Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Roots and Reach of Critical Race Theory

The left's latest ideological obsession isn't limited to BLM protests—it's all the rage in top law schools, and it's breaking into Congress.

There’s a lesson I’ve learned: if it’s a fad, be wary. The tulip craze in Holland in the 1500s led to one of the first economic bubbles. The internet replicated the problem in 2000, as did cryptocurrency in 2019. At one time, the hula hoop was all the rage.

Today, there’s a social philosophy that’s building up a bubble of its own: critical race theory (CRT). CRT has been around since the 1970s, but has blown up in the past few years as terms like microaggression, white guilt, white privilege, and white supremacy have come to dominate the popular lexicon. All of it is rooted in CRT.

CRT—though it’s known to most as a potent political force, and the ideological underpinning of the Black Lives Matter organization—has always been, first and foremost, a legal philosophy. It starts with the premise that the United States is rooted in white supremacy and that this white supremacy is written into the law. This inherent racism is presented as the explanation for any disparity in outcome, such as that drug convictions and death penalty sentences are more likely to be rendered on minorities.

Mari Matsuda, a CRT luminary, described it as “the work of progressive legal scholars of color who are attempting to develop a jurisprudence that accounts for the role of racism in American law and that works toward the elimination of racism as part of a larger goal of eliminating all forms of subordination.”

Far from being a grassroots philosophy formulated by radicals on the streets, it can be traced back to the faculties of some of our nation’s most elite law schools. From Critical Race Theory: An Introduction:

Critical race theory sprang up in the mid-1970s, as a number of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars across the country realized, more or less simultaneously, that the heady advances of the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled and, in many respects, were being rolled back. Realizing that new theories and strategies were needed to combat the subtler forms of racism that were gaining ground, early writers such as Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado (coauthor of this primer) put their minds to the task. They were soon joined by others, and the group held its first conference at a convent outside Madison, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1989.

All three—Bell, Delgado, and Freeman—were law school professors. Derrick Bell was teaching at Harvard Law School when he published the seminal CRT treatise Race, Racism, and American Law. Freeman taught at the University of Minnesota, the University of Buffalo, and others. Delgado is currently teaching at the University of Alabama, and has previously taught at UCLA, the University of Colorado, and elsewhere.

“The Law as Microaggression,” another pioneering work on CRT, was written by NYU Law professor Peggy Davis and published in the Yale Law Journal in 1989. One especially successful CRT practitioner is Patricia Williams, who currently holds the title of Director of Law, Technology, and Ethics at Northeastern University. From 2000-2005, she was the recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Grant. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, another CRT heavyweight, is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.

Crenshaw, in addition to her professorial duties at Columbia, heads up the university’s Center for Intersectionality and Interpolicy Studies. That center advertises:

The Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies was established to examine how social structures and related identity categories such as gender, race, and class interact on multiple levels to create social inequality. The first such center of its kind, the Center’s research projects and initiatives will bring together scholars and practitioners from law, sociology, feminist and gender studies, human rights, social justice, and other fields to explore the relationship of intersectionality to their work, to shape more effective remedies, and to promote greater collaboration between and across social movements.

It’s a good gig, if you can get it. But it’s far from her only one. Crenshaw is also the founder of a 501(c)(3), the African American Policy Forum, which promotes CRT to both popular and academic audiences. The forum’s mission statement:

Founded in 1996, The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) is an innovative think tank that connects academics, activists and policy-makers to promote efforts to dismantle structural inequality. We utilize new ideas and innovative perspectives to transform public discourse and policy. We promote frameworks and strategies that address a vision of racial justice that embraces the intersections of race, gender, class, and the array of barriers that disempower those who are marginalized in society. AAPF is dedicated to advancing and expanding racial justice, gender equality, and the indivisibility of all human rights, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Among other AAPF activities, Professor Crenshaw hosts a regular webinar, Intersectionality Matters. One recent webinar, released shortly before the election, was entitled, “Black Men for Trump? The Overdue Conversation on Patriarchy and Misogynoir in Black Politics.” This election’s result, with the greatest share of black voters breaking for a Republican since 1960, is clearly seen by CRT advocates as a problem to rectify, rooted in internalized racism or misogyny.

Another webinar which AAPF put on recently—“Under the Blacklight: Politics, Power, & the Struggle Against Black Precarity”—gives a good idea of the influence CRT is gaining. It’s not so much the topic that’s interesting here as the guests.

Perhaps the most recognizable speaker was Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts congresswoman and member of “The Squad.” Pressley, as so many CRT advocates do, presented the legal movement and the activist movement as inextricably linked: “If you believe that Black Lives Matter, then you believe that Black healing matters and Black justice matters.”

Joining Pressley were Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Kim Foxx, the Cook County State’s Attorney who let off Jussie Smollett. During the webinar, Foxx made it clear that she drew no lines between her racial identity and her legal duties, professing, “I’m unapologetic that I come to this role as a black woman.”

Heather MacDonald looked closer at Foxx’s identity prosecuting in City Journal:

Foxx is a leading figure in the recent national wave of progressive local prosecutors who came to power by playing race politics. She campaigned on the Critical Race Theory credo that the criminal-justice system is endemically biased. She inveighed against the so-called school-to-prison pipeline and promised to reduce racial disparities in prosecutions. Last month, she dismissed aggravated battery charges against a 16-year-old student who had attacked two Chicago police officers; the Chicago police union argued that her dismissal of the charges fit a pattern of favoring offenders over police officers. Foxx operates in a cultural milieu that holds that the fact that a hate crime is a hoax is less important than the fact that it could have been true.

Two congresswomen and a district attorney is no mean collection of power and influence. Even still, the devotees of CRT are far from attaining any kind of governing consensus in Congress or in the criminal justice system. But radical progressive prosecutors like Foxx are sweeping into offices across the country, and all four members of the Squad won reelection—these ideas, and their radical proponents, are on the rise.

The only question is, how much bigger will the bubble get before it bursts?