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Critical Race Theory 101: Definition, Principles, Facts and Examples

According to Google Trends, the terms “critical race theory” and “CRT” jumped in popularity in 2021. Before then, it was essentially not searched at all. What changed? And what is critical race theory? By the end of this article, you’ll have a clearer idea of what CRT is, why it’s controversial, and how it applies to areas like education, voting, and housing.

Critical race theory (CRT) is a legal framework developed in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Once a term only discussed in graduate-level law classes, it’s become a hot-button issue for politicians, parents, and political activists.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory (CRT) is a legal and academic framework based on the idea that systemic racism is woven into the DNA of American education, voting, housing, and more. This counters the theory that racism is an individual problem or an intentional choice; laws and policies don’t have to be blatantly about race to have racial consequences. According to Blackpast, CRT has intellectual origins in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Legal realism scholars believed justice wasn’t blind but rather filtered through lenses like social relations.

You can draw a straight line from these ideas to critical race theory’s development in the 1970s and 80s following the Civil Rights movement. Professors Derrick Bell and Alan David Freeman were the earliest theorists. The first dedicated critical race theory conference was organized by Bell’s former Harvard law students – Mari Matsuda and Kimberlé Crenshaw – in 1989. Kimberlé Crenshaw is now recognized as one of the best-known scholars of critical race theory, as well as the creator of the term “intersectionality.” While the interest in critical race theory makes it seem new, it’s been around for at least half a century.

What are the principles of CRT?

As a framework, CRT includes various ideas and principles. Here are five of the most important:

#1. Race is not biological

The foundational principle of CRT is that race isn’t biological, but rather a social and political construct. Scientists support CRT’s stance, and while there are lots of debates on how race is constructed, the basic idea is that it isn’t based in biology. This doesn’t mean CRT is a color-blind framework. While race may be a social construct, the effects of racism are very real.

#2. In the United States, racism is the norm

CRT disagrees with the idea that racism in the US is unusual or a fluke. While things have improved since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, CRT supports its point with current racial disparities. As an example, there are racial health disparities. According to the CDC, non-Hispanic/Black Americans have lifespans that are four years lower than white Americans.

#3. Things don’t get better for people of color unless change also benefits white people

Known as “interest convergence,” this principle argues that people of color only see progress if it also serves white people’s interests. One of critical race theory’s creators – Derrick Bell – cited Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as his key example. The case overturned school segregation, but Bell argued it was because powerful white people worried about how racism damaged the United States’ reputation during the Cold War. White elites were also concerned about provoking Black soldiers who had gotten used to desegregation in the military. Bell argued these facts proved school desegregation wasn’t primarily about Black people, but how it helped white society, too.

#4. Individuals aren’t defined by membership in one group

No one belongs to just a single group. As an example, a Black woman is both Black and a woman. This affects how society treats her. In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” she examined how courts analyzed cases through racism or sexism, but not both. One judge decided that Black women could not be considered a separate, protected class, despite the fact they were discriminated against because they were Black and women. This intersection of identities (which extends to sexuality, ethnicity, ability, and more) had been developing for years, but Dr. Crenshaw was the one to coin the phrase “intersectionality.” It’s become an important concept in critical race theory and on its own.

#5. Counter-storytelling can challenge dominant narratives

In the United States (and all societies), the dominant culture tends to dominate cultural narratives. That includes the narratives found in history, entertainment, academia, and much more. In the US, that can look like history textbooks downplaying the reality of colonialism and slavery. In entertainment, stories exclude minority cultures or present only one type of narrative about a group. CRT often employs a tool called “counter-storytelling,” which centers minority experiences and empowers groups to tell their own stories.

What should everyone know about critical race theory?

CRT is complex, so beyond the basic definition, what are the most important things everyone should know about it? Here are three facts:

#1. Most people don’t know what critical race theory is

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from 2021, 57% of surveyed adults said they hadn’t even heard of the term. Of the familiar participants, 22% said they believed it was taught in most public high schools (it’s not) while 33% believed CRT taught that “white people are inherently bad or evil.” Of those who knew the term, just 5% could correctly answer all seven true-false questions about the history and principles of CRT. Despite not knowing what CRT means, 36% of participants said they supported a ban on CRT in public schools. Other data supports this widespread unfamiliarity. A poll by the University of Southern California found that while 11% said they knew a lot about CRT or enough to explain it to someone else, most could only get ⅝ questions about CRT correct. Why does this matter? Attacks on CRT have been so successful because people don’t know what it means. This lets conservative media twist CRT from a complex legal theory into a hateful ideology.

#2. The attack on critical race theory is coordinated and intentional

Much of the criticism launched against CRT can only be described as an attack. According to Media Matters for America, the term was mentioned nearly 1,300 times over 3.5 months on Fox News. It’s been called “plainly destructive and wrong,” a disease, and, according to a person quoted in a Guardian article, “a tactic used by Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan.” This didn’t happen by accident. Conservative activist Christopher Rufo got a lengthy profile in the New Yorker, which details his journey from documentary filmmaker to architect of the anti-CRT campaign. After noticing that anti-bias documents from Seattle kept listing the same sources, Rufo discovered roots in the fairly obscure critical race theory. Rufo realized this term could anger and embolden conservatives in ways a dated term like “political correctness” couldn’t. He called critical race theory “the perfect villain.” With the help of the conservative news empire and other pundits, Rufo spearheaded a coordinated campaign against CRT.

#3. Attacks on critical race theory have real-world consequences

Bad-faith criticisms of CRT haven’t stayed on the news, in opinion pieces, or on social media. They’re shaping legislation. According to a February 2022 Chalkbeat article, at least 36 states had adopted or introduced laws to restrict teaching on race and racism. These laws, many of which lack clarity, end up targeting much more than the graduate-level legal theory. In one case, elementary-school parents capitalized on the panic around CRT to try to ban a picture book about Ruby Bridges, who was the first Black student to attend an all-white elementary school in 1960. Groups like the nationwide Moms For Liberty frequently cite CRT as a reason for book bans. Consequences aren’t limited to elementary schools or high schools. In Florida, Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop Woke Act” into law, which banned colleges from teaching concepts like racial colorblindness. A federal judge temporarily blocked the law’s enforcement. On March 16, 2022, a federal appeals court upheld the block. If laws like the “Stop Woke Act” were to go into effect, educators who’ve taught CRT in the past – or anything anyone might consider CRT – could be at risk.

What does critical race theory look like in practice?

As a framework, CRT can be used to study many areas of society. Here are three examples:

The history of American education

When studied through the lens of CRT, laws about education in America reveal a long history of racism. Jim Crow laws after the Civil War segregated the schooling system. Schools meant for Black Americans were severely underfunded, forcing teachers and parents to use their own money. In 1954, the Supreme Court struck down segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Many hoped it would usher in a new era, but soon, it became clear that local and state resistance dampened Brown’s effects. Desegregating busing became the next battlefield as districts tried to take Black and Latino students to formerly white schools, and vice versa. In some areas, like Boston, backlash turned when courts tried to enforce desegregation. The legal history of American education is crucial to the development of critical race theory.

The history of voting laws

The 14th Amendment gave Black Americans citizenship, but Black men still couldn’t vote. That changed with the 15th amendment, but when looked at through the lens of critical race theory, it’s obvious that the amendment didn’t have much of an effect. States quickly passed on laws on literacy tests, which required potential voters to prove their reading and writing skills. It affected immigrants, poor people, and Black Americans. Literacy tests weren’t prohibited until 1970. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 also gave Black women the right to vote, which had been granted to white women in 1920. The Supreme Court weakened voter protections in 2013. More recently, conservative politicians have been trying new tactics, like restricting who can touch a completed absentee ballot and passing laws that block volunteers from asking if voters need help. Examining these developments through CRT reveals the racial dynamics at play.

The history of housing policies

Segregation and its long shadow are a key part of understanding American housing policies. In the 1900s, cities tried to install zoning ordinances based on race, but in 1917, the Supreme Court overturned the ordinances. That didn’t stop the racism. According to an article on the history of Portland, Oregon’s racist housing policies, the Portland Realty Board adopted a rule in 1919 stating that agents couldn’t sell property to “Negro or Chinese people in a White neighborhood.” Black Americans could only buy homes in Albina. The rule was on the books until 1956. Redlining happened around the country, which the federal government used to essentially segregate neighborhoods. The Home Owners Loan Corporation would label certain areas as “risky” (red lines) for home loans, which concentrated poverty and segregated neighborhoods by race. While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ruled that redlining was unconstitutional, it didn’t undo the damage already done or prevent informalized discrimination. The article on Portland points out there’s evidence that banks still practiced redlining until the 1990s.