Recent debates about Critical Race Theory (CRT) have been abysmally uninformed at best and utterly inaccurate at worst. From corporate media and right-wing rags to independent left media, almost everyone has misrepresented or misunderstood the origins, histories, and theories of what is today known as CRT. This three-part series corrects these misunderstandings. Part 1 provides an overview of works of Derrick Bell, the “father of critical race theory.” Part 2 provides a detailed intellectual history of CRT. Part 3 presents a critique of intersectionality as an idealist, liberal iteration of CRT.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is among the most hotly contested topics of 2021, but no one seems interested in the history of this intellectual tradition. To be sure, one can find the most superficial explanation of “what CRT is” in almost any magazine or newspaper. The New York Times, for instance, recently published an article promising to provide “a brief history” of CRT—oddly enough, something the author forgot to do. The problem is that all such accounts rarely move past naming a few relevant names from legal studies and listing a few principles that are so general they could refer to any number of intellectual paradigms.
Recent discussions on the left have focused on debunking insipid conservatives’ perspectives on CRT, but this is low-hanging fruit. The most difficult challenge lies in debunking the liberal narrative about CRT, a task that can only be achieved through careful historical analysis.
To truly understand the current state of CRT, it is necessary to understand the difference between the realist school of CRT and the idealist school of CRT. Furthermore, it is necessary to acknowledge the historical process by which the realist school of CRT—the original school of critical race theory—was gradually displaced and replaced by the idealist school of CRT. Today, the realist school is so small and marginalized that the paradigms of the idealist school of CRT pass for CRT as such.
Richard Delgado—who, alongside Derrick Bell, is one of the founders of the Critical Race Theory tradition—explains the distinction between realist and idealist versions of CRT.
As Delgado writes, the idealist school of CRT “holds that race and discrimination are largely functions of attitude and social formation. For these thinkers, race is a social construction created out of words, symbols, stereotypes, and categories. As such, we may purge discrimination by ridding ourselves of the texts, narratives, ideas, and meanings that give rise to it and that convey the message that people of other racial groups are unworthy, lazy, and dangerous. These writers analyze hate speech, media images, census categories, and such issues as intersectionality and essentialism. They analyze unconscious or institutional racism and show how cognitive theory exposes a host of preconceptions, baselines, and mindsets that operate below the level of consciousness to render certain people consistently one-down.”
By contrast, the realist school of CRT argues that “racism is a means by which our system allocates privilege, status, and wealth. They point out that the West did not demonize black or native populations until it determined to conquer and exploit them, and that media images in every period shift to accommodate the interests of the majority group, now for reassurance, now for vindication. Racial realists examine the role of international relations and competition, the interests of elite groups, and the changing demands of the labor market in hopes of understanding the twists and turns of racial fortunes, including the part the legal system plays in that history.”
The difference, then, between realist and idealist approaches to CRT is clear. While the realists argue that economic structures are the foundations for structural racism and that economic interests are the primary motivating factor when it comes to white and elite racism, the idealists argue that racism is largely a function of language, symbols, and psychology. While the realists view domestic structural racism as a manifestation of the patterns of U.S. empire and capitalism, the idealists view racism as a psychological deficiency of whites that prevents (middle class) non-whites from joining imperialist and capitalist institutions. Realists do not deny the importance of language, symbols, and psychology, but as Delgado notes, for the realists, “material factors such as profits and the labor market are even more decisive in determining who falls where in that system.”
Despite its philosophical importance, the realist/idealist distinction within CRT is completely missing from the current debate. For instance, many contemporary media accounts of CRT rely upon the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, which is authored by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Like Delgado’s other works, the realist/idealist distinction is prominently discussed in this introductory text, yet every media outlet that cites this text in its articles on CRT neglects this realist/idealist distinction.
To be sure, there are immediate economic and political reasons why this is the case. Both liberal media outlets and right-wing media outlets erase the realist/idealist distinction because they want contemporary CRT to appear more radical than it actually is. Liberals want CRT to appear more radical so they can trick leftists into joining their Democratic Party coalition; conservatives want CRT to appear more radical so they can fear monger their reactionary audiences with a make-believe boogieman. But there are also historical and intellectual reasons for this erasure as well.
Two trends in the history of CRT explain why the realist school of CRT is completely missing from the current debate. First, as Delgado explains, there is the fact that university deans and wealthy donors sought to de-radicalize CRT by funding idealist CRT scholarship and defunding realist CRT scholarship. The realist school of CRT dominated the movement’s first two decades, roughly from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. But as CRT gained academic legitimacy in the mid-1990s, the idealist school, which emerged in the late 1980s, began to grow. By the early 2000s, the idealist school had almost completely overtaken CRT intellectual circles.
The process by which idealism came to dominate CRT can be found in the publication record. In 1995, Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement—the first major collection of foundational CRT writings—was published. While this anthology features an approximate balance between realist and idealist CRT scholarship, CRT’s realist roots are firmly acknowledged. As Cornel West writes in his Foreword to the collection, “When Derrick Bell, Jr. began to question the basic assumptions of the law’s treatment of people of color in the leading law reviews—the essays that open this collection—he was virtually the lone dissenter in the arena of legal scholarship.”
By 2003, when Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory was published, realism had been completely excised from the CRT movement. Delgado criticized the book, arguing that “Ideas, words, categories, and symbols [had] replaced nationalism, interest convergence, history, and similar tools that had served as Critical Race Theory’s stock in trade until then.” Instead, collection features jargon-heavy essays by academics writing about their tenure struggles and white authors apologetically joining the conversation. The entire collection was about individual psychologies, not social structures.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has been treated as the foremost authority on CRT as of late, embraced this idealist turn, expressing her hope that, in ten or twenty years time, the CRT movement might hold an event titled “Discursive Disobedience: Critical Race Theory Stages a Virtual Sit-In in American Consciousness.”
For Delgado, this “idealist turn” in CRT (to borrow a phrase from Tommy Curry) was the product of reactionary financial and political interests. Money began to flow into CRT scholarship, publications, conferences, and tenure-track faculty appointments, but only those scholars who were deemed non-threatening and only that scholarship that was deemed politically appropriate received such funding. As Delgado pointedly asks:
Might it be the lure of easy publication, not to mention that of attending an annual conference where one might meet one’s friends and relax in spa like splendor, that accounts for the proliferation of discourse scholarship during the period in question? And, from the dean’s perspective, is it not safer to fund scholarship that examines literary tropes than that which has the effrontery to propose that America’s proudest moment—Brown v. Board of Education—came about because white folks decided to do themselves a favor?
The use of university funds and endowments to de-radicalize scholarship was nothing new. As early as 1974, Robert L. Allen observed white-controlled financial interests interfering with and undermining the autonomy of Black Studies departments. As he explains: “By selecting certain programs for funding while denying support to others, government agencies and foundations could manipulate the political orientation of these programs and the direction of academic research… Departments which were thought by the establishment to be dangerously independent or radical could thus be crippled or destroyed without the necessity of resorting to violent repression.” Delgado simply observed the same phenomenon happening to CRT in the 1990s.
In addition to the financially-motivated de-radicalization of CRT, there is a second trends in the history of CRT that explains why the realist school of CRT is completely missing from the discussion today. In “Will the Real CRT Please Stand Up?,” philosopher Tommy J. Curry shows that the term “Critical Race Theory”—which originally referred to a distinct intellectual movement in legal studies, rooted in the work of Derrick Bell—was hijacked by philosophers and used as a slogan to market any scholarship that “critically” examined the phenomenon of “race.” In 1990, the term “Critical Race Theory” referred only to the tradition of legal scholarship that examined the relationship between structural racism and the law; by the early 2000s, the term “Critical Race Theory” was being used to describe nearly any paradigm or theory that examined race, from early-nineteenth century views to contemporary social contract theory and phenomenology. In other words, during the same period in which the idealist school eclipsed the realist school in the field of legal studies, the term “Critical Race Theory” was increasingly used to describe almost any scholarship that took an interest in race, no matter its methodology.
Let’s recap this history: CRT originated in the realist scholarship of Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado, who argued that structural racism is grounded in economics and racist attitudes motivated by economic self-interest. Later on, an idealist school of CRT emerged, focusing on language and discourse as the primary cite of racial conflict. Because idealist CRT was perceived as less threatening to the ruling political, economic, and academic powers that be, the idealist school was promoted and funded at the expense of the realist school. Simultaneously, as the term “Critical Race Theory” transformed into a valuable marketing tool for emerging philosophical scholarship, the term gradually lost its grounding in the CRT tradition of legal studies. By the start of this century, the phrase “Critical Race Theory” no longer had anything to do with its racial realist origins.
The history of CRT presented here provides a much-needed corrective to the explanations of CRT as they currently appear in the media. For example, in CNN’s extremely unhelpful and inappropriately titled article “What critical race theory is—and isn’t,” author Faith Karimi explains that Critical Race Theory is “a concept that’s been around for decades and that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the US.” “Critical race theory recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish,” she adds.
It is difficult to get more benign that that. Not only does Karimi’s description of CRT overlook the realist/idealist division in CRT, it presents CRT as just another theory of race in America. This approach, however, fails to capture the original distinctiveness of CRT as a theoretical and philosophical paradigm. As Curry reminds us, “CRT’s theoretical distinctiveness does not reside in its general interest in the study of race, but rather in the approach and descriptive foundations that lie beneath CRT’s encounter with racism in American society. Because racism is taken to be permanent, CRT maintains that very different strategies be utilized to combat whiteness.” Yet Karimi and CNN can publish such vapid explanations because, under the obfuscated of the realist/idealist debate, the idealist schools become synonymous with CRT—and the realist schools is all but erased from the historical and intellectual record.
Similarly, Pascal Robert and Paul Mocombe recently argued that CRT originated in the poststructuralism and postmodernism of Critical Legal Studies. While this might be true of much of the scholarship produced by theorists of the idealist tradition of CRT, it would be patently false to claim that the realist school of CRT shares the same origins.
Understanding the realist CRT and idealist CRT difference also helps us untangle the contradictions within progressive responses to right-wing attacks on CRT. For instance, in the recent essay “The War on Critical Race Theory,” David Theo Goldberg helpfully debunks many of the conservative myths regarding CRT, but in the process of debunking such myths, Goldberg distorts the historical development of CRT and thus theoretically overlooks its most radical theoretical insights and political positions.
First, Goldberg complains that “CRT functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all.” But as Curry’s history reveals, liberal Black philosophers of the 1990s were the first ones responsible for taking the phrase “Critical Race Theory” out of its original context and turning it into an “empty signifier for any talk of race and racism.”
Second, while Goldberg acknowledges that CRT scholars are “varied in their views,” he obfuscates the realist/idealist distinction within CRT. Like CNN’s Karimi, he simply states that “what unites the work of these [CRT] scholars is a shared sense of the importance of attending explicitly to race in legal argument,” as if methodology is of secondary importance.
But politically speaking, methodology is of central importance when it comes to understanding the orientation of contemporary CRT. In the eyes of a CRT realist, the patterns of U.S. history suggest that racial equality will never be achieved in Amerika, which means racial survival ought to be the central aim of activism. In the eyes of a CRT idealist, history only matters insofar as Amerikan society has not yet fully resolved the problem of inequality, a problem that can be overcome if language changes, symbols are modified, and minds are educated. CRT realists reject Amerikan Exceptionalism, while CRT idealists revel in it.
Thus, despite all the talk about how the right-wing media does not understand CRT, the real threat here is the liberal and corporate media’s failure or inability to explain the history of CRT. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting recently argued that “Right-wing commentators claim to know what CRT is, while showing no interest in engaging with its ideas, and only very rarely quote the words of its proponents. Instead, they’ve deliberately manufactured a set of caricatures to make the public—mainly the white public—feel threatened.”
Yet the disparity between liberal explanations of CRT and the history offered here proves that we can paraphrase that statement to be just as (or even more) true: Liberal commentators claim to know what CRT is, while showing no interest in engaging with its ideas, and only very rarely quote the words of its proponents other than Kimberlé Crenshaw. Instead, they’ve deliberately manufactured a set of caricatures to make the public—mainly the white public—feel safe.
In the end, acknowledging the realist/idealist division in CRT helps us makes sense of the fact that contemporary CRT has been sanctioned by the most reactionary institutions of the Amerikan Empire—CNN, the Pentagon, and the like. Indeed, if CRT was a singular phenomenon, a monolithic school of thought, then its acceptance in the Great Halls of Empire would be grounds for rejecting it outright. But history reveals that it is not CRT as such but the idealist school of CRT that has become the newest ideological tool of Empire. While not completely defunct, the realist school of CRT occupies no place in the current debate. Following the idealist turn in CRT during the 1990s, CRT realism was marginalized, deemed unfit for a liberal academy with an imperial agenda. While the realist school of CRT was never going to achieve mainstream acceptance because it violates the imperatives of Amerikan Exceptionalism, the idealist school of CRT has now provided Amerikan Exceptionalism a much-needed booster shot.
In his Afterword to Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell warned:
If the lives of those we most respect are any indication, our effectiveness may best be measured by the mainstream’s rejection. Certainly, too much public recognition may be cause for concern and a re-examination of our goals. The desire for general acceptance—to have our writing read by means rather than the faithful few—is normal. But in striving for readership, the temptation is ever present to soften our critiques and rationalize rather than rant against the injustices in our midst.
Graciously, Bell did not condemn his idealist counterparts in this short text, but his warning provides much needed insight. Juxtaposing realism’s mainstream rejection with idealism’s mainstream acceptance tells us all we need to know about which tradition of CRT to take seriously and which to eschew. The master’s tools may or may not dismantle the master’s house, but when the master begins repairing his house using the servant’s tools, the servant would be wise to seek out new instruments of liberation.
This series on CRT is dedicated to Glen Ford, who was a deeply inspirational revolutionary thinker and who will always have my utmost admiration and appreciation. Thank you, Glen.