What is Critical Race Theory?

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    Critical race theory, or critical sociology on race, was first developed by Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois and later Oliver Cox and Stuart Hall, all of whom, although marginalized by the mainstream academic community, used race as a theoretical lens for assessing social inequity. While Woodson and Du Bois and Cox and Hall all presented cogent arguments for considering race as the central construct for understanding inequality, they were nevertheless widely ignored as a result of the hegemonic relationship of academia and scholarship. Stephen Steinberg (2001:4) explained:

    Like Cox and Du Bois in an earlier time, the proponents of a critical sociology on race are reduced to carping from the sidelines. It is fundamentally a question of hegemony: of which perspectives prevail; which command resources; which are central to intellectual discourse, both inside and outside the academy; which are influential when it comes to the formation of public policy. To pursue the question of hegemony, one would have to examine the web of relationships among elite universities, professional associations, government, the media, book publishers and book review editors, “dream teams,” and those all-important foundations – which together constitute a power elite that has a decisive influence on discourse, intellectual production, and social policy.

    There is one proviso I would add. Because of the foundations and paths laid by racialized scholars like Woodson and Du Bois and Cox and Hall, carping from the sidelines is no longer simply experienced as an occupational hazard; it has become a proud calling. By cultivating and advancing the belief in diversity-as-essential, I believe the margins are beginning to form a new mainstream.

    In this regard, Critical race theory (CRT) is an exciting, revolutionary intellectual movement that puts race at the center of critical analysis. Although no set of doctrines or methodologies defines critical race theory, scholars who write within the parameters of this intellectual movement share five very broad commitments:

    • Critical race theory is based on the idea that race has been conceptually extracted from conventional discourses on the political economy, and needs to be reinserted into the discussion.
    • Critical race theory attempts to examine the human interactions both in their historical context and as part of the social and political relations that characterize the dominant culture in society.
    • Critical race theory takes as one of its fundamental concerns the need to reemphasize the centrality of politics and power in understanding how institutions function within the larger society.
    • The intersection of race and political economy creates an analytic tool through which we can understand workplace inequity.
    • Critical race theorists tend to focus on the sense-making strategies and strategies of resistance of people of colour living in the interstices of a dominant White hegemony – suggesting that the state cannot be adequately conceptualized as an external force controlling the lives of its passive victims.
    In recent years Critical Race Theory has been associated with a progressive movement of intellectuals of colour in the field of American legal scholarship. As conceived, it comprises left scholars and scholarship, situated in law schools, whose work challenges the ways in which race and racial power are constructed and represented in American legal culture, and more generally America as a whole. Notable among the movement are Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas and Mari Matsuda.

    In Canada, Carol Aylward, professor law and director of the Law Programme for Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq at Dalhousie Law School, has applied the principles of Critical Race Theory, to Canadian racial problems and issues. Aylward proposes a novel approach, grounded in Critical Race Theory, for representing Black clients, and addresses ethical problems that may arise in the course of such representation. Lawyers for black clients should engage in consciousness raising, Aylward writes, so as to increase their own awareness of the historical role of race in Canadian society. Whites are urged to adopt a black perspective. Lawyers should then apply that knowledge to particular cases, honing their ability to “spot the racial issue” in situations where others might miss it. Then, lawyers should confront the racist practice or rule (for example, Canada’s practice of relegating many forms of discrimination to a nonjudicial human-rights complaint system), asking whether and how the rule or practice subordinates people of color. Finally, advocates should engage in reconstruction: imagining alternatives; assessing harms, risks, or benefits; then working to institute, fairer, juster social arrangements.

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