Critical Theory, Critical Legal Studies, and Postmodernism: The Roots of CRT.

Writing about Critical Race Theory has become an obsession of mine. I am trying to find the words and writings of those that have had the most influence on its development to show readers that it is much more than a lesson aimed at elementary school children. For example, in my book A Critical Look at CRT in Education Research and Social Policy, I cite an article called The Ideological Foundations of Critical Race Theory, published by The World Socialist Website, where the writers admit in so many words that “CRT is a body of scholarly work which employs elements of postmodernism and historical revisionism.” What is postmodernism? Like Critical Theory, postmodernism is a rejection of traditional beliefs, or what postmodernists call, “a grand narrative” that explains social phenomena in a strict defining manner. For example, in an article called Critical Theory, Poststructuralism, and Postmodernism: Their Sociological Relevance, published in the Annual Review of Sociology in 1991, the author suggests that postmodernism examines social issues from the perspective of class, race, and gender while rejecting strict adherence to Marx’s view of economics being the defining aspect of class oppression. Critical Theory itself, according to the same article, was founded as a means of examining why the class warfare tactics of traditional Marxism failed. They began to analyze the cultural and sociological issues, as well as economics, that could explain why Marx’s dream of a worldwide socialist revolution didn’t occur. This is where the term Cultural Marxism comes from, along with Antonio Gramsci’s theory of Counterhegemony.  Postmodernism, then, is the rejection of the accepted doctrine which is traditionally looked to explain social issues, or the social sciences, as we understand them. I don’t think I need to explain historical revisionism but just for the fun of it explains it as “the critical reexamination and altering of historical facts for either benevolent or malevolent reasons.” Essentially, we have a socialist writer admitting that CRT adopts a postmodernist view while rejecting historical facts in favor of their own perspectives. He is admitting that CRT is rewriting history.

It is important to understand Critical Theory when discussing CRT because this is the root from which it is derived. In my article CRT or Critical Theories on Race? Understanding the Difference, I cite Will The Real CRT Please Stand Up? The Danger of Philosophical Contributions to CRT where the author discusses a man named Lucious Outlaw. Why is this important? I have been referring to this article continuously for the past few weeks because it contains great information describing not only the mindset of CRT scholars but its connection to Critical Theory. Lucious Outlaw was the man responsible for bringing the issue of race to the forefront of “critical thought” when he looked to the Frankfurt School to see if the approach taken to understanding social and economic inequalities, could be applied to the twentieth-century understanding of race as a science (Curry, 2009). Furthermore, it was Outlaw’s “critical” approach that allowed for race to move away from a fixed, biological definition, to something that can be described through lived experiences and assigned social meanings. In other words, the notion that Black identity is defined in terms of oppression and marginalization can be attributed to the application of Critical Theory and postmodernism to racial issues. This is important because Agger (1991) writes that “social science becomes an accounting of social experience of multiple perspectives of discourse and practice, rather than the larger cumulative enterprise committed to the inference of general principles of social structure and organization.” When studying CRT it is evident that both perspectives apply. They call the structural foundations of the U.S. racist while also fixating on racism as a lived experience. In all reality, racism was a lived experience for many Black people. This cannot be denied. Critical Race Theory, however, as a basic tenet from which it functions, rejects any notion that the United States has moved beyond, what they call, its racist foundations, or, that the Civil Rights movement was successful in setting things right.

Words and definitions matter. When discussing CRT or Critical Theory for that matter, the word critical can not be overlooked. I think many people see that word and assume that it means to think deeply or urgently about something. Take the term critical thinking, for example. Many people argue there is not enough “critical thinking” being taught in our schools. Looking at it from that context it can be implied that the word critical can be ascribed to the idea of applying urgent, or important thought to a topic. “It is critical, or imperative that this subject be examined thoroughly,” for example. This is not the application of the word when it comes to CRT. To be critical of is to criticize. CRT is not a movement to teach children to think critically about race, but an academic endeavor founded for the purpose of applying critical thought, from the perspectives of Critical Theory and Postmodernism to law and social policy in the United States. Critical Race Theory, when approaching it as a subject of serious inquiry, cannot be understood without one, understanding William Tate’s contribution to its use in education, and two, its relation to Critical Legal Studies.

I have received a great deal of criticism myself for referencing Tate’s work. Particularly the quote where he says CRT is not a “topic for undergraduate students but is a framework used in law schools and Ph.D.’s education to better understand how laws are formulated and the influence of law on everyday life.”  One person suggested that Tate’s writings shouldn’t be taken at face value because it is evident that CRT is being taught in elementary school. That is a foolish approach to understanding CRT in education because it was Tate himself, who brought the theory to its forefront. He argued that race remained an untheorized topic and worked towards developing a methodology where CRT could be incorporated into schooling.  Tate, in his article Critical Race Theory and Education: History, Theory, and Implications cites an article from the Harvard Law Review, saying that “the foundation of CRT as a movement and as an intellectual agenda was connected to the development of the new approach to examining race, racism, and law in the post-civil rights era.” What is the new approach? Critical Theory and Postmodernism. It isn’t new anymore. According to Tate, the Critical Legal Studies movement began in the 1970s when “legal scholars of color” devoted their academic efforts to “reappraising the merits of the realist tradition in legal discourse.” The realist tradition of legal thought developed out of a deep dissatisfaction with the tenets of law that cast judicial decision-making “as the product of reasoning from a finite set of determined rules”  back in the 1920s and 30s. This, once again, goes back to the ideas of Critical Theory and Postmodernism. To say then, that legal scholars began to re-appraise the merits of the realist tradition, is to say they are drawing on doctrine that was already fifty years old at the time they looked at it. To put this in perspective, I was born in 1973. The ideological foundations of CRT were being developed out of Critical Legal Studies before I was even in elementary school.

Here is where it gets really interesting, at least in my opinion anyway. Tate cites another article from the Harvard Law Review, written in 1982, where the author states that a rational, scientific approach to analyzing law was adopted in favor of traditional legal scholarship for the explicit purpose of developing a new “political strategy.” This was done back in the early 1920s when by the way, it is understood that Marxism was making headway in the United States. The realist argued, according to Tate, that an application of the social sciences to legal analysis would create more creative ways to critically think about legal discourse and formulate legal policy. The following quote is from the paper cited by Tate called “Round and Round The Bramble Bush: From Legal Realism to Critical Legal Scholarship.”

“The work of Critical Legal Scholars can be understood as the maturation of these realist methodologies – maturation in which Critical Legal Scholars explore incoherences at the level of social or political theory and critical scholarship is linked, not to reformist policy programs, but to a radical political agenda.” (Livingston, 1982)

If this quote is to be taken at face value, and given the nature of what we are dealing with and how far CRT has advanced in society, it should be because CRT is derived from a legal scholarship movement whose very purpose is to impose a radical political agenda. This agenda involves the radical reinterpretation of American law and social policy by rejecting outright, any belief that the law is meant to do anything but support a white supremacist, hegemonic system. This agenda involves, as William Tate states in Towards a Critical Race Theory in Education, putting race first when it comes to social issues, and using CRT as a means of radically critiquing the education system and any reforms that attempt to address the issue of equality from a colorblind perspective. CRT scholars believe that colorblindness only addresses the most basic forms of discrimination, or racism on the individual level while ignoring the systemic racism which still allegedly exists in America’s legal, educational, and policy-making institutions.

To come up with real solutions to this problem, the real problem must first be understood. I can’t say that I have any real solutions but I am trying to contribute to the understanding of the issue. I was recently told by a man who was challenging the premise of my argument that CRT can’t really be banned in elementary school because 10-year-old children have no basis in understanding legal thought from a Critical Theory perspective, that no one reads, and these are his words, “my academically written articles.” O.K., that’s fine, but if people taking the fight to elementary school to ban CRT aren’t studying the legal scholarship which forms its foundations, they will get nowhere. Well, I don’t want to say they will get nowhere, but these people will do nothing less than view the attempts to ban it as further proof of America’s structural racism. That is what the word critical means. A constant critique of society from a Critical Theory and Postmodernism perspective where the intent is to tear down the traditional systems which the Marxist critic views as oppressive. I think it is imperative, and the reader should take note of how many articles are cited from legal journals, to understand the higher-level academics which form the foundations of what is being pushed in elementary education. That’s just my two cents for the day. Thanks for reading.


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