How Might CRT Guide Social Science Research? Practical Examples From the Field

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

Gordon and Salvador
Mellissa S. Gordon, Ph.D. (left), and Paula Salvador, M.S.

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Research at the intersection of critical race theory (CRT) and social sciences has been met with what some have referred to as an “unacknowledged schism” between the two fields (Obasogie, 2013), based on the argument that the core critical commitments that characterize CRT are somehow potentially antithetical to social sciences (Brown, 2004). However, the primary goal of CRT, as is the case with any theory, is to explain a phenomenon. CRT accomplishes this by providing social science research a lens for examining, understanding, articulating, and appropriately contextualizing research that includes race. Its underlying principles have been successfully applied in social science research to test hypotheses, as a means of supporting or challenging research findings, or providing alternative explanations, often to long-standing empirical findings (Carbado & Roithmayr, 2014).

Using CRT, the following examples contextualize some of the most steadfast findings in the social science literature relative to positive parenting (Pastorelli et al., 2016), the “achievement gap” (Howard, 2019), and the role of secondary school systems as a microcosm of society that potentially set the stage for the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” by way of disciplinary actions that disproportionally target Black students (Cuellar & Markowitz, 2015).


Positive Parenting

CRT encourages a reinterpretation, or perhaps even more so, a more appropriate definition of what is considered positive parenting and to whom. While there is unwavering support for the direct association between positive parenting and favorable child outcomes (Pastorelli et al., 2016), CRT recognizes that race influences parenting behaviors; as such, what constitutes positive parenting should be considered from the perspective of Black families. For example, despite experiencing characteristically negative parenting such as high parental control and low warmth, a number of studies suggests that, unlike their White counterparts, outcomes for Black children are oftentimes positive rather than negative (Mason et al., 2004). Findings provided by Mason et al. (1996) suggest that moderate levels of parental coerciveness or psychological control may lead to reduced behavioral problems among Black youth who associate with more problematic peers. Also, Valentino et al. (2012) reported that authoritarian parenting, characterized by demandingness and compliance with parental authority, conferred protection from the intergenerational continuity of child abuse in Black families, but not for White families. In line with CRT and according to Mason et al. (2004), Black children experiencing high levels of parental control are more likely than their White counterparts to interpret such behaviors as positive and view these actions as their parents’ efforts at protecting or preparing them for experiences with discrimination or high-risk environments.


Achievement Gap

Another important finding worth being reexamined through the CRT lens is that of the commonly reported achievement gap among White and Black students that purports that White students report higher academic achievement than their Black peers (Bohrnstedt et al. 2015; Gordon & Cui, 2018). While this finding is persistent, CRT points to exacerbating circumstances that Black students face that White students often do not (Carter, 2008). For example, Carter suggests that academic performance among Black students may be hindered as a result of Black students having to constantly maintain a conscious awareness of their race and potential racial discrimination directed toward them. It is important to note here that while CRT provides a theoretical lens that incorporates race, it also recognizes the complexities of race, along with its intersection with many other factors, including historical and socioeconomic contexts, in shaping the experiences of Black people (Carbado & Roithmayr, 2014). Regarding academic achievement, for example, Black children attending majority Black schools do not necessarily perform better academically, despite not having to maintain a conscious awareness of race (Aud et al., 2010). Interestingly, achievement among both Black and White students is typically lower in majority Black schools than in majority White schools, and oftentimes does not differ significantly (Bohrnstedt et al., 2015). According to Aud et al. (2010), this finding is likely because schools with a majority Black population are typically limited in resources, and as such, have a difficult time successfully meeting the academic needs of students. Nonetheless, parents of high-achieving Black students attending well-resourced, majority Black schools attest to the added benefit of their children experiencing less race-based discrimination while also having the opportunity to succeed academically among students who share a similar racial background (Rowley & McNeill, 2021).

Given its origins in uncovering the role of the legal system in perpetuating racial inequities, CRT also sheds light on structural inequalities, which are more likely to impede Black students’ academic success. One such structural inequality, according to Ondrich et al. (2003), is the practice of redlining. A common legal tactic in the 1960s, redlining was used by mortgage lenders to deny Black families’ homes in quality neighborhoods that they designated for White families only. With limited options, Black families were more likely to reside in low-income and oftentimes dangerous neighborhoods, and their children subsequently attended impoverished, poorly resourced schools. Although redlining is no longer practiced, its ramifications persist (Ondrich et al., 2003). Black students are still more likely to live in and attend schools in urban communities, many of which are high in poverty, poorly maintained, and provide inadequate or limited access to resources (e.g., bus transportation, sufficient street lights, police protection) (e.g., Hopson & Lee, 2011). According to Ainsworth (2002), children raised in such communities are more likely to experience academic challenges such as increased high school dropout rates and lower scores on achievement tests. Some previous studies suggest that, when resources improve, the achievement gap diminishes significantly or disappears altogether (Bohrnstedt et al. 2015; Mandara et al., 2009). Based on CRT, at minimum, an acknowledgment of the systems that construct and inform education is warranted, along with an examination of how disparities in resources contribute to the achievement gap.


School-to-Prison Pipeline

CRT directs attention to biases within the school system that further perpetuate Black students’ involvement in the criminal justice system. CRT challenges the legitimacy of research findings related to school disciplinary actions, as disciplinary actions disproportionally target Black students. Carmichael et al. (2005) reported that the single greatest predictor of future involvement in the juvenile system is a history of disciplinary referrals at school. Compared to their White peers, Black students, Black males in particular, are overrepresented in the use of exclusionary discipline, out-of-school suspension, and expulsions (Skiba et al., 2012), despite there being few racial differences in offenses between Black and White students (Wallace et al. 2008). In fact, in their analysis of middle school disciplinary referrals, Wallace et al. (2008) found that White students were referred to the office significantly more frequently for more observable, objective offenses (e.g., smoking, vandalism), while referral of Black students was more likely for behaviors requiring subjective judgment (e.g., disrespect, excessive noise). School disciplinary actions are directly linked to increased criminal offending and increased likelihood of arrests, as it provides a greater opportunity for youth to commit crimes outside of school (Cuellar & Markowitz, 2015).



CRT goes beyond simply recognizing the embeddedness of race and pervasiveness of racism within American society. It also provides a theoretical framework in which the impact of race is appropriately acknowledged and contextualized to reflect the lived experiences of Black families. As such, an intersection of CRT and social sciences is not only possible but also may be necessary. By no means is CRT meant to cast doubt on empirical findings or provide a justification for findings in one way or another. In contrast, CRT supports, challenges, and/or furnishes alternative explanations to research involving race. Regardless of which of the former is accomplished, most would agree that such intersectionality is likely to further the field of social sciences for the better.



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