What is critical race theory?

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Critical race theory, the idea that it's not just one bad apple, it's the system

Critical race theory examines the legacy of slavery and segregation in America. Image: Unsplash/Priscilla du Preez

Julie Masiga
Communications Lead, Centre for Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum

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  • Critical race theory “tells a story about institutionalized racial disadvantage and systemic racial inequality."
  • It examines how the legacy of slavery and segregation in the US is embedded in modern-day legal systems and policies.
  • There is a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequality and the inequity that follows as a result.

Black History Month 2022 is being marked as American society grapples with the significance of Black history, with discussions around the relevance and necessity of critical race theory taking centre stage. This reckoning with racism was brought to the forefront of American consciousness in the aftermath of George Floyd's death at the hands of police officers in May 2020.

Since then, the race debate has been interpreted by some in the US as an attack on white America, with 14 states now limiting the teaching of Black history and racism in schools. These constraints, which come under the guise of banning the teaching of critical race theory, limit what some state-supported institutions can discuss about America's racial past.

Critical race theory has become a divisive ideology that often pits proponents and opponents against each other. It has become a racially charged debate that often veers clear of what its originators intended at its conceptualization, which was simply a way to examine the inequalities in American society through the lens of racial injustice.

On the African continent, the legacy of colonialism, similar to the imprint of slavery in the Americas, is also widespread and enduring. The colonial era was one of gradual disconnection from vibrant local traditions to a Western-centric uniformity. Decades of imperialism entrenched race as a social marker that relegated some and uplifted others.

The colonial construct was designed to systemically subdue and control Africans through such things as religion and education. Early missionaries preached the gospel while at the same time setting up an educational framework that was promoted as a means to bring Africans to a higher level of civilization.

In reality, both religion and education were tools to achieve systemic social control and to build communities of local labourers to advance economic development in the colonies.

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The legacy of that subjugation is still witnessed today in post-colonial systems which perpetuate the exploitative practices and institutions that underpinned a distorted social contract. A contract that was -- and continues to be -- steeped in inequality.

A similar pattern played out in the African diaspora, notably within North America’s Black communities, where critical race theory “tells a story about institutionalized racial disadvantage and systemic racial inequality” within a societal construct that has historically characterized Blacks as less deserving of the full privileges of ‘civilization’.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory (CRT) is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. It examines how the legacy of slavery and segregation in the US is embedded in modern-day legal systems and policies. And is the idea that racism is not a matter of individual bigotry but is systemic in America.

CRT opponents characterize the theory’s anti-racism stance as racism against white people. But law professors say different.

“The problem is not bad people,” says Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii who was an early developer of critical race theory. “The problem is a system that reproduces bad outcomes.”

“It is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced - the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that history has created these inequalities.”

Prof. Kimberle W. Crenshaw, Pioneering Scholar and Writer on Critical Race Theory, Columbia Law School

The theory, which is typically taught at the graduate level, interrogates the role of race and racism in society. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of colour to the bottom tiers.

Most critically, in these racially charged times we live in today, critical race theory recognizes that racism is not a relic of the past. It acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of colour, continues to permeate the social fabric of American society.

An equitable future of life and work

Since the public killing of George Floyd in May of 2020, and the series of worldwide protests that followed, conversations about racial justice have been ongoing.

The brutality of Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcers exposed the fragility of black life in a system that “reproduces bad [and often violent] outcomes” for Black and other people of colour, often at the slightest provocation -- sometimes no provocation at all.

Discussions about the impact of historical injustices on people of colour touched a global nerve, most poignantly among populations that had suffered the indignities of colonization. But they soon spread to board rooms and corner offices where business leaders began to build a roadmap to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

Coupled with the inequalities that were uncovered with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a profound sense of urgency emerged for companies to actively work to entrench both equity and equality.

The pandemic is still ongoing, and its economic disruption continues to be felt. Data from the Forum’s Global Risks Report shows that disparities in the progress of vaccination are creating a divergent economic recovery that risks compounding pre-existing social inequalities and geopolitical tensions.

To redress this balance of unequal outcomes, the Forum's work on diversity, inclusion and social justice, driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, is focusing on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies.

Through its Partnering for Racial Justice in Business initiative, it continues to encourage companies to put racial and ethnic equity on their board agendas, make firm commitments towards racial and ethnic justice in their organizations, and set long-term strategies to becoming anti-racist organizations.

Going forward, it is imperative that global leaders take an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, by tackling exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

What is critical race theory?An equitable future of life and work

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