Since the beginning, critical race theory was designed to be a weapon. The critical race theorists spent years building an ideology they believed could undermine the authority of the “white male voice”1 and disrupt the certainties of the “white academy.”2 They built an intellectual system that promised to replace Western rationality with a racialist alternative, dramatically expand their coalition with a new concept of political identity, and, from their base in academia, devise a strategy for capturing America’s elite institutions.

The first key element of critical race theory is the discipline’s reconceptualization of the truth. By the mid-1990s, the young law professors who were affiliated with the movement had absorbed a thoroughly postmodern epistemology, arguing that Western rationality was a mask for power and domination. They followed the fashionable line of the French post-structuralist philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, arguing that “truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group”3 and casting skepticism on traditional notions of knowledge, justice, and freedom. They began their political project with the ambition of exploding the epistemology of natural rights, which would make way for a radical reinterpretation. They wanted to replace the old system of colorblindness, equality, and individual rights with a new system one might call a theory of “racial reasoning.”

The initial task was to attack the idea of rationality itself. In Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, the law professors Gary Peller and Charles Lawrence III made an aggressive case for demolishing the existing conceptions of knowledge, which, Peller suggested, serve as a form of “academic colonialism” that placed white cultural norms over minority alternatives.4 Following the radical critique of black nationalist sociologists, Peller proposed that “objective reason or knowledge could not exist because one’s position in the social structure of race relations influenced what one would call ‘knowledge’ or ‘rationality.’” In other words, there is no neutral frame for interpreting society, but rather a plurality of racially contingent frames based on one’s position as either “the oppressed or the oppressor, either African-Americans or whites, either the sociologist or the subject.”

Therefore, Peller argued, the “knowledge” and “rationality” that underpinned the dominant liberal order—everything from constitutional law to the capitalist economy to the school curriculum—provided a pretense of universalism that, in practice, served to subordinate racial minorities. “There could be no neutral theory of knowledge” in the black nationalist critique, Peller maintained. “Knowledge was itself a function of the ability of the powerful to impose their own views, to differentiate between knowledge and myth, reason and emotion, and objectivity and subjectivity.”5

Charles Lawrence III took the logic of racial reasoning to its conclusion by offering a racialist alternative to the “the colonizer’s canon.”6 He called this system “the Word,” drawing on the tradition of African mystical healing and Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed.”7 Lawrence’s epistemology prioritizes racial subjectivity, narrative, emotion, and revisionism, uniting Marxian theory and praxis toward the goal of “liberation.”8 He embraced a “positioned perspective” and told his colleagues they must “learn to privilege their own perspectives and those of other outsiders,” self-consciously elevating the “victim perspective” over the “perpetrator perspective.”9 This functioned as a reversal: knowledge is reduced to power, and provides the critical race theorists with a new basis for overturning the existing hierarchy. In practice, the victim becomes the new source of authority—and his subjective feelings must be validated.

Lawrence illustrated this principle with an example that has now become a cliché. He recounts the story of a black female colleague who complained about an assigned reading, telling him: “I am offended. Therefore, these materials are offensive.” For Lawrence, this was a revelation. “It is these words that are revolutionary,” he wrote. “The [colleague] has done much more than offer a different perspective on the materials. She has given her/our perspective authority, and in doing so she has shown us that we can do the same. . . . By embracing a positioned perspective, this gifted practitioner of the Word reallocated the power to define what is real.”10

This is the nebulous epistemological foundation of critical race theory: personal offense becomes objective reality; evidence gives way to ideology; identity replaces rationality as the basis of intellectual authority.

Lawrence concluded his theory of knowledge with a reprise of the Marxist dictate that the proper measurement of an activist philosophy is not whether it approaches the truth, but, in Lawrence’s phrase, “the degree to which the effort serves the cause of liberation.”11 In other words, in a world where truth does not exist, all that is left is power—and the critical race theorists intended to take it.

The second key element of critical race theory, which builds on the foundation of racial reasoning, is the concept of “intersectionality.” The simplest way to explain intersectionality is that it expands the Marxist oppressor–oppressed binary into a finely graded, multivariate hierarchy of oppression. The concept had already been formulated in rudimentary terms by Angela Davis in Women, Race, & Class, which sought to address overlapping systems of oppression, but the critical race theorists took it a step further. In a pair of essays, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” and “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Kimberlé Crenshaw turned Angela Davis’s original insight into a multisyllabic Latinate term—intersectionality—which provided a single point of reference and gave it the perception of intellectual heft.

The simplest way to explain intersectionality is that it expands the Marxist oppressor–oppressed binary into a finely graded, multivariate hierarchy of oppression.

Crenshaw begins by inviting the reader to contemplate the full hierarchy of oppression through metaphor. “Imagine a basement which contains all people who are disadvantaged on the basis of race, sex, class, sexual preference, age and/or physical ability. These people are stacked—feet standing on shoulders—with those on the bottom being disadvantaged by the full array of factors, up to the very top, where the heads of all those disadvantaged by a singular factor brush up against the ceiling,” she wrote. “In efforts to correct some aspects of domination, those above the ceiling admit from the basement only those who can say that ‘but for’ the ceiling, they too would be in the upper room. A hatch is developed through which those placed immediately below can crawl. Yet this hatch is generally available only to those who—due to the singularity of their burden and their otherwise privileged position relative to those below—are in the position to crawl through. Those who are multiply-burdened are generally left below unless they can somehow pull themselves into the groups that are permitted to squeeze through the hatch.”12

For Crenshaw, the figure hovering above the basement ceiling—the affluent, able-bodied, heterosexual, white male—is the ultimate oppressor, who has the power to admit and to exclude those below him. He has created a system of laws, norms, and values that pit the black woman at the bottom of the heap of human bodies. This presents the black woman with a gauntlet of hardships, from racial discrimination to sexual violence, but also gives her a near-magical status within the discipline of critical race theory. Following critical race theory’s elevation of the “victim perspective” as a source of authority, the doctrine of intersectionality gives the marginalized black woman the ultimate authority: her word is “the Word.”

The goal for Crenshaw was to create a more durable basis for political action, turning intersectionality into a more sophisticated method of identity politics. “Identity continues to be a site of resistance for members of different subordinated groups,” Crenshaw wrote. “At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it.”13 In practice, the critical race theorists did not want to transcend identity in pursuit of universal values. They wanted to wield identity in pursuit of left-wing political power.

For Crenshaw, the lodestar for this new politics was the marginalized black woman, who represents a unitary embodiment of the oppressed—and, by the logic of intersectionality, a formula for restructuring society along every axis of oppression. For the marginalized black woman, anti-racism was insufficient, because it did not address her sex. Feminism was insufficient because it did not address her race. And anti-capitalism was insufficient because it did not address her identity at all. Unlike the older theories of identity politics, Crenshaw’s unitary theory of oppression required a unitary method of revolt, liberating the marginalized black woman along each axis of identity simultaneously.

Politically, Crenshaw’s innovation was that her theory of intersectionality provided the basis for a new revolutionary Subject, far beyond Marx’s white male proletariat and Marcuse’s white-students-and-black-ghetto coalition. In Crenshaw’s vision, the new constellation of oppressions—the woman, the minority, the homosexual, the disabled—could be aggregated into a political majority, which, despite superficial differences, represented the crush of flesh at the bottom of the basement, teeming with grievances and ready to revolt.

The final key element of critical race theory is critical race praxis, or the application of the theory to practical politics. Crenshaw and her colleagues explicitly adopted Marx’s famous dictum in the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach that the purpose of philosophy is not to interpret the world, but to change it.14 “Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It tries not only to understand our social situation but to change it,” Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic announced in the opening pages of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.15 “Street activists, for their part, need new theories to challenge a social order that treats minority communities and the poor so badly. By the same token, theorists need the infusion of energy that comes from exposure to real-world problems, both as a galvanizing force for scholarship and as a reality test for their writing. As for criticizing the existing system, the crits respond that they are indeed at work developing a vision to replace it.”16

In a remarkably short time period, the critical race theorists had cobbled together their ideology, which they saw as “fuel for social transformation”17 that began in the university and moved outward through elite activism. As their master Derrick Bell had once observed: “Critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with the radical assessment of it.”18 The young scholars were ready to commit to “a program of scholarly resistance” that, they hoped, would finally “lay the groundwork for wide-scale resistance.”19

From the book AMERICA’S CULTURAL REVOLUTION by Christopher F. Rufo. Copyright © 2023 by Christopher F. Rufo. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. 

  1. Kimberlé Crenshaw et al., eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York: New Press, 1995), 342. ↩︎
  2. Charles R. Lawrence III, “Doing the James Brown” at Harvard: Professor Derrick Bell as Liberationist Teacher,” Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal, 8 (1991), 266, /content. ↩︎
  3. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, eds., Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 104. This quote is from the book’s second edition and, after criticism, was removed in subsequent editions. ↩︎
  4. Gary Peller, “Race-Consciousness,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, ed. Kimberlé Crenshaw et al. (New York: New Press, 1995), 142. ↩︎
  5. Peller, 142–43. ↩︎
  6. Charles R. Lawrence III, “The Word and the River: Pedagogy as Scholarship as Struggle,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, ed. Kimberlé Crenshaw et al. (New York: New Press, 1995), 343. ↩︎
  7. Lawrence, 336. ↩︎
  8. Lawrence, 343. ↩︎
  9. Lawrence, 338-340. ↩︎
  10. Lawrence, 339. ↩︎
  11. Lawrence, 340. ↩︎
  12. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, no. 1, article 8 (1989): 151–52, ↩︎
  13. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, 375. ↩︎
  14. Karl Marx, appendix to Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886, republished at /theses/theses.htm. This epigram was deeply important to Marx and was engraved on his tomb. ↩︎
  15. Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory, 3rd ed., 8. ↩︎
  16. Delgado and Stefancic, 105–6. ↩︎
  17. John O. Calmore, “Critical Race Theory, Archie Shepp, and Fire Music: Securing an Authentic Intellectual Life in a Multicultural World,” in Crenshaw et al., eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, 317. ↩︎
  18. Derrick A. Bell, “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory,” University of Illinois Law Review 1995, no. 4 (1995): 893. ↩︎
  19. Bell, 900. ↩︎