Critical Race Theory

By Maeve Maddox

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An academic term receiving a lot of attention these days is Critical Race Theory.

When a previously specialized term makes its way into the general vocabulary—beg the question, moot, Anglo-Saxon, etc.—misuse runs close behind. Add a hot-button word like race, and the term becomes explosive.

Critical Race Theory is a descendant of Critical Theory.

Theory
A theory is “the conceptual basis of a subject or area of study.” A theory is what is thought about some practice. Theories are often seen as being in conflict with practice.

Of course the cuts will prove less popular in practice than they have in theory.

I like your idea on theory but, practically speaking, it’s virtually impossible.

Wark is probably right about the limitations of the great man theory of history.

Critical
The adjective critical derives from the noun criticism which, in the context of critical theory, is “the action of criticizing, or passing judgement upon the qualities or merits of anything.”

Because no one enjoys having their work or behavior or beliefs minutely examined and pronounced upon, the word criticism is also widely understood to signify fault-finding. Prefacing race theory with critical is an excellent way to trigger hostility before the term is even defined.

Critical Theory
As both term and concept, Critical Theory originated in Frankfurt, Germany as kritische Theorie at the Institute for Social Research in the early 1930s. It differed from earlier, traditional ways of looking at social institutions.

The new theory questioned the established view that the inequities of society result from things that cannot be changed, such as an immutable human nature. For example, the fact that few women practiced the professions or produced valuable literature was attributed to the cultural assumption that women lack the intellect for such masculine pursuits. Factors such as limited educational opportunities for women were not considered.

Influenced by the ideas of Marx and Freud, these first critical theorists sought to identify the cultural assumptions behind economic disparities. The Frankfurt group believed it was possible to identify social assumptions and conditions contributing to poverty and rectify them.

Today there’s a critical theory for just about everything—gender, language, education, and, of course, race.

Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory originated among legal scholars who wanted a framework for examining the correlation between racism and US laws and institutions. They rejected the cultural assumption that the racism of the past has nothing to do with the racism of the present.

According to the prevailing assumption in the 1970s when the theory was formulated, laws that permitted slavery and various legal abuses during the Jim Crow era belonged to a past racism, whereas in the present, racism affecting the daily life of nonwhite Americans was the result of the actions of a few bigoted people. That’s to say, present-day racism is personal, not structural.

CRT suggests that, because of the pervasive and subliminal nature of institutional racism, most people of all races—including good-hearted, unbigoted people—remain unaware of its presence and effects. The theory asserts that the way to rid the culture of racism is to examine the social structures that enable it, identify the enabling factors, and eliminate them.

Critical Race Theory the concept is an academic framework taught to legal students.

Critical Race Theory the term has been appropriated by TV pundits, politicians, and activists who claim it supports a variety of negative goals.

Whatever one’s views, the term is soaring in the news. A web search brings up about 306,000,000 hits.

As a term separated from its original meaning, critical race theory has joined the ranks of political correctness, cancel culture, and wokeness as a Procrustean epithet that can be made to fit any argument.

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1 Response to “Critical Race Theory”

  • Daisy Hartwell

    I have a question about this part: “Critical Race Theory the concept is an academic framework taught to legal students.” While I understand that CRT originated in legal circles, that doesn’t mean that it’s being taught to legal students exclusively. It is an academic framework that can also be taught in history class, sociology, etc. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
    P.S. “As a term separated from its original meaning, critical race theory has joined the ranks of political correctness, cancel culture, and wokeness as a Procrustean epithet that can be made to fit any argument.” – right on! Couldn’t have put it better myself.

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