Theoretical frameworks have always been important elements in instruction because of their ability to introduce subjects to students in ways that are meaningful and dynamic. They allow both the instructor and students to study their subjects through specific lenses that not only provide deeper understandings but also help students to understand why the study of a subject is important. In many ways, these frameworks become essential not only to a student’s understanding of a specific topic but perhaps most importantly to the student’s understanding of society and the individual’s place within that society. From this perspective, one can easily understand the important role that theoretical frameworks have played in education’s collective evolution.
While many theoretical frameworks have existed as long as academia has existed, the twentieth century bore witness to an increase in frameworks that began to challenge earlier and more established theories that relied on cis-gendered, masculine, and Eurocentric concepts. In fact, by the 1930s, new critical theories began to appear that challenged the long-held and traditional theories that had dominated academia since its inception. These theories—developed primarily by scholars of color, feminists, and queer scholars—challenged not only the Eurocentric notions of traditional academia but also, and perhaps more importantly, the masculine, cis-gendered, straight notions that continue to govern not only academic institutions but society as well. One such framework is critical race theory (CRT). Since its appearance in the 1970s, CRT has played a prominent role in the direction the United States has taken in regard to identifying and addressing race and racism in society. A look back at the history of CRT shows the important contributions that this theory has made to the overall evolution of the collective dialogue on race and racism.
Despite the fact that this theory has existed for decades, it has recently become a popular topic in mainstream society. Unfortunately, the current conversations surrounding CRT are usually based on misinformation and misunderstanding of the theory itself. The purpose of this article is to provide the readers with an objective overview of CRT as a theoretical framework as well as the role that CRT has played within the California community colleges.
History and Definition of CRT
Because the current dialogue surrounding CRT is inundated with misconceptions, an overview of CRT must begin with a clear definition and understanding of the academic concept. CRT appeared as a theoretical framework in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its purpose was to address and challenge the current paradigms used in the dialogue surrounding race and racism in society at that time and to reshape the structure of that dialogue. Critical race scholars focused on the concepts of neutrality, meritocracy, and color blindness and ultimately argued that these concepts did more to both perpetuate and maintain racism in society than they did to address and eradicate it. Unfortunately, many legal, social, political, and cultural struggles are based upon these very same paradigms. The roots of this theoretical framework can be found in critical legal studies that appeared in 1976 as a group of legal scholars of color began to question the effectiveness of laws passed during the civil rights era intended to address and eradicate racism. These scholars, through their research and analysis, determined that these laws were ineffective because racism is embedded in every aspect of society. In this way, critical race scholars identified racism as a systemic issue rather than as an individual one and as an ordinary occurrence in Americans’ everyday interactions.
Once scholars recognized that racism was a systemic issue, these theoretical ideas soon began to appear within other disciplines. If racism is in fact systemic, then applying a critical race lens to any aspect of society should also effectively reveal the impact of racism on those structures and as such, allow society to address them effectively. By the end of the twentieth century, this theoretical framework began to appear within various academic disciplines—such as history, sociology, English and composition, and ethnic studies—as scholars within these disciplines began to utilize the tenets of CRT to explore their subjects. In the process, CRT evolved as a theoretical framework and began to embrace other tenets such as intersectionality, which has existed within academic institutions and has been a part of the discourse around racism for decades despite the fact that mainstream society is only now becoming aware of CRT. Intersectionality, first introduced in 1989 by scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, helped feminist scholars as well as scholars of color to “challenge the dominant ideologies of traditional educational practices, as well as tease apart hegemonic understandings of identity, oppression, and resistance” (De Saxe & Trotter-Simons, 2021). This tenet of CRT has since become so widely accepted that it has even begun to make its way into popular culture and mainstream media and has contributed to the current discourse on equity, anti-racism, and social justice in society.
Another long-established tenet of CRT is the concept of social constructionism in relation to race. Social constructionism as a theoretical framework first appeared in the late 1960s from a sociological perspective. However, scholars of CRT used a racial lens to understand how social constructionism works in regard to race and determined that “race and races are products of social thought and relations” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). As Delgado and Stefancic state, social construction allowed scholars to recognize that race is not “inherent or fixed . . . they correspond to no known biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient." Similar to intersectionality, this particular tenet of CRT has played a prominent role not only within classrooms but also within society to better understand how race and race relations occur or are formed.
The Positive Impacts
As with many other theoretical frameworks used within academia, CRT is not often directly taught to students in undergraduate work. However, many community college students are being exposed to CRT concepts and tenets through lesson plans and intentional curriculum design. The establishment and evolution of CRT, as well as the establishment of disciplines such as women’s studies, LGBT studies, and ethnic studies, has helped create a cadre of professors trained in CRT who are now working within the community college system using their CRT expertise to develop lesson plans and utilize textbooks that expose students to a more comprehensive understanding of race and racism.
The positive impact of CRT in community college classrooms is certainly profound, especially considering how it has helped to introduce more representation of historically marginalized communities into the curriculum. However, perhaps even more profound is the effect and impact that CRT has had on analyzing structural racism within the community college system. In fact, much of the discussion on anti-racism, decolonization, and social justice that dominates institutions today is directly influenced by CRT and its evolution. CRT has in many ways forced colleges to re-examine their own relationships with systemic racism in a way that color blindness never allowed. Through tenets of CRT, academic institutions have more directly addressed the racialized gaps in student success rates.
Conclusion: The Truth About Theories, Structures, and Racism
In many ways, the current efforts to address racial gaps in student success rates as well as to address the Eurocentric and color-blind structures of academic systems are directly indebted to CRT and its evolution across academic disciplines. The controversy and debates currently surrounding CRT are not new, as this theoretical framework has encountered opposition since its inception, and some of this opposition is based on objective and critical perspectives that have, in many ways, helped to strengthen and improve CRT as a framework. However, these debates are commonly filled with misconceptions about CRT in and of itself. This situation is no surprise, as the discussion over racism is very difficult and is certainly intertwined with very subjective reactions. However, what society has made very clear in the last several years is that it needs a more effective, dynamic, and critical method of addressing racism in a way that moves it away from an individual flaw of character to a systemic issue that impacts every aspect of people’s everyday lives, and CRT has been able to establish the conditions to create this method. Educators have the opportunity to acknowledge and engage in these meaningful and difficult conversations around race and critical perspectives.
Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J. (2017). CRT: An Introduction, 3rd Edition, NYU P.
De Saxe, J.G. and Trotter-Simons, B.E. (2021). Intersectionality, Decolonization, and Educating for Critical Consciousness. Journal of Thought. Spring-Summer, 3-20.