In 1976, two decades after Brown v. Board outlawed segregated schools, the critical race theorist Derrick Bell published an influential critique of the decision. Bell, a former civil rights attorney, did not object to the ruling in principle but rather to how courts were construing it: In the name of equal opportunity, schools had been ordered to achieve a racial balance that reflected the demographics of their surrounding district—even when doing so hurt black students.
"Low academic performance and large numbers of disciplinary and expulsion cases are only two of the predictable outcomes in integrated schools," Bell wrote.
His cynicism would grow as the years wore on. By 1980, he had become convinced that Brown was never really intended to help blacks but instead was aimed at managing global perceptions of the United States, where segregation was damaging the country's reputation as it fought the Cold War. It was also damaging the Southern economy, where industrialization had lagged since Reconstruction. For a brief moment, Bell wrote in the Harvard Law Review, the interests of blacks and whites converged. When that moment passed, racial progress predictably stalled.
Bell's articles helped jumpstart the legal movement now called "critical race theory" (CRT), which has become the latest battleground in America's culture war. Among conservatives, the term now functions as a synonym for pop "antiracism" and the diversity gurus associated with it, particularly Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.
As red states consider laws banning critical race theory from public schools, critical race theorists have responded with one of two contradictory arguments: that CRT is an obscure academic theory that will never find its way into K-12 classrooms, or that it just means teaching about slavery and Jim Crow. All critical race theory seeks to do, one Washington Post op-ed said, is "explain how our laws and institutions … circumscribe the rights of racial minorities." And Kimberlé Crenshaw, herself a leading critical race theorist, has called the anti-CRT bills an attempt to "whitewash history"—implying that CRT is nothing more than a historical program.
There are indeed some differences between critical race theory and the new racial orthodoxy. But there is also a direct link between them. The main premises of pop "antiracism"—all racial disparities are illegitimate, unconscious bias is everywhere, racist speech is violence—all stem from critical race theory, which is essentially a synthesis of Kendi and DiAngelo. Though neither figure is a critical race theorist, each has helped to popularize CRT's underlying worldview, one in which structural and subconscious racism are intimately intertwined.
Kendi's critique of standardized tests, for example, has clear roots in CRT's argument that race-neutral policies perpetuate oppression. And DiAngelo's work on "white fragility" owes a great debt to the critical racist theorist Charles Lawrence, who argued that whites supported race-neutral policies because of their unconscious biases.
Critical race theorists did not reach these conclusions through Marxist theory but through a revisionist reading of landmark civil rights cases, which they argued had been interpreted too conservatively.
By the mid-1970s, segregation was gone, but disparities in jobs, housing, and education persisted. The reason for this, critical race theory charged, was that civil rights law remained wedded to a colorblind ideal that made redressing racial inequality impossible. As Alan David Freeman put it, courts had outlawed discrimination without eliminating "the conditions associated with it."
The critical race theorists thus urged courts to adopt a more outcome-oriented approach to civil rights. "Institutions or practices oppressive in their effects," Freeman wrote, should have to "justify themselves as legitimate." He pointed to Griggs v. Duke Power Co. as a rare example of the Supreme Court taking that approach. In Griggs, the court forbade employers from using intelligence tests that disproportionately disqualified black applicants, unless the tests were "significantly related" to job performance.
This argument assumed that the lion's share of racial disparities were rooted in racism, a position only slightly more moderate than Kendi's. "When I see racial disparities, I see racism," Kendi told the New York Times in 2018. And at a 2020 gathering for early childhood advocates, he stated that "the outcome of … policies" is "all that is relevant" when assessing them. Because "Black and Latinx children routinely get lower scores" on the SAT, Kendi has said, there must be "something wrong with the test."
Such results-based reasoning poses a slippery slope of which the critical race theorists were well aware: Many race-neutral policies, from bridge tolls to sales taxes to licensing laws, have a racially disparate impact of some kind; what was to stop courts from declaring much of modern government a civil rights violation?
Critical race theory's answer was implicit bias: Disparate impact was necessary but not sufficient for racism, CRT said; race-neutral policies were only racist if whites subconsciously supported them because of their disparate impact, which served to reinforce white dominance. The critical race theorists Charles Lawrence and Ian Haney Lopez defined institutional racism in almost exactly this way. One "benefit" of focusing on "unconscious racial attitudes," Lawrence said, is that it "significantly decreases" the number of neutral policies threatened by anti-discrimination law.
But because critical race theory sees those attitudes in most institutions, this limiting principle is not terribly limiting. Lawrence himself writes that messages of racial inferiority are "deeply ingrained in our culture," transmitted through the symbols, scripts, and stereotypes we take for granted. The ubiquity of these messages means that any race-neutral policy could theoretically be motivated by them, making all disparate impact inherently suspect. Far from preventing a slide from CRT to Kendi, unconscious bias greases the slope.
It also justifies the therapeutic approach to "antiracism" associated with DiAngelo. If subconscious racism reinforced structural oppression, CRT reasoned, dismantling oppressive structures would require psychic intervention. "The illness of racism infects almost everyone," Lawrence wrote. "Acknowledging and understanding the malignancy are prerequisites to … an appropriate cure." This is precisely the premise of DiAngelo's white fragility workshops, which enjoin whites to recognize and confront their own racism. And the idea that racism is an "illness" in need of a "cure" was on full display in the title of a recent talk at Yale Medical School: "The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind."
For CRT, the cure was to censor words, ideas, and images that perpetuated racist attitudes, something Kendi has also proposed. Lawrence claimed Brown v. Board provided a warrant for such censorship. Chief Justice Earl Warren had held that segregation was unconstitutional because it stigmatized black students, "generat[ing] a feeling of inferiority as to their status." In other words, Lawrence argued, "Brown held that segregated schools were unconstitutional primarily because of the message segregation conveys." It could therefore "be read as regulating the content of racist speech." Kendi, who has argued for a constitutional amendment banning "racist ideas," would find much utility in such a reading.
Some critical race theorists went so far as to conflate speech with violence, an idea that is also seeping into K-12 education. In December, Seattle Public Schools held a training for teachers that accused educators of committing "spirit murder" against black children. The term comes from the critical race theorist Patricia Williams, who argued that small, subtle acts of racism were "as psychically obliterating as robbery or assault." Spirit murder, she said, ought to be considered a "capital moral offense." Another critical race theorist, Richard Delgado, argued that the "psychological harm" of racial insults entitled their targets to monetary recompense.
Why did CRT become so influential? Perhaps because it left class largely out of the picture. CRT came onto the scene just as the Reagan revolution was beginning; by the time the discipline had fully established itself, Bill Clinton's Democrats were singing the virtues of free trade. Civil rights maximalism, aimed at closing the gaps between blacks and whites, did not threaten the basics of that economic order. Full-throated Marxism, aimed at closing the gaps between rich and poor, would have.
Yet the early critical race theorists never expected to have much influence; they were convinced that the white majority wouldn't allow it. Racial equality is "not a realistic goal" in a "perilously racist America," Bell wrote in 1992. "Our actions are not likely to lead to transcendent change."
Bell's fatalism was understandable at the time, when critical race theory was confined to a few law school seminars. It is less understandable now, when critical race theory is defended by mainstream media outlets, four-star generals, government officials, and massive teachers' unions. Far from sneering at CRT's critique of colorblindness, white liberals have increasingly embraced it. And so have some white conservatives: Phil Scott, the Republican governor of Vermont, announced in April that his state would give minorities priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Critical race theory seems poised to transform American institutions from within. If it succeeds, it will have proven its founder wrong.