Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic movement of civil-rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine the law as it intersects with issues of race and to challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice. Critical race theory examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism.

Critical race theory originated in the mid-1970s in the writings of several American legal scholars, including Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Cheryl Harris, Charles R. Lawrence III, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia J. Williams. It emerged as a movement by the 1980s, reworking theories of critical legal studies (CLS) with more focus on race. Both critical race theory and critical legal studies are rooted in Critical Theory, an approach to social theory established by members of the Frankfurt School, which argues that social problems are influenced and created more by societal structures and cultural assumptions than by individual and psychological factors.

Critical race theory sees racism as systemic and institutional, rather than just a collection of individual prejudices. It also views race as a socially constructed identity which serves to oppress non-white people. The theory emphasizes how racism and disparate racial outcomes can be the result of complex, changing and often subtle social and institutional dynamics, rather than explicit and intentional prejudices by individuals. In the field of legal studies, critical race theory emphasizes that merely making laws colorblind on paper may not be enough to make the application of the laws colorblind; ostensibly colorblind laws can be applied in racially discriminatory ways. Intersectionality – which emphasizes that race can intersect with other identities (such as gender and class) to produce complex combinations of power and disadvantage – is a key concept in critical race theory.

Academic critics of critical race theory argue that it relies on social constructionism, elevates storytelling over evidence and reason, rejects the concepts of truth and merit, and opposes liberalism. Since 2020, conservative lawmakers in the United States have sought to ban or restrict critical race theory instruction along with other anti-racism programs. Critics of these efforts say the tenets and importance of critical race theory have been poorly defined or misrepresented, and that lawmakers’ goal is to silence broader discussions of racism, equality, social justice, and the history of race.

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