Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory (CRT) explores how the social constructs of race and ethnicity impinge on composing, interpretation, power relations, and communication. CRT traces its roots to Sojourner Truth's 1851 "Ain't I a Woman?." Recently, however, CRT has become politicized to the point that teachers in the U.S. are being threatened with termination from their jobs for discussing CRT and issues of systemic inequality in the classroom. For scholars and teachers in Writing Studies, this call to cancel CRT is problematic: cancelling CRT would require cancelling many of the foundational insights and lessons of the discipline, including composing; intellectual openness; literacy; research; rhetorical analysis; and rhetorical reasoning.

Scholars in Writing Studies -- since Aristotle -- have explored the social dimensions of rhetoric. Yet, American politicians are now threatening professors with termination for addressing matters of ideology in the classroom. Photo Credit: "Des Moines Protests George Floyd Murder" by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What Is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?

Critical race theory (CRT), which is often defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality, is — at its most basic explication — a lens, a perspective, through which folks, traditionally legal and sociological scholars, examine race matters and power dynamics.

Related Concepts: Composing, Writing, and Drafting; Intellectual Openness; Literacy; Research; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Reasoning


Critical race theorists think deeply about how the socially constructed concept of race shapes people’s lived experiences. They note that racism is not a biologically natural construct but is an ideological construct — a specific form of oppression that operates through “superstructures” — a Marxist term referring to institutions, beliefs, and rituals expressed and practiced in culture, politics, religion, media, and education. These superstructures, which can be cornerstones of a democratic society, inform how citizens relate to one another—how they socialize. Or, in the classroom, how writers engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning in order to determine what they need to say and how they need to say it in their compositions.

However, when racism — “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized” — operates in and is supported by superstructures of institutional power and authority, America infringes upon its democratic promise. For, racism “encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systemize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and peoples of Color” (Özlem and DiAngelo 2017), which counters democratic ideals. As an interdisciplinary examination, therefore, CRT aims to unsettle the racist status quo that supports what feminist critic bell hooks termed America’s “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”—a term that often threatens white folks, who may not be racist themselves, but who are implicit, and thereby benefit from, America’s racist constitution. This doesn’t mean that white people don’t struggle and face serious obstacles; what it does mean is that being white doesn’t exacerbate their struggles.

Thus, as a critical theory, CRT analyzes America’s social conditions, specifically its race matters, within overlapping contexts. In no way, therefore, does the theory create racism or racist people, institutions, and practices; instead, CRT examines society’s current and historical conditions. Like many scholars and classroom teachers in Writing Studies, CRT theorists analyze by way of the Socratic method—asking questions—which supports the ongoing study and practice that critical race theory requires. Questions CRT scholars may ask include:

  • What are the social and institutional dynamics that re/produce racism?
  • How are racially unjust social orders maintained and duplicated?
  • Who is empowered and disempowered by the social and legal construction of race?

Despite CRT’s recent popularity, perhaps stimulated by the 2020 George Floyd murder and COVID-19 pandemic, critical race theory is as old as Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech; however, CRT was ratified, if you will, during the 1970s—at which time activists and legal scholars (e.g., Derrick Bell, Cheryl Harris, Richard Delgado) realized the stall in civil rights movement advancements.

Recently, however, because of CRT’s propensity to disrupt white supremacy, politicians like Donald Trump, Ronald DeSantis, and other conservative, neoliberalist republicans vilify woke culture and aim to cancel critical race theory and similar modes of thought offered in state-funded schools, colleges, and universities. Should such politics become America’s reality, being woke to CRT won’t be as significant to its citizenry than will be the inevitable deadening of its unfulfilled democracy.

A major goal of educators is to open opportunities for all of our students–and that’s what CRT is all about. Photo Credit: Moxley

Is CRT a Reverse Racism That Privileges Only Black and Brown People?

No. Reverse racism is a myth. While Black and brown people can be racially prejudiced, racism’s systematic relationship to power prohibits Black and brown people from reversing racism in ways that completely disembowel white folks. CRT is not the cha-cha slide. In other words:

  • If a Black doctor expressed racist attitudes toward his white maternity patients, it would not reverse the racist medical practices that have led to a 44% maternal mortality rate in Black patients compared to 17% in white ones (“Maternal Mortality” 2020)
  • If a Black police officer’s racist behaviors caused him to regularly arrest more white folks than Black ones, it would not reverse the police practices that contribute to Black Americans being arrested 2.5x more frequently than white folks. More plainly put, in 2020, out of 100,000 arrests, 4,223 of them were Black and 2,092 were white (“Law Enforcement” 2020)
  • If Oprah Winfrey, whose net worth is 2.5 billion, cloned herself 10×10 to uplift the Black and brown race, it would not reverse the economic practices that contribute to America’s poverty rate: 24.3% of Native Americans, 19.5% of Black people, and 17.1% of Latin@s live below the poverty line compared to 8.2% of white folks (“Poverty Rate” 2021)
  • If North Carolina A&T State University, the largest HBCU in the nation, confirmed a bachelor’s degree to each of its enrolling Black students and denied every other race of student, it would not reverse the racist practices that ensure Black and brown people academic inequality: 28.1% of Blacks compared to 41.9% of white people 25 years and older obtain a bachelor’s degree 5 ; and 10.5% of Black people have a doctorate degree compared to 57.8% of white people (“Doctoral Student” 2021)
  • If every Black real estate agent secured property for its Black homebuyers, it would not reverse the racist practices that maintain homeownership gaps between white and Black Americans. In 2022, 74.6% of White households owned their homes, compared to 45.3% of Black households—a gap wider than it was in 1960, before the 1968 Fair Housing Act (“Black Families” 2022).

However, because opponents of critical race theory fear a Black planet, in their fragility, they spread fake news—a white noise ensuring folks stay asleep. What CRT does privilege, however, is a person’s critical thinking about themself in relationship to the rest of the world. For Black and brown people, along with white co-conspirators, such thinking interprets America’s policies and unearths its hypocrisies, thus empowering all of its citizens to make sense of their positionalities, to enlighten others, and to move intentionally towards creating more equitable, democratic experiences for themselves and their communities. As such, critical race theory has the capacity to privilege everyone.

Black and brown immigrants are not illegal aliens! They’re people! Photo Credit: Moxley

What Does CRT Have to Do With Writing Studies?

If everything is an argument, as Andrea Lunsford has contended, then the world is a composition—a multimodal text to be read. Critical race theory, therefore, provides a perspective, a lens—like reading glasses—through which to read, analyze, critique, and if necessary, disrupt or abolish systems (language), institutions (prisons), policies (immigration), and practices (redlining) that maintain America’s racist social order. With that said, Writing Studies coupled with critical race theory invite students to rewrite the world and themselves as they utopianly imagine—or at the very least, into a more democratic reality. 

However, if CRT is cancelled—as has been attempted by DeSantis’s ban of unvetted K-12 classroom libraries; his threat to fire college professors who teach critical race theory; his budget cuts to universities who maintain diversity and inclusion programming; his failure to adopt the College Board’s new Advanced Placement African American studies course; his public threat to kill woke culture; and his ban on LGBTQ  and gender discussion in K-12 classrooms (and amusement parks)—America citizens will find themselves on the edge of losing their First Amendment right: the right to free speech. After all, Writing Studies is grounded in the classical tradition that promotes a search for truth. But if the American people, particularly its students, are denied access to information, to diverse narratives and experiences, to histories—to America’s whole history—then they are denied the opportunity to freely think and to freely communicate their sense of self and belonging. 

In other words, if critical race theory is cancelled, then Black and brown folks, as well as white ones, will forfeit the freedom to know in a thought, a language, and a speech pattern that is authentic to their identity. As a result, Black and brown students will continue to believe in the illegitimacy of their being. Therefore, if Writing Studies aims to assist students in critically reading the world and composing themselves into an authentic, democratic existence, then it, too, becomes a menace to those who are already so threatened by critical race theory.

CRT is not about forcing today’s white students to feel guilty for past discriminatory acts: it’s about intellectual openness, rhetorical analysis; rhetorical reasoning. Sticking your head in the sand and banning “woke speech” won’t make racism go away. Photo Credit: Moxley

What Should I Read to See How Scholars Apply CRT to Their Research?

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, 2010.

Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Bloomsbury, 2016.

Bonilla Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Delgaldo, Richard and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, New York University Press, 2017.

Glaude, Eddie S. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, Broadway Books, 2016.

hooks, bell. Killing Rage: Ending Racism, Henry Holt and Company, 1995.

Love, Bettina A. We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, Beacon Press, 2019.

Olson, Joel. The Abolition of White Democracy, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, Teachers College Press, 2017.

Shedd, Carla. Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice, Russell Sage Foundation, 2015.