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Critical Race Theory

Edited by: , & Published: 2004
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Critical race theory is a body of radical critique against the implicit acceptance of White supremacy in prevailing legal paradigms and in contemporary law. The legal literature and civil rights discourse used to be dominated by the writings of White scholars and legal practitioners. Critical race theory emerged in the early 1990s as an intellectual movement shaped substantially, but not exclusively, by progressive scholars of color in the United States (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995). Critical race theory deconstructs the legal, symbolic, and material capital represented by Whiteness. Its mission is to critique and, ultimately, transform the law, an institution contributing to the construction and perpetuation of racial domination and subordination. The intertwining of experiential depth, politics, and intellectual rigor makes critical race theory accessible and relevant to social scientists despite its foundations in the discipline of law.

Critical race theory can be seen as part of the radical tradition of oppositional writings (Essed & Goldberg, 2002). These approaches are premised on the idea that science is not “neutral” or “objective.” Notions of rights and equality, right and wrong, justice and injustice have different implications for groups who have suffered through history. An important methodological consideration is that race and racism are often understood differently, depending on the positioning of the defining party in the matrix of race relations (Bulmer & Solomos, 2003). Institutions, the court included, tend to privilege the perpetrator's perspective of racism, usually a narrow definition based on proof of intent. The victim, who is exposed to a broader range of experiences of racism, can often understand racism in terms of the societal consequences of exclusion and humiliation.

Critical race theory has been instrumental in mainstreaming intersectionality and multiple identifications as theoretical frameworks. Race, gender, and other structural categories intersect with and determine legal and social discourses. For example, the disproportionate number of African American women who lose custody of their children through the child welfare system is partly due to cultural bias privileging the White and middle-class ideal of the nuclear family and (full-time) mothering.

Using texts and narratives as data, critical race scholars expose the limitations and distortions of traditional legal analysis. They deconstruct law through contextual analysis of historical and other court cases that have marked the landscape of race relations. The myth of color blindness underlying the wellknown “separate but equal” case, Plessy v. Ferguson(1896), is a case in point. The court treated racial categorizations as unconnected to social status and reconfirmed segregation. Critical race theory offers a framework for understanding how and why court systems continue to reinforce racial injustice. Collection and analysis of historical and contemporary texts and stories of racial injustice are powerful tools to build bridges of validation and understanding in the pursuit of social transformations.

Philomena Essed
Bulmer, M., & Solomos, J. (Eds.). (2003).Researching race and racism.London: Routledge Kegan Paul.
Crenshaw, K., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (Eds.). (1995).Critical race theory.New York: The New York Press.
Essed, Ph., & Goldberg, T. D. (Eds.). (2002).Race critical theories: Text and context.Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

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