Critical race theory (CRT), initially created as a body of legal theory, is an organizing framework useful in understanding human behavior and social processes relevant to racial group categorizations and racial stratification. Critical race theory examines the oppressive dynamics of society to inform individual, group, and social transformation. Rather than embracing a colorblind perspective, CRT places race at the center of the analysis and provides a critical perspective on how racial stratification continues to influence the lives of racial/ethnic minorities in the United States. In this context, color-blindness refers to the minimization or denial of a substantive role for race in the understanding of life outcomes for different racial groups. Critical race theory provides a framework consistent with multicultural psychology and is useful in the conceptualization and practice of counseling and psychotherapy in cross-cultural contexts. Mental health professionals working in cross-cultural contexts can use CRT to facilitate a deeper understanding of how racial stratification is manifested in everyday experience and the enduring role that race plays in the lives of individuals, families, and groups, as well as in the therapeutic process.
Basic Tenets and Dominant Themes in Critical Race Theory
Scholars across disciplines have identified several dominant and unifying themes that describe the basic tenets of CRT. Based on the core CRT literature, 10 basic tenets/dominant themes can be articulated that describe CRT’s conceptual foundation.
- Race is a social construct, not a biological phenomenon.
- Racism is endemic to American life and should not be regarded as an aberration.
- Racism benefits those who are privileged and serves the interests of the powerful to maintain the status quo with respect to racial stratification.
- CRT represents a challenge to the dominant social ideology of color-blindness and meritocracy.
- Racial identity and racial identification are influenced by the racial stratification that permeates American society.
- Assimilation and racial integration are not always in the best interests of the subordinated group.
- CRT considers the significance of within-group heterogeneity and the existence of simultaneous, multiple, intersecting identities.
- CRT argues for the centrality, legitimacy, and appropriateness of the lived experience of racial/ethnic minorities in any analysis of racial stratification.
- CRT insists on a contextual analysis by placing race and racism in a cultural and historical context, as well as a contemporary sociopolitical context.
- Informing social justice efforts and the elimination of racial oppression are the ultimate goals of critical race theory.
The first basic tenet of CRT is that race is a social construct, not a biological phenomenon. It is not rooted in biology or genetics but rather is a product of social contexts and social organization. Based on the social construction thesis, CRT holds that races are categories that society creates, revises, and retires as needed. This tenet is based on scientific research demonstrating that the human phenotypic expressions used to indicate racial categorization (i.e., those physical characteristics shared by many people of a common heritage) constitute only a minute segment of people’s genetic makeup and account for approximately .1% of genetic variability between races. Genetically, people are more similar than different. Furthermore, science has found no reliable link between physical traits and higher-order characteristics such as personality, intelligence, and morality. A central question that emerges from CRT is why and how pervasive social ideology continually overlooks scientific fact and attributes semipermanent characteristics to different races. CRT challenges the idea that race should be disregarded because it is not valid scientifically. Assigned racial group categorizations continue to have a strong impact on differential life outcomes, as well as on how people perceive and interact with each other. Race continues to influence the structure and functioning of a broad range of societal institutions, including education, health care, employment, media, and the legal system.
Second, racism is endemic to American life and should not be regarded as an aberration. Socially constructed racial categorization is currently and has historically been a fundamental organizing principle of society. Individual, cultural, and institutional expressions of racism reflect the racial stratification that is part of the fabric of the United States of America. In a CRT analysis, racism is ordinary practice and part of the dominant cultural ideology that manifests in multiple contexts. Race and racism are central and defining factors to consider in understanding individual and group experience. Racism can express itself in very mundane, as well as quite extraordinary, ways. It affects the course and quality of life through access to valued societal resources, opportunities, and information. Thus, CRT critiques the position that racism is primarily an attitudinal or psychological problem and argues that conceptualizing it in this way hides its pervasiveness, insidiousness, and enduring nature.
A third basic tenet of CRT is that racism benefits those who are privileged and serves the interests of the powerful to maintain the status quo with respect to racial stratification. Those with power and influence in society have little incentive to eliminate racism. This feature is known as “interest convergence” or material determinism. Efforts to eliminate racism occur only when the change will benefit the privileged group in some way. This tenet encourages exploration of the role of societal need and power interests in the way that specific qualities are associated with particular racial groups. This idea of differential racialization examines how characteristics ascribed to a particular race change depending on the needs and interests of the majority group. Historically, these have included economic power, safety from a perceived threat, and a quest for racial or ethnic purity, among others. In addition, sentiments and stereotypes associated with a particular group change with societal conditions. For example, during World War II, Japanese Americans were in extreme disfavor, moved to internment camps, and assigned stereotypes such as “cruel” and “evil.” As another example, people of Black African descent were depicted as simple-minded and childlike during slavery when justification for servitude was needed. However, more recently, African Americans are depicted as aggressive, threatening, and criminal, which serves to justify the practice of racial profiling and disproportionate rates of imprisonment, among other phenomena.
Fourth, CRT represents a challenge to the dominant social ideology of color-blindness and meritocracy. Race neutrality and the myth of equal opportunity ignore the reality of the deeply embedded racial stratification in the United States and the impact it has on quality of life. These dominant ideological assumptions result in a deficit analysis of differences between Whites and people of color. The traditional paradigm of equal opportunity camouflages the realities of power asymmetry and unearned privilege afforded to dominant groups. Within this predominant paradigm of color-blindness and meritocracy, a Latina worker’s failure to be promoted would be attributed exclusively to individual deficiencies with factors such as an “old boys club” ignored or discounted. A CRT analysis would illuminate the dynamics of race and differential access to opportunities for advancement that create disparities in life outcomes.
A fifth important theme relevant to CRT is that racial identity and racial identification are influenced by the racial stratification that permeates American society. The perceived salience of race, the significance of racial/ethnic group membership to self-concept, the degree to which racial/ethnic heritage and practices are embraced or rejected, and the affiliations and identifications that are made within and outside of one’s own racial/ethnic group are all impacted by the dominant cultural narrative of White superiority. Trustworthiness, intelligence, leadership, credibility, and standards of attractiveness are among the characteristics more quickly attributed to Whites when in comparison with people of color. When there is an idealization of Whiteness by persons of color, behavior may be influenced by the need to meet the approval of Whites, and there may be collusion with attitudes of color-blindness and race neutrality to be “acceptable” to Whites. This idealization of Whiteness can be associated with the internalization of negative stereotypes and result in distancing and disidentification with respect to one’s own racial/ethnic group. However, dissonance can be created when a preference for Whiteness comes face-to-face with the inescapable reality of the permanence of living as the racial/ethnic group within which one was born. Biracial and multiracial individuals and families frequently must negotiate identity and identification within a society where part of their heritage is valued as superior and is more privileged than other parts. This is most striking when one parent is White. However, this dynamic can also be present in situations where parents are members of different racial/ethnic groups of color (e.g., Japanese and African American). From a CRT perspective, positive and healthy racial identification, which does not collude with the perpetuation of racial stratification, requires exposure, familiarity, and affirming contexts that provide alternative and empowering meanings associated with one’s racial/ethnic group or groups.
Sixth, within a CRT framework, assimilation and racial integration may not always be in the best interests of the subordinated group. In practice, racially integrated settings occur in mainstream institutions that are majority White in composition and/or in the distribution of power. Due to the dominant ideology of White supremacy, messages of inferiority and deviance are easily available and internalized by people of color in predominantly White settings. In addition, fairness may be perceived differently by those with diverse racial experiences. For example, integration that separates children of color into different classrooms in the name of integration actually benefits White children in providing them with exposure to a “diversity” experience. Dominant cultural values and practices, sense of identity, belonging, security, and esteem are not at risk for the White children. However, the children of color face greater risk of conformity demands, encouragement to keep differences relatively invisible, alienation, disconnectedness, withdrawal, and internalized racism. This is particularly true when the institutional culture insists on a “we are all the same” value structure and silences or marginalizes voices that threaten this ideology that renders people blind to the dynamics and expressions of racism. When affirmation, validation, within-group support, and opportunities for racial and cultural socialization are missing or weak, racial integration (as it is currently practiced) can have negative effects on members of racial/ethnic minority groups.
A seventh dominant theme in CRT is the significance of within-group heterogeneity and the existence of simultaneous, multiple, intersecting identities. This is often referred to as anti-essentialism or intersectionality. All people have overlapping identities, and multiple lenses through which the world is experienced. CRT challenges the idea that any person has a unidimensional identity within a single category (e.g., race/ethnicity) or that racial groups are monolithic entities. There is tremendous diversity within broad racial/ethnic group categories. For example, a person of Middle Eastern descent might be a fifth-generation Lebanese man or a recently immigrated Iranian Jewish woman. Many critical race scholars recognize that poverty and race intersect in complex ways, so that the predicament of very poor racial/ ethnic minority families differs in degree from that of their White counterparts. Gender, immigration status, language, and sexual orientation are among the many dimensions of diversity that exist within broad racial/ethnic group categories. It is necessary to understand the dynamics of subordination within these dimensions of diversity and the ways that these forms of oppression (e.g., classism, sexism, heterosexism) intersect with racism.
Eighth, CRT argues for the centrality, legitimacy, and appropriateness of the lived experience of racial/ethnic minorities in any analysis of racial stratification. People of color have different stories to tell regarding the way that race affects their life experiences. These stories have not had as significant an influence on policies, practices, and opinions as have the dominant cultural narratives about race that permeate the media and minds of most Americans. People of color have unique perspectives on racial matters, and their voices speak of experiences involving marginalization, devaluation, and stigmatization of which their White counterparts have very little knowledge. Racial minority status grants particular expertise and competence in speaking about race and racial matters. According to CRT, this experiential knowledge is a strength and critical to analyzing the dynamics and results of racial stratification in an authentic and meaningful way. Given that storytelling is a significant aspect of human communication, CRT has advocated for marginalized people to tell their often unheard and unacknowledged stories and for these perspectives to be applied to the existing dominant narratives that influence the law. The CRT process of counter-storytelling refers to the illumination of the cultural and personal narratives, family histories, and metaphorical stories that present a contrast to dominant societal narratives about race. These stories are viewed as central sources of information necessary for an authentic and comprehensive understanding of racial stratification and subordination.
Ninth, CRT insists on a contextual analysis by placing race and racism in a cultural and historical as well as a contemporary sociopolitical context. CRT challenges ahistoricism and locates current manifestations of racial stratification within a broader historical landscape that has shaped the present forms and expressions of racism. Interdisciplinary perspectives and methods emerge from this contextualized approach.
Finally, a tenth dominant theme within CRT involves the recognition that social justice and the elimination of racial oppression are the ultimate goals of a CRT analysis and orientation. CRT provides a liberatory and transformative response to racial stratification and oppression. Research from a CRT framework should contribute to efforts that (a) facilitate the empowerment of marginalized and disenfranchised groups, and (b) inform strategies for eliminating racism and other forms of oppression.
Critical Race Theory Origins and Interdisciplinary Applications
The early roots of CRT lie in a variety of fields and movements including anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, law, and politics. W. E. B. Du Bois, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglass, and the Black Power and Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped inspire the development of its core ideas. CRT, as a formal idea, was first conceived in the 1970s, when a team of activists, lawyers, and legal scholars became wary that the strides made in civil rights activism and policy during the 1960s were eroding. There was clear consensus among these individuals that a different theoretical framework was needed to fight the newer, subtler forms of racism that had pervaded society. The earliest authors of CRT included civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell, legal scholar Alan Freeman, and Latino scholar Richard Delgado. Bell is arguably the most prominent source of thinking critical of traditional civil rights discourse and is considered by many as CRT’s “intellectual father figure.” He employed three major arguments in his analyses of racial patterns in American law: constitutional contradiction, the interest convergence principles, and the price of racial remedies. The late Alan Freeman was also instrumental in the development of CRT and wrote a number of foundational articles that critiqued racism in the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Through scholarly dialogue and over the course of many meetings and conferences, CRT was actualized. Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Mari Matsuda have been significant contributors to CRT discourse from the 1980s to the present. During the capitalist boom of the 1980s and 1990s, critical race theorists focused primarily on the task of combating the country’s racial indifference. A current focus of CRT scholars and activists is on the issue of “unmasking color-blindness.”
It is noteworthy that culturally specific subdivisions have developed under the umbrella of CRT. These include Latino/a critical race studies (LatCrit), Asian American critical race studies (AsiaCrit), American Indian critical race studies (TribalCrit), critical race feminism, and a queer critical (Queer-Crit) interest group. The LatCrit contingent, as well as the AsiaCrit division, focuses its work on immigration policy and theory, language rights, assimilation, and discrimination based on nationality, accent, or both. Scholars associated with the TribalCrit subdivision study indigenous people’s rights, sovereignty, and land claims. Queer-Crit theorists focus primarily on the relationship between race and societal norms regarding sexual orientation. Some scholars have explored the interplay between feminism, sexual orientation, and CRT in their study of critical race feminism. This subgroup also examines issues such as relations between men and women of color; sterilization of Black, Latina, and Indian women; and the impact of changes in welfare, family policies, and child support laws.
The field of critical White studies has also emerged from CRT. A variety of questions have been generated that explore issues related to “Whiteness” and challenge its legitimacy as a normative standard. These questions include examining the meaning of being White, how Whiteness became established legally, how certain groups changed status in terms of their category of Whiteness, White power and White supremacy, and the unearned privileges that come with being a part of the majority culture or race.
During the first decade of the 21st century, work related to CRT is flourishing in many disciplines, and it is being applied by numerous scholars, students, and activists. Although CRT began as a movement in law, it has spread rapidly to other disciplines and has been utilized to understand the ways racial stratification operates on implicit, explicit, institutional, and individual levels to impact how those in a racialized society live and die. CRT has been continually increasing in educational scholarship, especially with regard to understanding school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, controversies over curriculum and history, and IQ and standardized testing. Within political science, CRT has been used to examine voting strategies, increasing voting power and representation and guaranteeing that the opinions and perspectives of minority groups are taken into account in the political process and major policy decisions. Critical race theorists in the legal system incorporate the ideas into their arguments to combat inequality and bias. The distribution of environmental dangers and biohazards has been analyzed from a CRT perspective, citing that sewage treatment plants are disproportionately placed in minority communities or on Indian reservations. Other issues receiving attention from “race crits” across disciplines include resolving the racism prevalent in the U.S. criminal justice system, examining racism in globalization and immigration, developing new immigration policies, protecting language rights, combating hate speech, fighting discrimination in higher-paying jobs, rectifying disparities in the delivery of health and well-being services, demystifying the concept of race as a biological phenomenon, protecting the rights of minorities to retain their heritage and free them from the need to assimilate to advance in U.S. society, and making necessary reforms appealing to the majority group so that legislation and other appropriate measures will be approved and stand the test of time.
Critical Race Theory, Psychology, and Multicultural Counseling
Although the core assumptions of CRT can be found throughout the multicultural psychology literature and underlie many of the approaches to counseling in cross-cultural contexts, there has not been a large body of work within the field of psychology that explicitly refers to CRT. However, since the end of the 20th century, there has been increased attention to the application of CRT within psychology. The primary contribution has been the work of James Jones and his 1998 proposed psychological critical race theory, in which he articulates five psychological explanations for the continuing racial disparities in the United States. These explanations, rooted in the dominant themes of CRT yet applicable to psychological research, are (1) the spontaneous and persistent influence of race, (2) the idea that fairness is derived from divergent racial experiences, (3) the asymmetrical consequences of racial policies, (4) the paradoxes of racial diversity, and (5) the salience of racial identity. Jones contends that race is both socially constructed and psychologically constructed such that racial categorizations exaggerate group differences and lead to divergent experiences for different racial groups. General CRT argues that the early civil rights era view of a disregard for race under the law will not lead to equality because of the permanence of race and racism. Similarly, utilizing psychological research, psychological CRT holds that social justice efforts must incorporate attention to race as a central dynamic in social disparities. The push and pull between commonalities and differences, belongingness and distinctiveness continues to be a tension experienced on individual, interpersonal, group, and macro-systemic levels. Jones proposes the diversity hypothesis, which holds that maintaining, valuing, and validating strong and positive group identity (e.g., racial identity) as well as a simultaneous superordinate identity (i.e., our humanness) is necessary for both psychological well-being and movement toward social justice.
Other approaches to the application of CRT within psychology examine the ways that racial stratification (a) creates social conditions (e.g., crime, joblessness, poverty) that may be risk factors for mental health problems, and (b) generates and increases exposure to specific race-related stressful circumstances (e.g., hate crime, racial profiling). This approach also explores how a system of racial oppression has the potential to express itself through unique mental health problems that are not explicitly recognized in traditional conceptualizations of psychopathology. The focus is on understanding psychological problems that are generated by the dilemmas, dissonance, and challenges to the construction of a positive, coherent, sense of self that emerges in the societal context of a dominant ideology of White supremacy. These include concerns such as nihilistic tendencies, anti-self issues, and suppressed anger. In mainstream contexts, persons of color exhibiting behavior associated with these concerns may be positively reinforced to the extent that the behavior colludes with notions of White superiority and construes race or racism as irrelevant. Examples include being reinforced for stating that race is currently not a determinant of success in America, making disparaging remarks about members of one’s own racial/ethnic group, or shedding any signs of cultural distinctiveness related to race/ ethnicity so as to be indistinguishable from Whites in all ways except phenotype. However, within a CRT framework, these behaviors indicate internal conflicts that threaten self-esteem and are likely to influence interpersonal interaction and quality of life.
With respect to counseling and psychotherapy applications, CRT has been used to explore the racial experiences of marriage and family therapists in training, as well as to analyze the content of the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy. These efforts reinforce the need to (a) listen to racially marginalized voices of clients, students, and supervisees about their race-related experiences, and (b) be willing to explore the meanings of race and racism with them. The ways that racial stratification has impacted status and opportunities, intersections with other social locations and multiple identities, and potential strategies for building a healthy sense of self can all be informed by CRT. Questioning dominant social ideology and exploring social justice implications are also facilitated through a CRT analytic frame. CRT provides an interdisciplinary theoretical base that is compatible with multicultural counseling and can facilitate the development of multicultural competence among counselors and therapists.
CRT can be applied to diagnosis and assessment, case conceptualization, and treatment planning, as well as the client-therapist relationship. Counselors and therapists can utilize the 10 themes to process the role of racial stratification in a client’s life and the expression of CRT themes in a client’s behavior and relationships. The application of CRT in counseling and psychotherapy also provides clients with resources that may be helpful in shaping their own lives in the realistic context of racism and White privilege.
The future applications of CRT rely on the racial landscape of the United States in the coming decades. Although there has been some suggestion that the country will experience a transition into a more inclusive and diverse society, there is also concern that racial divisions will deepen and the gap between our language of equality and our practice of racial stratification will continue to widen. CRT provides a useful framework for generating insights into the dynamics of socially constructed racial categorizations, the racialized nature of social dynamics, and the impact of the system of racial oppression on human behavior and psychological functioning. The theory represents a paradigm shift from a traditional “we are all the same” posture, which masks power asymmetries and protects the interests of the dominant group, to an analysis that insists on the explicit identification of racial dynamics and the influence of racial stratification on life experiences and life outcomes.
Cross-cultural counseling can be further strengthened through the systematic application of CRT to facilitate more comprehensive and inclusive case conceptualizations, treatment planning, and the delivery of appropriate and responsive services to marginalized racial/ethnic populations. Furthermore, adopting a CRT perspective in counseling will require participation in social justice efforts that can have a positive impact on the psychological well-being of clients. Ultimately, a CRT perspective encourages action to eliminate the influence of the societal values of racial
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- Jones, J. M. (1998). Psychological knowledge and the new American dilemma of race. Journal of Social Issues, 54, 641-662.