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Critical Race Theory


As the above description suggests, critical race theorists address a broad span of issues having to do with race, and from a variety of perspectives. Most pay close attention to context and historical situation, valuing the individual over the universal in social and legal analysis. They also credit multiplicity, for example of narratives and identities, over broad generalization. They emphasize how legal rules and regimes look from the perspective of the disempowered and outsider groups—in Matsuda's memorable phrase, "looking to the bottom." And a significant faction places primary importance on material factors—labor demand, immigration needs, conquest, international tensions—in understanding the ebb and flow of U.S. racial politics. Critical of both liberal incrementalism and conservative color-blind philosophies, critical race theorists carve out new ground that places central importance on power, economics, narrative, and social construction in coming to grips with America's social problems.


Raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of working-class parents, Derrick Bell graduated from Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh law school, where he was the first African-American to gain membership to its prestigious law review. After graduating from law school, he worked for a number of law reform agencies, including the NAACP, then entered teaching at Harvard Law School in 1969, the first of his race to teach in a tenure-track capacity there. At the end of 1980, he left Harvard to assume the position of dean at University of Oregon Law School, the first black to lead a major, white-dominated law school in the United States. After leaving Oregon in protest over the faculty's refusal to hire a well-qualified Asian-American female professor, he returned to Harvard Law School, where he mentored students and young scholars across the country, helped found the critical race theory movement, and constantly pressed for liberalization of racial policies at his school. His persistent, heroic, sometimes quixotic struggles are recounted in two books and countless newspaper stories. An inspiration to two generations of lawyers and scholars, Bell taught as a permanent visiting professor at New York University law school in the early 2000s.


One of a group of progressive movements in the law, critical race theory bears close relations with a forerunner movement—critical legal studies—that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and was still alive in the early 2000s. Building on the insights of the early-twentieth-century legal realists, critical legal studies scholars attacked the ideas of legal determinacy—that every legal problem has exactly one correct solution—and autonomy, the notion that law exists in a realm by itself. Instead, the critical legal studies scholars urged, law bears a close relation to economics, politics, social science, and even art and aesthetics. Critical race theorists build on all these ideas, as well as on the Continental school of philosophy from which many critical legal studies scholars draw inspiration.

Critical race theory also builds on some of the key ideas of radical feminism, including hierarchy, patriarchy, and the notion that everyday terms, categories, and roles advance implicit agendas and encode power relations in a way that benefits those in charge. The movement also learned from revisionist historians, such as Charles Beard and Patricia Limerick, who examined history from hitherto unexplored perspectives, such as those of women, workers, and members of outsider groups. Finally, critical race theory scholars such as Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado draw from neo-Marxist theory in exploring how race relations in the United States reflect economic struggles, shifting labor needs, and the clash of interest groups.

The next wave of critical race theorists will likely consider the relationship between race and class, the role of minorities in a two-party political system, and the implications of globalization for domestic minorities. The United States' population of color is rapidly growing and was expected to exceed 50 percent sometime in the mid-twenty-first century. Latinos were expected to surpass blacks as the nation's largest group of color. The implications for race relations and civil rights of all these developments are sure to be on critical race theory's agenda well into the future.

The movement is sure to remain controversial—but, of course, many social movements were in their early years. Yet in some respects, it has become the new orthodoxy. Some judges now apply its insights in understanding the racial dynamics of particular cases. Mainstream presses publish its authors; undergraduates study its teachings on hate speech, narrative, and race coding. Two critical race theorists were nominated for high positions within the Clinton administration, but proved too controversial to be confirmed. As the United States struggles to come to terms with a multiracial world and a domestic population that is increasingly black, brown, and Asian, the insights of these progressive, divergent thinkers are apt to become more and more relevant.


Bell, Derrick A. And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1987. Expansion of the "Civil Rights Chronicles."

——. "Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma." Harvard Law Review 93 (1980): 518ff. Classic statement of materialist interpretation of race.

——. "Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation." Yale Law Journal 85 (1976): 470ff. Convincing demonstration of tensions inherent in civil rights advocacy.

Calmore, John O. "Critical Race Theory, Archie Shepp, and Fire Music: Securing an Authentic Intellectual Life in a Multicultural World." Southern California Law Review 65 (1992): 2129ff. Classic work on the minority condition.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, et al., eds. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: New Press, 1995.

——. "Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law." Harvard Law Review 101 (1988): 1331ff. Early statement of antiliberal critique.

Delgado, Richard. The Rodrigo Chronicles: Conversations about America and Race. New York: New York University Press, 1995. Renowned example of legal storytelling.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000. Widely used reader on critical race theory.

——, eds. Critical White Studies: Looking behind the Mirror. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. Broad collection of writings about whiteness.

——, eds. The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Collection of Lat/Crit writings.

Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Extended treatment of forces leading to Brown v. Board of Education.

Farber, Daniel, and Suzanna Sherry. Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Searching criticism of the critical race theory movement.

Freeman, Alan D. "Legitimizing Racial Discrimination through Antidiscrimination Law: A Critical Review of Supreme Court Doctrine." Minnesota Law Review 62 (1978): 1049ff. Illuminating examination of role of Supreme Court in achieving social justice.

Guinier, Lani. The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1994. Innovative study of voting mechanisms.

Haney-López, Ian F. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Groundbreaking study of role of law in drawing boundaries of the white race.

Harris, Angela P. "Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory." Stanford Law Review 42 (1990): 581ff. Powerful treatment of white bias in mainstream feminism.

Lawrence, Charles R., III. "The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism." Stanford Law Review 39 (1987): 317ff. Demonstrates the prevalence of unconscious racism and proposes ways the law may take account of it.

Matsuda, Mari J. "Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim's Story." Michigan Law Review 87 (1989): 2320ff. Classic exposition of critical methodology.

Perea, Juan F. "Demography and Distrust: An Essay on American Languages, Cultural Pluralism, and Official English." Minnesota Law Review 77 (1992): 269ff. Famed treatment of language rights.

Ross, Thomas. "Innocence and Affirmative Action." Vanderbilt Law Review 43 (1990): 297ff. Study of the role of the power of white innocence.

"Symposium: Critical Race Theory." California Law Review 82 (1994): 741ff. First and defining symposium on critical race theory.

Williams, Patricia J. The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Illustrious example of legal storytelling.

Wing, Adrien K., ed. Critical Race Feminism: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Classic collection of critical race feminist writings.

Richard Delgado

Jean Stefancic

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCritical Race Theory - An Organization Forms, Spin-off Movements, Criticism, Methodology, Derrick Bell, Related Legal Movements