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American-born Critical Theorists

Mike Gonzalez

Summer 2023

Critical race theory, once an esoteric academic discipline confined to America's elite universities, has escaped the ivory tower and spread into much of American life over the past decade. From Wall Street to Main Street, Congress to city hall, Yale University to your local public school, America is awash with initiatives purporting to inject greater racial diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into the nation's institutions and culture.

No serious American objects to acknowledging the country's past sins of racial prejudice and oppression, or seeking to remedy what effects they still have. However, DEI initiatives today undermine recommitment to America's founding principle of human equality. Corporations, for instance, routinely spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire DEI consultants who lead employees through uncomfortable discussions of "white privilege." Colleges and universities have established bias-response teams to which students, faculty, and staff can report (often anonymously) incidents of discrimination they witness on campus. Bookshops display bestselling titles promising to help white people identify and dismantle the systems, policies, ideas, and behaviors that supposedly perpetuate racism, while leading news outlets publish curricular materials for K-12 students that "reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation's foundational date."

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in response to the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, critical race theory (CRT) burst into the American mainstream. It almost immediately spread overseas to Europe, bringing with it a push for DEI-like initiatives and generating a backlash in response. Today, American academics and politicians traveling to the continent often have to answer angry questions about such "American exports" as CRT (and its close cousin, gender theory) being forced onto unwary populations of other nations. Anyone who has been in this position understands the frustration of having to explain, "Yes, but we imported these ideas from Europe in the first place, before we added our own features!"

Indeed, until around 1960, the utterances of critical theory — the intellectual precursor to critical race theory — came first in German, and were then translated into English. Before it was the First Marxist Work Week, it was the Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche; before it was the Institute for Social Research, it was the Institut für Sozialforschung; and before it was critical theory, it was Kritische Theorie. This is also true, needless to say, for the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, known to us as Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, and for Das Kapital, which oddly we say more often in German than in English.

All this changed during the second half of the 20th century when, like Geoffrey Chaucer leaving behind Anglo-Norman in the 1300s, American-born neo-Marxists began to articulate the thoughts of native critical schools in English for the first time.

As these European ways of processing reality migrated to universities in the United States, they not only acquired American twangs, they took on American obsessions — over race, first and foremost, but also over sex. So how did European critical theory and its progeny come to dominate the commanding heights of American academia, not to mention the rest of the nation's most influential cultural, corporate, and political institutions?


The process began inauspiciously enough at American law schools in the 1960s, with the birth of the New Left. This movement emerged at a pivotal point in American Marxism, if not American life altogether, and was itself one of the axes of the pivot. It was the point at which Marxism became driven not by the Kremlin, but by American academics. The New Left was thus a break with both Moscow and American liberalism. Its eclectic members lacked a unifying ideology, but one thing that brought them together was a rejection of what they saw as the Old Left.

That Old Left embodied the entire New Deal ethos, or what Columbia University sociologist C. Wright Mills referred to as "vulgar Marxism." In his 1960 "Letter to the New Left," published in the London journal New Left Review, Mills warned adherents of this new variant not to "cling so mightily to 'the working class' of the advanced capitalist societies as the historic agency, or even as the most important agency, in the face of the really historical evidence that now stands against this expectation." Such fetishizing of the proletariat may have consumed Marx and his followers, but to the New Left, it was an artifact of a long-gone Industrial Revolution. This newer offshoot, by contrast, was more a reaction to the corporate capitalism of the following century.

Having rejected the working class as the revolutionary agent, the New Left set out to discover new agents, or what the eminent literary and social critic Irving Howe referred to as a "substitute proletariat." The middle-class students protesting in the streets were thought for a time to be such agents, as were the intellectuals. "It is with this problem of agency in mind that I have been studying, for several years now, the cultural apparatus, the intellectuals — as a possible, immediate, radical agency of change," wrote Mills. "For a long time, I was not much happier with this idea than were many of you; but it turns out now, in the spring of 1960, that it may be a very relevant idea indeed."

For the aging Herbert Marcuse, the Frankfurt School scholar known as the "Guru of the New Left," the abandonment of the worker may have been a clear departure from orthodox Marxism, but one necessary to achieving Marx's goals. Yet Marcuse did not just consider the students and intellectuals as the only prospective substitutes for the working class; increasingly, he also looked to the potential of what he took to calling "the ghetto population," or people of "other races and other colors," as agents of revolution. He wrote in his 1969 "Essay on Liberation":

The ghetto population of the United States constitutes such a force [of rebellion]. Confined to small areas of living and dying, it can be more easily organized and directed. Moreover, located in the core cities of the country, the ghettos form natural geographical centers from which the struggle can be mounted against targets of vital economic and political importance; in this respect, the ghettos can be compared with the faubourgs of Paris in the eighteenth century, and their location makes for spreading and "contagious" upheavals.

The tension over who would lead the revolution — the intellectuals and students on the one hand, or blacks and other minority racial and ethnic categories on the other — continued for some time, and served as the background to the drama that saw CRT emerge from the critical legal studies (CLS) movement. Marcuse's vision won in the end, and today, American society is besieged with CRT, while CLS is nothing more than a subject of academic interest, if that.


Just as the New Left represented a break with Moscow, CLS represented an American-born offshoot of German criticalism. CLS scholars took their inspiration primarily from the Frankfurt School's critical theory — an attempt to deconstruct reality, convince inhabitants of the West that they were slaves, and insight them to rebel. They also incorporated related theories from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who believed reality was a "hegemonic narrative" constructed by the rich and powerful in order to retain their status.

CLS included among its influences not just Marxism (especially the supposedly "sophisticated" non-economically determinist type) and Frankfurt criticalism (which was, lest we forget, Western Marxism), but also postmodernism, and its even woolier attacks on reason and objectivity. In BLM, The Making of a New Marxist Revolution, I discussed the contributions of postmodernism:

Parisian rather than German, postmodernism was also destructive of traditions and norms, but worked by undermining reason and language. Words, to postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, could have any meaning. The text did not depend on the writer's intentions, but was a tabula rasa with which the reader could let his imagination run wild. Postmodernism was just as Hegelian in its dialectical approach and as Nietzschean in its relativism as CT had been, but was even more impenetrable.

The Frankfurt School itself had produced little legal scholarship, but it inspired American legal minds to think in terms of a belief system undergirding a societal superstructure, or "hegemonic narrative," and how lifting the veil on this wicked machinery would lead to revolution.

At the heart of the CLS movement was a desire by young legal scholars to question the objectivity and impartiality of what they viewed as America's hegemonic narrative: its legal framework. They hoped to attack the law with the same wrecking ball that critical theory had used against the country at large.

Though CLS evolved from a series of position papers and doctrines, it had an official starting date. Jason Whitehead, a political science professor at California State University Long Beach, describes it this way:

The origins of Critical Legal Studies can be traced to the first Conference on Critical Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1977, where a group of legal scholars, practitioners, teachers, and students, dissatisfied with the Law and Society Association's empirico-behaviorist focus, met to discuss the formation of a new association. Many of the participants in that conference were former 1960s-era students or radical lawyers active in the antiwar and civil rights movements.

Whitehead adds that the participants of the conference "were drawn to Madison in 1977 by a preference for egalitarian social and economic structures, a dissatisfaction with the traditional law school curriculum, and an impatience with 'sterile' forms of legal reason." These scholars "sought a critique of law that would be capable of both understanding and changing the legal system and the society of which it was a part." Annual conferences followed the baptismal meeting in Madison, allowing these neo-Marxist academics to exchange views and further develop their thinking.

The theory born of these efforts — CLS — had two basic components: what Whitehead calls the "indeterminacy thesis" and the "ideology thesis." The former posits that "law is internally and externally inconsistent." The latter claims that law is "ideological and partisan rather than neutral and independent."

Just as the New Left antagonized the Old Left as much as it did the traditional right, CLS adherents excelled not only at challenging the conservative elements of the legal profession, but the classically liberal ones as well. The latter two believed in the law's rationality — something CLS disciples thought was a mistake. To these partisans, law schools were no different from other places where they could carry out neighborhood organizing "for political resistance." They "actively recruited students and left-leaning law teachers from around the country to engage in the construction of left legal scholarship and law school transformation."

Like its Germanic forebear, the American offspring of critical theory continued to grapple with how man apprehends reality through a conceptual framework created by an oppressor class in order to maintain power. Put simply, the question for CLS adherents then, as it remains today for all critical theorists, was how to overturn the hierarchical structures that undergird American society. The assumption was that anyone who is not in a position of power is oppressed, and the goal, according to Harvard Law School's Duncan Kennedy, an eminent CLS theorist, was "to replace the system, piece by piece or in medium- or large-sized blocs, with a better system." The American apple had not rolled far from the German tree.

Like critical theorists and the New Left, CLS acolytes also eschewed material determinism, dismissing it, just as Mills had, as "vulgar Marxism." They believed that using the totality of man's activity, and especially culture, in the analysis of the oppressor-versus-oppressed dynamic, was a more sophisticated form of Marxism.

Unlike German critical theory, however, CLS's focus was exclusively on how the legal system was used to preserve the power and privileges of the American ruling class. "For CLS, critique must begin and proceed with the operation of law as ideology," wrote Allan Hutchinson of York University in Toronto. He continued:

[T]he rule of law is a mask that lends to existing social structures the appearance of legitimacy and inevitability; it transforms the contingency of social history into a fixed set of structural arrangements and ideological commitments. CLS's demonstration that the status quo and its intellectual footings, far from being built on the hard rock of historical necessity, are actually sited on the shifting sands of social contingency, is both critical and constructive. Not only does it expose the illusory and fraudulent claims of traditional also clears the ground for different and transformative ways of thinking about law and society.

The main job of CLS adherents was to work actively to sabotage trust in the American legal framework. Kennedy did not leave any doubt as to his and his colleagues' aims. "One goal, which I had right from the beginning, from the very first day of class," he told Northeastern University School of Law's James Hackney, "was to teach the class in ways that would undermine or counteract that [legal] culture."

We can see that the American version of critical theory, though focused on the law, was another intellectual exercise in destroying the ruling narrative. The attempt at destruction was all-encompassing. As Kennedy put it, "the thing that I was most interested in was what you might call a 'death of reason' narrative." CLS sought to teach students — law students — that the law was irrational.

CLS shared this goal with its Frankfurt ancestor: to sow doubt in our assurance that law is the product of rational thought, or the result of a process detached from politics and other forms of power dynamics. In the words of Hutchinson, CLS insists "that no objectively correct results exist, regardless of whether presented in terms of legal doctrine or policy analysis and no matter how skilled the advocate or judge. The taking of political sides is inescapable." Rationality, according to CLS theorists, is merely a clever cover for a power grab: Legal scholar Jeffrey Standen puts it this way: "Realizing the ultimate inseparability of law and politics, CLS contends that legal reasoning itself is a vehicle of domination employed by the producers of legal fictions, the jurists of the ruling class."

CLS devotees held that one of the main reasons to be skeptical of the law's rationality is that, although it must be devised in the abstract, it is applied to flesh-and-blood citizens whose circumstances don't fit neatly into abstractions. The ruling class, they said, creates this abstract legal system out of its own self-serving conceptual framework. "[L]egal rules and doctrines are to be generally and abstractly formulated, although they are to be applied to concrete life situations, without thereby allowing their internal rationality to be impaired," wrote Gunter Frankenberg, a left-wing German scholar on comparative constitutionalism who took a keen interest in the American offspring of the German theory. "Prejudices or preferences of those applying the law can acquire the force of a legal judgment, thus disturbing the tranquil image of a neutral and objective 'discovery' of the truth, guided by law or precedent and legal method." In this attack on rationality and neutrality, Frankenberg directly echoed critical theory's view that the subject cannot be objective or neutral in observing the object — in other words, neutrality is a chimera.

To strike at the law's rationality claim was nothing less than to strike at its heart. Citizens will only obey a legal system that they consider rational and reasonable; absent that assurance, societal order begins to break down. Citizens will also only follow a system that is applied equally to all, which makes the law again inherently unjust. "Of course, only those legal norms that bestow rights or impose duties on everyone in the same manner and to the same degree are capable of receiving such approval," said Frankenberg. "This condition is more easily formulated as a general principle than put into practice, when a society's members start out unequally equipped from vastly different initial positions. Equality without respect for a person's standing and needs is prone to be unjust — and will be considered political in the end."

Given these radical premises, it is hardly surprising that CLS's rise and eventual domination in some law schools awakened in cooler heads a dread about what would happen if CLS took hold nationally. Paul Carrington, former dean of Duke University Law School, was quoted in the New York Times in 1987 as saying, "I think it would be a difficult role to play to be a professor of divinity while professing atheism." Paul Bator, who had taught law at Harvard for two decades, left in 1986 for the University of Chicago, complaining that the impact of CLS on Harvard had been "absolutely disastrous."

CLS was thus a worm that gnawed at the mahogany desk that was the American legal system. Carrington diagnosed the devastating impact that CLS would have on the legal community from the start. If law, he wrote in a review journal as early as 1984, is seen as mere deception "by which the powerful weaken the resistance of the powerless...enforcement and even obedience may be morally degenerate." CLS, obviously and on purpose, encouraged a disbelief in law. "Such disbelief threatens competence," argued Carrington, because competence depends on having the "needed confidence that law matters" and that legal principles "actually influence the exercise of power."

But the danger of CLS extends beyond merely fostering incompetence. "A lawyer who succumbs to legal nihilism," Carrington continued, "faces a far greater danger….He must contemplate the dreadful reality of government by cunning and a society in which the only right is might." For all these reasons and others, CLS would end up corrupting, if not destroying, law schools and the legal profession itself.

After their inaugural session in Madison in 1977, CLS adherents continued to hold conferences on a regular basis, with the doctrine becoming a realization of C. Wright Mills's vision that students and intellectuals would become the new keepers of the revolutionary flame. But, lest we forget, the New Left had put forward two alternative proletariats, the other being people of color. A contest under these conditions would still be over power and who would wield it, but placing the locus of contestation on race and ethnicity rather than intellectual abstractions would radically change the nature of the struggle.


The transition from one agent of change to another loomed, and the seed came from within CLS itself.

Law professors of color also attended the conference; they espoused CLS's view of the law as the product of a hegemonic superstructure forged by a self-serving elite, and were equally skeptical of the law's claim to rationality. They agreed that equal application of the law produced unjust results. Soon, however, a rift began to emerge. The CLS scholars of color, who saw everything through the lens of race, complained that their white colleagues showed little or no appreciation for the racial dynamic underlying the superstructure they sought to undermine.

Cross-racial acrimony grew at the annual CLS conferences through the 1980s. Eventually, CLS scholars of color went public with their grievances. Critical legal theorists acknowledged that the law reflected a racial dynamic, but to minority scholars, this was not enough. In their eyes, the law did not just reflect such a dynamic; racism had been deliberately written into the American legal system to secure the elite's white privilege. While they gave CLS adherents credit for not committing "the typical Marxist error of subsuming race under class," they chided them for their inability to "come to terms with the particularity of race, and with the specifically racial character of 'social interests' in the racialized state."

A final split came in the foundational event of CRT, the Critical Race Theory workshop that legal scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, and Stephanie Phillips organized in Madison in the summer of 1989. Some 30 scholars attended. Its official title was "New Developments in Critical Race Theory," and it marked the first time the phrase made its appearance. CRT adherents didn't know it then, but the next few decades would prove highly successful for their emerging movement.

The white CLS advocates didn't exactly leave the field of race-based civil rights on their own accord. Starting in the mid-1980s, as the cross-racial rift intensified, CLS scholars of color protested that their scholarship was not receiving the attention they believed it deserved. In his 1984 essay "The Imperial Scholar: Reflections on a Review of Civil Rights Literature," law professor and CRT co-creator Richard Delgado wrote, "Derrick Bell, Jr., once observed that the exclusion of minority participants from litigation and scholarship about black issues reminds him of traditional families of former years in which parents would tell their children, 'Keep quiet. We are talking about you, not to you.'"

As an example of this, Bell had pointed in a 1979 law-review essay to the "exclusion of minorities from meaningful participation in the Bakke litigation and, for that matter, from much of the scholarly debate over the case." He chided Justice Lewis Powell, who wrote the controlling opinion in the case that upheld race-based affirmative action in colleges and universities, for citing 10 law-review articles written by whites and ignoring scholarship by blacks.

Delgado offered a two-step solution for how scholars of color would take over the civil-rights field. For starters, he suggested that minority teachers and students

raise insistently and often the unsatisfactory quality of the scholarship being produced by the inner circle — its biases, omissions, and errors. Its presuppositions and worldviews should be made explicit and challenged. That feedback will increase the likelihood that when a well-wishing white scholar writes about minority problems, he or she will give minority viewpoints and literature the full consideration due. That consideration may help the author avoid the types of substantive error catalogued earlier.

This stage would be only temporary. Next would come the second step:

The time has come for white liberal authors who write in the field of civil rights to redirect their efforts and to encourage their colleagues to do so as well....As these scholars stand aside, nature will take its course; I am reasonably certain that the gap will quickly be filled by talented and innovative minority writers and commentators.

And that's exactly what happened. Very quickly, white CLS adherents left the field of civil-rights writing, and CLS itself soon ceased to be a major force in American law. Law professor Daniel Subotnik wrote about this development in 1998: "Within a few short years, in a remarkable turnabout, not only black, but also Latino/a and Asian writers were deeply engaged in race scholarship." "How did CRT manage such a stunning reversal?" he asked. "The most successful campaigns result from drawing opponents away from the battlefield. The [CLS scholars of color] did this with a potent weapon. White males tempted to participate in the conversation were condemned in advance as interlopers, even imperialists."

People "of color" thus emerged as victorious over the students and the intellectuals in the competition between the two potential substitute proletariats that the New Left had put forward. The rout was complete; now all that was left was to solidify the doctrines of CRT and, ultimately, to put them into practice.


In a collection of essays detailing the rise of CRT titled Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, editors Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas described the official emergence of CRT out of the CLS conferences as "a race-conscious intervention on the left." That volume serves as a reference point for what constitutes the foundational tenets of CRT, and the editors — along with some of the essays' authors, including Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, and Cheryl Harris — are seen as its architects. In an inside joke that betrays CRT's Marxist foundations, adherents refer to the text as the "Big Red Book" — a nod to the Chinese Cultural Revolution manual containing Mao Zedong's quotations often referred to as the "Little Red Book."

In his foreword to the Big Red Book, philosophy professor Cornel West described CRT as a "movement in thought and life" that "compels us to confront critically the most explosive issue in American civilization: the historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy." The editors asserted that CRT adherents are united by two common interests:

The first is to understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America, and, in particular, to examine the relationship between that social structure and professed ideals such as "the rule of law" and "equal protection." The second is a desire not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it.

Here, we see the overlap between the goals of CRT and critical theory — to denigrate all aspects of the American system in order to bring it down and put something different in its place. It is not a reformist remedy; it is a transformative one. Its aim is revolutionary change. "As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with the radical assessment of it," Bell wrote in 1995. "Most critical race theorists are committed to a program of scholarly resistance that they hope will lay the groundwork for wide-scale resistance….We use a number of different voices, but all recognize that racial subordination maintains and perpetuates the American social order."

CRT scholars, Bell added, "are both existentially people of color and ideologically committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalized in and by law." They are also "highly suspicious of the [classical] liberal agenda, distrust its method, and want to retain what they see as a valuable strain of egalitarianism which may exist despite, and not because of, liberalism." Delgado and his wife, Jean Stefancic, also emphasized the illiberality of CRT: "Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law." As we have seen, CRT inherited this illiberality from critical theory, the New Left, and CLS.

One of the first liberal values CRT needed to fell was speech rights. Bell wrote: "[B]eing committed to 'free speech' may seem like a neutral principle, but it is not....[P]roclaiming that 'I am committed equally to allowing free speech for the KKK and 2LiveCrew' is a non-neutral value judgment, one that asserts that the freedom to say hateful things is more important than the freedom to be free from the victimization, stigma, and humiliation that hate speech entails." Delgado put it this way: "We are raising the possibility that the correct argument may sometimes be: the First Amendment condemns [the suppression of speech, even hate speech], therefore the First Amendment (or the way we understand it) is wrong." These statements explain the quandary in which we find ourselves today.

Private property, of which all Marxists are sworn enemies, is of course another classical-liberal right that CRT adherents hold in contempt. Patricia Williams, a CRT pioneer, wrote about the

costs of pitting individual rights against group interests at a moment in our history when such groupings as race and class intersect so that race increasingly defines class and the property interests of large numbers of white individuals are understood to be in irreconcilable tension with the collective dispossession of large numbers of people of color.

Cheryl Harris put it more bluntly: "The origins of property rights in the United States are rooted in racial domination....[I]t was the interaction between conceptions of race and property which played a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination."

Indeed, CRT was suspicious of the idea of rights in itself. Delgado and Stefancic observed:

[M]ore radical CRT scholars with roots in racial realism and an economic view of history believe that moral and legal rights are apt to do the right holder much less good than we like to think....Think how that system applauds affording everyone equality of opportunity but resists programs that assure equality of results.

They also faulted rights for being "alienating": "[Rights] separate people from each other — 'stay away, I've got my rights' — rather than encouraging them to form close, respectful communities."

There are several additional themes that, while not emphasized by all CRT adherents, were either developed by CRT thinkers or have reached such a high level of consensus that they can safely be considered part of the genre.

The first is interest convergence, or the idea that whites will only implement civil-rights reforms when it is in their interest to do so. Another is skepticism, if not outright rejection, of the ideas of "merit" and "qualifications" — words that are nearly always put inside scare quotes. "The concepts of 'merit' and 'qualifications' have a function only in relation to existing social practices," wrote CRT co-architect Gary Peller. "Once we consider the possibility that existing social practices might reflect the domination of particular racial groups, those practices can no longer provide a neutral ground from which to defend existing definitions either of qualifications or of merit as functionally correlated with necessary social roles." This is why there is such a war against standardized testing taking place today.

Yet another classic CRT idea is that racism is not an individual sin or crime, but something "systemic," which is one of the reasons government must discriminate against whites. "[I]f racism is embedded in our thought processes and social structures," wrote Delgado and Stefancic, "then the 'ordinary business' of society — the routines, practices, and institutions that we rely on to do the world's work — will keep minorities in subordinate positions." How might one address this problem? "Only aggressive, color-conscious efforts to change the way things are," they assert, "will do much to ameliorate misery."

Race essentialism, or the idea that racial and ethnic groups, rather than individuals, have rights and opinions, is another hallmark of CRT (no matter how vociferously some of its adherents may deny the charge). From this proclivity, CRT has bequeathed to the rest of American society the dubious gifts of multiculturalism and identity politics. "[A] real notion of diversity includes a concept of multiculturalism," says Williams. For her, the policy implications of this assumption are clear:

[Americans] must recognize that other forms of group culture and identity exist. We must respect the dynamic power of these groups and cherish their contributions to our civic lives, rather than pretend they do not exist as a way of avoiding argument about their accommodation. And we must be on guard against either privileging in our law a supposedly neutral "mass" culture that is in fact highly specific and historically contingent or legitimating a supposedly neutral ethic of individualism that is really a corporate group identity.

A logical extension of multiculturalism is a manic obsession with manufacturing an ever-increasing number of victim-group categories — and even the elevation of said groups above the individual and, at the other end of the spectrum, humankind. Thus, law professor Angela Harris wrote in 1994 that the first step in "the project of 'writing back' to white-dominated legal rules, reasoning, and institutions" is "the self-conscious formation of identity groups that have been subject to racial oppression and now demand equality — a formation accomplished by collective myth-making." Harris used the category of Asian Americans as an example of a group that needed to be created out of whole cloth, though she just as easily might have invoked Hispanics:

For example, while African America is currently a relatively stable community with a shared sense of history and tradition, Asian American scholars are engaged in the process of community creation. Moreover, the development of Asian American political consciousness will have an effect on African American political consciousness, and both will transform the meaning of "race" itself. The work of this reconstruction jurisprudence has just begun.

Relying heavily on Marxist analysis, Harris made clear that category creation is meant for revolutionary purposes. "Reading the history of 'racial minorities' in the United States as part of the larger history of western colonialism, [CRT activists] are involved in the project of 'resistance culture' as well," she wrote. Because racial separatism has never had much purchase in the United States, CRT adherents follow a scheme proposed by radical Palestinian American professor Edward Said — what Harris described as "the constitution or reconstitution of the subordinated community and the transformation of the dominant community," which amounts to group creation as a strategy to dismantle the host nation.

Perhaps one of the most pernicious beliefs of CRT is the idea that black Americans, in the words of none other than Derrick Bell, "will never gain full equality in this country." "Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful," he wrote, "will produce no more than temporary 'peaks of progress,' short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance." To address this, Bell proposed a strategy of "racial realism," which requires CRT activists "to acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status. That acknowledgement enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph." It is hard to think of anything more harmful to young minds, but because this depressing message may help buttress the call for race-conscious policies — one of the holy grails of the movement — it is part of the CRT canon.

In but one of many, many examples in which the CRT elite call for discriminatory treatment based on race, Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote in the Harvard Law Review in 1988 that race-neutral policies would only make sense in a country where "differences in outcomes between groups would not reflect past discrimination but rather real differences between groups competing for societal rewards." But this isn't the case in America: "This belief in color-blindness and equal process...would make no sense at all in a society in which identifiable groups had actually been treated differently historically and in which the effects of this difference in treatment continued into the present." We can easily see where Ibram Kendi — not a CRT pioneer, but a professor who has made a small fortune out of retailing its tenets through his "antiracism" trainings — comes up with his signature phrase: "The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination."

From there, it is but a short step to the old Marxist mainstay of wealth redistribution. Crenshaw observed that "economic exploitation and poverty have been central features of racial domination — poverty is its long-term result. A legal strategy that does not include redistribution of wealth cannot remedy one of the most significant aspects of racial domination." Duncan Kennedy, meanwhile, wrote that one of the reasons he supports "large scale race-based affirmative action" is that wealth and power should be redistributed to individuals because of their membership in a category. "[W]e should be a culturally pluralist society," he declared, "that deliberately structures institutions so that communities and social classes share wealth and power. The sharing of wealth and power that occur automatically, so to speak, through the melting pot, the market and meritocracy are not enough."

Group formation, systemic racism, the rejection of merit and qualifications, race essentialism, and the redistribution of wealth and power, all for revolutionary purposes, are but some of the main features of CRT. Others include support for "participatory democracy," a form of workers councils (or soviets) that erode checks and balances; the idea that to have laws is to have violence ("Law is violence, hence the more of it the more violent the society," wrote Delgado); and that being white confers privileges that should be attenuated though discrimination, no matter how impoverished a person's condition. This is hardly an all-inclusive list, but it gives a sense of the roots of the practices being foisted on America's children, workers, worshippers, sports fans, and really anybody who participates in any way in our nation's civic life.


After the 2021 backlash by parents and everyday Americans against the preaching of CRT in schools and offices, adherents and others on the left responded by characterizing the theory as an abstract legal doctrine taught in law schools, with no impact on society at large. Other times they argued that teachers and human-resources departments were simply trying to have a conversation on race.

That didn't sell well with the swelling resistance to all things CRT, however. Retailers of CRT like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo — by no means architects of the discipline, but latter-day entrepreneurs making plenty of money out of CRT-influenced workplace and school trainings — now complain that their movement is being "crushed" (Kendi) or that it is "illegal" to teach about racism in schools (DiAngelo). The reason is simple: Americans value their free-speech rights and their property, and want their success to depend on objective measures. To be American, culturally, is to reject all that CRT teaches.

But we should not assume that Kendi and DiAngelo are right; around the same time of their jeremiads, the White House and the entire executive branch, as well as the media, the universities, and the largest corporations, were all marching to the beat set in 1989 at a workshop in Madison. We shall see what 2024 brings in terms of resolving this power struggle.

Mike Gonzalez is the Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.


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