How Critical Race Theory Explains Inequality in America’s Institutions

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There are plenty of statistics that point to social inequality in the United States, and many of them paint a dire picture of what life is like for people of color here. But have you ever wondered why this happens? What the root causes are? And how can we fix it? Well, there’s an academic theory that attempts to answer these questions and more—it’s called critical race theory (CRT).

critical race theory aspects

The Origins of CRT

Though many academics have written about issues related to race and inequality, the first use of CRT’s name appeared in 1988 when Trina Grillo and Michael Omi published their seminal work: The Tyranny of a Construct. The actual theory was developed by Professor Derrick Bell (Rutgers), Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (Columbia), and Professor Patricia Williams (Harvard) over several decades. Though these early scholars did not necessarily agree on everything, they were able to take a look at racism as something that happened beyond Black/white binaries. CRT critics tend to miss that nuance—not just calling it misguided but alleging it is full of lies. In reality, there are some truly magical things you can only find by looking at critical race theory.

Why Is CRT Important?

First and foremost, CRT teaches us that racism is not a matter of explicit intention but instead of the result of instances where social construct is embedded in our interactions as a society. Society at large has an unintentional—but nonetheless persistent—bias against people of color. So if you want to fight discrimination, you can’t go after racist individuals but must take on racism as a social structure that permeates society’s institutions and norms. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains it, To avoid acting racist is therefore not only ‘not being prejudiced,’ but also ‘not discriminating,’ ‘treating everyone equally’–in short, adhering to race-neutral standards.

Debunking Some Common Misconceptions

Often when people talk about critical race theory, they use terms like reverse racism or claim that it is some sort of race-based power structure. However, as Professor Rachel Moran explains, the dominant race doesn’t have a lock on racist thought and action. The idea that only whites can be racist stems from a white supremacist notion of racial hierarchy where whites are seen as holding all the power, and any injury to members of a less powerful group is considered exceptional or not really racial at all. In other words, while critical race theory may explain issues related to inequality within social institutions, it is not intended to create conflict between races. Instead, it helps us understand how these inequalities exist and why they persist.

What Does CRT Explain?

CRT is a framework that helps make sense of how race plays out in social, economic, and political spheres. For example, CRT says if you’re Black, you’re more likely to be pulled over for a traffic stop than your white counterpart (police profiling). If you do get pulled over, you are more likely to be arrested than your white counterpart (over-policing). These examples demonstrate structural racism at work. Most people don’t go through their day explicitly thinking about race but rather participate in acts of racism every day without realizing it. For example, individuals may act and react according to racial stereotypes (stereotype threat), resulting in unequal treatment.

The Criminal Justice System and Black Incarceration Rates

The U.S. education system not only relegates minorities to lower-level classes but also fails to properly prepare these students for college and life after graduation. Students of color are disproportionately taught by underprepared teachers, assigned disproportionally more discipline cases, and funneled into low-quality schools that provide fewer resources and opportunities to succeed. The result? Minority students graduate from high school at much lower rates than their white peers. Meanwhile, Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than whites—and Latinos 2.3 times higher—and often face harsher sentences for similar crimes. Black men comprise just 6 percent of all men in America but account for 40 percent of prison inmates. While there is no single cause behind these disparities, it’s clear that racism plays a major role: African Americans and Latinos receive harsher sentences compared to whites who commit similar crimes; Black defendants are less likely to be found innocent; and racial stereotypes influence decisions about whom to arrest, charge, convict, sentence harshly, and incarcerate versus whom to release or treat with leniency (e.g., drug courts).

Education System and Black Student Achievement Gap

A fundamental building block of critical race theory is how race and racism are embedded in social institutions. The education system provides a clear illustration. From historical policies like separate but equal to current ones like magnet schools, white parents have used law and policy to create better educational opportunities for their children. Today, Black students face many structural barriers that make it difficult to succeed in school: high rates of poverty; teachers who lack training on how to teach Black students; implicit bias from teachers, administrators, and peers; segregated neighborhoods with low-quality schools; inadequate funding for public schools compared with those serving white students; and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that lead to higher rates of suspensions among Black students than among white students.

Labor Market and Barriers to Black Employment

The criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system are all sources of inequality. For example, people of color are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites despite similar crime statistics. This means that a Black individual is less likely to be able to get a job after being released from prison due to past employment checks that show they were imprisoned. When they do find a job, they will be making less money than someone who has never been arrested because employers have access to these background checks. Though incarceration rates have fallen among Blacks and whites over time (due to President Obama’s clemency initiatives), we still incarcerate people of color at substantially higher rates than whites.

Housing Market and Segregation along Racial Lines

The U.S. housing market is set up to be heavily segregated by race and class, which has contributed to growing racial wealth inequality over time. As redlining (or racial discrimination when granting mortgages) was outlawed in 1968, a new tactic was used: exclusionary zoning laws. Most municipalities have their own zoning laws that require residential structures to be a certain size and/or prohibit multi-family dwellings from being built on single-family lots (except for senior housing), to give a few examples. Since Black Americans have lower incomes on average than white Americans, they are less likely to live in neighborhoods with schools that rank well on state standardized tests, safe streets, healthy food options, and other resources available for child development.

Healthcare System and Medical Disparities among Races

Medical disparities among races are primarily due to differentials in health behaviors, access to and quality of healthcare, socioeconomic factors, and differential treatment by doctors and hospitals. Even after we account for income differences between whites and Blacks and adjust for insurance status, Black Americans visit their doctor less frequently than white Americans. Although it is unknown why Black patients do not receive care on par with whites, cultural differences may play a role. And because there is no social service infrastructure designed to help poor Blacks navigate complex medical procedures (e.g., insurance paperwork), many do not have access to routine preventative healthcare services needed for the early detection of certain illnesses like breast cancer. –MM



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