Critical Race Theory
Abstract and Keywords
Critical race theory (CRT) is a framework that unapologetically asserts how and why race matters in the maintenance of U.S. policies and practices. In doing so, CRT counters discourse that situates discrimination and disparities within the realm of individual behaviors or psychological deficits. Therefore, racism is seen for what it is—a willful, institutionalized, and dehumanizing way of being. Though racism prevailed as the quintessential problem of the 20th century, the 21st century has revealed that the color line remains remarkably undisturbed. Whether one is focusing on housing, education, employment, wealth, health, safety, or justice, racial disparities and inequities exist to the disadvantage of racially minoritized people. Born out of discontent for legal remedies for inequality, CRT speaks to the universal way that racism immobilizes minoritized people—thereby providing an almost unwavering advantage to white people. This review provides an overview of the tenets of CRT and how those tenets connect with social work values and practice.
Social work ethics and practices reflect an unwavering commitment to facilitating individual and community well-being (National Association of Social Workers, 2008). Whether advocating for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement, helping people living with HIV/AIDS amidst social condemnation, or supporting the efforts of undocumented students to acquire a college education, social workers have been in the vanguard of efforts designed to advance human dignity. Whether through prevention, advocacy, or empowerment strategies, social workers have always been at the forefront of advocating for social justice to secure a dignified path for those in need (Simon, 1994).
Among the needs that have plagued the United States since its inception is the need to end racial injustice. Such injustice helps to create and sustain many of the psychological and social problems among racially marginalized groups. Therefore, it is imperative that social workers have the ability to critically interrogate the way race and racism shape every aspect of our society. Critical race theory (CRT), born out of dedicated efforts to reveal the simultaneously intricate and mundane ways that policies are racially oppressive, is a perfect complement to social work practice. CRT is inherently aligned with social work ethics because it is ultimately concerned with facilitating dignity by naming and challenging racism. Rather than provide social workers with formulated steps to approach their practice and scholarship, CRT calls upon social workers to function as if race and racism always matter. This approach facilitates work that affirms the experiences of racially oppressed groups and recognizes how social constructs undermine their liberation. Thus, CRT encourages social workers to be ever mindful of structural (macro) roots of individual problems.
Emanating from an interrogation of mainstream legal doctrine in the 1980s, critical race theory (CRT) asserts that racism is a normative and nearly immutable structural feature employed to maintain white privilege (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995; Delgado & Stefanic, 2001). Early CRT scholars point to the incessant challenges to and dismantling of civil rights victories as examples of how the law is structured to negate the intersection of race and power. For instance, after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision in which racially segregated schools became unconstitutional (overturning the separate but equal Plessy v. Ferguson opinion of 1896), the country witnessed a relatively swift series of Supreme Court decisions undermining efforts to end race-based oppression. For instance, Milliken v. Bradley (1974) rejected a Detroit Public Schools desegregation mandate. Also notable is Bakke v. Regents of the University of California (1978)—a case where the court overturned the University of California–Davis Medical School’s practice of reserving 16 out of 100 seats for underrepresented students of color. In his deciding opinion, Justice Powell interpreted the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment as not giving special regard to historically oppressed groups. Rather, he argued that the equal protection clause protects all individuals regardless of race. Hence, he dismissed decades of unbridled discrimination against minoritized groups (Brown & Jackson, 2013). According to CRT scholars, these are among the many ways that the law is always used to privilege whites and subvert the mobility of black and brown people (Crenshaw et al., 1995).
Though the foundational CRT scholarship demonstrates how the U.S. legal system is complicit in the construction and maintenance of racism, the theory is broadly applicable to human ecological fields. CRT comprises five key propositions: (1) racism is endemic and an ordinary feature of U.S sociopolitical structure; (2) race-based policies and practices converge with the material interests of whites—interest convergence; (3) racialization occurs differently among and within minoritized groups—intersectionality; (4) experiential knowledge (lived experience) of racially marginalized groups is instrumental to challenging inequities; and (5) the myth of meritocracy hinders social equity causes (Crenshaw et al., 1995; Delgado & Stefanic, 2001). What follows is an explanation of how these propositions are aligned with the field of social work and how social workers can employ CRT practice.
CRT and Social Work Values and Practice
Racism is Endemic and Ordinary
The first proposition, racism as endemic and ordinary, rejects the notion that racism can be abolished through meritocratic and legal remedies because it is necessary for the maintenance of the U.S. socioeconomic structure (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001). Therefore, racism is a necessary component of what is considered natural and ordinary (Taylor, 1998). In other words, racism functions to justify the inequitable distribution of resources between minoritized and non-minoritized groups. Consequently, racism is not defined as a psychological deficit or individual character flaw. Rather racism is embedded into the fabric of our institutions, policies, and practices. Therefore, it creates a social structure that reifies and reproduces advantages for those categorized as white and disadvantages for minoritized groups (Bonilla-Silva, 2010). Accordingly, Feagin (2006) employed the word “systemic” to define the nature of racism in the United States. Systemic racism is an all-encompassing form of oppression rooted in the subjugation of African Americans in which every facet of a minoritized person’s life is dismissed and undermined. Systemic racism, then, is the root cause of the disproportionate access to resources (Feagin, 2006; Oliver & Shapiro, 1997), and it contributes to negative physical and psychological well-being of minoritized groups (Giscombe & Lobel, 2005; Harrell, Burford, Cage, Nelson, & Shearon, 2011; Lauderdale, 2011; Pieterse, Todd, Nevel, & Carter, 2012).
Racism as Endemic and Social Work
Given the institutionalized nature of racism and its role in influencing the well-being of minoritized groups, social workers should become well versed in the etiology and sociology of race-based oppression. Such education requires acknowledgment of both systemic and interpersonal ways that racism affects social work practice. Aligned with a more systemic approach, anti-oppressive social work practice (AOP) emphasizes the structural ways that racism, among other injustices, is enacted and sustained. Hence, the work becomes the dismantling of institutions and practices that contribute to social marginalization (Baines, 2011). Some recommended steps to eradicate racism include participating in training sessions and forums, assessing organizations for discriminatory policies, and collaborating with service users and service organizations to implement social policy changes (National Association of Social Workers, 2007).
Relatedly, social workers must be ever mindful of the interpersonal power imbalance between themselves and service users. Employing critical consciousness—personal reflection about one’s lived experiences, worldviews, and biases—can reduce the chances of social workers imposing their beliefs onto service users. Thus, the social worker becomes a “naïve investigator” by allowing the service user to narrate the interaction (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005). Accordingly, the social worker collaborates with the service user while remaining cognizant of the interpersonal power imbalances. Sakamoto and Pitner (2005) presented three ways to develop critical self-consciousness: target-agent framework, empowerment, and intergroup dialogue. Distinctions between target (oppressed, disadvantaged) and agent (oppressor, privileged) allow social workers to see how their identities fall within different categories, thereby helping them recognize their privilege. Alternatively, empowerment operates from the premise that social workers also embody identities and represent organizations that make them vulnerable. Therefore, activities that provide affirmation such as support groups and coalitions can help social workers negotiate their power on behalf of themselves and service users. Intergroup dialogue is a peer-facilitated interaction that engages people across their differences based on their target or agent status (e.g., whites and blacks) (Lopez & Zuniga, 2010). These are among the many methods that can help social workers both acknowledge the role that race plays in well-being and challenge the systemic ways that racial injustice is enacted.
The second proposition, interest convergence, states that progressive change only happens when the “interests” of the dominant group converge with the interests of oppressed groups (Bell, 2004; Delgado & Stefanic, 2001). Therefore, as long as racial justice practices are viewed as beneficial to whites, then they are less subject to attack (Bell, 1995a, 1995b, 2004). Bell (2004) argued that the condition of blacks may influence racial policy but black suffering rarely determines policy change. Accordingly, the abolition of slavery in the antebellum North, the Emancipation proclamation, and the Civil War constitutional amendments are prime examples of interest convergence covenants. None of these provisions could guarantee human rights for African Americans. Instead, they served the moral, political, and economic interests of the larger populace. For instance, the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote as a means to cement their free status. However, as stated by Bell (2004), Republicans (the party of Lincoln) were betting on the black vote fortifying their political power for several years. Furthermore, since the suffering of blacks is rarely a major concern for the government, protections were readily discarded when expedient. A prime example of institutional disregard for black well-being is when the government reinstated white supremacy via the Compromise of 1877, which gave the Republicans the presidency via Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for removing Northern troops from the Democratic South. The compromise effectively ended the Reconstruction period and stripped blacks of any acquired “rights.” Furthermore, the Compromise of 1877 increased the gateway to unbridled violence and racial segregation laws (Jim Crow). The decades after 1877 have been described as the nadir of the U.S. black experience (Blackmon, 2008; Logan, 1954).
Interest Convergence and Social Work
Although there is no explicit discussion of interest convergence in social work discourse, the field is reliant upon a keen understanding of the dominant group’s role in allocating resources to people in need. To ensure that the needs of the oppressed are met, social workers must be able to appeal to people with social and political resources who may not necessarily relate to or care about the circumstances of service users. Ultimately, this requires the ability to demonstrate how helping services are mutually beneficial. Thus, social work’s value for human relationships extends beyond relationships with clients to relationships with power brokers. Social workers are expected to advocate within and outside of their organizations for optimal resources for service users. Similarly, they are expected to act on the behalf of the public good through advocacy and service provision (National Association of Social Workers, 2008). Arguably, then, when social workers strategically identify common ground between those who can positively and negative influence the lives of service users, they are operating from an interest convergence framework.
The third proposition recognizes that minoritized groups have distinct experiences with marginalization. Therefore, there is keen recognition of how race, gender, class, and sexual orientation among other identities intersect and are situated within hegemonic social structures (Solorzano & Yosso, 2001; Wing, 1997). Thus, CRT has spawned several intellectual movements including but not limited to critical race feminism, Latino critical race studies (Lat Crit), American Indian critical studies (Tribalcrit), and Asian American critical race studies (AsianCrit). What follows is a brief discussion of intersectionality through an elaboration of critical race feminism.
Critical Race Feminism and Intersectionality
Critical race feminism (CRF) states that racism and sexism among other isms are normative and necessary to maintain current power relations (Wing, 1997). By recognizing the nuances of social identity and social location, CRF goes beyond singular (e.g., race only) and multiplicative (e.g., race and class) approaches to examine interweaving identities—intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991, 2003; Hancock, 2007; Wing, 1997). Intersectionality has its origins in the writings of women of color who sought to convey the complexity of embodying multiple, often marginalized identities (race, class, orientation, age, ability) within their racial identity groups and within majoritarian spaces (Crenshaw, 1991; Dill & Zambrana, 2009). Rather than assuming within-group uniformity and calculating aggregate data across categories, intersectionality assumes that interwoven categories of differences exist within and between groups (Dill & Zambrana, 2009; Hancock, 2007). Intersectionality, then, pushes the boundaries of CRT by allowing space for broader analysis of how marginalized experiences are influenced by converging identities (e.g., Latina, black, Muslim) and systems of inequality (e.g., political).
Intersectionality and Social Work
A significant way that social workers demonstrate commitment to the intersectional identities of clients is by respecting individual differences and embracing cultural competence. Such competence requires recognition of how a service user’s interlaced identities influence both access to and provision of services. In a critique of feminist and civil rights groups, Crenshaw (1991) warned that social progress cannot be based on single-issue paradigms. Thus, social workers must view service users as embodiments of complicated identities and needs in negotiation with multiple institutions.
Valuing experiential knowledge, the fourth proposition, means that marginalized people of color have a distinct vantage point. Their vantage point, rooted in lived experiences with oppression, enriches understanding of social issues. Therefore, their stories are the best resources to challenge normative knowledge and to introduce social practices that are optimally inclusive Delgado & Stefanic, 2001; Rousseau & Dixson, 2006).
Out-groups, people whose “marginality defines the boundaries of the mainstream, whose voice and perspective—whose consciousness—has been suppressed, devalued, and abnormalized” have been telling stories for a long time (Delgado, 1989, p. 2412). These counter-stories have value because they are often in opposition to the dominant narrative. These stories are important because marginalized groups author them. And unlike legal discourse, counter-stories are contextual and personalized (Lawrence, 1995). Critical race scholars have regularly employed stories to elucidate injustice (see Aguirre, 2000; Bell, 1992; Delgado, 1989). Essentially, within CRT, storytelling plays a vital role in stripping away the invisibility of silenced communities, and they are thought to be a pivotal weapon against misinterpretations and bold-faced lies.
Lived Experience and Social Work
Experiential knowledge is related to the social work value for human dignity. By recognizing that clients have agency and distinct lived experiences, social workers allow room for personal narratives. Those very narratives also serve as the impetus for social work practice. Essentially, client stories validate the profession and provide the language and data that define social work practice. As discussed, part of developing critical consciousness is listening to service users. Correspondingly, it is important that social work settings and forms of engagement nurture empowerment. Empowerment is the process of facilitating power so that individuals and communities can improve their circumstances (Gutierrez, 1999). Ways to encourage empowerment focus on three spheres: the individual, the agency, and society. Moreover, racial justice support groups for service users, collaborative work environments, investments in staff development, and self-protective training are among the strategies for empowerment (Gutierrez, 1999; Jones & Mattingly, 2016). From a CRT perspective, empowerment would entail acknowledging the socio-historical realities of client groups as they relate to racial inequities, recognizing intersectional identities, affirming counter-narratives, and providing resources aligned with needs.
Myth of Meritocracy and Colorblindness
The last proposition objects to liberal legal scholarship because rather than advocate for dismantling the foundations of U.S. law and social practice, liberalism accepts and by default legitimizes mainstream beliefs about merit (Lawrence, 2001). However, merit according to CRT has never been divorced from racial privilege. Rather than being a catalyst for racial inclusion, merit is used to justify the exclusion of unwanted racial groups, thereby, transforming “theoretical enemies (i.e. racism vs. meritocracy) into pragmatic friends” (Anderson, 2002, p. 16). Essentially, power brokers can conveniently concoct merit criteria that exclude minoritized groups while claiming adherence to the supposed racial neutrality of merit. Since those who benefit most create standards, CRT proponents argue that standards should be contested and revised to reflect the lived experiences of marginalized groups and a broader vision of what skills and experiences are valuable (Taylor, 1998). Therefore, in order to address disparities in the application of services such as public safety, health care, education, wealth, and jobs, race consciousness (as opposed to colorblind neutrality) and robust legal changes must be enacted (Crenshaw et al., 1995). Otherwise, the road to social equity, if it is realized at all, will continue to be incremental and cyclical.
Meritocracy Myth and Social Work
In light of the myth of meritocracy, the work of social workers is vital. For instance, studies show that education does not provide an equal playing field because college-educated blacks are more likely to be unemployed compared to their peers (Jones & Schmitt, 2014), despite graduating with more student loan debt (Scott-Clayton & Li, 2016). Additionally, job applicants with a black-sounding name are less likely to be considered by employers (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). Social workers, then, must recognize that hard work and following the rules may not be enough to engender success if the pathway to success is deliberately disadvantageous for some. They must be ever mindful of the aforementioned institutional racism that impedes positive outcomes. Collaborative plans of action should account for the meritocracy fallacy. Invariably, social workers must interrogate traditional beliefs about merit in order to redress social ills. Thus, by fashioning merit to account for how racism alters access to education, jobs, housing, health care, and overall well-being, social workers can chip away at oppressive social structures.
Critical race theory is not meant to be an intellectual salve. It is not palliative. Rather, it functions as a truth gatherer and wake-up call. Therefore, it is inherently oppositional. It requires that social workers be vigilant, bold, and knowledgeable. It tells us that in order to serve for justice, one has to get to the heart of the matter.
Essentially, race matters.
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