Understanding – and Teaching – Critical Race Theory

critical race theory
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Within the last year, there’s been much attention and criticism about critical race theory especially in light of Black Lives Matter movements and protests against the theory. But few understand the legal theoretical approach. 

Even more concerning is the assumption that critical race theory has been widely discussed in elementary to higher education classrooms. The theory has been taught in mostly law school and graduate courses for a reason: students should already have a grasp of American history and American government. By applying the legal theory then, it can be a useful approach to considering race, ethnicity, and gender in America’s political and legal systems. 

Critical race theory was widely developed in the 1970s as an approach to interpret laws and consider the complexities of race, ethnicity, and additional background factors of public officials. It centers on American laws and institutions and how these often create and reinforce racial, ethnic, and gender disparities. Critical race theory is just one way of understanding race and the legal system -- there are additional approaches to doing so, such as critical race feminism, or queer theory, which centers on gender and sexual orientation considerations in America’s political systems.

Understanding Critical Race Theory in Context 

Recently, I have written a couple of editorials on critical race theory and I emphasized that it should not be taught as a stand-alone approach.   

As an educator who teaches critical race theory, especially in my racial and ethnic politics upper-level course, I assign an introductory text on America’s defining political eras.  I offer a basic timeline of historical turning points such as America’s Reconstruction Era, Civil Rights and Feminism Movements, as well as landmark court cases. We start the semester with Uneven Roads, a textbook that highlights a number of these significant periods by social scientists Todd Shaw, Louis DeSipio, Dianne Pinderhughes, and Toni-Michelle Travis. We then synthesize why these were watershed moments for various racial, ethnic, and gender groups. I also assign coalition-building theory articles that center on racial and ethnic communities addressing local issues. Finally, we review the legislative and judicial processes at the national and state levels. 

Following these class discussions for several weeks, it’s not until midterm that my class covers critical race theory. In other words, I cannot have students immediately venture into something as complex as critical race theory. They need to appreciate and understand additional approaches, histories, and governmental systems. 

A Thematic Approach to Teaching Critical Race Theory 

  • Political history text on social movements for racial, ethnic, and gender groups 
  • Timeline considerations and landmark court cases 
  • Explanation of state and federal legal and political systems 
  • Theoretical approaches, including coalition-building theory 
  • Critical race theory case studies and articles 
  • Final paper, assessment, and discussions surrounding identity politics 

During the last couple of months of class, students review and present chapters from a critical race theory reader such as “Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge,” written by law professors and legal scholars like Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, Derrick Bell, Jr., Angela Harris, and Randall Kennedy. These articles vary in narrative, scope, and example; some sections are fictional, biographical, and counter-narrative accounts. In fact, these articles stress for readers to think beyond the “Black-White binary” about race relations and to consider additional background factors such as intersectionality – or when race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class overlap and connect. Many of these examples are complex and sometimes abstract, especially for some students because they rarely venture outside their own racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation circles. 

I regularly remind students how American history and our political system often reinforce normative approaches to law and politics. This can include Eurocentric, patriarchal, and heterosexual viewpoints. Interestingly, many of my students are intrigued and pose questions related more to the political history text than the critical race theory reader. 

It should be no surprise by semester’s end that many students connect race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation with America’s history and political system. Once they recognize how political and legal approaches such as critical race theory can be useful in explaining political and social phenomena, some students venture further on these topics in their final papers. This is when they discover more narratives, approaches, histories, and perspectives. Through theoretical approaches and constant inquisitiveness, students learn additional methodologies to understanding societal phenomena including race, ethnicity, gender, and the law.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies Associate Dean and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR and CT News Junkie columnist.