The Moment in 1986 When Critical Race Theory Ousted the Civil Rights Movement

Eric Felten

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations on July 28, 2021 and is crossposted here with permission.

“Critical race theory isn’t so much a thing as a way of looking at a thing,” Kimberlé Crenshaw assured MSNBC host Joy Reid last month. Crenshaw is a law professor at UCLA who, as a law student at Harvard, was one of the founders of critical race theory in the 1980s. The cable news segment – headlined “The GOP’s Fact-Free Freakout Over Critical Race Theory” – portrayed CRT as unobjectionable: “It’s a way of looking at race,” Crenshaw said, smiling. “It’s a way of looking at why, after so many decades – centuries, actually – since the emancipation, we have patterns of inequality that are enduring.”

Crenshaw’s benign description has been adopted by many news outlets. They portray critical race theory as a rarefied tool used almost exclusively by law school professors, a “scholarly framework that describes how race, class, gender, and sexuality organize American life.” The claim that CRT is rarely taught outside the upper reaches of the academy is belied by numerous examples of its influence, including California's Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, a nearly 900-page teaching guide for K-12 educators adopted in March, which refers to CRT throughout. It says teachers and administrators “should familiarize themselves with current scholarly research around ethnic studies instruction,” notably “critical race theory.”

Critical race theory also informs the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative." It is now taught in thousands of public school classroomsacross the country.

The modesty of Crenshaw’s claims also fails to square with the combative account of the origins of CRT presented in the 1995 book “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement,” a textbook edited by Crenshaw and fellow radical academics Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas. In a foreword, the scholar and activist Cornel West declares that CRT is not just an academic approach but a “politically committed movement.” The radical intent of this activist ideology is apparent in its rejection of “traditional civil rights discourse,” promoting race-consciousness over yesteryear’s ideals of integration, assimilation and color-blindness. Given the chance, the key proponents of critical race theory turned on their baffled white allies, publicly accusing their fellow progressives of racist recidivism. That confrontation, at an obscure academic conference over 30 years ago, did much to shape today’s angry racial politics.

The 1995 book explains that CRT grew out of Critical Legal Studies, the “organizing hub for a huge burst of left legal scholarly production” in the late ’70s. At first the critical race theory advocates were part of the “crits,” as the CLS crowd was known. The “race-crits” (as the CRT advocates of color labeled themselves) participated in Critical Legal Studies conferences, where they traded countercultural strategies. Both groups shared the view that law schools were “an influential site for indoctrination.” The race crits in particular saw them as ideal for building and promoting a “theoretical vocabulary for the practice of progressive racial politics in contemporary America,” according to Crenshaw and her fellow editors of the “Critical Race Theory” reader.

What did she mean by “progressive racial politics”? For starters, it meant rejecting the “liberal legalist tradition that viewed law as an apolitical mediator of racial conflict.” They believed that the traditional civil rights vision was “exhausted.”

The race-crits shared with the crits the view that the law is just power politics draped in robes. But the factions split over whether society was constructed on class or on race. The original crits thought of race as an expression of class, not as a distinct category. Such claims were a “fundamental attack on the very possibility of our project,” Crenshaw and her co-authors wrote. The critical race theory project was to make “color-consciousness,” as opposed to “color-blindness,” central to any discussion of race and the law.

The crits would soon learn that the critical race theorists took seriously their call for race-consciousness, and not just with regard to the Supreme Court. The race-crits viewed their erstwhile allies as just another group to be judged by the color of their skin – which, for most radical left-wing intellectuals at prestigious law schools, happened to be white. “At its inception in the late ’70s, Critical Legal Studies was basically a white and largely male academic organization,” according to Crenshaw. She described the crits as “a predominantly white left.”

The race-crits’ insistence on seeing the world in black and white would soon lead the radicals to splinter.

The break came at a conference crits held in 1986 at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts. The white leftists invited “scholars of color” to organize some sessions applying radical analysis to the topic of race. The workshop proved to be less collegial than the crits had expected. They didn’t realize that the race-crits saw them as a “white” institution. The crits were surprised – and not pleasantly -- to find that the workshop had been designed to show that the Critical Legal Studies advocates were themselves racists. The race-crits began the seminar by confronting the crits with this question: “What is it about the whiteness of CLS that discourages participation by people of color?”

Crenshaw, writing without irony, noted that the race-crits’ assault on CLS as a white institution “drew a surprisingly defensive response.” Was it really so surprising?

The crits sputtered that they were “allies rather than adversaries” and that their collective energies were best saved for the common cause of tearing down traditional institutions.

Crenshaw remarked bitingly that she “revealed” that the “hip, cutting edge irreverence” of CLS was a fragile façade. The race-crits demonstrated that the countercultural bravado of the crits “could easily disintegrate into handwringing hysteria.”

One of the white intellectuals at that workshop was Gary Peller, who puts a positive face on the “intervention.” He tells RCI that “it did highlight that white leftists had not thought in sophisticated ways about race.” But he’s not sure it was worth the “anguish and handwringing.” Peller says, “It’s not effective to confront and blame people.”

In the bitter aftermath, a few, including Peller, kept a foot in each camp. But as might have been expected, the crits and the race-crits had something of a falling out.

Once they were largely freed of the stodgy views of the white radicals, the academics who practiced critical race theory developed an ideology that rejected the old-fashioned liberal goal of integration. They argued that integration meant the loss of African American identity and culture and likened assimilation to genocide. They embraced color-consciousness and black nationalism; they dismissed the old ideal of color-blindness as a sort of false-flag operation, calling it “an ideological strategy by which the current [Supreme] Court obscures its active role in sustaining hierarchies of racial power.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw is notable not only for her role in critical race theory, but also in developing the concept of “intersectionality.” She brought those trendy academic concepts together two years ago in a book titled “Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines.” In it, she denounces the effort to see individuals as people with rights regardless of color, saying it just distracts from the “inequalities, and injustices of existing social relations.” In the world of CRT, colorblindness is neither “appealing” nor “morally just.” Instead, it is a conceit, a “tool crafted to protect white preferences and privileges.”

Critical race theory is nothing if not ambitious. It “questions the very foundations of the liberal order,” according to CRT pioneer Richard Delgado. He writes that critical race theorists reject core tenets of classical liberalism including “Enlightenment, rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law."

Conservatives -- and, increasingly, a growing cadre of traditional liberals -- recoil from CRT, offended by the claim that racism is not only “systemic” but ineradicable. But the race-crits’ claim is more than just a reproach. It is a way of dismissing the traditional civil rights emphasis on eliminating bias and prejudice. That project was rooted in a belief that discrimination was something individuals did to other individuals. But the traditional civil rights emphasis on non-discrimination left an opening for whites to challenge affirmative action. The logic of the old definition of racism made it possible for disappointed white applicants for jobs or education to complain of “reverse-racism.” Among the key events that motivated critical race theory was the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision in 1978, putting restrictions on affirmative action, and a fight with Harvard Law School over whether to reserve a number of teaching slots for black professors.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently defended schools and schoolboards against activist parents who she claimed were trying to stop teachers “from teaching students accurate history.” But critical race theory isn’t about teaching history. It is an ideological movement, one that discourages integration, rejects color-blindness, and scoffs at the rule of law.

For example, in a 2015 journal article, critical-race scholars and practitioners Maria Ledesma and Dolores Calderon celebrate CRT as a “revolutionary project” and encourage elementary schools to disparage color-blindness as “dog whistle racism.” 

Critical race theory came into its own by accusing friends and colleagues of racism. If that’s how allies are treated, should it be any surprise that parents and lawmakers opposed to what they see as the radical indoctrination of children should find themselves accused of racism too?

Image: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, cropped.

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