” (2017: 9).
Any argument that certain races are superior or biologically different from another is, according to this theory, wrong.
Why Does It Matter?
Critical race theory matters because race and racism stand at the centre of today’s public discourse. Whether it is racism against African Americans in the USA or First Nations Peoples in Canada, discussions of racism extend everywhere in North America.
And CRT has become the new “normal” when talking about issues of racism in the academy. Soon, I suggest it will become the new normal for most people in North America because the next generation will receive training in Universities and promote it across our cultures.
So knowing what it is will equip us to understand the world in which we live. It will also help us to understand the dynamic between power, race, and racism. This doesn’t mean that one must agree with CRT. But one can certainly learn from it so that one can thoughtfully critique it.
Practically, for majority race persons, understanding CRT will help us to understand the plight of minority race persons. And such self-criticism is also helpful.
In the end, CRT may end up being proved false. But understanding the issues it touches; better, understanding the people of whom the movement speaks will help us (hopefully) to be better neighbours. After all, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbour as ourselves.
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