Demystifying Critical Race Theory: What It Is, and What It Isn’t

Mellissa S. Gordon, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Sciences, University of Delaware
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2021

Mellissa S. Gordon
Mellissa S. Gordon

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In Brief

  • Critical race theory (CRT) calls attention to the ways laws are constructed to maintain a racial hierarchy, in which Black families and their communities are systematically and disproportionately disenfranchised.
  • CRT posits that the embeddedness of racism is so pervasive that it appears “normal” to people within the culture.
  • According to CRT, racism has always had—and continues to have—an influence on all aspects of American life, including in the academy, in society, and in politics.


I begin by identifying myself as a Black female scholar who emigrated to the United States from Jamaica at the age of 9. By no means do I proclaim to provide a comprehensive, all-inclusive explanation of a topic as complex as CRT, but I seek to provide the fundamentals of the intentions behind it as a collective movement. Additionally, I outline the basic tenets of CRT for social science research, which have coalesced from the works of people who have contributed at its inception as well as from the works of those who have used CRT to inform their own research, myself included. It is my hope that this piece empowers each of us to advocate for, support, and amplify the voices and experiences of those who are affected by racial inequality.

As interest in CRT has burgeoned recently, misconceptions regarding its intended purpose has also followed suit. Despite the negative proclamations surrounding it, at its core, CRT is a tool that researchers can use when framing work that involves race generally and to provide context to research that highlights racial disparities between the majority and minority populations, more specifically. CRT is not, however, a testament to the superiority of Black individuals relative to their White counterparts. Neither is it a political ideology devoid of facts that is meant to spew hate between races and across the nation. In fact, CRT is intended to accomplish the very opposite (Crenshaw et al., 1995).

Proponents of CRT do not subscribe to an agreed-upon script as to what exactly constitutes critical race scholarship in terms of object of study, argument, accent, or emphasis (Crenshaw et al., 1995). What is agreed on, however, and what has served as the underlying premise of CRT, is the convergence of two shared interests: “to understand how . . . white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America . . . and . . . a desire not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it” (Crenshaw et al., 1995, p. xiii). Whether CRT is considered a movement, a framework, or a scholarship depends on the space in which it is being utilized. More importantly, it encapsulates a formal analysis of how race is conceptualized in direct and subtle ways for the sole purpose of systematically disempowering people of color, exclusively and unjustifiably, on the benign phenotypic expression of the color of one’s skin while elevating White constituents (DiAngelo, 2016; Mayr, 2002).

Despite its seemingly exponential growth in popularity, CRT (or some version of it) has been at the forefront of scholarly inquiry for quite some time (Bell, 1980a, 1980b; Crenshaw, 2002; Delgado, 1995). Its “likeness” can be juxtaposed to Bell’s (1980a) theory of the interest of convergence, which suggests that “the interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites” (p. 523). To this effect, until White Americans find value in abandoning racism, anti-Black practices by the majority (and anyone for that matter) will be permitted, legitimized, and uncontested.

In recognition of such tendencies, CRT places race at the center of scholarly inquiry. It boldly insists on critical discourse that supersedes a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. To intentionally choose to remain racially unaware, or even worse, being knowledgeable of racial injustices but choosing to remain silent is a detriment to academia generally, and social science scholarship more specifically, as this is likely to remake and replicate existing racial inequities.

Given that CRT is ever evolving and malleable, the following key tenets surmised from the literature are provided as a fundamental base that espouses the need to apply CRT understandings and insights whenever social science research is conducted and/or encountered in policy and practice. The following list is by no means intended to be comprehensive or mutually exclusive:

  • Race is socially constructed and complex (Crenshaw et al., 1995).
  • Race and racism are institutionalized within systems that seek to maintain racial inequality (Crenshaw et al., 1995; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995).
  • Anti-racism is not performative. CRT questions claims of neutrality, meritocracy, “color-blindness,” and deficit-based research that further denigrates the lived experiences of people of color (Crenshaw, 2002).
  • In an effort to counter the permanence of racism, public policy initiatives at the highest levels must be enacted (Crenshaw, 2002).
  • CRT is “a product of any scholar [regardless of race] engaged in a critical reflection of race” (Crenshaw, 2002, p. 1363).
  • The principles of CRT intersect with the experiences of one or more minoritized group (Annamma et al., 2013; Solórzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001).


CRT provides researchers with a lens in which to frame their work, in a way that acknowledges the role that race plays in shaping their particular findings. Specific to social science research, it has been used to examine how social, political, and economic factors have worked to undermine the normative involvement of Black fathers and family formation patterns over time (Lemmons & Johnson, 2019). Additionally, DePouw (2018) employed CRT to gain a better understanding of the role that Whiteness and racial power play in intimate relationships in the family, particularly between White parents and family members of color. Notably, an application of CRT to research does not require the abandonment of neutrality or objectivity (Carbado & Roithmayr, 2014), as some would suggest; nor does it necessitate a plan of action to change the structural dimensions of racism that have, for decades, afflicted American society.


Expansions of Critical Race Theory

While CRT was first conceptualized as an academic framework for examining and understanding how race is constructed and maintained to systematically disenfranchise Black people and elevate the majority group (Crenshaw et al., 1995), its underlying principles have been applied to a number of offshoot movements comprising primarily members of other marginalized populations. For example, Latino CRT (LatCrit) addresses issues concerning the Latino/Latina population in America, such as language, immigration, and acculturation (Solórzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001). Similarly, disability CRT (DisCrit) provides a theoretical framework for exploring the intersectionality of racism and disability. Researchers adapting this perspective are primarily concerned with highlighting the lived experiences of disabled people of color (Annamma et al., 2013). Additionally, quantitative CRT, also referred to as QuantCrit, draws on the tenants of CRT as a means of highlighting the complexities associated with quantifying race in quantitative research. It cautions that numbers are not neutral and are often interpreted in a way that serves the interests of White individuals while promoting the deficits of Black people (Gillborn et al., 2018).

Similar to CRT, the aforementioned offshoot movements seek to broaden our understanding of the complexities of race in influencing every aspect of life in American society, especially among marginalized, underrepresented groups. These expansions propagate the sentiments of the American philosopher and political activist Cornel West, who stated, “Critical Race Theory is a gasp of emancipatory hope that law can serve liberation rather than domination” (Crenshaw et al., 1995, p. xii). CRT recognizes that racial problems do not simply go away when left unaddressed; even more so, it encourages an acknowledgment of race in shaping U.S. history, the good and the bad, not in an effort to stifle our progress toward racial equality but as a means of learning from it, so that the negative aspects of it may not be repeated.



Annamma, S. A., Connor, D., & Ferri, B. (2013). Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the intersections of race and dis/ability. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 16(1), 1–31.

Bell, D. (1980a). Brown v. Board of Education and the interest-convergence dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 93, 518–533.

Bell, D. (1980b). Race, racism and American law. Little, Brown.

Carbado, D. W., & Roithmayr, D. (2014). Critical race theory meets social science. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 10, 149–167.

Crenshaw, K., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (1995). Introduction. In K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, & K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement (pp. xiii–xxxii). New Press.

Crenshaw, K. W. (2002). The first decade: Critical reflections, or a foot in the closing door. UCLA Law Review, 49, 1343–1373.

Delgado, R. (1995). The Rodrigo chronicles: Conversations about America and race. New York University Press.

DePouw, C. (2018). Intersectionality and critical race parenting. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 31(1), 55–69.

DiAngelo, R. (2016). What is race? Counterpoints, 497, 97–106.

Gillborn, D., Warmington, P., & Demack, S. (2018). Quantcrit: Education, policy, “Big Data” and principles for a critical race theory of statistics. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(2), 158–179.

Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47–68.

Lemmons, B. P., & Johnson, W. E. (2019). Game changers: A critical race theory analysis of the economic, social, and political factors impacting Black fatherhood and family formation. Social work in Public Health, 34(1), 86–101.

Mayr, E. (2002). The biology of race and the concept of equality. Daedalus, 131(1), 89–94.

Solórzano, D. G., & Delgado-Bernal, D. (2001). Examining transformational resistance through a critical race and LatCrit theory framework: Chicana and Chicano students in an urban context. Urban Education, 36(3), 308–342.