Online Feature

Critical Race Theory Explained by One of the Original Participants

Kevin Brown

President Donald Trump issued an executive order in September of 2020 seeking to exclude diversity and inclusion training from federal contracts if those trainings contained so-called “divisive concepts” like stereotyping and scapegoating based on race and sex. In the wake of the executive order, attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT) skyrocketed.  However, many of these discussions have mischaracterized CRT. In this Essay, one of the participants of the original CRT workshop held in Madison, Wisconsin in the summer of 1989 provides a historical account of what CRT is and what it sought to accomplish. 

More than anything, those early CRT meetings were driven by a concern about the racial disparities in the existing socioeconomic conditions of society, despite the legal victories of the civil rights era of the 1960s. This concern was heightened by the Supreme Court. The Court’s Equal Protection jurisprudence had frozen the racial disparities in place because it increasingly adopted an approach for resolving racial discrimination along the dictates of colorblindness. Thus, not only were we critiquing racial jurisprudence based on colorblindness, but also arguing that the Equal Protection Clause jurisprudence should recognize a distinction between policies and programs directed towards attenuating racial disparities and those aimed at strengthening them. Such an approach played on the dual applications of race consciousness. The racial consciousness of slavery and segregation and articulated by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education was based on the belief that there was something wrong with Black people. We embraced a different form of race consciousness—one that was consciously aware that the racial disparities of our time were not the result of deficiencies in Black people, but the continuing manifestations of our history of racial oppression and subordination. As a result, American society and American jurisprudence needed a race consciousness dedicated to dismantling the policies, programs, and institutional practices that were recreating racial disparities.