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.
The Critical Race Theory (CRT) frenzy has been in full swing for months now, and in the rush to make sense of this intellectual tradition, corporate media have repeatedly flocked to one individual more than any other to provide their account of CRT with the cover of authority and rigor. That person is Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar who is recognized as one of the founding figures of CRT and who is credited with coining the very term “critical race theory.”
Before the recent controversy over CRT, Crenshaw was predominantly known as the scholar responsible for coining the term “intersectionality” and providing intellectual orientation to a type of feminist theory that sought to account for race and gender simultaneously rather than separately, as intersectionality theorists have accused other social theories of doing.
Yet when the scholarly origins of Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality are excavated, it becomes clear that it is rooted not only in philosophical idealism but also in racist and colonialist ideology.
The first step in understanding Crenshaw’s version of CRT and the intellectual origins of intersectionality is to understand her as part of the idealist strain of CRT. Unlike the realist theorists of CRT, such as Derrick Bell, who place racism in an economic context, approach the study of racial histories from an empirical perspective, and present anti-colonial and anti-imperial critiques of Amerikan society, idealists like Crenshaw argue that racism is largely a psychological issue, a problem with white consciousness that is best addressed through education and the evolution of language and symbols. Idealists also tend to be more reformist than radical, preferring to claim so-called “American Values” as their own, rather than fundamentally question the nation’s imperial history and present.
Such idealism and reformism are both present in Crenshaw’s work. In her 1988 essay “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law,” a foundational text of the CRT tradition and one of Crenshaw’s earliest publications, Crenshaw unquestionably stakes out her political reformism and idealist methodological orientation. Much of the article is dedicated to criticizing the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) scholars of the day for neglecting the role of race in social oppression and for too quickly dismissing the utility of liberal legal reforms, including rights-based reforms, for Black people in the U.S.
As Crenshaw explains, CLS scholars wanted people to question the structure of society from the ground up, and according to the CLS writers, the only way to get people to question society in this way was to disabuse them of all the illusions of the liberal capitalist order. This process included disabusing the public of the idea that law is socially and politically neutral. For this generation of CLS scholars, if people continue to think that claiming rights is a viable strategy for liberation, then (as Crenshaw puts it) “the legitimacy of the entire order is never seriously questioned.”
According to Crenshaw, this radical demand to fundamentally question Amerikan society requires us to overlook “the transformative potential that liberalism offers.” Claiming that “People can demand change only in ways that reflect the logic of the institutions they are challenging,” Crenshaw concludes that a “pragmatic use of liberal ideology” can help protesters and scholars resolve the racial contradictions of Amerikan society and advance the cause of Black freedom by winning and defending Black “rights.”
How would such a transformation commence? In Crenshaw’s view, it “must begin with beliefs about Blacks in American society, and how these beliefs legitimize racial coercion,” especially white race consciousness. She distinguishes between “symbolic subordination,” which denies Blacks social and political equality, and “material subordination,” which denies Black economic, health, and other material benefits of society. Importantly, in a direct inversion of the materialism of realist CRT scholars like Bell, Crenshaw says that the former causes the latter: “Symbolic subordination often created material disadvantage by reinforcing race consciousness in everything from employment to education.” In other words, if we change white people’s minds and rid them of anti-Black ideas, material change will necessarily follow.
In Crenshaw’s idealist worldview, then, CRT is about demanding that “America” become what is (supposedly) truly is: a diverse and inclusive democracy. And this goal is achieved by using law strategically and teaching white people not to be racist. It is from within this idealist, reformist context that intersectionality emerged.
Since Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” approximately three decades ago, it has become a lexical staple of much left, progressive, and liberal politics. For most such groups today, those who refuse to be “intersectional” have morally failed to be properly inclusive and have epistemically failed to adopt the most advanced social scientific paradigm.
But behind the progressive veneer of intersectionality lies an unquestionable racist and colonialist intellectual history, a history that is only beginning to be excavated and acknowledged.
Crenshaw originally developed the theory of intersectionality in two law papers. In the first, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”(1989), Crenshaw sets out to solve a very specific legal problem, namely, that “women” and “Black” are considered protected classes under anti-discrimination law, but “Black women” are not. In a review of relevant court decisions, Crenshaw observed that the courts rejected Black women’s claims of discrimination unless they could show that they were victims of more general discriminatory practices against “women” as such (including white women) or against “Blacks” as such (including Black men). So to the courts, if Black women claimed racial discrimination but Black men in the same workplace did not, the case was dismissed. Likewise, if Black women claimed sex discrimination but white women in the same workplace did not, the case was dismissed. Crenshaw’s solution was to “acknowledge” that Black women had been and could be discriminated against as Black women. To remedy the problem, the law should account for the “intersection” of race and sex and make Black women a protected class distinct of women of other races or men of the same race. As a reformist legal strategy, intersectionality is not only a clever solution to the problem it is meant to address, but it is also consistent with Crenshaw’s overall liberal philosophical perspective.
However, intersectionality become seriously problematic in her follow-up paper, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color ” (1991), where Crenshaw attempts to take intersectionality out of the realm of law and transform it into a generalized theory of society. The basic assumption of intersectionality is that all “previous” theories are “single-axis” that account for only one dimension of oppression at a time. Feminism accounts for sex or gender. Critical Race Theory (of the original realist school) accounts for race. And Marxism account for class. The innovation of intersectionality, as we are told, is that it brings together the insights of these theories to account for “race, gender, and class” simultaneously (though class is never present in so-called intersectional analyses). And notice the title: intersectionality is no longer about Black women; it is now about that ever-nebulous and ill-defined group “women of color.”
Notwithstanding the absurdity of the claim that Feminism, Marxism, and realist CRT are “single-axis” theories in the way that Crenshaw describes them, there are even more problematic aspects of intersectionality, problems that originate in the history of feminism. Drawing on the recent scholarship of philosopher Tommy Curry, we can trace out the racist and colonialist origins of intersectionality.
Crenshaw’s “gender” analysis is derived from her reliance on the work of Catherine MacKinnon, a leading second wave feminist legal scholar who argued that the basic power dynamic of society is grounded in sex difference. This male dominance theory claimed that, in Amerikan society, (all) men had structure power over (all) women. This structure is usually called patriarchy. Crenshaw believed that MacKinnon’s male dominance theory provided a theory of sex domination similar to Derrick Bell’s realist CRT theory of racial domination, which posits that the basic power dynamic is white over Black, and perhaps other racial minorities. Even though the basic assumptions of MacKinnon and Bell’s respective theories are fundamentally contradictory, Crenshaw sought to combine them. This contradiction has never been resolved, which is why so many scholars and intellectual today claim that neither race nor gender is “foundational.” Such platitudes merely allow the speaker to leave the contradiction within intersectionality unresolved.
The interesting thing is that this theory of patriarchy, this idea that all men have power over all women, was invented by white women in the 1950s to claim that they were just as oppressed as Black men in a society run by white supremacy. In books and essays including Alva Myrdal’s “A Parallel to the Negro Problem” (1944), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), and Helen Hacker’s “Women as a Minority Group” (1955), white women scholars observed the conditions of Black men under western colonialism and racism and said: white women should think of themselves as a similarly oppressed group. Before the essays, white women were seen primarily as members of the dominant race, even by white women themselves. In fact, even white feminists saw themselves in this way, as historian Louise Michelle Newman demonstrates in her book White Women Rights. Yet in the 1950s, white women began to claim that they were oppressed in a manner analogous to Black men.
For the idea that “women” as such constituted an oppressed class subjected to “men” as such to become the dominant paradigm, feminists needed to discard the kinship theory of patriarchy.
Even into the 1970s and 1980s, feminist anthropologists and sociologists adopted the classical social science view that patriarchy had a familial and generational aspect to it. However, while this kinship view was compatible with the earlier theories that saw white women as part of the dominant racial group, it was incompatible with the idea that women constitute a singular coherent class of oppressed people. Why? Because if patriarchy depends on family relations, and Black people (especially Black men) are prohibited from joining the family relations of whites, then Black men cannot be members of a generally patriarchal class of “men.” The paradigm text where this argument is made is Sylvia Walby’s Theorizing Patriarchy (1990), which was published in the very same intellectual milieu and shared the same assumptions as MacKinnon’s male dominance theory.
As Curry summarizes, “the white woman used the body and experience of the Negro, specifically the Black man, as the template by which she created the idea that she was in fact a minority group despite the power and violence she imparted on racial and ethnic groups such as Blacks and Jews.” Curry adds that “the definition of patriarchy that emerged from these debates were driven by the need white feminists had in constructing themselves as a class external to—and victimized by—white patriarchy. The feminist definition of patriarchy was constructed to protect feminist ideology, not to explain the oppression of various groups throughout history.”
Thus, Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality relies on a paradigm of feminist ideology that constructed by white women to minimize attention to their racial power and amplify attention to their sexual vulnerability. And to construct this view of patriarchy, they had to throw out decades of social scientific scholarship even though there was no empirical evidence that debunked that former scholarship.
As if this were not enough to question intersectionality, there are more problems with Crenshaw’s formulation of this now-popular theory. Like MacKinnon, Crenshaw argued that when power is based on biological sex, the sex in power—males—use sexual violence as a means of social control. To put it in no uncertain terms, men rape women as a means of perpetuating their control over women.
In her 1991 essay, Crenshaw states that “the use of rape to legitimize efforts to control and discipline the Black community is well established in historical literature on rape and race.” Though she claims this fact is well established, she cites only Joyce Williams and Karen Holmes’ 1981 work The Second Assault: Rape and Public Attitudes. As with MacKinnon’s theory of patriarchy, however, we can trace the history of Williams and Holmes’ work back to fundamentally racist origins.
In their 1967 book The Subculture of Violence, Martin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti introduced the “subculture of violence” theory, which argues that subordinated groups, such as Black people in Amerika, had a distinct culture separate from mainstream white culture, and that this Black subculture was the cause of Black men and women’s supposed pathologically self-destructive behavior. Anyone familiar with right wing politics in the United States today should find this argument familiar, for the subculture of violence theory is the basis for all right-wing apologetics regarding police murders of Black people (“They are killing each other” etc.).
In 1971, Wolfgang’s student Menachem Amir expanded the subculture of violence theory in his book Patterns of Forcible Rape. According to Amir, Black men become rapists because “Negro culture” was pathological and the Black family structure was improper. Because Black fathers were absent, because Black mothers were unfit parents, and because Black culture prioritized sensual pleasures over civilized ones, Amir claimed that Black men developed a psychological need to overcompensate for their feminized self-image. Thus, they became rapists. If this also sounds like a contemporary right wing racist view, it’s because it is.
“White feminists adopted Amir’s view of Black masculinity throughout their texts,” Curry explains. In Against Our Will (1975), Susan Brownmiller insisted that “The single most important contribution of Amir’s Philadelphia study was to place the rapist squarely within the subculture of violence.” This book is considered a classic and still-relevant feminist text today.
Interestingly, Amir rejected the 19th and early 20th century view that Black men primarily raped white women. Yet he replaced that view with a new theory which claimed that Black men primarily raped Black women. This transition from view Black men as inter-racial rapists to viewing them as intra-racial rapists is a key development in this racist history. Yet one more transformation in this feminist ideology was necessary.
In the mid-1970s, Lynn Curtis published several works, including the book Violence, Rape, and Culture, transforming the subculture of violence theory into a theory of Black male pathology. Unlike Amir, who argued that Black male rapists were the product of the savagery of Black culture, Curtis argued that Black male’s became rapists because in their quest for masculinity, the emulated white male patriarchy and the sexual violence such patriarchy relies upon. Unlike Amir’s theory, in which Black women play a role in transmitting the supposedly deficient values of Black culture, Curtis’ theory positions Black women as neutral or innocent bystanders to the brutality of pathological Black males trying desperately to join the patriarchy they have been excluded from. On this view, white male patriarchy is more sophisticated and Black male attempts at patriarchy are more savage—but they are fundamentally the same.
When Williams and Holmes wrote The Second Assault, they cited the work of Curtis and developed it further. In their own articulation, Williams and Holmes states that Black men became rapists not because Black culture is savage but because Black men imitate the patterns of white male patriarchy. The supposed sameness of Black males and white males (a male body) was thought to be the grounds for such imitative behavior, and the supposed sameness of Black women and white women (a female body) was thought to be the grounds for their respective vulnerability to sexual violence. Interestingly, The Second Assault was poorly received by scholars, with one reviewer noting that the quantitative data presented in the book did not support—nay, contradicted!—the conclusions presented.
Thus, when Crenshaw cites Williams and Holmes to claim that “the use of rape to legitimize efforts to control and discipline the Black community is well established in historical literature on rape and race,” she is relying on a book that not only emerges directly out of white supremacist theories of Black life (perpetuating the myth the Black male rapist in a new form) but a book that presents conclusions in contradiction with its evidence.
Again, Crenshaw’s “gender” analysis is not revolutionary, nor progressive—it is barley liberal. It is based in racist scholarship that was motivated by the political needs of elite white women rather than historical and sociological evidence. And it is only a few degrees away from the racist bile spewed by contemporary anti-Black right-wing pundits.
The racist, colonialist mentality embedded in Crenshaw’s intersectionality should not surprise us. Remember what she said in 1988: People can demand change only in ways that reflect the logic of the institutions they are challenging. Because intersectionality was created to make change within racist and colonialist institutions, it is only fitting that intersectionality reflect that racist and colonialist logic. This is where idealist versions of CRT take us.
Intersectionality is not going away. Since their publication, Chrenshaw’s 1989 and 1991 articles have approximately 21,000 citations and 27,000 citations respectively. Now that intersectionality has been hitched to the current CRT wave of popularity, and given that Crenshaw is widely considered the foremost authority on CRT, we should expect calls for this theory of intersectionality to spread even more.
To be sure, almost no present-day proponent of intersectionality knows anything about the history of the term or the roots of the theory. Almost none of these self-described advocates of intersectionality knows how to perform an “intersectional analysis.” For most, the word “intersectionality” is—like “critical race theory” itself—an empty slogan used to signal that they have the right moral orientation; many people say “intersectionality” to prove they oppose racism, sexism, and so on. But when Black feminists of the 1990s are caught repackaging white supremacist ideas from the 1890s, we should probably reconsider not only the slogans we think are progressive but also the scholars we think are authorities on radical change.
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.