Researching Critical Race Theory at the Birmingham Public Library

Shelf of books with spines facing out with titles related to Critical Race Theory
Learn more with the Birmingham Public Library. Photo by Parker Evans. 

In the last year or so, Critical Race Theory (or CRT) has headlined the news and emerged as a subject of political discussion around the country.

As of June 15, 2021, mentions of Critical Race Theory on Fox News shot up—1,900 mentions in 3.5 months. This fevered reaction to blatant misuse of the term has spread to Alabama as well. 

Locally, a campaign ad for Kay Ivey reads, “No critical race theory in schools. America is not a racist nation. We won’t teach our children differently in Alabama.”

Earlier this month, Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey received calls complaining about Black History Month, which the callers conflated (wrongly) with Critical Race Theory.

One of the driving reasons CRT quickly became a hot topic is the fearful claim that schools are teaching it to sow racial discord, and legislation has already been brought forward (and passed in some states) to curb its alleged presence in schools. writes, "Since January 2021, 36 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Educational Week analysis." This article also includes a table breaking down the varying language of each piece of legislation; some wording mentions CRT by name, some does not. 

In a recent interview, Richard Delgado, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and a leading figure in the field of Critical Race Theory, suggests that certain legislation banning CRT is "completely unconstitutional," and that Critical Race Theory is being used as a name for "everything [its detractors] love to hate."  

However, even with a basic understanding of what Critical Race Theory is, it is clear that these rhetorical, political, and legislative attacks have very little to do with the content of CRT itself.

Rather, CRT became shorthand for any teaching of United States history that is willing to ask whether genocide, racial slavery, and segregation might have lasting effects on our current politics. 

What isn't Critical Race Theory?

CRT itself is not history per se but rather a fairly narrow lens of legal scholarship. It is as absurd to suggest that CRT is being taught in middle or high schools as it is to suggest these same students are being taught quantum physics. 

So, are politicians calling for the banning of CRT because they earnestly think public school students are taught the same material as Harvard law students?

An in-depth explanation of these politicians' motivations deserves its own separate post. But in this post, I want to go over what CRT is and isn't, and what relevance it may have to public school curriculums. 

To be sure, the questions and problems that CRT poses can be applied to the creation of public-school curriculums. While CRT is not synonymous with historical studies, it certainly sits side-by-side with rigorous work on the history of race in the U.S.

For example, CRT is sometimes associated with the 1619 Project. While they may share the goal of investigating the role of race in the U.S., the 1619 Project is a historical project, whereas CRT deals primarily with the law. 

What is Critical Race Theory?

Bright, red book titled Critical Race Theory stacked against a pile of books on CRT
Find these books at the Birmingham Public Library! Photo by Parker Evans.

To start with the history of Critical Race Theory, we must understand that it stands within a long tradition of scholarship on race that generally begins with W. E. B. Du Bois and other black thinkers, who emerged after Reconstruction.

Du Bois' own book on Reconstruction, Black Reconstruction, remains a classic, authoritative source on the subject. 

This scholarship spans multiple academic disciplines, including:

  • sociology
  • history
  • philosophy
  • political theory
  • gender studies
  • legal studies
  • economics 
In fact, this field of scholarship to which CRT belongs is so multifaceted it can hardly be called a single field.

And more importantly, CRT refers to a very specific body of work. Strictly speaking, CRT is a branch of legal scholarship that grew out of a larger movement of critical legal studies. 

CRT was meant specifically to address the shortcoming of racial analysis in critical legal theory, which contends that the inherent social bias of the law must be an object of legal studies. 

Even in more receptive circles than Governor Ivey's, CRT is often ascribed a greater breadth than it has aspired to. Perhaps that is because the implications of CRT are themselves so far-reaching.

The premises of CRT, loosely speaking, might be summed up like so:

  1. Race is not a biological reality but a social reality.
  2. Racial boundaries are constructed and re-constructed over time by material conditions, like slavery, segregation, and institutionalized discrimination, such that legal and economic power tends to consolidate around white people.
  3. Legal institutions and economic conditions of the United States are some instruments by which these conditions are codified and normalized.

These arguments turn the popular conception of race in U.S. politics upside down.

The common approach to race goes something like this:

The U.S. strives to be the land of equality and opportunity, but race is a particular problem that has not been solved. We will slowly become more tolerant of our differences, and we will progress toward our higher ideals.

What CRT suggests is:

What if race is not a particular problem to be solved—where certain “racists” can be brought to justice—but is in fact baked into the very foundations of our political imagination and institutions?

It is crucial to understand that CRT approaches racism as a problem of power imbalance rather than individual disposition or prejudice. 

Racism is not simply a problem of everyone’s individual prejudices that may “go both ways,” but instead it is a description of a social, political, and economic organization that gathers wealth and power around white people and marginalizes people of color. 

In other words, CRT argues that the status quo of the U.S. is that white people are the default subjects of both history and the law, and everyone else is secondary unless some special exception is made. 

Why is Critical Race Theory relevant?

CRT argues that, rather than approaching race only as an interpersonal problem, it is more productive to approach it as a matter of power regarding the law. If we ask who our legal institutions favor and protect, and why, we get some clearer answers and very challenging follow-up questions.

After briefly reviewing CRT, one can see why some politicians use it as a scare tactic.

Even if said politicians are not actually reading the work of critical race theorists, these theorists' ideas do have challenging and even radical implications:

If race and racism are baked into our social and political structures, then the traditional distinction between "good" white people and "racist" white people starts to make less sense—maybe every white person is guilty and benefits from this structure of power. 

But again, this is too simplistic an understanding of CRT.

Terms like “guilt” and “privilege” place emphasis on the individual and not on the systems and institutions with which CRT is concerned.

In this sense, CRT is also a criticism of our legal and political focus on individual actors. If the injustices against black people and other people of color in the United States were dealt out at the multigenerational level, over the course of 500 years, how can “racial justice” ever be delivered one decision or success at a time?

On the other hand, what sort of legal action is even possible to honor, let alone repair, the time and depth of such physical, economic, psychological, and generational violence?

This second question may be overwhelming, but it is not rhetorical. CRT attempts to provide an answer to this question. 

As Cornel West writes in the "Forward" to Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement

Critical Race Theory is a gasp of emancipatory hope that law can serve liberation rather than domination.

If you have even more questions after reading this post, that’s a good thing!

This post is by no means an exhaustive summary of Critical Race Theory, and CRT is only a slice of the larger critical race studies pie.

Academics, activists, and readers like you continue to push the limits of this work by asking questions and seeking answers. Chances are that any question you have was asked by someone before, and the resources available in our library system can help you pursue these questions! 

What do I read next?

Putting together a reading list to introduce Critical Race Theory to new readers is a difficult task, mainly because most writings under the label are dense legal articles. 

I will include a few texts by authors who fit that label, but this list is closer to a general reading list for critical race studies. This list includes articles, shorter political books, collections of essays, and longer historical books. 

Start wherever you like!

Books on race, civil rights, and Critical Race Theory on a shelf displaying new books in Social Sciences
These books are a great start to learning more about CRT. Photo by Parker Evans.

More about Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory

Essays and Shorter Texts


General Histories

Critical Histories

By Parker Evans | Library Assistant Ⅲ, Central Library

Parker Evans holds a master's degree in Women's Studies from the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. He has presented papers on race and political philosophy at conferences for the Southeastern Women's Studies Association and the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, among others.