Critical Race Theory Is Critical

Kristal S. Johnson, M.A., doctoral student, Department of Sociology, University of Central Florida
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2021

Kristal S. Johnson
Kristal S. Johnson, M.A.

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In Brief

  • Critical race theory (CRT) is a theoretical framework wherein one critically examines social constructs in a post-emancipation society.
  • CRT argues against a color-blind philosophy, which perpetuates racial inequality.
  • CRT can be applied to one’s research, to critique the perpetuation of inequalities in the structure of society.


Critical race theory (CRT) is a paradigm for examining racial inequalities in society. According to critical race theorists, race—and racism for that matter—is a social construct instituted to secure a position of domination (Delgado & Stefancic, 1995, 2001). Critical race theorists posit that race is something society invented to manipulate and re-create power (Brown, 2008). CRT seeks to understand as well as challenge the implications that arise from these social constructs. CRT also appeals to social justice to undo oppression and restructure society (Alexander, 2020). According to CRT, racism is in the structure of society—systems of oppression are reified through everyday practices (Burton et al., 2010), and society accepts the everyday practices, even inadvertently (Bonilla-Silva, 2015; Combs, 2018). Be that as it may, the usage of power is accepted, thereby rationalizing the use of domination or even the abuse of power by any means employed. This usage of power perpetuates both privilege and affliction (Taylor et al., 2019). CRT can be applied to any area of study. The next section provides an example of theoretical application to research.


Critical Race Theory Application

Let’s consider the application of CRT to impacts of COVID-19 on students and their families. Researchers could narrow the scope to technological impacts or health and nutrition, but for example’s sake, we will keep it general. Research can inform policy, so it is important to consider all factors and how they can be applied to the study. The research being conducted can lead to social movements which can spur policy changes. Implications can arise from the study. For example, by engaging with CRT, researchers will add to prior limitations and enhance the canon. In addition, justification as to the importance of the study will become clear. There may be implications for those in leadership positions who are able to make decisions and change the trajectory.

In our example, note the actors in the study—researchers can consider the social groups involved in the research on COVID-19 impacts on students and their families to decipher the extent and nature of the pandemic on students, siblings, parents, guardians, and so on. CRT enables researchers to critically examine the systems of oppression that are in place and to actively contend with questions that afflict social groups. Consider, for example, the systems of oppression that are operating in the research study and how the systems affect particular social groups. For some social groups, shifting school to an online environment was not a strain. However, some social groups experienced challenges when students were home, such as difficulties in acquiring school-provided meals, which made it difficult for some families to eat at all (Bauer et al., 2021). At the same time, students’ return to bricks-and-mortar presented its own set of challenges, such as hesitancy about receiving COVID-19 vaccines and lack of vaccine access in historically marginalized communities (Momplaisir et al., 2021; Savitt, 1982; Webb Hooper et al., 2021). COVID-19 sharpened society’s focus on myriad social problems that already existed (Bhala et al., 2020).

CRT reasons that the social system was arranged in such a way so that the dominant can dominate. The social system is the overarching body of the social structure, or the structure. Consider our example and the specific actors in a place or position of domination. Key actors may be the school board, the state governor, and others in positions of power. This particular social structure is positioned to make decisions for the good of the order but sometimes those decisions can perpetuate inequalities. The narrative patterns a Western, patriarchal ideology that dominates the social groups involved. Reflect on the situation as social groups are pushed to interact with the dominant structure (i.e., basically no other choice exists), and how this can affect the social groups involved.

Beyond our example, when power is used in, what is seen as, a calculated way by the dominant group, then that power is generally considered a legitimate authority. Society is generally reliant on the social system, its rules, laws, and enforcement thereof. Those in power typically do not ask those they have authority over for permission or for feedback, and seem not to consider their needs—on the contrary, they simply make decisions.

When conducting research, scientists can identify social groups at the periphery or margin and consider social groups that are forgotten, ignored, or forsaken (e.g., people without housing, Brown or Black individuals). Scientists can consider how social groups are affected by the situation and then identify which inequalities are based on hierarchical reinforcement. Marginalization is structural damage—it is not an individual or set entity; it is entrenched in the social system, the overarching parent structure. Racial stratification is often associated with, and derivative of, marginalization. It is often perceived as normal and ordinary and is reproduced in rote tasks. Conducting research with a CRT lens will reveal how racial stratification serves those in positions of power, reproduces racism among social institutions, and is rationalized, legitimated, and perpetuated afflicting social groups. A CRT lens can also help researchers recognize the nondominant social group and how the dominant social group benefits from the nondominant group’s inequities. Researchers can also take note as to whether there are other axes—or additional places of convergence (e.g., age, gender).

Researchers should not shy away from challenging systems of oppression. It is also important for researchers to not separate themselves from the research. Researchers are admonished to stray from an us/them approach. The work of CRT calls for advocacy. Researchers are encouraged to stay connected to their research, be cognizant, and to not unconsciously distance themselves from the basis of their work and the social groups that will benefit from it. After all, the rationale for the work that one does is in the research.



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