U.S. Intellectual History Blog


Despite the death of Andrew Breitbart, his political gotcha machine is still in operation. Apparently that machine is intent on creating an intellectual-ideological link between President Barack Obama, former Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell, and Critical Race Theory (CRT).

If you’re interested in learning more about CRT, read Andrew Hartman’s December 6, 2011 post titled “Post-Civil Rights Intellectual Ferment.” I wasn’t able to hear or read Andrew’s paper as presented at the 2012 AHA meeting, but I’m sure he’d be willing to expand on its contents in the comments here or in a new post. If you desire more than Hartman’s analysis CRT is also discussed in Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture. – TL

PS: Check out all of the images that come up when you conduct a Google Image search for CRT. I had no idea so many books had been written on the topic.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have been frustrated by the accounts of CRT that I have seen in most recent press and even academic discussions. Although CRT is not my own area of research, I have spent some time thinking about its history, and I am troubled by the tendency to discuss CRT in reductionist, and often ahistorical, terms.

    While Hartman’s material on CRT–especially as part of a broader conversation among US intellectuals about race in the 1990s– is fascinating, I am not sure that the focus on Bell and Faces at the Bottom of the Well accurately conveys the origins or thrust of CRT. There is also implicit in Hartman’s interpretation of CRT the claim that CRT is single-mindedly (if not myopically) focused on race as the source of social power. This is a peculiar reading. After all, “intersectionality” is a direct product of the CRT tradition, and even well before that term’s coinage, CRT scholars were stressing the connectedness of race, gender, class, political economy and ideology (far more forcefully, one might add, than most of their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences.)

    I also think that it is fair to say that Rodgers’s Age of Fracture provides a rather thin contextualization of CRT’s emergence and significance.

    Among the details that are often left out of the story of CRT: the intense dialogue between CRT and the Marxist Critical Legal Studies movement of the 1970s and 1980s (and the frustrations of African American legal thinkers sympathetic to CLS with CLS”s silence on race); the central importance of African American women intellectuals in CRT (especially Crenshaw, Williams, Cleaver, and Harris) and the complex relationship between CRT and Reagan-era radical feminist legal currents; and CRT’s radical reinterpretation of property law, especially in the work of Patricia Williams and Cheryl Harris.

    Also relevant are the movements against which CRT agitated. The racial politics of the Law and Economics and originalist schools, which grew tremendously in importance in the 1980s and 1990s, are often under-emphasized: but both were (at least in part) responses to affirmative action, civil rights law, and the specter of reparations that sought to forestall or foreclose meaningful discussion of race and the law.

    Finally, CRT was a moment in the long continuum of cultural critique as an element within a broader African American anti-racist politics (with deep ties to the Black Arts Movement and 1930s-era African American cultural initiatives): thus, CRT journals and anthologies included essays on jazz, African American literature, and art, looking to cultural texts and practices as sources of alternative values and traditions that might counter white liberal contractualism.

  2. I, for one, am not surprised that the Conservative “political gotcha” would continue to smear politicians not of the right or Critical Race Theory. As Corey Robin so succinctly put it, conservatism is the defense of hierarchy. CRT pulls the curtain away to expose the all powerful Wizard of Oz. The conservative identity finds this repulsive, and therefore must be attacked like scholars investigating race, gender, and class.

    Great comment, Kurt.

    It would be great if the AHA would post Professor Hartman’s video or at least make it available to someone at the USIH Blog so that it and other presentations might be further disseminated.

  3. Brian: The AHA did not film my session. But send me an email and I’ll forward you my paper. Or you can wait for the book, which will include all of my research on Bell and CRT.

    Kurt: I agree with Brian–great comments. Thanks for weighing in. You make four inarguable points:

    1) That Rodgers’s treatment of CRT is slight, to say the least. This was disappointing to me, because I think CRT fits well alongside other modes of thinking that Rodgers more closely analyzes in “Age of Fracture.” For instance, ironically, CRT is a similar move to “law and economics” (even though, as Kurt says, it was also a response to it.) The focus on power relations and results (most evident in Bell’s “convergence” theory), as opposed to abstract concepts like justice, are of the same thinned out social model.

    2) That CRT is not nearly as reductionist as it is often presented, and not as reductionist as much of the thinking on race that was done in the humanities/social sciences in the 80s and 90s (and even today). My argument that CRT was extremely influential on how race was thought about in the humanities is not to say that the appropriation of CRT was always accurate or nuanced. The reception and appropriation of ideas is never as intended by original authors.

    3) That CRT is rooted in forms of anti-racist expression that run back much further than is typically assumed. This is evident, for example, in the shadow cast by DuBois. One of Bell’s main points–and he’s not alone among Critical Race Theorists in making this point–is that racism is intrinsic to the American social order in that working-class whites will adhere to that order so long as they have someone to push around lower on the ladder. This is one of DuBois’s main thesis in his magisterial “Black Reconstructionism,” still my favorite history of Reconstruction.


  4. 4) That CRT emerged in dialogue with Critical Legal Studies–the “crits.” This is an important point that I left out of my blog post but is central to the analysis I’ll be providing in my book. CLS, which was a radicalization of the legal realism and, thus, a radicalization of pragmatism akin to Richard Rorty’s neo-pragmatism, seemed to strip away the naïve liberal notion that law was separate from politics, in the words of the editors of the important anthology, “Critical Legal Studies,” “that legal institutions employ a rational, apolitical, and neutral discourse with which to mediate the exercise of social power.” CRT thus arose as a response to both civil rights reformism and to the “crits”: it took “the form both of a left intervention into race discourse and a race intervention into left discourse.”

    The fact that CRT was about the law is of crucial importance. As Martha Biondi so astutely pointed out at the AHA in her comments on my paper, CRT was not that different from the Black Nationalist thought that had been around most of the twentieth century, and had found a sliver of a home in academia with the advance of Black Studies programs in the late 1960s. But such thinking was not influential to most scholars–white scholars–until the patina of respect afforded it by legal discourse.

    As to Kurt’s point that I am overly critical in portraying CRT as hyper-attentive to race, I tend to agree with Adolph Reed and others about how CRT misses the bigger political economic picture, about how forms of racial amelioration have worked well alongside neoliberalism. In this sense, ironically to a severe degree, the Obama-Derrick Bell embrace that has the right frothing continues to make perfect sense in non-conspiratorial ways.

    But such (mild) criticism is not to say that I am not sympathetic to the aims of CRT, or more importantly, to the context from which it emerged. Bell’s “fremeny” Randall Kennedy read my AHA paper and concluded that I am too nice to Bell, not critical enough of CRT. To which I say, writing about culture wars topics like CRT as a non-partisan means pleasing nobody.

  5. Brian and Andrew–thanks for your wonderful responses. Andrew, I would love to see more of your work on CRT in any form, and would love to know more about your conversation with Biondi. Sounds really interesting. And I think that you are absolutely right to identify Black Reconstruction as the key source for so many threads in these analytic traditions.

    Re: the fate of CRT– I would suggest that Adolph Reed’s take on CRT is a bit one-dimensional and politically, frankly, a bit weird, in that it does not seem to have any room for the “strategic essentialism” that has been so important to late-20th c social movements. To the degree that CRT began to overlap with “whiteness” studies in the 1990s, CRT was also deeply connected to antiracist labor intellectual traditions, as well, which complicates the story Reed tells of “race”-talk as removed from materialist concerns.

    CRT as crypto-multicultural pablum? Difficult to square this allegation with the substance of the CRT project. The real demands of CRT as formulated in pieces like Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” are hardly congenial to neoliberal multiculturalism (can the same be said for Randall Kennedy’s work?) The assertion that whiteness is a form of property transferred intergenerationally provides a clear legal basis for pushback against Bakke and a rationale for challenging various forms of white entitlement/authorizing robust state commitments to communities of color.

    And CRT was very influential on current historical understanding of policy history: much of Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White, e.g., is rooted in CRT. Finally, the ongoing work of CRT and CRT-affiliated scholars in, e.g. housing struggles in California, and in the production of searing critiques of “colorblind” racism and Ward Connerly, et al points to a more meaningful living legacy of CRT than is often acknowledged.

    A remaining issue that remains to be unpacked is the role of personal narrative in CRT and feminist legal theory. This was a very radical intervention, one that made traditionalists very angry. I recall that some of the post-Closing of the American Mind screeds focused on CRT’s use of the anecdotal/confessional/phenomenological as a particularly egregious example of intellectuals gone wild. The role of personal experience in the analysis of racism remains a key epistemological question in the philosophy and historiography of race, especially as a weapon against empirical/statistical approaches to the persistence/declining significance of race. I wonder how we might contextualize it?

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