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What is critical race theory and why it should matter to academic authors

Recently, since the popularity of the 1619 project and its connection to critical race theory (CRT), there has been significant confusion about what CRT is. CRT used to be only known and debated by scholars in law, education, sociology and other related fields, but now it is troubling the minds of the parents of elementary students, among others. Let’s start with what it is, talk about what it isn’t and end with discussing what academic authors need to know about it.

What is CRT?

Critical race theory was developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw and others in the 1980s to examine issues of racial bias in the legal system. Critical race theory has several key tenets. Primary among them are that racism and oppression are a part of the American system due to our unresolved history of slavery, and in order to make changes to that system, one must tell the stories of the oppressed and marginalized.

These stories have typically been left out of discussions of history and other related fields. CRT is designed to help us to understand and change this system which maintains barriers to many people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, those with disabilities and so many other non-mainstream groups. It is a theory of activism for change.

Many are afraid of CRT because they would desire that we forget our history of slavery and imagine that everyone in the United States is currently on the same playing field, not recognizing that many were born on third base and others were born 100 miles from the ballpark. Many of these differences stem from systemic racism that has thwarted the efforts of many, African Americans particularly, from prospering in this system. Some people would argue that racism is gone and that the African Americans who are struggling do so as a result of their own inabilities. CRT would suggest this is a very uninformed argument and note that Black people face so many barriers, that it is a wonder that they have been as successful as they have been. Black people in the U.S. today currently must combat with the following concerns:

  • Being more likely to receive longer jail sentences for the same crime as White people
  • Receiving lower incomes despite the same level of education
  • Being less likely to receive a home loan despite income
  • Attending public schools that are less well funded
  • Receiving lower quality healthcare
  • And many other factors that impact their daily lives

All of these occur due to the system of racism and oppression that has been perpetuated in the United States since its inception. The repercussions of this blatant racism persist today because of systems that have historically (e.g., redlining) and currently (e.g., biases of health care providers) created barriers to the success and thriving of many in the United States including Black people. CRT suggests that the only way to change these systems is to call them out and make an active effort to change them so that the American Dream can be a possibility for all its citizens.

Critical race theory would be used to suggest that the systems in place that allow and maintain racism are the problem and must be modified. Many may be a part of that system and not recognize their role. The employees who process the paperwork at the bank may be denying loans based on a score that they receive but may not know that the system that creates the score is biased against people of color. CRT attacks the system, not individuals, and that is where change should be made, on the systemic level.

What CRT is not

  • CRT isn’t typically taught in K-12 settings as it is a specialized theory mostly taught in graduate school and in some undergraduate programs that examine issues of oppression and marginalization of people.
  • CRT does not focus on teaching people that they are racist, but that systems in the United States are built upon racism and perpetuate racism.
  • CRT is not just teaching accurate history, but CRT may encourage individuals to teach accurate history as they engage in counter storytelling (telling the stories of those in history who have typically been left out of the textbooks).

It is important to note that some schools are teaching children about issues of racism, oppression, and diversity, but this can lead to improvements in the current system. If parents participate in these discussions with their children, we will move towards a more equitable and prosperous U.S. for everyone. If we can move beyond our fears and discuss the realities of the world in developmentally appropriate ways, we can make positive change.

Why should academic authors care about CRT?

Critical race theory is important to academic authors of various disciplines because it is a theoretical base to consider as they engage in research, teaching, leadership, and applied roles. Academic authors who study issues of racism or oppression of any type may find CRT a useful tool to understand and combat these issues. CRT tells us that we should move beyond just perpetuating knowledge from mainstream Americans in our research and writing, to including the voices of all people. Historians and others who tell the stories of people in their writing should consider the perspective that they are taking and whether they are intentionally or unintentionally leaving out the stories of marginalized and oppressed groups.

Even scientists and mathematicians, who may feel their disciplines do not intersect with racial issues, can benefit their students by adopting a CRT perspective. By including diversity in their texts and writings, they present content in which people of color and other marginalized communities see themselves as being represented and actively participating in these disciplines. Students of color need to see themselves in the pictures and language of these texts and need to be mentored because, as a result of a racially charged history, they are often less likely to have social networks that include scientists and mathematicians than European American students.

As teachers and leaders in academia and publishing, academic writers can be champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, bringing the ideas of the marginalized into mainstream spaces by utilizing the ideas of CRT. This would mean exploring and working to understand the impact that laws, policies, and practices have on marginalized populations. Academic authors are positioned to create a culture in which their writing more accurately represents the realities of the world that we live in because we are highlighting the diverse voices of so many and learning from their experiences.

Stacie DeFreitasStacie Craft DeFreitas is an Associate Professor at Prairie View A & M University in Texas. She is a co-editor of Critical race studies across the disciplines: Resisting racism through scholactivism and author of African American Psychology: A Positive Psychology Perspective.