You are here: Home » Law & Politics » The evolution of critical race theory: Understanding its origins and development

The evolution of critical race theory: Understanding its origins and development

Critical race theory origins

Scholars have long used critical race theory (CRT) in their legal and social science studies. Its ideas have become entangled in the national debate over racial inequality as it has gained support from conservative American thinkers. CRT examines laws and institutions to determine how they perpetuate or limit racial equality. It requires that researchers engage in critical self-reflection and engage communities as research partners. Let’s look at critical race theory origins and development.

Origins of critical race theory

The roots of critical race theory go back centuries, influenced in part by philosophers and academics who extended Karl Marx’s work into critiques of other areas of society, politics, and culture. A more recent influence is the work of sociologists and academics who study links between political power and social organization. A growing body of academic literature catalogs the ideas that have come to be known as CRT, focusing on issues like how language shapes social relations and how groups organize themselves around common traits.

Modern iterations of the theory began in the 1980s, with legal scholars, followed by social scientists and educational researchers, employing it as a lens for studying racism.

The key idea behind the theory is that racism reflects social conceptions of race and is embedded in laws, rules, and systems rather than solely based on individuals’ prejudices. The theory suggests that racial bias is embedded in laws that impose different penalties for possessing crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, with black people more likely to be convicted of the former than whites.

Critics of the theory argue that it places too much emphasis on group identity, devalues universal, shared traits, and promotes intolerance. However, it is popular enough to be adapted for use in schools, where it has been used to implement racial sensitivity training and rewrite curricula on topics like sexism and the history of American slavery.


Critical race theorists’ work has influenced various fields, from sociology and literary theory to teacher education and law. It has also been criticized for overstating the prevalence of racism in America and creating a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” people.

As a result of the civil rights movement and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, more educators are integrating racial justice into their classrooms. It can include discussions of housing segregation, the impact of the 1990s criminal justice policies on communities of color, and the legacy of slavery in American history.

It is crucial to address uncomfortable conversations with students about the root causes of racial inequality and how their own biases contribute to it. If these inequalities are not unpacked and discussed, they will continue perpetuating.

Many conservatives have rebranded the work of critical race theorists as divisive and are pushing legislation to limit their teaching in schools. Civil rights attorneys and educators worry that these efforts will whitewash American history and chill classroom discussions.

It is important to dispel myths and misinformation about the work of CRT. We need to support teachers who want to teach their students about the realities of systemic oppression—whether in social studies classes, in children’s books, or through community engagement.


As a result of the rise of the black power movement and the subsequent civil rights movements, Critical Race Theory (CRT) gained in popularity. It is not a specific academic discipline but rather an ongoing practice of interrogating racism in the workplace, community, and beyond. Its immediate precursor was the critical legal studies (CLS) movement that examined how law and the lawmaking process reinforce racial inequality.

CRT has influenced various fields and practices, including education, health care, the media, business, law enforcement, government, and the arts. It has been influential in developing new methodologies, such as intersectionality (the idea that different forms of discrimination, like racism and sexism, can coexist and interact) and antiracist interventions, such as cultural humility training, designed to help people challenge their biases.

The theory also helped shape the public health field, advancing the notion that social inequities impact human well-being. It influenced how we understand the root causes of disparities and how those gaps can be closed through structural changes in healthcare, housing, employment, transportation, and other factors that condition living conditions.

For example, researchers used CRT concepts in one study to help frontline public health professionals understand how racial and class identity influences their research designs. By being more self-aware, they avoided inadvertently imposing their biases on the research participants.

Conclusions on critical race theory origins & more

In recent years, scholars and civil rights lawyers have applied critical race theory to understand how American policies, practices, and discourses continue to discriminate against people of color. However, public perception of CRT differs from academic understanding, and some have misrepresented it. It is especially evident in legislation passed by nine states limiting classroom discussion and training on the legacy of slavery, housing segregation, and current police practices.

A fundamental tenet of CRT is that racism and power differentials are structural, not individual or personal. Racism is rooted in America’s institutions, social structures, and professed ideals. It is pervasive and systematically operates to maintain imbalanced power relationships in favor of dominant groups at the expense of historically oppressed ones. Dominant groups use racism to preserve their status quo, even in the face of civil rights laws and other legislative and legal reforms.

The framework of CRT provides a powerful tool for understanding how racism is embedded in our everyday lives, both evident and subtle. Scholars have developed an analytical lens for examining how racism impacts and influences our attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and worldviews. In the research context, critical self-consciousness helps researchers avoid racist biases that can inadvertently influence their work and interpretive processes.

18 thoughts on “The evolution of critical race theory: Understanding its origins and development”

  1. Christy, I love that you’re sharing this and I hope it will enlighten your many readers. It’s hard to see the differences in the structures of government that appear to be the same. Those structures have more flexibility, more leniency, grace and patience for some than others. Critical race theory helps identify those differences and correct them. The solution lies in getting CRT past the powers who perpetuate the differences in order to maintain the status quo.

    1. So true, Linda, that the hard part is getting past the powerful leaders who don’t want things to change as that wouldn’t be in their best interests. I know this post only touches on the issue but at least it can start to get the dialogue going.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information because it has become a “hot” political issue. It is important to have open dialogue regarding how social institutions may impact social inequity such as racism, misogeny, and religious intolerance. Closing our eyes to other perspectives and white-washing history condemns us to repeat past mistakes.

    1. There really is a lot underlying this topic, as you explain, Linnea. And it’s obviously far more complex than I could begin to share here, but at least it’s a start in the conversations, and I appreciate that your understanding and encouraging that!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Privacy & Cookie Policy