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A Primer on Critical Race Theory: Who are the critical race theorists and what are they saying?

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A Primer on Critical Race Theory: Who are the critical race theorists and what are they saying?

INCREASING ATTENTION IS being paid to the legal movement known as critical race theory (CRT), which Cornel West calls "the most exciting development in contemporary legal studies." He writes that "critical race theory compels us to confront critically the most explosive issue in American civilization: the historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy."

Critical race theory is an eclectic and dynamic form of legal scholarship that evolved in the 1970s in response to the stalled progress of traditional civil rights litigation to produce meaningful racial reform. The founders of the critical race theory movement include such legal scholars as Derrick Bell, Charles Lawrence, Lani Guinier, Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, Patricia Williams, and Kimberle Crenshaw. Topics addressed encompass affirmative action, race-conscious districting, campus speech codes, and disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities in the criminal justice system. These self-described outsider law teachers have sparked a growing movement, not only within legal circles, but they are now seeing their ideas extended into such areas as education, sociology, and women's studies. CRT strongholds include Columbia, New York University, Georgetown, and the University of Colorado.

As a form of oppositional scholarship, CRT challenges the experience of whites as the normative standard and grounds its conceptual framework in the distinctive experiences of people of color. This call to context insists that the social and experiential context of racial oppression is crucial for understanding racial dynamics, particularly the way that current inequalities are connected to earlier, more overt, practices of racial exclusion. CRT is grounded in the realities of the lived experience of racism which has singled out, with wide consensus among whites, African Americans and others as worthy of suppression. CRT thus embraces this subjectivity of perspective...