Signs protesting Critical Race Theory in Virginia. Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

What you need to know about critical race theory

This scholarly field has recently felt populist heat
August 28, 2021

An unlikely spectre is haunting the right. Last year, Donald Trump attacked it as “toxic propaganda” that would “destroy our country”; its mentions on Fox News have shot up from 132 times in 2020 to 1,860 this year and counting. And the furore around it has been picked up here too. Last October, UK equalities minister Kemi Badenoch decried “an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression,” and insisted: “I want to be absolutely clear that the government stand unequivocally against critical race theory.” This August, academic Aysha Khanom began a case against Leeds Beckett University seeking to establish critical race theory as a protected belief under the Equality Act. 

So what, exactly, is it? Critical race theory is a longstanding academic field that emerged out of Harvard Law School. It is less interested in stories of individual victims and oppressors than how institutions have a role in reproducing racial inequality. 

In the 1980s, academics like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw observed a paradox. The Civil Rights Act had passed 20 years earlier, yet African Americans were experiencing far lower levels of employment, education and wealth than white Americans. Equality under the law did not mean equality in life; the roots of racial inequality lay far deeper. But the prevailing legal paradigm required evidence of intentional prejudice before one could claim discrimination.

Despite the backlash it provokes, driven by panic that it is about calling everyone racist, the whole point is to look beyond individual prejudice, explains Ali Meghji, a sociology lecturer at Cambridge. Critical race theorists have no interest in the idea that individuals of colour are purely victims and white individuals all oppressors; they focus on how social and political institutions can—even without explicitly intending to—reproduce racial inequalities. 

Since its emergence out of legal studies, critical race theory has influenced scholarship in many fields. In Britain, though the furore may have bubbled up only over the past year, the theory has in fact been practised on these shores since the 2000s, Meghji tells me. It has not yet obviously succeeded in unseating British civilisation. 

Although it is suddenly one of the most discussed academic labels, the diversity of approaches makes it difficult to pigeon-hole critical race theory. But if there is an essence, Meghji explains, it is that racism cannot be reduced to “just an issue of bad actors”: “one could get rid of all the bigots in society,” he says, yet structural racism would still exist. There may not be anyone intending that 60 per cent of British Bangladeshi children live in poverty or that black families in London be disproportionately exposed to air pollution—yet these inequalities exist. A critical race theorist may look at seemingly neutral social systems—of housing or economic opportunity—to find out what caused such outcomes.

It is, in sum, a far cry from the caricature painted by its critics. How To Be an Antiracist author Ibram X Kendi has said “reciting your own work over and over again to critics who either haven’t read what they are criticising or are purposefully distorting gets old.”  This is not the first time that a niche academic practice has taken centre stage in the culture wars: during the Trump years, figures from the right railed against “cultural Marxism,” a slippery term—which has historically had antisemitic connotations—that grouped the radical German philosopher together with thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida. Academics pointed in vain to the concept’s incoherence—noting, for one, that Foucault and Derrida were extremely different from each other—though that did little to quell the panic.

But could it also be that the culture war in which critical race theory is embroiled is getting old? In the ugly aftermath of England’s loss in Euro 2020—the vile abuse of the team’s black players showing the persistence of explicit racism—a Tory MP observing the fallout said: “I think there needs to be a serious realisation soon in government that people simply don’t care about the culture war crap. They care about the cost of living, NHS and crime. They don’t want to see us starting fights with Marcus Rashford.” Perhaps add to that fights with a set of 1980s Harvard lawyers.