In recent years, I have observed a rapid increase in news articles* about courses in US schools and US enterprises that are allegedly "based on" Critical Race Theory, and these articles usually only contain very brief and sometimes contradictory explanations of what Critical Race Theory is. The term also seems to be used in an academic context in the US, but I don't know if the meaning is the same as in those articles.

In the context of such articles, what does Critical Race Theory actually mean, and is that meaning identical with the meaning of Critical Race Theory in an academic context?

*I intentionally don't give examples, because I don't want this to be about a specific article, and there are so many of these articles that people who are knowledgeable enough to answer will likely have encountered at least dozens of these articles themselves. If I misjudged and it is indeed unclear what I'm referring to, please ask for clarification in a comment.

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    I am going to preemptively protect this question and add a "controversial post" notice to it. We all know how just mentioning this subject incites certain people. I really don't want to have to moderate endless comment threads of people shouting at each other again.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 10:05
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    It's actually not terribly clear what you're asking. You seem not be asking what CRT is in an academic setting but in an unspecified "flood" of articles. I'm betting the "flood" in a right-wing medium would be different than the "flood" elsewhere, so the question doesn't have a clear answer, as you phrased it. If your question is "how does Fox News define CRT" (or thereabout), make that explicit. Commented May 11, 2021 at 17:03
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    @Fizz I'm most interested in "middle of the road" sources. So if Buzzfeed or Fox News use a significantly different definition than more objective sources, I don't mind if you ignore Buzzfeed's or Fox News' definition in your answer.
    – Peter
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 17:19
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    I am also kicking this question from the hot network question list. The last thing we want on the answers to this question are votes based on political approval.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 19:38
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    To clarify the OP's question, “What is CRT?” in a 1-2 sentence answer, like other definitions. For example: Communism is "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Capitalism is "the rule of the law of supply and demand." The big bang theory is a theory in astronomy that the universe originated billions of years ago in a rapid expansion from a single point of nearly infinite energy density. Contract theory is a theory that holds …. Well, you get the idea. Perhaps like the OP, I have yet to see a clear, concise definition of CRT, in dictionaries, or anywhere.
    – Vekzhivi
    Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 12:56

4 Answers 4


First, some background on where the academic/sociological concept of Critical Race Theory comes from, then I'll address CRT's current invocations directly.

Critical Theory and it's descendants (in this case Critical Theory->Critical Legal Studies->Critical Race Theory) is a sort of methodological approach to talking about sociological, economic, political, and cultural phenomena.

At its core, Critical Theory is about not taking the status quo as a given. Frequently in economics, sociology, psychology, political science, et cetera, a speaker will evaluate propositions based on how much they deviate from a baseline - usually the circumstances going on. E.g. "How much will it cost to forgive $10,000 of student loans per borrower in the United States?"

Critical Theory backs up a step and would approach this same question thusly: "Why is student debt even a thing?" Or perhaps, "What is the cost of allowing students to be burdened with debt?"

In part because of its roots in Marxist thought, but also because it's a useful cognitive tool, Critical Theory's objective is to demand an examination of the status quo - and because human systems are never perfect - this exercise always yields a laundry list of things that are wrong with that status quo and descriptions of the systems that contribute to those flaws. This leads to the dominant common theme in the bodies of work done in Critical Theory, Critical Legal Studies, and Critical Race Theory:

The status quo benefits someone, and that person has a vested interest in maintaining it.

(It should be fairly apparent why this framework was the best available foundation for Marx's philosophy.)

Critical Race Theory examines the structure of society and focuses on the flaws that contribute to consistent, systematic differences in the socioeconomic and political outcomes for citizens that correlate with race. It gathers evidence of the systems and structures that produce those differences in outcomes and classifies them as "White Supremacism."

In popular language, the shorthand to describe Critical Race Theory is to say that it is the school of thought that begins with:

White Supremacy exists, benefits someone, and that person has a vested interest in maintaining it.

In scholarly reality, there's huge tracts of nuance in there - some structures of White Supremacy are intentional and deliberate (slavery, segregation), some are merely deliberate (SAT scoring - yes, really. I worked for a time as an SAT Prep instructor for The Princeton Review, it's a widely understood phenomena in the industry), and some are vestigial or otherwise unintended side effects of something else. But in common conversation and media where every word has a cost to it, that nuance is universally elided. White Supremacy, in common media, is Nazis, Skinheads, the KKK, etc.

Well intentioned people can try to describe racial disparities in systemic outcomes as "racist systems" - a term which is not inaccurate, but as a term is open to be misunderstood by a listener or reader. What tends to follow is the Fallacy of Division where the listener assumes that if a given societal structure or system is racist, everyone who participates in it must therefore also be equally, and concomitantly racist - and therefore they are being called racist. And since racism is held as a moral failing in a person, they disengage from the conversation's merits and respond defensively to a perceived insult.

That's an agonizingly complex enough situation. Now enter the ill-intentioned.

I won't name names, but it is an empirical fact that Neonazis, the KKK, and other militantly white supremacist organizations and ideologies exist. Moreover, they exist on a spectrum ranging from the prototypical synagogue shooter, through political opportunists who see value in courting people through appeals to their sense of having been cast as morally defective ("racist"), to people chanting slogans with no understanding of the context or history of what things like "you will not replace us" actually mean.

Trolling has evolved from a malevolent internet hobby to a toolkit of deliberate, rhetorical tactics employed even at the institutional level by whole media entities for the purpose of interfering with discourse that might lead to political, social, or behavioral shifts away from a status quo that they desire to support. (Similar to how tobacco companies and oil companies produced bodies of bogus research to ward off science's discovery that their products had powerfully negative impacts on people.)

To answer the question "What does 'Critical Race Theory' mean?" in a given context, therefore, we would need to know the exact context, exact speaker, and if possible their rhetorical intentions. But it exists somewhere on the spectrum from an academic talking about systemic disparities that attach to race, through someone tossing in a buzzword while they decry police brutality, all the way to an actual trolling attempt in order to discredit the term 'Critical Race Theory' so as to eliminate it as a possible avenue to discuss those systemic disparities mentioned in the first case.

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    The answer is good but seems unbalanced in that it implies the ill intentioned only exist on the side of white supremacy on this issue.
    – Peter
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 15:20
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    @Peter You asked about common media uses of "Critical Race Theory" which, at least to the extent I can determine, is - in fact - lopsided in its abuse, especially recently. Leftwing trolling uses other terms (e.g. 'Capitalism'), which makes strategic sense because eroding the usefulness of language that is purpose-built to support their cause is counterproductive. Commented May 11, 2021 at 15:22
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    @WilliamWalkerIII Being counterproductive has never stopped people from doing things. There is a significant contingent of people who follow the logic "system is racist -> everyone in the system is individually racist" and then proceed to start calling people racists. Commented May 14, 2021 at 12:35
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    I think the recent context that needs to be discussed is the education departments and school boards are trying to prohibit teaching CRT in public schools, on the grounds that it will teach the white students that they're inherently racist.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 15:58
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    @Barmar That is the rationale they are using for their efforts, yes. It is not, however, what CRT is or does. I felt the answer was getting long enough without having to dive into that pile of brambles. Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 16:44

Critical Theory is a subset of social theory. In general, It analyses societal norms and institutions, bringing unspoken assumptions within a society into explicit language, where the assumptions can be examined and redressed. For example, a typical critical theoretical thread would be to examine the general assumptions of economic fairness and equality that run through and inform liberal societies — making the implicit explicit — and then to analyze those now-explicit assumptions in terms of practical implementations, behaviors, and experiences. In other words, if we believe that a market economy should treat all participants equally and fairly based solely on their merits and abilities, and we see that women are consistently paid three-quarters of equivalent men in equivalent positions, then we have a paradox (or contradiction, or hypocrisy) between our beliefs and our practices that ought to be resolved.

Critical Theory is usually considered Left-wing, though it isn't explicitly so. Critical Theory is merely more interested in examining where we've failed our sociocultural ideals than where we have succeeded in achieving them. Part of the reason many people dislike Critical Theory that it is expressly critical of the failures of the status quo; it forces people to look at what they would rather not, which tends to spur emotional resistance.

Critical Race Theory is the principles of Critical Theory applied to race, exposing various ideals about what we believe race relations ought to look like, and contrasting it with the reality of race relations in the world. That is particularly problematic in the US, where we tend to inflate our self-conception of just and virtuous equality and deny a long and sordid history of actual injustice and brutality. The facts of slavery and Jim Crow; of KKK lynchings and racially-charged policing; of segregation, white flight, and minority disenfranchisement... These are particularly unpleasant for any of us to 'own', but an essential part of who we are as a people that must be taken into consideration.

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    – JJJ
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 18:38

The current answers are overly sympathetic to the application and implications of CRT, and neither answer the specific question:

In the context of such articles, what does Critical Race Theory actually mean, and is that meaning identical with the meaning of Critical Race Theory in an academic context?

Presumably the OP is asking about articles which are critical of Critical Race Theory or its implications, and a fair answer would require a right of center perspective. In the context of such articles, CRT is effectively a pseudo-scientific justification for anti-white racism and discrimination.

Within CRT as practiced in the United States, all power structures are viewed through the reductive lens of race, and there is an unspoken presumption that any differences in equity can only be the result of deliberate institutional bias, referred to with purposely loaded terms like "white supremacy" - the connotation of which conveniently primes cheap dismissals of any criticism with accusations of "racism".

The existing answers, much like articles critical of anti-CRT political machinations0, use rhetorical sleight of hand to conceal the fundamentally racist sort of policies that are justified by the underlying assumptions behind and implications of CRT, which the articles in question allude to - the reasoning is that because whites were a majority when these institutions were built, and because whites seemingly benefit disproportionately from them (patently false, there are a multitude of ethnic groups which are on average more successful than whites), they need to be reformed to implicitly or explicitly penalize whites (e.g. affirmative action, criminal-friendly police reform, modifying/removing "discriminatory" standardized tests) in order to correct for their supposedly deliberately unjust outcomes.

Referring back to the second part of the question:

is that meaning identical with the meaning of Critical Race Theory in an academic context?

The disingenuous rhetoric employed by those in support of CRT manufacture an illusion that the meaning in articles critical of CRT is not equivalent to the meaning of CRT in academia, that CRT is merely misrepresented or misunderstood, but make no mistake, this is the logical conclusion of the identity-politic driven CRT, as it makes no allowances for cultural or other reasons for disparities in outcome. Admitting as much overtly would justify and galvanize so called "white supremacy" (the only group who's self-advocacy is slandered with the cardinal sin of racism within the framing of CRT) and so these implications are swept under the rug.

Incidentally this also places CRT squarely within the realm of leftist/progressive political theory, though a number of comments on this page claim otherwise. It is a pseudo-scientific foundation and framework for toxic identity politics.

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    While I disagree with some elements of your answer, particularly the loaded language, assigning motive (e.g. "and referred to with purposely loaded terms"), and lack of important sourcing for very controversial claims, still +1 because it complements the existing answers with a perspective that, while not necessarily objective (again, lack of sourcing), is still relevant to the topic.
    – Peter
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 18:56
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    +1 Specifically, it is important to note institutions CRT proponents consider to be “white supremacist” have propelled Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and Indian-Americans significantly further beyond white Americans in many areas, including income, education, crime, and health, and it has been this way for awhile. Commented Jul 5, 2022 at 19:52
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    @cjs I don't think your analogy of chemistry is valid, because chemistry does not seek to upend the very epistemological foundations of the academic institution by "elevating storytelling" and "emphasizing lived experiences" and other such postmodernist nonsense which is diametrically opposed to an objective, data-driven pursuit of truth. The interventions recommended by CRT, namely an anti-meritocratic push for equity, are only logically sound if you presume that all inequity is due to discrimination. Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 17:05
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    @cjs this isn't about my "value system". This is about the fact that influences other than discrimination are not considered within the context of CRT, which is not merely asking "is it really...better/worse predisposed"; it is implicitly assuming that the answer is false, that all differences in outcomes are externally caused. From the wiki: "CRT is also used in sociology to explain social, political, and legal structures and power distribution as through a "lens" focusing on the concept of race, and experiences of racism". Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 1:10
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    When an academic says "let's look at this from the point of view of elevating story-telling and emphasising lived experiences" they are saying "lets look at this from the point of view of purely individually subjective anecdote" and such a perspective is antithetical to objective science, which is why it is unique to grievance studies, which have misleadingly adopted the banner of social "sciences". It seems that YOU are the one who is unable to view CRT critically because it is one of many sacred cows in the current sociopolitical zeitgeist. CRT assumes racism a priori. That's problematic. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 1:13

Critical Race Theory is a tool to spot potential problems. It's a tool for analysis.

The problem with "news articles about courses in US schools and US enterprises that are allegedly "based on" Critical Race Theory" is that these articles are usually about actions - proposed/attempted solutions (e.g. anti racism) to problems spotted with CRT, and such articles don't always highlight the difference. Depending on the news source, it might even be fair to say they never highlight the difference.

Due to this persistent pattern, the proposed solutions to the problem (the most extreme of which tend to get reported on) get associated with the method used to spot the problem.

Some of the proposed solutions are controversial, and that unfortunate association makes CRT controversial as well, which is then exploited in politics.

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