Critical Race Theory
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Foreword by Angela Harris
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS
New York and London
Basic Tenets of Critical Race Theory
What do critical race theorists believe? Probably not every member would subscribe to every tenet set out in this book, but many would agree on the following propositions.
First, that racism is ordinary, not aberrational -‑ "normal science," the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. Second, most would agree that our system of white‑over‑color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material. The first feature, ordinariness, means that racism is difficult to cure or address. Color‑blind, or "formal," conceptions of equality, expressed in rules that insist only on treatment that is the same across the board, can thus remedy only the most blatant forms of discrimination, such as mortgage redlining or the refusal to hire a black Ph.D. rather than a white high school dropout, that do stand out and attract our attention.
The second feature, sometimes called "interest convergence" or material determinism, adds a further dimension. Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working‑class people (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it. Consider, for example, Derrick Bell's shocking proposal (discussed in a later chapter) that Brown v. Board of Education‑considered a great triumph of civil rights litigation‑may have resulted more from the self‑interest of elite whites than a desire to help blacks.
A third theme of critical race theory, the "social construction" thesis, holds that 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. People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genetic endowment, are dwarfed by that which we have in common, and have little or nothing to do with distinctly human, higher‑order traits, such as personality, intelligence, and moral behavior. That society frequently chooses to ignore these scientific facts, creates races, and endows them with pseudo‑permanent characteristics is of great interest to critical race theory.
Another, somewhat more recent, development concerns differential racialization and its many consequences. Critical writers in law, as well as social science, have drawn attention to the ways the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market. At one period, for example, society may have had little use for blacks, but much need for Mexican or Japanese agricultural workers. At another time, the Japanese, including citizens of long standing, may have been in intense disfavor and removed to war relocation camps, while society cultivated other groups of color for jobs in war industry or as cannon fodder on the front. Popular images and stereotypes of various minority groups shift over time, as well. In one era, a group of color may be depicted as happy‑go‑lucky, simpleminded, and content to serve white folks. A little later, when conditions change, that very same group may appear in cartoons, movies, and other cultural scripts as menacing, brutish, and out of control, requiring close monitoring and repression.
Closely related to differential racialization ‑ the idea that each race has its own origins and ever evolving history ‑- is the notion of intersectionality and anti‑essentialism. No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity. A white feminist may be Jewish, or working‑class, or a single mother. An African American activist may be gay or lesbian. A Latino may be a Democrat, a Republican, or even a black‑perhaps because that person's family hails from the Caribbean. An Asian may be a recently arrived Hmong of rural background and unfamiliar with mercantile life, or a fourth‑generation Chinese with a father who is a university professor and a mother who operates a business. Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances.
A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with anti‑essentialism, the voice‑of‑color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with It a presumed competence to speak about race and racism. The "legal storytelling" movement urges black and brown writers to recount their experiences with racism and the legal system and to apply their own unique perspectives to assess law's master narratives. This topic, too, is taken up later in this book.
Color-blindness Is Problematic
An even more extreme version of color blindness, seen in certain Supreme Court opinions today, holds that it is wrong for the law to take any note of race, even to remedy a historical wrong. Critical race theorists (or "crits," as they are sometimes called) hold that color blindness will allow us to redress only extremely egregious racial harms, ones that everyone would notice and condemn. But if racism is embedded in our thought processes and social structures as deeply as many crits believe, then the "ordinary business" of society‑the routines, practices, and institutions that we rely on to effect the world's work‑will keep minorities in subordinate positions. Only aggressive, color‑conscious efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery. As an example of one such strategy, one critical race scholar proposed that society "look to the bottom" in judging new laws. If they would not relieve the distress of the poorest group‑or, worse, if they compound it‑we should reject them. Although color blindness seems firmly entrenched in the judiciary, a few judges have made exceptions in unusual circumstances.
What Is “Privilege”?
"White privilege" refers to the myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race. Imagine a black man and a white man, equally qualified, being interviewed for the same position in a business. The interviewer is white. The white candidate may feet more at ease with the interviewer because of the social connections he enjoys as a member of the same group. The interviewer may ask the white candidate to play golf later. Under the impression that few blacks golf, and not wishing to offend, he may not invite the black candidate to play. This example becomes especially telling when one considers that most corporate positions of power, despite token inroads, are still held by whites.
According to a famous list compiled by Peggy McIntosh, white people enjoy and can rely on over fifty privileges that attach by reason of having white skin, including the assurance that store clerks will not follow them around, that people will not cross the street to avoid them at night, that their achievements will not be regarded as exceptional or "credits to their race," and that their occasional mistakes will not be attributed to biological inferiority. Whites, McIntosh writes, benefit from a system of favors, exchanges, and courtesies from which outsiders of color are frequently excluded, including hiring one's neighbors' kids for summer jobs, a teacher's agreement to give a favored student an extra‑credit assignment that will enable him or her to raise a grade of B+ to A‑, or the kind of quiet networking that lands a borderline candidate a coveted position.
This has prompted one commentator to remark that our system of race is like a two‑headed hydra. One head consists of outright racism‑the oppression of people on grounds of who they are. The other consists of white privilege, a system by which whites help one another. If one lops off a single head, say, outright racism, but leaves the other intact, our system of white over black/brown will remain virtually unchanged. The predicament of social reform, as one writer, pointed out, is that "everything must change at once." Otherwise, change is swallowed up by the remaining elements, so that we remain roughly as we were before. Culture replicates itself forever and ineluctably.
A much more subtle and complex version of white privilege sometimes appears in discussions of the fairness of affirmative action programs. Many whites feel that these programs victimize them, that more qualified white candidates will be required to sacrifice their positions to less qualified minorities. So, is affirmative action a case of "reverse discrimination" against whites? Part of the argument for it rests on an implicit assumption of innocence on the part of the white displaced by affirmative action. The narrative behind this assumption characterizes whites as innocent, a powerful metaphor, and blacks as‑what? Presumably, the opposite of innocent. Many critical race theorists and social scientists alike hold that racism is pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white member of society seems quite so innocent. The interplay of meanings that one attaches to race, the stereotypes one holds of other people, and the need to guard one's own position all powerfully determine one's perspective. Indeed, one aspect of whiteness, according to some, is its ability to seem perspectiveless, or transparent. Whites do not see themselves as having a race, but being, simply, people. They do not believe that they think and reason from a white viewpoint, but from a universally valid one‑"the truth"‑what everyone knows. By the same token, many whites will strenuously deny that they have benefited from white privilege, even in situations (golf, summer jobs, extra‑credit assignments, merchants who smile) like the ones mentioned throughout this book.
Color-blindness As Racism
Conservatives, however, see it differently. Beginning with position papers, op‑ed columns, and books, writers of this persuasion have been arguing that affirmative action balkanizes the country, stigmatizes minorities, weakens the idea of merit, and constitutes reverse discrimination. Some, such as he authors of The Bell Curve, even argued that minorities may be biologically inferior to whites, so that disparate representation in selective schools and occupations should come as no surprise. Conservatives followed up their media campaign with a series of lawsuits aimed at declaring affirmative action unconstitutional.
Civil rights organizations and progressive educators sought to counter each of these ideas. Progressive scientists challenged every one of the premises of The Bell Curve and similar neo‑eugenicist tracts, showing how they rested on discredited 1920s‑era pseudoscience. Critical race theory's contribution to the defense of affirmative action has consisted mainly of a determined attack on the idea of merit and standardized testing. Conservatives make points by charging that affirmative action gives jobs or places in academic programs to individuals who do not deserve them. The public receives incompetent service, while better‑qualified workers or students are shunted aside. This argument resonated with certain liberals who equate fairness with color blindness and equal opportunity, rather than equal results.
CRT's critique of merit takes a number of forms, all designed to show that merit is far from the neutral principle that its supporters imagine it to be (see chapter 6). Several writers critique standardized testing, demonstrating that tests like the SAT are coachable and reward those from high socioeconomic levels. They predict little else than first‑year grades‑and those only modestly‑and do not measure other important qualities such as empathy, achievement orientation, or communication skills. Other crits point out that merit is highly contextual. If one moves the hoop in a basketball court up or down six inches, one radically changes the distribution of who has merit. Similarly, if on(defines the objective of a law school as turning out gill) lawyers who excel at a certain type of verbal reasoning, then one group would appear to have a virtual corner on merit. But if one defined lawyering skills more broadly to include negotiation, interpersonal understanding, and the ability to craft an original argument for law reform, then a different group might well stand out.
One critical scholar addressed the popular suggestion that affirmative action based on race be phased out in favor of one based on socioeconomic disadvantage or class. Most educators believe that such a shift would devastate the chances of communities of color, because the number of poor whites greatly exceeds that of poor minorities. Accordingly, the scholar proposed that any institution tempted to implement an affirmative action plan of this type also take advantage, or white privilege, into account (see chapter 5). For example, imagine a university admissions committee comparing two candidates. Candidate A is a Chicano from East Los Angeles with a 3.9 average from an inner‑city school and SAT scores of 1050. His college essay recounts that he stepped in when his father went to jail and helped raise his younger siblings. His life objective is to apply Cesar Chavezs religion‑based, collectivist ideas to organize urban areas.
Candidate B is a son of a white suburban family who sent him to a private school and to Europe his junior year. This student has a 3.3 average from an elite school and an SAT score of 1200. He has no particular educational objective, but wants to develop an all‑around grounding in liberal arts, before going to work in his dad's company. His personal essay describes how his effort to make the junior varsity cross‑country team strengthened his character. Most admissions officers, like most readers, would undoubtedly favor the Chicano candidate despite his lower test scores, but why? Perhaps it is because we believe that Candidate B has not made the most of his opportunities, while Candidate A seems eager to do so. The author who developed this proposal drew on notions of white privilege established in the critical white studies literature to urge that admissions officers discount, or penalize, the scores of candidates like B, thus clearing the way for ones like A.
2. Race, Class, Welfare, and Poverty
A second field on which ideological battles rage is the distribution of material benefits in society. This controversy shades off into the much‑debated question of whether race or class is the dominant factor in the subjugation of people of color. Is racism a means by which whites secure material advantages, as Derrick Bell proposes? Or is a "culture of poverty," including broken families, crime, intermittent employment, and a high educational dropout rate, what causes minorities to lag behind?
Critical race theory has yet to develop a comprehensive ,theory of class. A few scholars address issues such as housing segregation in terms of both race and class, showing that 'black poverty is different from almost any other kind. Real I estate steering, redlining, and denial of loans and mortgages, especially after the end of World War 11, prevented blacks from owning homes, particularly in desirable neighbor hoods. It also excluded them from sharing in the phenomenal appreciation in real estate property values that the last few decades have brought. Confinement to certain neighbor hoods, in turn, limits where black parents may send their children to school and so perpetuates the cycle of exclusion from opportunities for upward mobility that have enabled many poor whites to rise.
Some race crits focus on discrimination in higher‑echelon jobs, and in such fields as the delivery of health services. The critique of standardized testing, as mentioned earlier, also contains a class element: critics of tests such as the SAT have shown that many of the items are class‑bound, requiring familiarity with such items as polo mallets or regattas, and that the best predictor of a person's SAT score is his or her father's occupation.
Other critical race theorists analyze the distribution of environmental dangers and bio‑hazards. The environmental justice movement analyzes a type of internal colonialism, ill which installations such as toxic waste sites, radioactive tailings, and sewage treatment plants are disproportionately placed in minority communities or on Indian reservations. Corporate defenders of these practices argue as they do in the international arena, that they are merely going to the best market. Sometimes they point out that minority communities welcome the jobs that a sewage treatment plant, for example, would bring. Civil rights activists reply that the marketplace is far from neutral, and that a corporation that takes advantage of a community's financial vulnerability is engaging in predatory behavior, if not outright racism. A dynamic example of critical race theory in action, the environmental justice movement aims at forging a coalition between the hitherto white‑dominated conservation movement and minority communities. If it succeeds, it will have created a truly powerful force for change.
What about the general problem of the increasing disparity between the household incomes and assets of the top 10 percent of our society, and all the rest? Formerly, the United States relied on redistributive measures such as a progressive income tax, public education, and a welfare net to prevent those at the bottom from slipping into permanent poverty. Today, those programs command much less support than they did formerly. Some believe that the reason the public no longer supports welfare is that they see the recipients of welfare as having black and brown faces‑even though more whites receive welfare than do people of color. In short, society tolerates poverty and blighted upward mobility for outsider groups.
Many critical race scholars recognize that poverty and race intersect in complex ways, so that the predicament of very poor minority families differs in degree from that of their white counterparts. White poverty usually lasts for only a generation or two (even for immigrant families); not so for the black or brown version. By the same token, middle‑class or professional status for blacks, browns, or Indians is less secure than for others. Their children can fall from grace with breathtaking speed; sometimes all it takes is one arrest or a single very low grade in school. But a general theory of race and economics remains elusive.
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