Critical Race Theory is Needed Now More Than Ever

I just participated in a fantastic Critical Race Theory conference held at Yale Law School. First, the conference is run entirely by the law students. How impressive is that? Second, I was pleased to see that unlike the conference they held two years ago, the participants this time came from a variety of disciplines outside of the legal profession. Last time, as an English professor, I was one of the only outsiders to the legal field, but this time it was great to see the impact that Critical Race Theory is making in a variety of disciplines and professions. However, there were probably not more than a hundred or so people there (not too different from last time) and not too different from the Critical Race Theory conference I attended at UCLA Law School a year and a half ago. That’s something that needs to change. We need Critical Race Theory now more than ever. If you’re not too familiar with the area, here are a few things you should know:

  • It emerged in the 1980s as a way for legal scholars of color to analyze racism as systemic rather than as individual or aberrant.
  • Founding Critical Race Theorists like Derrick Bell wrote “counter-narratives” to experiment with the form of traditional legal scholarship following the idea that radical ideas demand radical form. He wrote science fiction in order to illustrate what he called the “permanence of racism.”
  • For decades, Critical Race Theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Mari MatsudaIan Haney López, and Cheryl Harris have been advocating action to address ways in which systems (especially those related to the law and criminal justice) reinforce racism.

This weekend’s “Race (In)Action: The 2016 Critical Race Theory Conference” built on this foundation in meaningful ways. Here are a few highlights:

  • Harvard Law students Ke’Andra Levingston and Titilayo Rasaki shared their inspiring work on the Reclaim Harvard Law School movement.
  • Margaret Montoya, a founding member of Critical Race Theory, shared a brilliant overview of the field and offered her insight into the problem of “teaching racial silence to law students.”
  • In a breakout session, Meera Deo, Vinay Harpalani, and Khiara Bridges explored how race and class intersect with higher ed, focusing on affirmative action, the Fisher case, recruitment and retention of faculty of color, and what “diversity” means.
  • In the breakout session on the “Changing Dynamics of Race in America,” Faiza Patel, Steven Bender, Francisco Valdes, and Meejin Richart explored, respectively, Islamophobia and what we mean by “national security,” Latinos and changing demographics, “social impact advocacy” and “critical outsider jurisprudence,” and the work of CAAAV.
  • In the breakout session on Race and Policing, Devon Carbado mapped out several factors that put people on a “path to police violence,” including “repeated police interaction,” “police culture and training,” and perceptions of “justifiable force.” Tracey Meares described her work on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and explained how the answer to “what are police for” has changed over the past few decades. Justin Hansford raised the question of how to connect the discussion of policing to Michelle Alexander’s critique of mass incarceration in her book The New Jim Crow.
  • Angela Onwuachi-Willig gave an excellent keynote lecture: “On Revolts and Revolutions: Critical Race Theory in Action.” She connected the work of Critical Race Theory over the past few decades to the #blacklivesmatter movement, including student activism at Yale, University of Missouri, and other campuses around the country, and the use of social media.

And these are just the highlights! You might be wondering how did I, an English professor, become interested in this field? After all, I’m not a legal scholar. As a grad student in English in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had the honor of hearing Derrick Bell speak when he gave a lecture at my school, the University of Delaware. I was already studying race in the context of contemporary American novels by women, and I thought there was an important connection between the narratives of a Critical Race Theorist like Derrick Bell and a creative writer like Toni Morrison. In fact, they had both published books in the same year, no less (1987), that introduced a supernatural female character that transcended space and time in order to show us the persistence of systemic racism. Bell created Geneva Crenshaw and Toni Morrison created Beloved. I also saw a connection between the work of Cheryl Harris in “Whiteness as Property” and the novel Bellefleur by creative writer Joyce Carol Oates. (I shared this latter work at the UCLA Critical Race Theory conference in 2014 and published it here.) My dissertation analyzed five pairs of Critical Race Theorists and female novelists in order to examine the way our society and its institutions construct race and perpetuate racism. That was more than ten years ago, and now I continue to find Critical Race Theory to be not only inspiring but also incredibly helpful as a framework in which to understand the persistence of racism. I was honored to share my current work at this weekend’s conference: “Critical Race Theory in Action: Talking to White People About ‘the Permanence of Racism’.” The questions and comments afterward will be valuable as I continue to develop this work into the introductory manual I’m writing on systemic racism and racial justice with tools for action.

-Karen Gaffney originally shared this post on 4/11/16 and has since published her book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge), an accessible introduction to systemic racism in the US, which references the work of many Critical Race Theorists. 

3 thoughts on “Critical Race Theory is Needed Now More Than Ever

  1. Thanks for blogging and giving us a general overview of the proceedings, Karen! I am glad to see that connections are being made between the issues of mass incarceration raised in Alexander’s book and race and policing. At the community level, much of the energy from organized groups fighting for racial justice is moving directly into shifting law enforcement budgets towards human needs and reducing the use of police to attend to social issues. This ranges from reducing massive school police budgets to replacing police intervention with community responses in relation to community issues. I also very much appreciated the reference you made to the origins of CRT as a movement that began with legal scholars of color analyzing the system, rather than, aberrant nature of racism in US society. I am finding as I move into different spaces how little of this history is known or shared, referring instead to CRT as being an academic exercising in deconstructing identities or race. These folks were very much organizing and producing knowledge from their subject position as people of color. As a student in the 1990s, it was this dimension of CRT that most fascinated me, given what Montoya mentions in your summary, the racial silencing that happens in Law School and beyond. This highlights the impact and potential of the #blacklivesmatter movement in the same regard, I think the bridging work that you are doing, in your work on how to talk to white people about the foundational ideas of CRT – such as the permanence of racism, interest convergence, and racial realism – is critical and am looking forward to hearing how your talk goes. Have fun!


  2. Pingback: Educators Lead the Way to Interdisciplinary Critical Race Theory | divided no longer

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