What is critical race theory? What do proponents want? Is it just a legal theory or something more?
Where better to turn for answers to these questions than one of the founders
of the movement? Critical Race Theory (Third Edition) by Richard
Delgado and Jean Stefancic (his wife, so hereafter, the Delgados) is a popular
level introduction to the movement among legal scholars and civil rights
activists. This is not going to be a book review: Rather than waste time
telling you what a poorly written book this is, I’m just going to distill its
contents as a series of questions it should have clearly answered.
The authors frequently emphasize the variety of thought among CRT proponents
(called “crits”), and this book — first written in 2001 and revised in 2017 —
cannot tell us how it has evolved in recent years, but I think it is fair to
say that CRT is at minimum what the Delgados describe.
Because this is going to be longish, here is an outline for those who want to
skip to a specific question.
What is CRT?
What do crits believe about race and racism?
What is racism?
Why do white people do this?
What responsibility does an individual white person bear for this system?
How can our society learn about race?
The Goals of CRT
What do they want?
How would we achieve their goals?
Is CRT “just a legal theory?”
Is CRT anti-Christian?
Critical race theory comes from critical legal studies (page 4*). This, in
turn, comes from critical theory, which is based in part on Marxist thought.
The word “Marxism” only appears in this book in the glossary, and I saw nothing
overtly Marxist, but Delgado describes himself and his fellow founders as “a
bunch of Marxists” elsewhere, so we should expect the subtler signs that are
present in the book. They’re not teaching Marxism here, but it shapes how they
That Marxism appears in one of their basic premises, that fairness requires
equal results (eg, p28, 132). Two other premises that are never explicitly
stated but are assumed throughout the book are that unequal outcomes are proof
of racism (eg, p47) and equal outcomes supersedes all other rights (eg, p28).
These are assumptions, not arguments, so they are never explained or defended.
What is CRT?
1. What do crits believe about race and racism?
“Racism is ordinary, not aberrational ... the usual way society does business”
(p8). “Racism is much more than a collection of unfavorable impressions of
members of other groups. For realists [a prominent group of crits], racism is
a means by which society allocates privilege and status" (p21). “The status
quo is inherently racist, rather than merely sporadically and accidentally so"
And unequal outcomes are proof of that racism. Unstated here, but seen in
other works like Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is the idea that, if black
people make up 13% of the population, they should make up 13% of the doctors,
senators, and prisoners and own 13% of the wealth (cf, p12). Since that is
not the case, the only (or at least primary) explanation is racism. “Many
modern-day readers believe that racism is declining or that class today is
more important than race. And it is certainly true that lynching and other
shocking expressions of racism are less frequent than in the past. ... Still,
by every social indicator+, racism continues to blight the lives of people of
color, including holders of high-echelon jobs, even judges” (p10).
1.1. But what is racism?
“Everyone has heard the story about Eskimo languages, some of which supposedly
contain many words for different kinds of snow. Imagine the opposite
predicament—a society that has only one word (say, “racism”) for a phenomenon
that is much more complex than that, for example, biological racism;
intentional racism; unconscious racism; microaggressions; nativism;
institutional racism; racism tinged with homophobia or sexism; racism that
takes the form of indifference, coldness, or implicit associations; and white
privilege, reserving favors, smiles, kindness, the best stories, one’s most
charming side, and invitations to real intimacy for one’s own kind or class”
(p30). Of course, we might point out that the authors had no problem making
distinctions here, but it appears that use of the blanket term “racism” for a
variety of situations is standard for crits.
So “racism” consists of “outright racism—the oppression of some people on
grounds of who they are ... [and] white privilege—a system by which whites
help and buoy each other up" (p90), where “white privilege” is “the myriad of
social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of
the dominant race" (p89).
It also includes what we would call systemic racism: “Studies show+ that
blacks and Latinos who seek loans, apartments, or jobs are much more apt than
similarly qualified whites to suffer rejections, often for vague or spurious
reasons” (p12). In these cases, the person turning them down doesn’t
necessarily have a personal racial bias; the rules are simply designed to
disadvantage minorities (p27).
“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" (p8). In fact, color-blind
solutions can only address “extremely egregious racial harms, ones that
everyone would notice and condemn” (p27).
The authors give an example of a magic pill that would make personal,
race-based prejudice go away. They believe that the system that oppresses
minorities would continue to function just as it had before (p19-21).
1.2. Why do white people do this?
“Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and
working-class whites (psychically), large segments of society have little
incentive to eradicate it. Consider, for example, Derrick Bell’s shocking
proposal ... 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 from a desire to help blacks” (p8, cf p21).
1.3. What responsibility does an individual white person bear for this system?
Part of the argument that affirmative action is reverse discrimination “rests
on an implicit assumption of innocence on the part of the white person
displaced by affirmative action. The narrative behind this assumption
characterizes whites as innocent, a powerful metaphor.... By contrast, many
critical race theorists and social scientists hold that racism is pervasive,
systemic, and deeply ingrained. If we take this perspective, then no white
member of society seems quite so innocent” (p90).
So it seems that passively benefitting from this racist system — though I
think the authors would say that a white person upholds that system at every
opportunity — makes a white person guilty of racism and responsible for the
harms done by our racist system.
2. How can our society learn about race?
“The voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and
experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino 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” (p10). Implicit
in this is the presumed incompetence of non-minorities and their duty to be
silent, to listen and learn.
A direct result of this is what the Delgados call “revisionist history” which
“reexamines America’s historical record, replacing comforting majoritarian
interpretations of events with ones that square more accurately with
minorities’ experiences. It also offers evidence, sometimes suppressed, in
that very record, to support those new interpretations. ... Revisionism is
often materialist in thrust, holding that to understand the zigs and zags of
black, Latino, and Asian fortunes, one must look to matters like profit, labor
supply, international relations, and the interest of elite whites” (p 25). It
seems natural, then, that they would hold that it is their right and even duty
to produce things like the 1619 Project to educate Americans as to what, in
their view, really happened.
The Goals of CRT
1. What do they want?
It’s obvious that, first and foremost, crits want equity (that is, equal
outcomes) for minorities. But what does that look like? It would look like
criminal justice reform, including considering whether some things should be
felonies or crimes at all (p120). That would include giving felons their votes
back (p124) and intersectional sentencing guidelines (p64).
It would also look like a redefinition of merit (p131-132) including getting
rid of standardized testing requirements for college (p141) and racial
set-asides in education and employment (p114). It would include
color-conscious politics (p154) including special rules to make black votes
more effective and black politicians more influential (p139). There would be
laws against hate speech (p124-126, 157, 159) and more liberal immigration
policies (p137, 155).
They want CRT to be the “new civil rights orthodoxy” (p156). Which leads us to
2. How would we achieve their goals?
“Many liberals believe in color blindness and neutral principles of
constitutional law. They believe in equality, especially equal treatment for
all persons, regardless of their different histories or current situations.
... Color blindness can be admirable, as when a governmental decision maker
refuses to give in to local prejudices. But it can be perverse, for example,
when it stands in the way of taking account of difference in order to help
people in need. An 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. ... Only aggressive, color-conscious
efforts to change the way things are will do much to ameliorate misery” (p27).
“Crits are suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights. ... In our
system, rights are almost always procedural (for example, to a fair process)
rather than substantive (for example, to food, housing, or education). Think
how that system applauds affording everyone equality of opportunity but
resists programs that assure equality of results, such as affirmative action
at an elite college or university or efforts to equalize public school funding
among districts in a region” (p28).
“[Liberalism] also has been criticized as overly caught up in the search for
universals, such as admissions standards for universities or sentencing
guidelines that are the same for all. The crits point out that this approach
is apt to do injustice to individuals whose experience and situation differ
from the norm. They call for individualized treatment—’context’—that pays
attention to minorities’ lives” (p64).
Notice the repeated comparison to liberals. Crits see themselves
as being to the left of liberals and see color-blind laws and rights as
impediments to progress. What they want are very much race-conscious
It seems that would include direct payments. They believe the usual government
programs (eg, welfare, GI Bill, Social Security) benefit whites more than
minorities (p118), so special reparations are in order (p158).
Is CRT “just a legal theory?”
CRT began as a legal theory, but that is not where it wants to remain. It
wants to become “commonplace, part of the conventional wisdom. Consider how in
many disciplines scholars, teachers, and courses profess, almost incidentally,
to embrace critical race theory. Consider as well how many influential
commentators, journalists, and books ... develop critical themes while hardly
mentioning their origins in critical thought. Might critical race theory one
day diffuse into the atmosphere, like air, so that we are hardly aware of it
Could this be taught in an elementary or secondary classroom? Absolutely. Even
if the whole is not presented, the basic assumptions, claims, and goals — not
to mention the “revisionist history” — could easily be integrated into
Is CRT anti-Christian?
As presented here, I do not see anything anti-Christian. That’s not to say
some elements aren’t incompatible with the scriptures, but that’s not the same
thing. Marxism tends to be anti-Christian, and this does have clear Marxist
roots, but nothing the Delgados present calls for attacking, much less trying
to stamp out, Christianity. But, as I said before, CRT is evolving, and if
some begin to identify Christianity as an oppressor group, it would be a
natural target. New writings and programs should be examined for that, but
it’s not necessarily a part of CRT. So we cannot just write the whole thing off as "anti-gospel"; we have to engage proponents on their ideas and see what they're actually teaching.
Critical race theory is a way of looking at the world and at racial issues, one that sees race in everything.
The authors tacitly admit that it is not the only way of looking at racial issues even though they clearly
believe it is the best way. It is not “merely a legal theory”. It is also not
necessarily an attack on the gospel.
I disagree with much (though not all) of what they teach, but I appreciate
where they’re coming from. This is not going to go away until we deal with the
issues CRT was designed to deal with — the lingering effects of centuries of
racism and poverty among minorities. We can do it their way, or we can show
them a better way.
* Because I used the Kindle version, page numbers may be off a page in either
+ A footnote here would be a great idea. There are zero footnotes in this book
to back up their claims of studies that support their views.
The Truth About the Color of Compromise
The Ground is Shifting Under Evangelicalism
I Don't Want to Talk about CRT