Critical Race Theory: Guiding the Path of Black Lives Matter

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Updated: Sep 14, 2023
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“Critical race theory is a study on of racial oppression and its direct connection to the law and the government. Critical race theorists believe that the law largely contributes to racial oppression and works to keep white supremacy active. They study the ways that the law does this currently and throughout history. Black Lives Matter uses many of the ideas of critical race theory in looking at issues within the systems of our society. Attempting to recreate and change the laws that are in place that allow for the types of miniscule or blatantly harsh discrimination towards African Americans.

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Critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement are both working towards racial equality with the goal of having people understand that racism is not something that just happened, but that it is a part of all of the institutions we put ourselves into every day. Critical race theory’s work has helped movements today, like Black Lives Matter, to better the treatment of African Americans within America and its law.

A New York University Professor, Derrick Bell in the 1970s, started the critical race theory movement. The movement was started by a group of people that were upset by the fact that the laws and movements that were passed throughout the 1960’s in the civil rights era seemed to be fully discarded and that the growth towards racial equality was moving extremely slow. The movement is a grouping of various academics, activists, and other people that have interest in studying the connection between this racial oppression and the legal system. Critical race theory is based on a few main beliefs, first that “racism is ordinary”, meaning that racism it is not seen as something straying away from the norm, that it is just a part of everyday life. They focus on the way that society works around and with the concept of racism in mind and the way that people of color live their daily life. This results in racism being seen as something that is unable to be fixed because it is so ingrained in everyday life. There are specific parts of racism that are obvious to everyone, so those are discussed more frequently, such as discrimination in the workplace such as not hiring a qualified person of color because of their race or having a person’s salary be lower than it should be because of their race. The next belief is “white-over-color”, meaning that there is evident awareness of the power white people have over black people. Also meaning that racism benefits white people in this society, which leads to that large portion of society not being very inclined to work to get rid of this injustice. The third belief is “social construction” stating that racism is a social construct that has no true biological reality basing these differences between races. Skin color and other physical features can come from where one grew up or their background, but no other type of genetic characteristic could give a basis for personality traits or any other type of trait that people of color are discriminated against because of. And the fact that society chooses to go along with the description that is given to black people is something that critical race theorists study very heavily. (Delgado, Stefancic, p. 7-8).

Critical race theorists study how the legal system is a main factor in keeping white supremacy alive. The law is not the beginning of the problem, but just a tool that keeps the idea alive. The oppression and racist ideas that are linked to black people has already been in place for a long time, the law just uses that to make decisions, which ends up reinforcing it more. There are specific points where the law made these ideas come to life, it was the law and the state that created segregation, by creating separate locations and institutions for the different races and having the places for white people be exceptionally better.

Throughout the various civil rights movements, the people fighting within those movements have used laws to head towards their liberation, not to say in anyway is the law doing good for the black people of this world, but if there was no law, there would not be anything for them to fight back against and use as their argument. A key point in discussion with critical race theorists is how the ability to use race within the laws has gone down severely. These theorists focus on certain laws or movements that have been passed in preference of civil rights or various black movements, that have actually not actually helped get rid of white supremacy at all. At times, these wins in the court room benefiting the black community seemed like victories in the moment, but then nothing came of it. Certain theorists believe that these victories may even be victories for the white supremacists because it makes them look like they have done something for bettering the black community.

In the second chapter of this book, the case and decision coming from the case Brown v. Board of Education is used to explain how these “victories” are not truly victories. This case was brought to court because of the segregation of educational institutions and the drastic differences between the schools. The schools for white people were always better equipped and gave white people a much better education than minority racial groups, this segregation went directly against the fourteenth amendment. This was not a new topic to the court, after years of fighting to desegregate schools the court finally acknowledged these differences and how wrong they are. Finally, in 1954, the Supreme Court came out with a decision stating that having segregation in public educational institutions was unconstitutional.

Since the Supreme Court acknowledged this and went in favor of Linda Brown, celebration of the result came directly after. This decision by the Supreme Court was seen as an extreme victory for people involved in the civil rights movements. And it was, having the government finally admitting their wrong doings. But after the feeling victory went down, it was seen that no drastic change was truly coming from this decision. “[The minority group’s] friends, the liberals, believing the problem has been solved, go on to a different campaign, such as saving the whales, while its adversaries, the conservatives, furious that the Supreme Court has given was once again to undeserving minorities, step up their resistance,” (Delgado, Stefancic, p. 30). The people that were helping the cause see it as a victory and move on without making sure these changes get implemented, which is where the real victory would take place. If anything, the decision of this may have made it more difficult for the civil rights activists to get these changes made, because now the conservatives that do not want the integration of black and white people are angry at the courts and will work to make sure nothing like that will happen.

In the introduction of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, they connect the idea of differential racialization to intersectionality and anti-essentialism. Differential racialization is explained as the ways that the race in power will choose when to racialize the minority race groups based on the current needs in specific aspects of society. “At one period, for example, society may have had little use for blacks, but much need for Mexican or Japanese agricultural workers,” (Delgado, Stefancic, p. 10). This concept connects to intersectionality and anti-essentialism because of the common factor between all concepts stating that no person has an identity that is already decided for them that automatically places them within a specific group. Intersectionality, the idea that people have traits or identities that overlap with identities of other groups. Anti-essentialism is the belief that there is no one set understanding that is constant among all people within a specific group.

Kimberle Crenshaw is a scholar in the critical race theory field and brings black feminist topics to the critical race discussion. She is a key person that benefitted the critical race theory movement because of her introduction of intersectionality to the movement. Crenshaw focuses on the very common way that people tend to leave out women of color and their lack of recognition in these movements towards racial equality. The concepts of intersectionality and anti-essentialism are very important when discussing movements in present day, specifically the Black Lives Matter Movement. Kimberle Crenshaw began the campaign #SayHerName which worked alongside the Black Lives Matter Movement bringing recognition to the number of black females that were killed by police officers. The focus throughout the Black Lives Matter campaign has mainly been on black males receiving this unjust treatment by police officers. Crenshaw uses this movement “to describe the way different forms of discrimination overlap and compound each other – it is a brutal illustration of how racism and sexism play out on black women’s bodies,” (Khaleeli, Throughout the many news articles and videos that come out after a black man was killed by the police, it is very rare that the same number of articles are released about black women being killed. “It is hardly even newsworthy when Black women, including Black transwomen, are killed or violated by law enforcement – because they are generally seen as less feminine or vulnerable,” (Taylor, 164). Black women are seen as lesser humans because of these two identities together. It is often forgotten that the creators of the Black Lives Matter hashtag, that sparked the entire movement, were women.

Black women have a long history of being erased from the various movements working for racial equality. Women such as Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, were extremely important to the civil rights movement and the progression of it over time. Ferguson was seen as the first time that the effort the women were putting into this movement was recognized. Surprising enough, the media has actually been very active in reporting women as important leaders throughout the Ferguson movement. They mention that the women would be “seamlessly shifting between the roles of peace-keepers, disrupters, organizers and leaders,” (Taylor, 165). To understand the way that black people live their lives every day, people need to see the impact that black women have on this. Without accepting that, an entire portion of black life is not being accounted for, allowing essentialism to take the lead in this understanding.

The Black Lives Matter movement began in Ferguson, Missouri after a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed Michael Brown. This was not the first killing of an innocent black person, but it happened to be the one that lead to the beginning of a large number of protests and this movement. The movement continued to grow after the police would respond to these protests in ways that exposed them to having absolutely no respect for the African American population. They would point their guns at protestors and show no feeling of guilt towards the treatment of the African American population. This aggression from the police continued to rise as they realized they did not have much power over making the people stop. Reverend Al Sharpton was the current face of the civil rights organization, meaning that many families would go to him for his help when a member of their family had been killed by a police officer. Sharpton was called to help this movement that was erupting and deal with the violent protests that were coming from it. Immediately when he arrived, the people taking part in these protests were displeased with what he had to say. He entered Ferguson putting full blame on the protestors for creating such a violent atmosphere, stating that this is not what would get them what they wanted. “Sharpton’s words also lent legitimacy to Ferguson official’s accounts, which blamed violence on protestors even as police blatantly violated their rights to assemble,” (Taylor, 160). This led to the protestors seeing Sharpton as someone that they did not want as their leader and did not see any validation for him to be telling them how they should be dealing with this.

This response to Sharpton shows the concrete difference in the generations that have done work for civil rights. The people in the movement in Ferguson did not disregard what had been done in the Civil Rights Movement, but they had different approaches to take to work towards their goal. They could look at what was done during that time and apply their own new ideas to what needed to be done. Critical race theory is present here in where the new generation has begun to focus more on the political standpoints of all of this and their analysis of the law itself to improve this movement.

The protests did not slow down, but they heavily reemerged after Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, was found not guilty. The protests grew, two main protests that occurred were in New York City and Washington DC. The protest in New York City was organized by activists by using social media to get the word out, and the one in DC was led by government leaders, Sharpton in particular. The protest in DC was organized that only certain people were able to be on the stage, while the one in New York City was accessible to anyone. This showed the divide in the movement becoming very clear, the activists versus the government leaders. Sharpton came out with a statement where he mentions how in the future, the amount of publicity each protest will not matter in the future, that the focus must be on reform. But he was criticized because “Sharpton’s mentions of ‘publicity’ and ‘applause’ showed that these were things on his mind. His vision of ‘big change’ did not look like much: the two ‘major’ reforms he named were body cameras for the police and independent prosecutors to investigate police misconduct,” (Taylor, 171). This continues to create the divide between the activists and the government leaders, because the activists did not want someone with these views to be the face of their movement.

This created the movement to move in a direction making the people the face of the movement. They did not want a face to be attached to the movement, they wanted it to be seen as a full group effort working towards these changes. They had to find ways to get the movement funded and in the public eye without picking up someone that would become the person people would see when they thought of Black Lives Matter. The movement is a collaboration of different groups of people all around the world working towards the same goal. They are still developing and fixing the movement to make sure it is reflecting exactly what they want, but they are working towards making sure they are using the correct language to get across exactly what they want to say. Starting with the name of the movement, “The brilliance of the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ is its ability to articulate the dehumanizing aspects of the anti-Black racism in the United States,” (Taylor, 182). The simple three words show the fact that this organization is working towards making sure that the government sees that black lives do matter, meaning that throughout history and in present day, they do not.

People often describe the Black Lives Matter movement as new version of the civil rights movement, but the people of the movement disagree with that and call itself a human rights movement. They consider themselves different because civil rights movement did not work with the law and government in the same way that Black Lives Matter has been. Critical race theory arguing that the law is a major power that upkeeps the idea of white supremacy is why they go back and study the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, as talked about earlier in the Brown v. Board of Education trial, and try to show how these cases actually did more for the growth of white supremacy than it did for black liberation. The way that they study and fight the law to show the harm the law is doing for the growth towards racial equality connects directly to the work that the Black Lives Matter movement is doing. Both the members of the Black Lives Matter movement and critical race theorists focus on what human rights are described as by our government and what is wrong within that pertaining to the law. They both focus on how the government goes against what are supposed to be the basic rights of all people in this country.

This work was started in the Civil Rights Movement, when key people gave a petition to the United Nations called “We Charge Genocide”. This petition was charging the United States of America with genocide of African American people. “The responsibility is particularly grave when citizens must charge their own government with mass murder of its own nationals, with institutionalized oppression and persistent slaughter of the Negro people in the United States on a basis of ‘race,’ a crime abhorred by mankind and prohibited by the conscience of the world as expressed in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948,” (Civil Rights Congress). The Black Lives Matter movement referring to this and the laws of human rights, allows the conversation to move further and expose the governments almost clear agenda to make sure that white supremacy’s presence is not tampered with. But being able to use the specific language that the leaders of the United States have used in their laws and declarations around the topic of human rights is greater than any other type of language. The use of human rights laws is something that everyone can hear and see that the government is choosing to justify or even ignore these oppressive acts against the African American population, even when it is going against their own words. This just furthers the ideas coming from critical race theorists that say that the government and these laws are what has created this view of African Americans and the discrimination against them.

Black Lives Matter and critical race theory see education as a useful way that can help change the ways of this oppression in the future. People that are a part of the Black Lives Matter movement have a different way of thinking than the older generation that took part in various civil rights acts. This generation needs to be properly educated so that this movement and the new movements today can be doing what is needed to truly make progress. This education cannot be a choice for people and it cannot differ between states. History classes need to be giving out the correct information and explaining the true relevance and relation that it has to today. Many people saw Barack Obama becoming president as meaning America had become a post-racial country and decided to focus on other problems. This large gap in education across the United States of America has been created by the teachings in these schools not including very important topics, such as intersectionality, that are key to understanding the progress that still needs to be made. For equality to be possible in future generations, this institutionalized racism within the school curriculums must be removed. Schools are the main place that gives this information to people and can create these racist ideas in people’s minds, but it can also be the place where all of this is taken away. Critical race theory can be used in many different ways to make the curriculums full of the information that they need to be teaching.

The Black Lives Matter movement and critical race theory working together will benefit the future of this movement immensely. They will continue to study the law and the usage of it in the past to show the importance of what they are fighting for. Black Lives Matter has a long way to go but with the usage of this type of language, it will get them to be seen as more legitimate and gain the attention of everyone. Hopefully throughout progress in the education system getting people to understand the concept of racism in a more concrete way, people will begin to understand the issues at hand more clearly and want to join the movement.”

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Critical Race Theory: Guiding the Path of Black Lives Matter. (2021, Jul 03). Retrieved from