Conservatives are criticizing Barack Obama over a 1991 video that shows him warmly introducing and hugging former Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell, known as the father of “critical race theory.” Thursday on CNN, conservative pundit Joel Pollak said Bell’s work was based on the idea that “white supremacy is the order, and it must be overthrown.” Host Soledad O’Brien called that “a complete misreading.” What is critical race theory, and how radical is it really?
It’s an academic movement that looks at society and the law through a racial lens, and these days it’s more controversial than radical. The theory came around in the 1970s and ’80s as Bell and other law professors and activists became disillusioned with the results of the civil rights movement. Though blacks had supposedly gained equality before the law, they pointed out that whites continued to wield disproportionate power and enjoy superior standards of living. Classical liberal ideals such as meritocracy, equal opportunity, and colorblind justice, they said, actually served the white elite by cloaking and reinforcing society’s deep structural inequalities.
Racism, according to this line of thought, is not a matter of bad behavior by individual racists; it’s embedded in American attitudes and institutions. Even with overt discrimination outlawed, institutional racism and unconscious biases—sometimes expressed through accidental slights, as when a white person praises a black person as “clean” and “articulate”—would keep minorities down.
Derrick Bell and other legal scholars began using the phrase “critical race theory” in the 1970s as a takeoff on “critical legal theory,” a branch of legal scholarship that challenges the validity of concepts such as rationality, objective truth, and judicial neutrality. Critical legal theory was itself a takeoff on critical theory, a philosophical framework with roots in Marxist thought.
Bell in particular advanced what he called “interest convergence theory,” which holds that whites will support minority rights only when it’s in their interest as well. For example, he saw the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school-desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, as a part of a Cold War effort to improve America’s standing among Third World countries. To redress racial wrongs, he sympathized with black nationalists’ calls for separate black institutions but also pushed for affirmative action at Harvard and elsewhere.
On CNN, O’Brien and Pollak clashed over Pollak’s assertion that “white supremacy is at the heart of critical race theory.” It’s true that Bell often used that loaded term to describe what he saw as an entrenched racial hierarchy. He didn’t mean, however, that America is full of white supremacists, in the Ku Klux Klan sense. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic note in “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” those who subscribe to it believe that racism can be an everyday fact of life for people of color even if whites rarely notice it.
So is the theory radical? Yes, in the sense that it questions fundamental assumptions. Critical race theorists argue that what many Americans think of as the “white race” does not describe a distinct group of people but rather a social construct that serves to benefit some groups and marginalize others. And unlike some strands of academic and legal thought, critical race theory has an open and activist agenda, with an emphasis on storytelling and personal experience. It’s about righting wrongs, not just questing after knowledge.
But Bell and his fellow theorists, who include Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence, were not radical in the sense of advocating extreme tactics to achieve political ends, like Greenpeace or the Irish Republican Army. They fought their battles in the halls of academia, not on the streets. And many of their ideas are not radical today in the sense of being outside the mainstream: Critical race theory is widely taught and studied, not only in law but in sociology, education, and other fields. And it is part of the mainstream debates over affirmative action, immigration, and hate-crime laws.
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Explainer thanks Richard Delgado of Seattle University School of Law.
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