Critical Race Theory Essay

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Critical race theory posits that racism, White privilege, and historical context dominate and permeate institutions and systems, social norms, and daily practice. The U.S. judicial system, in this view, represents and institutes traditional historical narratives that disadvantage people of color. Research in critical race theory has a conceptual framework based on the experiences of people of color, rather than using the experience of Whites as the norm. Critical race theory can also be described as a movement of those who hope to study and transform the relationships among race, racism, and power. This movement includes activists and scholars in education, sociology, ethnic studies, and women’s studies. In education, critical race theory challenges dominant education theory, discourse, policy, and practice by inserting the voices of students and communities of color and centering their experiential knowledge. This entry provides a brief overview of critical race theory and discusses its influence in education and education research.

Background And Tenets

Critical race theory grew out of a confrontation between critical legal studies researchers, dominated by White males, and a core group of legal scholars seeking to situate race at the center of the discourse.

Among those leading this burgeoning form of scholarship was Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, known to many as the movement’s intellectual father figure. Bell was a law professor at Harvard Law School until the early 1980s, when his departure and the refusal of the school’s administration to hire another professor of color to teach his class on race and constitutional law led some students to question hiring practices. The controversy impelled young scholars and law professors to convene a summer conference in 1989 in Madison, Wisconsin, where they began to outline the assumptions, arguments, definitions, and future research agenda for critical race theorists.

Scholars of critical race theory hold that racism is endemic and ingrained in U.S. society and that the civil rights movement and subsequent laws require reinterpretation. Concepts of neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness, and meritocracy must be challenged, they say, providing a space for the voices of marginalized people to be heard in discussions of reform. Whiteness is constructed as the “ultimate property” in this line of thought. Commitment to social justice and an interdisciplinary perspective are also features of critical race theory.

In addition to these central tenets, the concept of “interest convergence” is essential to an understanding of critical race theory. Bell first introduced the interest convergence concept when he expanded upon traditional interpretations of the Brown v. Board of Education landmark court case. In his view, African Americans’ demands for racial equality will be met only when Whites believe it will serve their interests, too, and the legal system will not correct injustices if doing so poses a threat to the status of middle and upper-class Whites.

Working from that perspective, Bell contended that the Brown decision was not based on a moral or human rights rationale. Rather, the decision came as a result of reasons directly affecting White citizens: (1) the threat of a spreading communist movement, which worried U.S. leaders about its standing in the foreign relations community; (2) the end of World War II, which meant that returning soldiers of color would demand an improvement in civil rights and educational opportunities; and (3) the need to promote economic growth or industrialization, which even in the South meant that segregationists had to consider changing the economic structure in ways that would maintain U.S. superiority. Bell contended that a civil rights strategy seeking change solely on moral grounds, as exemplified by desegregation of schools, may not be the best way to advance the interests of people of color.

Bell also laid the foundation for discussion of the first major tenet of critical race theory—the permanence of racism—in his book Faces at the Bottom of the Well. In his final chapter, “Space Traders,” Bell discussed structural racism in society by writing a counter story of fictionalized space aliens. In the story, White power brokers bargained, negotiated, and dealt away Black citizens to these fictional aliens because it ensured their own survival. The story stresses how Black citizens are relegated to an inferior or expendable status in U.S. systems, structures, and daily life. Like Bell, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic stated that racism is the normal routine and the everyday experience of most people of color. Charles Lawrence developed this tenet by introducing “unconscious racism” to the discourse. He noted that racism is part of U.S. history and the nation’s cultural heritage and influences everyone influenced by that belief system— even if they are not aware of it.

Influence In Education

Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate were the first to consider the usefulness of critical race theory frameworks in the study of educational issues; they cautioned researchers about embracing the new theoretical framework. However, scholars soon began to tell the stories of students and communities of color in higher and public education, integrating critical race theory with their research agendas while promoting social change. Utilizing critical race theory methodologies to provide a space for the voices of marginalized communities and students to emerge was an important addition to the educational literature.

Others situated their research in educational policy and politics. Laurence Parker proposed a framework for analyzing policy decisions by scrutinizing them and the conditions they create for students of color. After many years of scholarship, critical race theory has emerged as a powerful tool and one that remains to be fully explored.


  1. Bell, D. A. (1980). Brown v. Board of Education and the interest-convergence dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 93, 518–533.
  2. Bell, D. A. (1992). Faces at the bottom of the well. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Bell, D. A. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  4. Crenshaw, K. W., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (Eds.). (1995). Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement. New York: New Press.
  5. DeCuir, J. T., & Dixson, A. D. (2004). “So when it comes out, they aren’t that surprised that it is there”: Using critical race theory as a tool of analysis or race and racism in education. Educational Researcher, 33(5), 26–31.
  6. Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2001). Critical race theory: An introduction. New York: New York University Press.
  7. Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. (1997). Toward a critical race theory in education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47.
  8. Lawrence, C. R. (1987). The id, the ego, and equal protection: Reckoning with unconscious racism. Stanford Law Review, 39, 317–388.
  9. López, G. R. (2003). The (racially neutral) politics of education: A critical race theory perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly, 39(1), 69–94.
  10. López, G. R., & Parker, L. (Eds.). (2003). Interrogating racism in qualitative research methodology. New York: Peter Lang.
  11. Lynn, M. (2006). Dancing between two worlds: A portrait of the life of a Black male teacher in South Central LA. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 19(2), 221–242.
  12. Parker, L. (1998). “Race is. Race isn’t”: An exploration of the utility of critical race theory in qualitative research in education. Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 43–55.
  13. Parker, L. (2003). Critical race theory and its implications for methodology and policy analysis in higher education desegregation. In G. R. López & L. Parker (Eds.), Interrogating racism in qualitative research methodology (pp. 145–180). New York: Peter Lang.
  14. Solórzano, D. G. (1998). Critical race theory, racial and gender microagressions, and the experiences of Chicana and Chicano scholars. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11, 121–136.
  15. Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2001). Critical race and LatCrit theory and method: Counter-storytelling. Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(4), 471–495.
  16. Taylor, E. (1998). A primer on critical race theory. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 19, 122–124.
  17. Yosso, T. J. (2006). Critical race counterstories along the Chicana/Chicano educational pipeline. New York: Routledge.

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