A Suggested Model for Understanding the Historical Development of Critical Race Theory

Just like every human endeavor, Critical Race Theory has a developmental history. Borrowing from terminology created by 1950s archaeologists regarding the history of Mesoamerica, I suggest that Critical Race Theory has developed through three similar stages. These include the Preclassic (Formative), Classic, and Postclassic periods. Instead of millennia or centuries, the historical development of CRT spans more or less a century.

The Formative or Preclassic Period of CRT began in the mid-1920s with a new school of thought at the University of Goethe’s Institute for Social Research. This study method became known as Critical Studies or The Frankfurt School (named after the university’s city). Eminent psychologists, philosophers, economists, and sociologists such as Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Kurt Lewin, and later Jürgen Habermas helped develop this school of thought. Since many of these founders were Jewish and had interests in Marxist studies, the school was moved when The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis) came into control in the 1930s.

The institute relocated to Columbia University in New York City, where it remained until returning to Germany in the 1950s. Its years as part of Columbia firmly established its influence and roots in the United States. This institute should not be confused with the New School of Social Research, also founded in New York City in the early twentieth century.

Simply put, Critical Studies advocated for a comprehensive and candid analysis of society, social norms, and culture aimed at understanding and leveling opportunities for equal attainment of opportunity, assets, and economic growth. Critical Studies was not so much a subject as a method of analysis that could be applied to varied intellectual pursuits, including literature, art, philosophy, history, and legal studies.

Of particular interest to Critical Theory was promoting an understanding of the factors restraining (as in Lewin’s force field analysis) all classes’ societal development and equality. The foundation was thus laid for examining the legal forces restraining or inhibiting equal opportunities for specific classes, races, and ultimately, other groups. It is correct to affirm that this Preclassic Period of CRT is not taught in US public education.

The Classic Period of Critical Race Theory began in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the work and thought of attorney, then law professor Derrick Bell, first among his CRT peers. Into the 1980s, groups of concerned legal scholars built on Bell’s pioneering work. They tapped into Critical Studies to study the role of laws, legal decisions, and jurisprudence-in-general in race relations. This endeavor became known as CLS or Critical Legal Studies. CLS was, for a while, a direct carryover from the methodology of the Preclassic Period. By 2004 Anderson informed us of a “mounting sentiment that CLS was passé,” a “movement that was fragmented” as were others in Classic Period CRT.

Conservatives and especially Liberals felt the sting of Bell’s pen. Classic Period CRT was an equal opportunity offender. Bell wrote what is perhaps his defining statement of his theory of “racial realism” in a 1992 Connecticut Law Review:

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary “peaks of progress,” short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it and move on to adopt policies based on what I call: “Racial Realism.” This mind-set or philosophy requires us to acknowledge the permanence of our subordinated status.”

Central to the Classic Period was the dialogue between CRTs’ “racial realists” and “racial idealists.” Via conferences, lectures, and writings, the realists faulted the legal system specifically and society in general for failing to solve racial inequities. Realists also accused the legal system of only acting when interest convergence made such cooperation convenient. These accusations truly made liberals in the judiciary squirm. In addition to Bell, important figures in the Classic Period of CRT were professors Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, Patricia J. Williams, and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

In an essay/book review in The Texas Law Review in 2003, transitional Classic - Postclassic Period CRT professor and scholar Richard Delgado lamented, “Critical Race Theory, after a promising beginning began to focus almost exclusively on discourse at the expense of power, history, and similar material determinants of minority-group fortunes.” In other words, racial idealists had “moved to the fore” of the CRT movement. Delgado frets that “The study of ‘race’ has supplanted the study of race.”

Delgado also informs us that Critical Race Theory began to further splinter into subgroups “that apply to you and your group,” whether race, gender, ethnicity, or some other unifying distinction during the early years of the twenty-first century. As noted, CLS or Critical Legal Studies was on the decline. Classic Period CRT morphed into something new and different that I deem Postclassic Period CRT.

It is inaccurate to say that no Classic Period Critical Race Theory elements are taught in today’s public schools. Concepts such as intersectionality, the social construction of race, and to a lesser degree, that of interest convergence are all elements of Classic Period CRT taught in public high schools and staff diversity training. This is as it should be. Much from Classic Period CRT is helpful in a better understanding of race in the United States.

Postclassic Period Mesoamerica (900–1519 CE) was a time of the breakdown of many of the accomplishments of the Classic Period. Interestingly, the Postclassic Period is characterized as a time of both technological advancement and breakdown of cultural norms, values, and unity. The Spanish took advantage of this and conquered a divided people. Conquering a diverse people would have been impossible. Diverse and divided are not synonyms.

Postclassic Period Critical Race Theory has now taken over the marketplace, both literally and figuratively. It is genuine, new, and different in the same way the Greek word kainos means “new and of a different nature.” It is a Critical Race Theory of a different kind. It has a focus that transcends and perhaps diminishes race as the central focus of Critical Race Theory. It has morphed into a series of dogmas (more than dialogue) about identity. Perhaps it should be known today as CIT – Critical Identity Theory.

Those who are pro and con, conservative and progressive, left and right, have taken center stage in a conflict that strives neither to lessen nor to resolve. Winning is the preferred outcome. In this new period, professors and protesters have given way to pundits, purveyors, proselytizers, prejudice, and power. Concepts and theories to be debated have morphed in the dangerous cycle of Doctrine → Devotion → Dogma → Duty → Destruction.

Identity differentiations have their roots in Classic Period CRT. Since then, they have grown into a forest of identities of the oppressed. Each one competes for attention in the marketplace of division and othering. Diversity no longer speaks primarily to race but to a whole host of identity-affiliated differences.

Diversity of thought is no longer sought or tolerated as a desired outcome. Dogma, binarism, the proliferation of fallacies, canards, tropes, generalizing, normalizing, straw men, onlyism, slogans, etc., are the coins of the realm of Postclassic Period CRT. A fight over socialism versus capitalism is as likely to be the center of a Postclassic CRT disagreement as is affirmative action. Classic Period Critical Race Theory has been co-opted by the left and the right, the progressive and the conservative. The battle for civil rights has turned into a war for identity and affirmation of the same. Both science (reason) and faith have become shuttlecocks batted back and forth in the badminton battles of Postclassic CRT. Too often, they have gotten stuck in the net.

The multiplicity of viewpoints that characterized the Classic Period of CRT have devolved into the binary (either-or) as the primary and often the only allowed option. One is for us or against us. One is anti-racist or racist. One is oppressed or an oppressor. One must support either biological sex or gender identity. Neologisms abound. One is Latino or Latinx. Binarism, otherism, and onlyism have joined together on all sides to shut down dialogue. One is said to deny history, while the other is said to distort history. One is accused of denying data while the other of distorting it. Certainty carries the day. Uncertainty, the historic cornerstone of much learning, is now unacceptable. Personal anecdotes become normative—binary battles rage in this Postclassic Period of CRT. In the roar and rancor over certainty and onlyism, resolution of actual racial realities and those differences between us are lost, cast aside, or ignored. This is the real tragedy

Bestsellers have replaced Law Review articles. I read an article the other day that characterized teachers as “exhausted” and parents as “angry.” It could just as assuredly be said that teachers are “angry” and parents are “exhausted.” When seen from a binary position, either could be true depending on the lens of one’s lived experience and personal truth (more on that later). The reality may be that most everyone is both angry and exhausted.

Perhaps saddest of all, Postclassic Period CRT seems to be a diagnosis disinterested in a cure. It relishes advocating to those already on board while demeaning those misinformed or ignorant enough to disagree. One side strips the other of intelligence while the other is confident of the others’ lack of virtue. This period is a series of certainties, affirmations, normalizations, generalizations, stereotypes, and othering on all sides. Only me, my, us, and our realities are accurate enough for me to support. Both those for and against are participants in and practitioners of Postclassic Period CRT. If it is not reflective of my or mine, in the words, rhyme, and rhythm of the 1932 Groucho Marx song, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” We delve deep into dogma when we decide the validity of a position, belief, or fact by the simple fact of whether or not we agree with it.

This brings me back to the concept of personal and absolute truth. While I am absolutely convinced of the truth that the Tampa Bay Lightning is the very best team in the NHL, that is not the Absolute Truth, especially for the incorrect and incoherent Boston Bruins fans. It is my truth with a small t. Absolute Truths (with a large T) are relatively (pun intended) rare. In my passion and certainty, I may often confuse my truth with Absolute Truth. In your passion and certainty, you may often confuse your truth with Absolute Truth. When we each do that, we are participants in Postclassic Period CRT.

This Postclassic Period CRT is what “all the fuss” is about. The tri-tragedies of humanity’s racism, racialization, and racialism (all symptoms of our need to rank) are no longer the focus of our search for diagnosis and cure. Postclassic Period CRT or CIT (Critical Identity Theory) has taken all the oxygen out of the air of those significant challenges. There is nothing wrong with a personal quest for identity, meaning, and purpose. The challenges come when our uncertainty becomes absolute certainty, and our lived truth becomes Absolute Truth, both to the exclusion of those of all others.

Postclassic Period CRT is certainly being taught in both the curriculum, classrooms, and in diversity training sessions in our public schools. This is a confusing and complex issue. All district stakeholders need to come together to figure this out. Parents have a natural right and obligation to express their concerns and thoughts. Districts have a civil right and obligation to conform to existing laws. This in no way negates the responsibility of leadership to respect, respond to, and in some cases make changes based on stakeholder concerns, even those with which they may personally disagree!

I fear Postclassic CRT may be the final period prior to conquest. We may not succumb to a foreign army, but we, like the Aztecas, Tlaxcaltecas, and Tetzcocoanos, may bring ruin on ourselves. I am cautiously hopeful for another period of CRT where we each examine ourselves instead of the other.

My faith tradition is not the only one, but it encourages each individual to “examine himself” and exults when a person “comes to himself” to turn his or her life around. I hope humanity can ultimately prove Professor Bell wrong about the inevitability of racism (his racial realism).

I hope that we can dig deep inside our shared humanity to eliminate the “temporary peaks of progress” and “any and all subordinated statuses” that Professor Bell mentions, as well as our own blind spots. Only those humans who lead, manage or influence broken systems and institutions can bring systemic change. Too many humans are homeostatic; we resist change. We must strive to be morphogenic, those who embrace change for a better period of Critical Race Theory and the dissolution of racism in the future. That is my hope and prayer. Although I never knew him. I think Professor Bell would have shared that hope and prayer with me.

Phil Stover worked in and consulted with over 100 US school districts. He started as a school bus driver and retired after serving as Deputy Superintendent and Superintendent in two large urban districts. Living in Chihuahua, Mexico, he is a PhD candidate in Mexican history.

©This work is copyrighted in its entirety by Philip R. Stover. Citations for all sources are included in his forthcoming book, Invisibles in Plain Sight: Critical Race Theory and Beyond.

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