Politics dictionary

Critical Race Theory

[ krit-i-kuhl reys theer-ee ]

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.

Critical Race Theory has widespread influence among scholars who study race and racism and is also applied by scholars and professionals in other fields, including law and education. It is part of or is the basis for part of the curriculum in some schools and universities.

The theory has become a target of criticism, particularly among conservative politicians and others who claim it is divisive and is used to further many of the policies and values that they are opposed to. Proponents of Critical Race Theory often accuse such critics of frequently misrepresenting the theory, the ideas behind it, and the ways in which it is taught or used as the basis for programs or policies.

Related words

white privilege, BIPOC, AAPI, APIDA, Black History Month

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 Black 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 gained widespread public attention in 2020 and 2021, largely due to criticism by conservatives of its application in schools and other institutions, including the military.

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”).

Examples of Critical Race Theory

I went from being a conventional "sociologist of race" to embracing critical race theory and intersectionality.
@alwaystheself, October 2016
The Trump administration has instructed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity trainings that address topics like white privilege and critical race theory, calling them "divisive, anti-American propaganda."
Matthew S. Schwartz, NPR, September 2020

Who uses Critical Race Theory?

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.

What other words are related to Critical Race Theory?

Just Added

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of Critical Race Theory like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of Critical Race Theory that will help our users expand their word mastery.