Kimberle Crenshaw: Critical Race Theory a Vital Part of American Discourse

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tags: racism, critical race theory, Legal Studies

NPR's A Martinez talks to Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term "critical race theory," about anti-racism and why she believes it must be part of American discourse.


Critical race theory, or CRT, has been discussed in academic circles for nearly 40 years, but the term has only recently been weaponized in backlash of the racial reckoning that spread across the country following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020. Law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw is a pioneering scholar and writer on race, civil rights and law. She teaches at Columbia University and UCLA. She's also a co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum. I spoke with her about CRT and its importance in this moment.

So, Professor, since you coined the term critical race theory, could you start us off with what it is?

KIMBERLE WILLIAMS CRENSHAW: It is effectively an embodiment of what I call racial literacy. How do we read the world? How do we understand the relationship to its history? We frame it that way not simply as a way of marking history and showing, for example, how segregated neighborhoods were the product of federal policy that continues to create material differences in wealth and in health to this day. It's important to understand the history of it to do something about it.

MARTINEZ: You wrote an article - an op-ed actually - in the LA Times in January, and the headline is "Martin Luther King Was A Critical Race Theorist Before There Was A Name For It." In what way, Professor?

CRENSHAW: Well, in several ways. No. 1, he was a critic of the contradiction between what America says it is, what its deepest aspirations are and what its material reality is. You know, a lot of people like to quote his March on Washington speech, particularly the part where he talks about how our aspiration is to be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin. That was his sort of aspirational moment. The rest of the speech was a trenchant critique of the idea that America had given African Americans a rubber check. Basically, the promises of the 13th and the 14th Amendment came back marked insufficient funds. So his entire point of that speech was to make good on the Democratic promises.

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