"It gave me a name": What critical race theory means to its practitioners

Critical race theory has been denounced by Donald Trump and by the Conservative Party – but what does it stand for? 

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At the first presidential debate last month, Donald Trump lashed out at, among other things, critical race theory. Asked why his administration had instructed all federal agencies to stop anti-bias training that relies on the theory, Trump said, “I ended it because it’s racist. I ended it because a lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were absolutely insane, that it was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools, all over the place."

Critical race theory (CRT) has also recently been brought up in the UK parliament; this week, Kemi Badenoch, women and equalities minister, said that critical race theory is "an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression", and that teachers who say white privilege is a fact are breaking the law. 

The theory is not an anti-bias or diversity training: it is an intellectual framework, a way of looking at scholarship and the world. It comes out of the legal field, started by scholars such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who examined how the legal system and US jurisprudence have been used to uphold white supremacy and racism in the United States: Plessy vs Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision of 1896 that said segregation was legal so long as the separate entities were equal, is one notable example.

But critical race theory has since been used in other disciplines including education, thanks to the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate, who explicitly connected critical race theory to education. To get a better sense of what critical race theory is and isn't, why it is attractive to some scholars, and what it is like to have one’s scholarship attacked by the president, I interviewed Marvin Lynn, dean of the College of Education at Portland State University, and Adrienne Dixson, a professor of education at the University of Illinois.

Critical race theorists would argue that the construct of race has real implications. “It’s a social construct, but it manifests in material ways that impact people’s lives,” said Dixson. And critical race theory says that the experiences shaped by that construct – race and, by extension, racism – are real, matter and can be brought to the work the scholars are doing.

“We would say that people of colour do have a unique perspective on the US because of racism and having been oppressed by race. So it’s not that it’s an exceptional perspective, but it is unique given their relationship to American history,” Dixson said.

“I would also argue that critical race theory challenges this notion of American meritocracy, the myth of the meritocracy, by really calling attention to the way racism has been embedded within the structures of our society, the way it shapes opportunity,” added Lynn.

Importantly, however, not everyone who studies race is a critical race theorist. “We have a number of colleagues – I won’t say colleagues, I’ll say people who are in the field who study race who will claim that they are using critical race theory because they study race. There is an orthodoxy within critical race theory that scholars follow,” said Dixson. “I wouldn’t say it’s a dogma, but there is an orthodoxy, and there certainly is a body of literature that one should know and engage, because we are borrowing from the legal field. There were practices that folks kind of established as they were arguing for this notion of critical race theory.”

And there are certain truths that, even in the diverse group of critical race theorists, most or all practitioners hold. While not all agree, for example, on the permanence of racism, all agree that, as Lynn said, “it starts with the assumption that racism is normal. It is part of the everyday framework of how our society works.” That racism is as American, Dixon added, as apple pie.

[see also The return of American fascism]

Critical race theorists also engage with the concept of intersectionality. This is taken by some to mean intersecting identities, but should also be understood to mean intersecting oppressions – how black women, for example, experience both gender- and race-based discrimination, and how the two together keep black women oppressed in unique ways.

Critical race theory also intentionally puts BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of colour) people at its centre. “I think we agree ... that critical race theory is by, for, and about BIPOC communities,” Lynn said. “It doesn’t mean white people can’t use critical race theory. They can, if done appropriately… [But] I feel BIPOC people feel like we have a sense of ownership. That this is our discourse. And it can be borrowed by other people, but it is by, for, and about us. And it lifts up our experience in humane ways.”

And this is an important part of critical race theory: it believes that the narratives that people tell about themselves are real. That they matter. That it’s not relevant whether or not the data necessarily proves that black Americans suffer more (though, as Lynn said, the data probably does bear that out on a given issue), because people are telling you that they are, for example, afraid of interacting with the police, or that they’re being discriminated against in public schools. “Your experience gets to stand on its own,” Dixson said. “We value that. There are ways of believing and speaking and truth-telling that we value.”

Scholars come to critical race theory in different ways, but for Dixson and Lynn, it was attractive in part because it gave a name and language to experiences that previously did not have these things. Dixson recalled the experience of working as a teacher at a summer programme in the early 1990s and reading Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992). "It affirmed what I believed to be true but had no vocabulary to talk about: the persistence of racism," she said. "I was just amazed that there was someone with this high calibre of training and background talking so plainly about race. Everything I knew and had experienced but didn't have a language for." 

When Dixson went to graduate school and realised that there were people working in education using critical race theory it was "another affirmative experience”, she said, “that I could also think critically and speak plainly about the persistence of racial inequality in education as I had experienced it as a child, as I had witnessed it as a teacher, and as [I’d experienced it with] my young boys, my sons”.

“From there, for me, it was a naming of my epistemological lens. It gave me a name. I am a critical race theorist,” Dixon said. “This is the way I see the world. It really is, in many ways, a world-view. I will never step away from thinking about race in a critical way. That’s how it informs my work.”

Dixon noted that during Barack Obama’s first term as president in 2012, some tried to cite the fact that Derrick Bell was on his law syllabus to discredit him. She and Lynn believe that something similar may be happening with Black Lives Matter, a global movement trying to reimagine what society could be and that is, consequently, threatening to some people. Lynn said there are some who think that, because many of the stated values of Black Lives Matter align with the beliefs of critical race theory, they can undermine the former by attacking the latter. That the president, a wealthy white man who campaigned on the promise of returning America to an earlier time, is unhappy with the project of racial justice is perhaps unsurprising.

[see also: We Can't Breathe]

Dixon also suggested that the uptick in diversity training after the killing of George Floyd brought more attention to critical race theory, although, again, such training and the theory are not the same.

“When I write about race, I don’t think of it in terms of a training for teachers,” Dixson said. "From my perspective, diversity training attempts to take what people have argued theoretically and operationalise it. That’s no shade on diversity training. But they’re very different things.”

To have that scholarship attacked by the president, Dixson said, is to experience fascism. “It’s fascist and it’s terrifying to be a scholar, to be an academic and to live in the world of ideas and to have the highest office in the world name your work as anti-American and unpatriotic… I mean, my family was afraid.”

“It’s an effort to silence dissent and disagreement. And it’s dishonest. What I say [is] the cat’s out of the bag about racism in the US. And we’re not going back,” Lynn added. “We’re not going back to a time that we have to lie and create myths about America because we know our truth. It is more American, we are recognising the truth, and we’re saying, let’s lock arms and work to change it on everybody’s behalf.”

And in that way, perhaps there is some upside to critical race theory being beamed into the political arena. “I think if anything it puts a more critical examination of race in the public discourse, as a part of the public discourse. Whether you agree or not, people are now talking about white supremacy, right? People are now talking about: Is racism permanent? Is racism normal? So those kinds of tenets of CRT are now a part of the discourse,” Dixson said.

“Intersectionality is now part of the public discourse. That, I think, is helpful. We can’t now pretend that we don’t know about racism.”

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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