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Critical Race Theory

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Abstract

Critical race theory (CRT) is an intellectual movement that seeks to understand how white supremacy as a legal, cultural, and political condition is reproduced and maintained, primarily in the US context. Key to CRT is an emphasis on social change; thus, scholars within CRT not only attempt to understand race and racism but also to remedy their effects. Within the field of communication, CRT has been taken up by only a few scholars; yet CRT's overarching emphasis on the study of race pervades the field of communication.
Critical Race Theory
ANTONIO TOMAS DE LA GARZA
California State University, San Marcos, USA
KENT A. ONO
University of Utah, USA
Critical race theory (CRT) is an intellectual movement that seeks to understand how
white supremacy as a legal, cultural, and political condition is reproduced and main-
tained, primarily in the US context. While CRT is part of a much longer research tra-
dition investigating race and racism, which includes such key gures as W. E. B. Du
Bois, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and
many more, CRT distinguishes itself as an approach that originated within legal stud-
ies (in part building from and responding to critical legal studies); aims to be a vehicle
for social and political change; has been adopted interdisciplinarily across many elds,
including perhaps most notably education; and, in certain contexts, has come to be the
umbrella term for studies of race and racism generally.
CRT originated as an extension and critique of critical legal studies (CLS). It was also
an outgrowth of Marxist critical theory that challenged the rationality, impartiality, and
purpose of the legal system. According to the tenets of both CRT and CLS, the legal
system is a political and ideological institution that, in part, rationalizes and justies
the existence of the state. e legal system also requires mastery of an arcane and inten-
tionally inaccessible vocabulary and a set of knowledge and power processes that limit
ordinary people’s access to it. e arbiters of law pretend to rely on reason but actually
rely on subjective, politically motivated, culturally biased, and quasi-religious rationale
for making and enforcing their decisions. CRT maintains the critique of legalistic think-
ing found in critical legal studies, but then adds a framework for understanding white
supremacy as an immutable fact of a neocolonial state, as well as a praxis for chang-
ing it. What separates CRT from other forms of racial critique is that, “Unlike most of
the earlier genres of race scholarship, critical race scholarship does not treat race as an
independent variable; rather, it regards race as a site of struggle” (Orbe & Allen, 2008,
p. 209).
For example, in Racial Realism Derrick Bell (1991) argues that people of color ought
to abandon the ideal of equality as it is impossible to attain in the United States. Instead,
people of color should seek to confront their victimizers and recognize that the ght
itself is “a manifestation of our humanity which survives and grows stronger through
resistance to oppression, even if that oppression is never overcome” (Bell, 1991, p. 378).
Even though CRT scholars recognize race as central, they acknowledge that multiple
forms of power and oppression are capable of operating simultaneously and in dier-
ent registers (Delgado Bernal, 2002); hence, they support intersectional critique. Class,
e International Encyclopedia of Communication eory and Philosophy.
Klaus Bruhn Jensen and Robert T. Craig (Editors-in-Chief), Jeerson D. Pooley and Eric W. Rothenbuhler (Associate Editors).
©2016JohnWiley&Sons,Inc.Published2016byJohnWiley&Sons,Inc.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect260
2CRITICAL RACE THEORY
gender, sexuality, colonization, ability, and other forms of identity and marginalization
are all relationships of power that are mutually manifest and that intersect with race and
operate synergistically.
ough CRT is rooted in CLS scholarship, CRT broke with CLS, in part because
of a failure on the part of many CLS scholars to recognize the centrality of race to
law. us, CRT can be thought of as both an outgrowth and a departure from CLS,
as CRT scholars sought to move the conversation about racism from the margin to the
center (Grin, 2010). Early architects of CRT include Alan D. Freeman and Derrick
Bell (Bell, 1976; Freeman, 1977). Both were legal scholars frustrated with the glacial
social progress relating to race following the 1950s–1970s civil rights movement and
the inability of the legal system to recognize and keep people of color safe from racist
discrimination. Rather than continue to place their faith in reform through the legal
system, CRT’s founders began to use their scholarly work as a form of activism.
CRT’s founders sought to change the structures of law, culture, and education by
using legal scholarship to produce narratives that contested aspects of the “common
sense” of American jurisprudence. us, from the perspective of the CRT scholar,
attempts to bring about racial equality through the legal system were destined to fail
because the legal system was the primary, structural, and disciplinary mechanism for
maintaining a white supremacist racial order. However, CRT scholars also believed
that it would be possible to change the function of the legal system by producing
legal scholarship that undermined white supremacy’s hold on juridical thought. By
changing the cases studied, as well as the way they were studied, CRT produced
scholarly precedents.
As a project, CRT assumes that the production, dissemination, and evaluation
of knowledge is fundamentally political and, as such, CRT researchers challenge
objectivity, neutrality, and scholarly authority and the way these objectives may be used
to distance and separate researchers from material life. us, CRT scholars “express
skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness and
meritocracy” (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993, p. 6). e primary
reason CRT is important to the eld of communication is that it relies on “rhetorical
ideas as both its ideological base and methodology. Critical race theorists argue
that speech acts cause racism and that solutions to problems resulting from racism
require the use of language to reshape reality” (Olmsted, 1998, p. 324). As such,
communication research grounded in, and conversant with, CRT is as much an
investigation of the discursive practices that produce and reproduce the racial order
as it is a rhetorical intervention against racism. Like many theories generated outside
the eld of communication and then imported into it, CRT has been taken up within
communication long aer it became popular within legal studies. Nevertheless, CRT
remains highly signicant to the eld of communication, and its relevance can be seen
in recent work published in the eld, especially work that explores how communi-
cation practices can intervene against racial discrimination (Grin, 2010; Holling,
2014).
Another aspect to CRT is its emphasis on the real-world eects of race and racism.
So, while CRT explicitly challenges racist discourse, it is also crucially aware of the way
race and racism aect the bodies, identities, and experiences of people of color. us,
CRITICAL RACE THEORY 3
it explains how racism, as a social condition, goes well beyond individual, intentional
racist acts and must be understood at institutional, social, economic, political, and his-
torical levels. Specically, work building out of CRT has studied such phenomena as
“racial microagressions”—especially the cumulative eects of quotidian experiences
with racism in everyday life (De La Garza, 2015). Moreover, CRT scholarship scru-
tinizes the production and maintenance of white supremacy as a normative, taken-
for-granted (and hence naturalized), and “legitimate” regulatory social regime. Despite
extant research confronting white supremacy as a political and discursive condition,
voices in the eld of communication have called for increased attention to racial cri-
tique because “the ideology of Whiteness will remain dominantly depoliticized unless
more of such scholarship is acknowledged, and we recognize the historically embedded
roots of structural racism” (Anguiano & Castañeda, 2014, p. 110). As such, scholars
in communication, in particular, have incorporated investigations of whiteness within
intercultural, organizational, rhetorical, health, environmental, and interpersonal com-
munication. Scholarship that relies on CRT moves beyond the discrete interrogation of
texts and artifacts and situates communication practices within a broader context of
white supremacy as the normative mode of political and social organization. is work
not only draws attention to whiteness and how it operates but is also a praxeological
intervention itself.
Tenets of CRT
Despite the interdisciplinary uptake of CRT throughout the social sciences and
humanities, there remains a relatively well-established and agreed-upon set of tenets
for guiding CRT scholarship. erst tenet of CRT may seem an obvious one, but
is nevertheless central to the critical and scholarly project of CRT: Race still matters
(Orbe & Allen, 2008). Viewing race as a central component of scholarship is one of
the primary hallmarks of CRT work. Despite notions of a “postracial” America, CRT
scholars maintain that white supremacy is a constitutive feature of US life (Olson, 2004;
Ono, 2010). Central to CRT work in the eld of communication is critical whiteness
studies. Such studies make explicit how white supremacy organizes the contexts
and content of communication between people of color and mainstream ideological
apparatus such as the media, the religious and educational systems. is work exposes
the power, complexity, and normativity of whiteness discursively and demonstrates
the inuence of whiteness on people and the way whiteness is reproduced as a cultural
center.
e second tenet of CRT is the centrality of narrative and storytelling as a method of
analysis. CRT critiques law and legal studies for not having incorporated people of color
into scholarship, as well as for not having changed, structurally, to adapt to perspec-
tives and theories emerging as a result of changes such scholarship requires. One way
CRT scholars have sought to make such changes is by producing narratives by people
of color, akin to testimonios (see below), that inform legal study. ese “counterstories
disrupt normative cultural and personal narratives that reify the marginalization of peo-
ple of color. From the perspective of CRT scholarship, engines of knowledge production
4CRITICAL RACE THEORY
are oen deployed to invalidate or refute people of color’s individual experiences with
racism. Giving voice to people’s stories is also a way to validate “experiential knowledge,”
or the lived experience of people of color, and to push back against institutional invest-
ments in maintaining a colorblind facade (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). Critics of CRT have
suggested that these narratives can and do fall into the trap of essentialism; however, the
theory’s adherents argue that knowing is a much more complicated process than theo-
rizing, and that counterstory is one of very few methods that nd value in the particular
and individual experiences of people of color.
e third tenet of CRT entails a critique of liberalism. Additionally, liberalism is asso-
ciated not with progressivism, but with incrementalism. Hence, CRT aims for more
radical institutional changes than reformist ones. e long march is too long. It is also
impractical in the face of structural racism and cultural ethnocentrism. One of the rea-
sons for this is that liberalism places too much faith on reform and the legislation of
human rights. ese ideas tend to be rejected by CRT scholars because they ignore
the depths of structural racism that people of color face. e failures of the civil rights
movement have led many CRT scholars to reject piecemeal or gradual reform in favor
of more radical and revolutionary approaches.
e fourth tenet of CRT is a commitment to social justice. Early CRT work began
as a critique of the legal institution and juridical modes of thought. CRT scholarship
is oen referred to as a political and intellectual movement; as such, many CRT theo-
rists position themselves in opposition to dominant ideological and discursive frames.
eeld of communication adds to this movement through racial critique of media
(Yosso, 2002), investigations into social and political movements (Anguiano, Milstein,
De Larkin, Chen, & Sandoval, 2012), institutions, and a commitment to the voices of
the marginalized (Holling, 2014).
Ah tenet of CRT research is an acknowledgment of the importance of interdis-
ciplinarity. CRT scholars recognize that there is a historical relationship between the
production of scholarly research and the maintenance of white supremacy. From its
inception to the present, CRT research takes up a marginalized position in academic
journals as much by necessity as design. us, CRT scholars have learned to move across
disciplinary boundaries in order to nd opportunities to connect with other relevant
bodies of literature and to share their scholarship with others. e move to interdis-
ciplinarity is instrumental to the broad dissemination and uptake of CRT scholarship
across academic disciplines, and contributes to CRT’s continued relevance as a theoret-
ical paradigm.
CRT methodology
In addition to counterstories being a theoretical contribution of CRT, they are also a
methodology of sorts that challenges discrimination and works toward social justice
by “talking back” to rationalist and social-scientic research that supports racialized
and marginalizing notions about people of color. Counterstories may be narratives
constructed using empirical evidence, they may be amalgamations of many people’s
personal experience (oen called composite stores), or they may even be completely
CRITICAL RACE THEORY 5
ctional parables that use exaggerated circumstances to address contemporary racial
issues. e most inuential of these (of the ctional sort) is an article by Derrick Bell
titled “e Space Traders” (1992). In it, Bell uses a short science-ction story to argue
that people of color are sacriced to benet the white majority. Rather than argue that
this exploitation ended with the civil rights movement, Bell describes a present in
which the majority disavows racism, but is still willing to act in racist ways. Despite
the elements of ction, these stories are nearly always supported by traditional legal
means of substantiation such as historical events, legal precedents, and the like, as well
as more qualitative research of other scholars.
Counterstories rely on the power of people’s “voices.” According to Delgado (1990),
“voice” results from the shared experiences of the structures of systems of power. People
of color are unied (not essentialized) by their experiences of navigating the structures
of power that marginalize them. ey all have stories of times when they were dismissed,
ignored, even oppressed. ese experiences shape the way they interact with and under-
stand the world. More importantly, in the stories of others we are able to recognize our
own voices, our own experiences, and our own struggles within the narrative. It is this
ability to create aect, to share and empathize, and to witness that makes voice such an
important part of CRT scholarship.
Critical race methodology must foreground race and racism in all the parts of
the research process from inception to write up (Yosso, 2002). is awareness of the
primacy of race is central to CRT scholarship in several ways. erst is that critical
race scholars will ask questions from a perspective that recognizes the centrality of race.
is allows them to be reexive about their relationship to research participants, which
avoids or at least minimizes the irresponsible use of scholarly privilege. e history
of scholarship is littered with academics who exploited, misrepresented, or ignored
the voices of people of color they studied (Solomon, 1985). In order to avoid this type
of abuse, CRT methodology self-reectively recognizes power as an intersectional
problematic that cuts across social identities, and recognizes that researchers must be
diligent in their willingness to see dierence and respect the people with whom they
work.
CRT methodology also challenges traditional paradigms that marginalize the expe-
riences of people of color. e reason a CRT stance takes an oppositional approach to
research is to ensure rigor and to produce research that confronts master narratives.
CRT researchers look to challenge issues that appear settled and to destabilize normal-
ized discourses. Adherents describe CRT as an activist movement and, as such, CRT
methodology aims to locate liberatory and transformational solutions to the problems
facing people of color.
In order to make social change, CRT scholarship has even developed a “critical
race epistemology,” an alternative to empiricist or rationalist paradigms. CRT scholars
suggest one can begin to engage a critical race epistemology by maintaining focus on
two principles. erst is that knowledge production is political. To make knowledge
is to exert power over the social, which requires privileges accessible to only a very
few. Second, there is radical potential in alternative epistemologies that foreground the
perspectives of people of color. CRT epistemology appropriates the academic space as a
site of struggle, employs a critique of power, and ultimately challenges racial hegemony.
6CRITICAL RACE THEORY
Extensions and critiques
Critiques of CRT tend to focus on a few of its perceived weaknesses. Critics of CRT
attack the notion of objectivity. In a world of increasingly aversive forms of racial
oppression, such as racial microaggressions, racism is oen dicult to identify
objectively. While most CRT research relies on empirical examples of material and
social disparity, objective measures have diculty demonstrating the cause. CRT
scholars respond to these critiques by arguing that objectivity is a myth, one that
is historically deployed to justify inequality and deect racial criticism. A second
critique leveled at CRT is that it is ultimately an essentialist racial paradigm. Critics
argue that, by saying that all people of color experience racism, CRT scholars are
participating in a attened depiction of individual experiences. us, one can never
attain the personal nuances that CRT scholars (paradoxically) call for. Furthermore,
by highlighting an essential experience for Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and
black people, CRT scholars destroy opportunities for coalition-building across
racial lines. However, CRT scholars respond to these critiques by centering white
supremacy as a constitutive feature of race-based critique. erefore, each individual
may experience dierential levels and forms of marginalization while at the same
time each individual can attack the structures that reproduce white supremacy,
which becomes the source for building coalitions across raced, classed, and gendered
lines.
LatCrit theory is a complement to and an extension of CRT and is by far the most
used version of CRT in communication. LatCrit, like many of the other forms of
“-Crit” theories (FemCrit, TribalCrit, DesiCrit), breaks from CRT because of CRT’s
overemphasis on the black/white binary. ough these alternative Crits subscribe to all
of the tenets of CRT, they also include tools to address the particularity of issues and
experiences aecting dierent marginalized groups. LatCrit organizes itself around
a pan-Latino identity, or Latinidad, by taking ownership of intersecting histories of
colonization, migration, dispossession, and exploitation in the Americas. Rather than
essentializing one particular “Latin” experience, LatCrit recognizes dierential experi-
ences, while noting the common structures of power that are activated around issues of
ethnicity, indigeneity, sexuality, identity, and discrimination. e place where LatCrit
theory departs from critical race theory is where it challenges the black/white binary
drawn by CRT and argues that there are a range of racialized identities in the United
States, each dened dierently as marginal to whiteness but performed and enforced
through dierent discourses and technologies of power. LatCrit is particularly invested
in issues arising from language dierence, colonization, nativism, and the immigration
experience.
LatCrit oen relies on testimonio—a technique for political storytelling. Tes t i moni o
is a form of political witnessing that arms the experiences of the storyteller and trans-
forms the listener into a witness (Holling, 2014). Te s t imoni o arises from this tradition of
confronting power, of asserting a right to exist, of refusing to be silenced. Both counter-
story and testimonio as methods recognize that narratives are a powerful way of creating
and transmitting knowledge. ese methods reect a dierent set of ontological and
epistemological commitments than traditional social-scientic research, because they
CRITICAL RACE THEORY 7
center the lived experiences of people at the margins, recognize that anyone can be a
holder and creator of knowledge, and seek to counter or disrupt majoritarian narratives.
Another critique and extension of critical race theory is TribalCrit. Like LatCrit,
TribalCrit was developed to address gaps in CRT with respect to American Indians.
While CRT serves as the framework, it fails to address the legal/political and racial-
ized liminality of Native Americans (Brayboy, 2005). TribalCrit also takes into account
the experiences of colonization including language shior loss, tribal sovereignty, and
indigenous epistemologies.
Nine tenets dene TribalCrit:
1. e consequences of colonization are endemic to US society.
2. US treatment of indigenous people is inseparable from cultural and economic
imperialism, white supremacy, and the economic exploitation of indigenous
people and their land.
3. Indigenous people exist in a liminal space that accounts for their political and cul-
tural marginalization. is liminality is also fundamental to the process of identity
formation of indigenous people.
4. Indigenous people seek tribal sovereignty, autonomy, self-determination, and self-
identication.
5. A TribalCrit lens produces new possibilities for concepts of culture, knowledge, and
power.
6. Assimilation is a problematic goal, and government and educational polices
directed at indigenous peoples attempt to produce and enforce assimilation.
7. “Tribal philosophies, beliefs, customs, traditions, and visions for the future are
central to understanding the lived realities of Indigenous peoples, but they also
illustrate the dierences and adaptability among individuals and groups” (Brayboy,
2005, p. 429).
8. ere is no distinction between indigenous stories and theory. Stories make theory
and are legitimate ontologies and avenues of research.
9. TribalCrit is praxis-driven research, and its practitioners must gear their research
toward social change.
Like CRT, AsianCrit is critical of liberal attempts at racial reform. It relies heavily
on narratives as both a method and an artifact of study and is critical of rationalist
and empiricist paradigms. However, AsianCrit emphasizes and critiques the racist
and nativist dimensions of (for example) the racial history of immigration law and
policies, language legislation, educational discrimination, unfair labor practices based
on law, the hypersexualization of Asian women, the emasculation of Asian men, queer
theory, the marginalization and disempowerment associated with the model minority
and other nefarious stereotypes, and the legacies of the World War II incarceration of
Japanese Americans, the social, legal, political, economic, and cultural regulation of
Filipina/o American, Korean American, Chinese American, South Asian American,
Japanese American, and Southeast Asian American bodies, and the segregation and
representation of Asian Americans as an undierentiated or attened depiction of the
other.
8CRITICAL RACE THEORY
SEE ALSO: Afrocentricity; American Studies; Critical eory; Cultural Studies; Ethnic
Studies; Narrative Inquiry; Objectivity and Subjectivity; Postcolonial eory
References and further readings
Anguiano, C., & Castañeda, M. (2014). Forging a path: Past and present scope of critical race
theory and Latina/o critical race theory in communication studies. Review of Communication,
14(2), 107–124. doi: 10.1080/15358593.2014.951954
Anguiano, C., Milstein, T., De Larkin, I., Chen, Y., & Sandoval, J. (2012). Connecting com-
munity voices: Using a Latino/a critical race theory lens on environmental justice advo-
cacy. Journal of International & Intercultural Communication,5(2), 124–143. doi: 10.1080/
17513057.2012.661445
Bell, D. A. (1976). Serving two masters: Integration ideals and client interests in school desegre-
gation litigation. Yal e L aw Jour n a l,85(4), 470–516.
Bell, D. A. (1991). Racial realism. Connecticut Law Review,24, 363.
Bell, D. A. (1992). Faces at the bottom of the well: e permanence of racism.NewYork,NY:Basic
Books.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of inequal-
ity in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littleeld.
Brayboy, B. (2005). Toward a tribal critical race theory in education. Urban Review,37(5),
425–446.
Chang, R. S. (1993). Toward an Asian American legal scholarship: Critical race theory, post-
structuralism, and narrative space. California Law Review,19, 1243.
De La Garza, A. T. (2015). A critical eulogy for Joaquin Luna: Mindful racial realism as an inter-
vention to end racial battle fatigue. In J. Martin (Ed.), Racial battle fatigue: Insights from the
front lines of social justice advocacy (pp. 177–190). New York, NY: Praeger.
Delgado, R. (1990). When a story is just a story: Does voice really matter? Virg inia Law Review,
76(1), 95–111.
Delgado Bernal, D. (2002). Critical race theory, Latino critical theory, and critical raced-
gendered epistemologies: Recognizing students of color as holders and creators of knowledge.
Qualitative Inquiry,8(1), 105–126.
Freeman, A. D. (1977). Legitimizing racial discrimination through antidiscrimination law: A
critical review of Supreme Court doctrine. Minnesota Law Review,62, 1049.
Grin, R. A. (2010). Critical race theory as a means to deconstruct, recover and evolve in com-
munication studies. Communication Law Review,10(1), 1–9.
Holling, M. A. (2014). “So my name is Alma, and I am the sister of ”: a feminicidio testimonio
of violence and violent identications. Wom e n’s Studies in Communication,37(3), 313–338.
doi: 10.1080/07491409.2014.944733
Matsuda, M., Lawrence, C. R., Delgado, R., & Crenshaw, K. W. (Eds.). (1993). Wor d s t h a t w o u n d :
Critical race theory, assaultive speech, and the First Amendment. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Olmsted, A. P. (1998). Words are acts: Critical race theory as a rhetorical construct. Howard
Journal of Communications,9(4), 323–331. doi: 10.1080/106461798246934
Olson, J. (2004). e abolition of white democracy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota
Press.
Ono, K. A. (2010). Postracism: A theory of the “post-” as political strategy. Journal of Communi-
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CRITICAL RACE THEORY 9
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Antonio Tomas De La Garza is an assistant professor of rhetoric at California State
University, San Marcos. His research focuses on the ways communication reies and/or
resists white supremacist power relations. His current work focuses on discursively pro-
duced violence in the US/Mexico borderlands. His interest in theory derives from a
desire to explore the ways scholarship can become relevant to political struggle. An
example of his work can be found in the book Racial Battle Fatigue: Insights From the
Front Lines of Social Justice Advocacy (2015).
Kent A. On o is professor and chair in the Department of Communication at the Uni-
versity of Utah. His research focuses on rhetoric and discourse, media and lm, and
race, ethnic, and cultural studies. He has authored and edited several books, including:
Contemporary Media Culture and the Remnants of a Colonial Past (2009); Asian Ameri-
cans and the Media with Vincent Pham (2009); Shiing Borders: Rhetoric, Immigration,
and California’s Proposition 187 with John Sloop (2002); and Critical Rhetorics of Race
with Michael Lacy (ed., 2011).
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