Critical Race Theory Essay

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Critical race theory refers to a historical and contemporary body of scholarship that aims to interrogate the discourses, ideologies, and social structures that produce and maintain conditions of racial injustice. Critical race theory analyzes how race and racism are foundational elements in historical and contemporary social structures and social experiences. In defining critical race theory, it is important to first make a distinction between the historical tradition of theorizing about race and racism in western societies and a specific body of American legal scholarship that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the successes and failures of the US Civil Rights Movement struggles for the freedom and liberation of people of color of the 1950s and 1960s. Strongly influenced by prior freedom movements against colonialism, segregation, and racial violence, contemporary critical race theorists practice an ”intellectual activism” that aims not only to theorize, but also to resist these conditions of racial oppression. Using this broader framework, critical race theory can be viewed as a diagnostic body of ”intellectual activism” scholarship that seeks to identify the pressure points for anti-racist struggle. Given the breadth and scope of critical race theories, this essay will highlight several core themes that tie together this eclectic body of social and political thought.

The first core theme deals with how critical race theories frame its two focal objects of study: race and racism. Critical race theory understands the concept of race as a social construction that is produced as a result of the cultural and political meanings ascribed to it through social interactions and relationships across multiple levels of social organization. Since the 1600s, race has been a constitutive feature of global social, political, economic, and cultural organization. Critical race theories have demonstrated how race concepts and their accompanying racisms were foundational to the administration of colonial social systems, the rise and expansion of global capitalism, and the emergence of the human biological sciences and medicine of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Historically speaking, however, there are not, and have never been, monolithic conceptions of race and/or racism. Critical race theorists have rejected the notion that racism is synonymous with maligned individual prejudice and have embraced a more structural and institutional understanding of racism. In highlighting the institutional basis of racism, critical race theorists challenge the idea that people of color are solely responsible for their own oppression. Drawing on these formulations, contemporary critical race theories understand racism as a vast and complicated system of institutionalized practices that structure the allocation of social, economic, and political power in unjust and racially coded ways.

A second core theme is that critical race theory has traditionally used and continues to represent an interdisciplinary and theoretically eclectic approach to the study of race and racism. The interdisciplinary and, indeed, extra-disciplinary nature of critical race theory enables the analysis of a wide range of social, economic, and political phenomena that shape race and racism as social structures. Critical race theory draws upon an interdisciplinary body of scholarship that has intellectual roots and practitioners in sociology, critical legal studies, political theory and philosophy, neo-Marxist British cultural studies, African American literary criticism, history, and pragmatist philosophy.

Some critical race theorists, particularly black feminist theorists, have embraced an intersectional theoretical approach to analyzing the ways in which systems of gender, sexuality, and nationalism are implicated in the production and maintenance of racism. Drawing on psychoanalytic and literary theories, critical race theorists have analyzed the relationships between forms of cultural racism and colonial domination. Critical race theorists have also documented and critiqued the role of nation states in the formation of racial categories in the enactment of different forms of political oppressions. Critical racial theories have long recognized and opposed the centrality of western science to the construction of racial meanings and racist practices. Critical race theorists have exposed and criticized the ways that the myths of American democracy, meritocracy, and progress and the ideology of individualism function to justify changing forms of racial domination.

Finally, many critical race theories often go beyond diagnosis and critique to offer arguments and proposals for specific social policies that, if implemented, might work to undo the systemic disadvantages that impair the life chances and conditions of people of color in the USA. These theories continue to challenge entrenched racial inequalities in health, education, criminal injustice, political representation, and economic opportunity and seek to foster a more just and equal society.


  1. Collins, P. H. (2005) Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Routledge, New York.
  2. Winant, H. (2001). The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II. Basic Books, New York.

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