critical race theory

[ krit-i-kuhl reys-thee-uh-ree, theer-ee ]
/ ˈkrɪt ɪ kəl ˈreɪs ˌθi ə ri, ˌθɪər i /
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a conceptual framework that considers the impact of historical laws and social structures on the present-day perpetuation of racial inequality: first used in legal analyses, and now applied in education, communication studies, and sociology. Abbreviation: CRT
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Sometimes Critical Race Theory .

Origin of critical race theory

First recorded in 1990–95
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory (commonly abbreviated as CRT) refers to a way of analyzing systems, institutions, and power through a lens of race and racism.

Central to Critical Race Theory is the idea that many institutions are built on and enforce systemic racism and oppression of people of color, that this racism and oppression have a long history in the US and the world (including slavery and its legacy), and that they are ongoing and driven by white supremacy.

As an academic, intellectual, or philosophical discipline or school or thought, Critical Race Theory is broad and encompasses the discussion and use of many related concepts and terms, such as implicit bias, intersectionality, and white privilege.

Read more about Critical Race Theory and the recent increase in usage and awareness of the term.

Where does Critical Race Theory come from?

The term Critical Race Theory was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was one of the early developers of the theory, along with scholars Derrick Bell and Alan Freeman, among others. (Crenshaw is also credited with coining the term intersectionality.) The movement is often traced to a 1989 workshop, but it grew out of earlier research. Early scholarly work in what became known as Critical Race Theory was done in the context of US law, including analysis of why civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s had not been more effective at lessening the social and economic disparities between white Americans and African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color. It has since been applied to other institutions that theorists believe maintain and are influenced by systemic racism, including in the areas of education, housing, finance, and labor.

Critical Race Theory is a complex body of thought that encompasses multiple disciplines, and its concepts and conclusions are interpreted in different ways. Even the words in its name are subject to debate as to what they mean or imply in the term itself or in general.


The most general sense of the word critical means “containing careful or analytical evaluations,” and, like in many other academic contexts, this is how the word is often intended in Critical Race Theory. The more specific, popular sense of critical means “containing or making negative judgments or assessments.” This sense is also associated with Critical Race Theory due to the fact that many of the conclusions reached using it as an analytical framework are indeed critical of institutions that are thought to perpetuate institutional racism.


Throughout history, the word race has commonly been used to refer to an arbitrary and unscientific classification of humans based on various physical characteristics, especially skin color. This classification is a foundation of racism. In contrast, those who apply Critical Race Theory largely view race as a socially constructed system of categorization that divides society and oppresses people of color.


Critical Race Theory is an academic theory—“a systematically organized body of knowledge applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, especially a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena.” In other words, it is a way of thinking and analyzing things based on a body of supporting research and observations (as opposed to a hypothesis that is meant to be “proved” or “disproved”).

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What are some other forms related to Critical Race Theory?

  • CRT (abbreviation)

What are some words that often get used in discussing Critical Race Theory?

How is Critical Race Theory used in real life?

Critical Race Theory is applied by many scholars of race and racism and is taught as part of the curriculum in some US schools and universities, typically with the goal of educating about the legacy and effects of systemic racism. Larger public awareness of it has been driven in part by its critics, who claim it is divisive.


How to use critical race theory in a sentence