How Critical Racial Theory Mastermind Kimberlé Crenshaw survives the culture wars



Kimberlé Crenshaw is tucked away in her UCLA office with floor-to-ceiling shelves. Behind her, two men enter the frame of our video call, stoop and lift, packing stacks of books. “I’m moving,” she explains. “To one with a view of the lawn.” Crenshaw went through her busy schedule to speak to me; she is in even more demand than usual. She receives media hits from left and right and takes them off, mainly because she is working on three books, all of which should be published by May 2022. She is a law professor at Columbia University and UCLA. She finds time to lead the African American Policy Forum, the think tank for social justice that she co-founded 25 years ago, and to moderate a podcast on a term she coined in 1989: Intersectionality. All of this as Conservatives from Tucker Carlson of Fox News to Texas Senator Ted Cruz melt over another academic framework they helped shape more than 30 years ago – critical racial theory – and land them at the troubled center of the culture wars.

She felt “grumpy and angry” at seeing the rights distort her decades of work, including a 2001 key paper on Racial and Gender Discrimination for the United Nations, a foundational book on police and ill-treatment of black girls Articles in various law reviews and news agencies. But “Dogs don’t bark at parked cars.” She traverses the moment with humility, watching misinformation mislead the country. Friends hugging Republican efforts to get their teachings out of schools. She asks her: “Do you worry about how deep this dissatisfaction with our democracy is when playing by the rules produces results that many white people are dissatisfied with?” Because when the excessive bans are in focus, we are all recruited as actors in a disinformation campaign that changes the rules by which we live.

This latest campaign began around September last, when Christopher Rufo, a right-wing think tank scholar, went on the air with Carlson to warn viewers about critical racial theory. Rufo said he spent months researching how the theory infiltrated American systems and urged then-President Donald Trump to take action. Trump, an avid Fox viewer, ordered government-funded agencies to end the teaching of critical racial theory and white privilege because the concepts lead people – mistakenly – to believe that America is inherently racist. With months remaining in his presidency, Trump launched the 1776 commission – a refutation of “warped” and “warped” social justice doctrines like that New York Times The magazine’s 1619 project, led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, aims to re-examine America’s history through the lens of slavery.

President Joe Biden lifted both the ban and the commission on his first day. However, by that point the problem had become a live wire. After Biden’s setbacks, many Republicans pushed for legislation banning Crenshaw’s academic setting in schools. In April, Idaho became the first state to pass such a law; Governor Brad Little said it would prevent teachers from indoctrinating students into hating America. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt followed a month later. Since then, several other red states have introduced similar measures.

I ask Crenshaw what she would say to her critics. “I don’t think this is a real disagreement, nor is it a debate that can be won,” she says. “This is a weapon they are using to stay in power.”

Most frustratingly for Crenshaw was to see the GOP paring critical racial theory to a club in order to attack progress under the guise of protecting democracy. “Just as anti-racism is called racism, anti-indoctrination is called indoctrination,” says Crenshaw. Conservatives have long embraced the idea that America is a color-blind, just society, where hard work explains who is successful. “What could be more indoctrinating than that?” As an example of the systemic character of racism, she points to the story behind the traditionally white and black neighborhoods: How federal funds flowed into the development of segregated suburbs while blacks were denied these opportunities. And how that denial extends to today’s economic disparities.

Crenshaw breaks it down. “Critical Race Theory is based on the premise that race is socially constructed, but it is real through social constructions. “In other words, ask yourself what is a” black “neighborhood? Why do we call” the hood “the hood? Labels like these were strategically produced by American politics Black person – who I am in this country – is a legal concept. “Our enslavement was a sign of our humiliation,” explains Crenshaw. “And our humiliation was a sign that we could never be part of this country. Our Supreme Court said this “—in the Dred Scott v. Sandford Judgment of 1857 – “and it was not a close decision.”

Critical Race Theory pays attention to the effects of such decisions. It challenges us to question how and why society looks the way it looks. “The other side doesn’t want to ask these kinds of questions because they want us to be satisfied with the timely distribution of opportunities,” says Crenshaw.

Critical racial theory grew out of what Crenshaw calls the post-civil rights generation: those watching the movement learned from demonstrations that forced the government to pass laws protecting the rights of African American people, which, however, are at the root of the problem. In 1989, during her third year as a law professor, Crenshaw – along with four thought leaders, two white allies, and three organizers – introduced the term at a workshop. The label was a coincidence. “We were critical of the law, but with a focus on race,” she says, recalling a brainstorming session. “So we wanted to critical to be in run to be in it. And we provide theory to signal that we are not just concerned with civil rights practice. It was how to think, how to see, how to read, how to deal with how the law created and sustained race – our particular kind of race and racism – in American society.

What the right refer to as a threat to democracy does indeed promote justice. This is how we have historically become what we were – how the fiction of race becomes reality. Crenshaw bet that none of the Republicans fighting to keep the status quo taken the time to understand what they do because it was never about understanding. (When an Alabama legislature tabled a bill banning Critical Racial Theory in schools was asked by a reporter to define the term, he couldn’t.) “You can’t solve a problem you can’t name” says Crenshaw. “You can’t bring up a story that you don’t want to learn.”

Crenshaw, who grew up in the industrial city of Canton, Ohio, was eight when her father started calling her a lawyer and warned people not to let her speak. “I would fight my way out of punishment by putting the contradiction in the rules,” she says. But when her older brother, who died at the age of 12, discovered the Dashiki – a West African shirt that became popular in America during the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s – she got her first glimpse into the claims of black pride and culture didn’t always go down well in white America. A week after putting on the shirt, her brother came home with torn clothes, Crenshaw says. He said he got into an argument with some whites who called him the N word and tried to take it off, she recalls. That was in the 1970s. “I remember seeing this and asking how could it be such a problem that my brother was wearing this dashiki? What is it that makes you seem so confronted with the feelings of those who had to meet my brother in this outfit? When Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, her father was a freshman law student, but he died before he could finish school. “We couldn’t bring Martin Luther King back to life, but we could talk about his legacy,” says Crenshaw. “I couldn’t bring my father back to life, but I could go ahead and become a lawyer any way he wanted.”

So it was no accident that she ended up as a lawyer. Her big break came while she was working for Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the first female chairwoman of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Abrahamson was also shortlisted for the US Supreme Court – a seat that went to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “This woman gave me my career,” says Crenshaw. “She risked it with me. I was a black graduate from Harvard Law School. Hadn’t been to Law Review, writing stuff that was kind of like: What kind of intersectional stuff is that? And she saw my potential. “That led her to meet Joel F. Handler, then a professor at the University of Wisconsin, which led to her faculty position at UCLA.” This type of network, this type of credentials is what what looks at you, ”she says.

Crenshaw’s days are never the same. Before our chat, she had three meetings, one of which was about an ongoing book project. After that, she plans to write a chapter for her memoir manifesto Intercom, which traces the development of some of her ideas that shaped the discourse on gender, race and social justice. “I see my work as a defense against those who would normalize and neutralize unbearable conditions in our lives,” she says of the title, which she can change in the course of the chapters. “Writing about social justice, scholarship, activism doesn’t speak in a vacuum; it speaks against the systems of thought, against the assumptions, against the power that has lined up throughout history to tell us that some of us are not worth being full citizens, some of our dreams are not worth it, to be realized, and some of our lives are not worth improving through shared commitments to change the conditions in which we live.