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What Is Critical Race Theory?

What is ‘critical race theory,’ where did the term come from, and what does it mean?
Neal Hardin
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Over the past several years, few ideas have ignited more debate than critical race theory (CRT). Terms that critical race theory uses, such as systemic racism, white privilege, anti-racism, whiteness, and microaggressions, have become common.

Everywhere we look, we see CRT invoked as either something to be feared or something to be loved, something to be endorsed or something to be refuted. It’s a polarizing issue.

And that makes sense, because under critical race theory, there is no middle ground. You are either an “oppressor” or “oppressed,” a “racist” or “anti-racist.” Or, as one school official put it, you need to either get on the anti-racism school bus and find your seat or “just get off the bus.”

Racism is wrong. Every person is created in the image of God, deserving of equal treatment and respect. But CRT is not the solution to racism in America. Instead, it only compounds the problem.

But what do we need to know about CRT? Where does it come from? Where is it spreading? And how might it affect you and the freedoms you care about?

It’s an exceedingly complex topic, so let’s break it down.

What is critical theory?

Critical race theory can, in part, be traced to a field of postmodern academic thought called critical theory. The term “critical theory” was coined by Max Horkheimer in his 1937 essay “Traditional and Critical Theory.” According to Horkheimer, the role of critical theory is to critique (hence “critical”) and ultimately change society as opposed to traditional theory that merely sought to describe it (usually in a scientific manner).

Today, there are many bodies of critical theory, including critical gender theory, critical queer theory, critical postcolonial theory, critical intersectional feminism, and more.

Writing for National Review, Cameron Hilditch notes that critical theory was established by “a group of German Marxist thinkers known as the Frankfurt School.” Hilditch writes:

Critical theorists … believe that societies, cultures, and civilizations are almost entirely social constructs … The most important question to the critical theorist is therefore Cicero’s famous “Cui bono?”—“Who benefits?”

Who benefits? Who has power? As Tim Keller helpfully notes, under secular critical theory, “reality is at bottom nothing but power.”

From this understanding of power flows a radical skepticism toward objective knowledge.

James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, scholars who have researched critical theory, write that its proponents reject objective truth, reason, and empirical evidence. Instead, critical theorists assert that only identity and oppression matter.

Critical theory divides society according to whether one is a member of an oppressor or oppressed group or groups. Critical theory’s warped understanding of power and knowledge undermine confidence in the foundations of liberalism: equality, universality, and individual rights.

The origins of critical race theory

While many ideological underpinnings of critical race theory came from critical theory, critical race theory originally emerged in the 1970s and ’80s out of a field of legal scholarship called critical legal studies (CLS). As you might guess, CLS also has its roots in critical theory.

According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, critical legal studies looks at how “the law supports a power dynamic which favors the historically privileged and disadvantages the historically underprivileged.”

In other words, CLS posits that laws are inherently biased because they were created to serve the self-interest and to enhance the power of a privileged few. This perspective stands in sharp contrast to the American constitutional tradition, in which the law secures rights equally for all people.

The Conference on Critical Legal Studies was founded in 1977 by legal scholars who had been influenced by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s.

Some of those same CLS scholars would go on to develop critical race theory because they were seeking to explain why the changes in law gained by the civil rights movement on racial issues (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964) were still being ignored, resisted, or obstructed by many state governments and other institutions.

CLS scholars believed that if a change in the laws were the only thing necessary to achieve equality, then the passage of civil rights legislation should have guaranteed the rights of racial minorities in the United States. But since there were still disparities in outcomes, they believed other institutionalized forces must have been at work.

The “critical” aspects of CRT led to a radical skepticism that there was any real improvement in the first place.

Derrick Bell, considered one of the first and most influential proponents of critical race theory, wrote an article in 1980 in the Harvard Law Review in which he called into question the motives behind the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated public schools. The Supreme Court’s decision should have been celebrated as an example of righting a wrong. Instead, Bell framed it as opportunism, claiming that it was possible only because the interests of the white majority, which he believed were saving face internationally and developing the South economically, converged with the interests of the black minority, which were achieving equal treatment and equal access.

Out of these seedbeds of scholarship for critical theory and critical legal studies grew what we now know as “critical race theory.”

One of the most pernicious ways we see critical race theory affecting our society is in our K-12 education system.
One of the most pernicious ways we see critical race theory affecting our society is in our K-12 education system.

What is critical race theory?

The term “critical race theory” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw at a 1989 conference called “New Developments in Critical Race Theory.” According to Crenshaw, the conference was designed to attract those “who were looking both for a critical space in which race was foregrounded and a race space where critical themes were central.”

The conference explored the intersection of critical theory, critical legal studies, and race. Crenshaw recalls that several themes arose from that first conference, such as “critiques of neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness, meritocracy, and formal equality.” Many of these themes have continued to define CRT to this day.

With that background in mind, what is critical race theory? To answer that, let’s pivot to two of CRT’s foremost scholars: Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.

In their seminal work Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (now in its third edition), Delgado and Stefancic write:

“The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

While there’s no one list of principles that all scholars of critical race theory agree on, Delgado and Stefancic lay out several tenets that have come to define CRT:

1. “Racism is ordinary, not aberrational.”

One of the most important beliefs of CRT scholars is that racism permeates society, the law, and all institutions. Proponents of critical race theory claim it is the air we breathe and the water we swim in, something so normal that it is “unacknowledged” by most people. To maintain this assertion, critical race theory redefines “racism.”

Racism has long been understood as prejudice and discrimination based on race. But under critical race theory, racism comes to mean any disparity observed along racial lines.

For example, if one racial group is outperforming another group in academic achievement, that is, by definition, racism. The fact that a racial disparity exists is “racism”—regardless of whether it is the result of prejudicial attitudes. This redefinition shifts the emphasis from equal treatment to equal outcomes.

2. Interest convergence

As Derrick Bell argued in his article about Brown v. Board of Education, critical race theory asserts that the majority will only secure civil rights for minorities when it serves the majority’s self-interest. In other words, any concept of altruism is thrown out the window.

3. Race as a social construct

Delgado and Stefancic write that in critical race theory, “Race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.”

In other words, CRT advocates claim that while groups of people do share certain biological traits, the fact that we group ourselves according to qualities like these rather than characteristics like “personality, intelligence, and moral behavior” demonstrates that race is a social construct.

4. Intersectionality

This term was also coined by Crenshaw. Delgado and Stefancic note, “Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.” Therefore, people will experience unique forms of oppression or discrimination based on the intersection of their oppressed identities.

For example, according to this logic, while a black man or a white woman might experience different forms of discrimination, a black woman, based on the combination of her two oppressed identities, will experience unique forms of oppression. The converse is also true. A white man will experience unique forms of “privilege” based on the combination of his privileged identities.

5. Unique voice of color

Critical race theory also holds that members of racial minorities enjoy a unique perspective with “a presumed competence to speak about race and racism” in ways that white people, being in the majority, are not.

This perspective involves “story-telling” and engaging in “revisionist history” to develop counternarratives and histories centered on the experiences of minorities rather than majorities. One example of the “unique voice of color” is the 1619 Project, which seeks to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” This also means that society can discount the views of those in the majority simply because of their skin color.

In addition to the principles laid out by Delgado and Stefancic, one final principle common among CRT scholars is a rejection of “colorblindness.” In the framework of critical race theory, the notion of colorblindness serves only to keep white people in a position of power by feigning neutrality in racial issues. As one author put it, regardless of one’s personal attitudes, “racism can be evidenced in the outcome of processes and relations irrespective of intent.” In other words, CRT teaches that a person can still be racist even if they hold no prejudicial attitudes toward another race.

But the implications of critical race theory go beyond race.

As a theory with intellectual roots in Marxism, it’s not surprising that CRT and other critical theories view all Western values—including religious freedom, the importance of the nuclear family, and Judeo-Christian conceptions of morality—as inherently oppressive.

For example, CRT proponents reject American ideals such as hard work or equal treatment under the law because they view them as rooted in oppression. They see those principles as means through which power and privilege are projected throughout society. Such values, CRT concludes, must be reformed, replaced, or overthrown until racial equity (rather than equality) is achieved.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Contrary to Dr. King’s dream, in a society dominated by critical race theory, one’s race is the most important aspect of a person’s identity. It determines whether someone is categorized as an oppressor or oppressed.

Student Writing In Classroom
The ideology of critical race theory is already dominating America's most influential institutions.

What are the practical implications of critical race theory?

After reading all this, you might be wondering, “How does critical race theory affect me? How does it affect my freedoms?”

Since CRT rejects principles of constitutional law—indeed, rejects the entire liberal order out of which the U.S. Constitution arose—it cynically casts aside rights like religious freedom and free speech, which were key to advancing the civil rights movement. In reality, free speech lifts people up and leads to justice. But proponents of critical race theory view these fundamental freedoms as more ways for the powerful to oppress the powerless. Since CRT’s adherents characterize opposing views as racist, discussion is not an option. They are prone to resorting to censorship and silencing critics, as we see frequently on college campuses. And CRT’s victims aren’t just conservatives or people of faith.

Delgado and Stefancic also address the pervasiveness of critical race theory:

“Although CRT began as a movement in the law, it has rapidly spread beyond that discipline. Today, many in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues of school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, affirmative action, high-stakes testing, controversies over curriculum and history, and alternative and charter schools.”

This ideology is already dominating America’s most influential institutions, including government, major corporations, and academia.

Critical race theory in K-12 education

One of the most pernicious ways we see critical race theory affecting society is in our K-12 education system. CRT is informing the trainings that many public-school teachers and administrators receive and the curricula they are tasked with teaching children.

In these schools, students aren’t learning about Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, or Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. And that fact conveniently allows many to deny that critical race theory is being taught in schools at all. But that masks the truth: schools are implementing classroom practices rooted in a CRT-influenced ideology that often masquerades by the name “anti-racism.”

Anti-racism is critical race theory’s answer to racism. While “anti-racism” may sound good on the surface (who doesn’t want to stand against racism?), it actually mandates more racism by treating people differently based on race.

Ibram X. Kendi, a leading proponent of critical race theory, embraces this new form of racism in his book How to Be an Antiracist when he says, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Because racial equity (equal outcomes) rather than racial equality (equal opportunities) is the goal of CRT, racial discrimination is necessary to achieve those outcomes.

In CRT, discrimination and racism become the solutions to discrimination and racism. Ironically, anyone who does not embrace this logic and become an “anti-racist” advocate is branded a “racist.” There’s no middle ground.

This ideology runs directly contrary to the Supreme Court’s own precedent. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” You can’t stop the evils of racism and discrimination with more of the same.

While some supporters of CRT may sincerely seek to address racial inequalities, their methods harm children of all races.

That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom is intervening.

ADF client Melissa Riley is one of the parents challenging the unconstitutional policies and practices of the Albemarle County School Board.
ADF client Melissa Riley is one of the parents challenging the unconstitutional policies and practices of the Albemarle County School Board.


ADF cases involving critical race theory

ADF is actively investigating CRT-influenced curricula and policies across the country. And we are pursuing cases to protect the constitutional rights of students, parents, and teachers facing these dangerous policies.

Ibanez v. Albemarle County School Board

ADF is representing an ethnically and religiously diverse group of five families to challenge the unconstitutional policies and practices of the Albemarle County School Board in Virginia. While these families come from a wide range of racial and religious backgrounds, they are united in opposing racial discrimination and ensuring the rights of parents to protect their children from harmful ideologies infiltrating the educational system.

In 2019, the Albemarle County School Board adopted a so-called “anti-racism” policy. What were the results?

One Latina student was shown a video instructing her that minorities could not live in big houses. This girl’s family is from Panama, and her parents, Carlos and Tatiana Ibanez, built a successful business after immigrating to the United States. What their daughter was taught at school was that her achievement in life will turn on her racial background, not her hard work. Schools have no business instructing kids to believe that their family’s heritage and their own racial identity are negatives, factors that decrease their ability to succeed in life.

Another parent, Melissa Riley, has a son of mixed heritage: white, black, and Native American. Since the school district implemented the challenged policy, Melissa has heard her son joke about and discuss his race in a negative way that she never observed him doing before the school district started implementing the policy. Before all this began, she raised concerns to school officials that this policy would not benefit her son. The solution offered to her was to have her son taught separately in a “safe space” with other minority students. To Melissa, this sounded like segregation, not progress.

Mais v. Albemarle County School Board

In another case in Albemarle County, ADF is representing Emily Mais, a former assistant principal at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School. Emily believes that every person is made in the image of God and is entitled to equal treatment and respect. So when the Albemarle County School Board implemented its “anti-racism” policy, rooted in critical race theory, that promoted harmful racial stereotypes and advocated treating people differently according to their race, she became concerned.

During the teacher trainings, all staff members were encouraged to “speak their truth.” Yet Emily saw how white staff members who wanted to participate were shut down or dismissed.

During one of these training sessions, Emily made a comment concerning the school district’s race-related hiring practices. Intending to use the phrase “people of color,” she accidentally said “colored” instead. She immediately apologized—profusely and repeatedly—but one staff member ignored her apology and proceeded to berate her in front of the entire group. This slip of the tongue led to months of abuse and harassment directed at Emily, eventually ending with her resigning from her position as assistant principal—a job that she loved.

Critical race theory and the Constitution

Schools that implement policies and practices based on CRT or “anti-racism” likely violate the constitutional and civil rights of the students, faculty, and staff who are forced to participate.

  • Critical race theory creates a hostile environment when it is implemented to classify students as oppressor or oppressed simply because of their skin color or ethnic heritage, and to advocate for students to be treated differently based on race. This classification violates a child’s right to equal treatment.
  • When any dissent from critical race theory is labeled as “racism,” students, teachers, and administrators can be threatened and punished based on their beliefs, becoming victims of viewpoint discrimination.
  • When students, teachers, or administrators are compelled (under threat of punishment) to affirm statements like “America is fundamentally racist” or to confess “white privilege” or “implicit bias,” their freedom of speech is violated.
  • Advocates of critical race theory often label Christianity as a “dominant” identity and an aspect of “white-dominant culture” that has oppressed “subordinate” non-Christian religions. CRT-inspired curricula can instruct students to make daily choices to work against or dismantle dominant identities like Christianity. Students, teachers, and administrators who are Christian will likely suffer religious discrimination as a result.


Critical race theory is a toxic ideology that views everything through the lens of race and power. While many in our culture today hold out CRT as the way to fight racism, it only perpetuates racism by advocating for disparate treatment based on race.

We should teach children to love their neighbors, and to view other classmates as potential friends, not potential enemies in a racial power struggle.

We must stand up for the dignity of all human beings. We must stand up for parental rights and other fundamental freedoms. We must continue to strive for an America in which all people are judged by their character, not the color of their skin. And we must remember the words of Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

America isn’t perfect, but racism is not defeated by more racism. Injustice is not remedied by placing people in the categories of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” We should not teach children to discriminate based on outer characteristics, but instead teach them to treat all people with dignity and respect.

Neal Hardin
Neal Hardin
Web Manager & Writer
Neal Hardin serves as Web Manager & Writer for Alliance Defending Freedom