Editor’s note: Twelve months on from the killing of George Floyd, The Economist is publishing a series of articles, films, podcasts, data visualisations and guest contributions on the theme of race in America. To see them visit our hub
POLITICIANS USE critical race theory (CRT) in much the same way that they use Keynesian economics: as cudgels in a propaganda campaign to advance their cherished political goals, with little regard for the actual philosophies at issue. CRT, a doctrine more caricatured than understood, rests upon the distinctly unradical claim that American institutions have systematically fallen short of the country’s egalitarian ideals due to practices that perpetuate racial hierarchies. It began in the 1970s as a way to analyse the intersection of American law and race; its creators were legal scholars such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. It has since expanded its purview to analyse American institutions more broadly.
CRT stems from the need to provide a language for what institutions actually do, rather than how people in those institutions describe themselves. CRT thus seeks to explain the fact of persistent racial injustice by analysing the practices of American institutions. Such practices are racist because they perpetuate racial inequality, not because people within them seek deliberately to oppress individual and specific black people. Mortgage lending, for instance, can function in a racist way, even if the lenders themselves harbour no personal bigotry against non-whites.