What is Critical Race Theory?

Updated Tuesday, 23rd February 2021
What is Critical Race Theory and how could it be used to change structures and processes that sustain institutional and individual racism?

A theoretical framework or paradigm that seeks to uncover the ways that institutional, structural, and systemic racism operate and manifest in people’s lives and in society is Critical Race Theory (CRT) (Bonilla-Silva, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Solorzano and Yosso, 2000; Delgado and Stefancic, 2001; Gillborn, 2008).

Police officer speaking to protesters with homemade placards at Anti-racism and black lives matters protest rally demonstration CRT is a social scientific approach that ‘offers a lens through which to make sense of, deconstruct and challenge racial inequality in society’ (Rollock and Gillborn, 2011).  It ‘endeavours to expose the way in which racial inequality is maintained through the operation of structures and assumptions that appear normal and unremarkable’ (Rollock and Gillborn, 2011). CRT developed from Critical Legal Studies in the US (see Bell, 1992 and Crenshaw, 1995) to examine how national legislation expanding civil rights in the US post-Civil Rights Era (1950s and 1960s) did little to improve the material and social lives of Black Americans and other non-White racial and ethnic groups, as well as slow or limited change in social and economic conditions for the LGBTQI communities and immigrant communities. CRT affirms the centrality of race and racism in society such that racism is endemic and ‘normalised’ (Delgado and Stefancic, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Gillborn, 2008), and the very ‘ordinariness makes racism hard to recognize much less address' (Delgado and Stefancic, 2007). CRT emphasises how political, social, and economic arrangements are structured by racial hierarchy (Bonilla-Silva 1997). Importantly, CRT ‘does not imagine that racism is the only social problem and thereby erase issues of class, gender, disability and other forms of discrimination’ (Lander and Gillborn 2020, italics in the original). CRT is encompassing of and sensitive to ‘intersectionality’ (Crenshaw, 1989; 1995). ‘Intersectionality’ is a concept and analytical framework to analyse how aspects of a person's social and political identities/social characterisations, such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability/disability, among others, combine to create different modes of privilege/discrimination and advantage/disadvantage.

Recently, CRT has become a controversial theory and approach in the UK. The Department for Education has opposed the teaching of CRT in schools (September 2020) and the current UK government debated the teaching  of CRT in schools in the House of Commons declaring itself ‘unequivocally against’ it. Proponents of CRT have critiqued the backlash from the government as a misinterpretation of the framework and its central tenets and has provided evidence and counter arguments to clarify the ontological positions, assumptions of, and utility of the sociological theory. Perhaps a more balanced and clear explanation of CRT is provided by the University of Birmingham:

CRT is a thoughtful and multi-faceted approach to understanding how racism operates across society, including through both individual actions and through structural processes that shape the everyday reality in education, the health service, the criminal justice system and politics.

CRT may provide avenues to interpret and understand how racism is operating in policing organisations and new ways to address and change structures and processes that perpetuate institutional and individual racism.


Bell, D. (1992) Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (1997) ‘Rethinking racism: Toward a structural interpretation’, American Sociological Review, 62(3), pp. 465–480.

Crenshaw, K. (1995) Critical Race Theory: Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: New York Press.

Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J. (2001) Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.

Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J. (2007) ‘Critical race theory and criminal justice’, Humanity & Society, 31(3), pp. 133–145.

Gillborn, D. (2008) Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy? London: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006) ‘From achievement gap to education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools’, Educational Researcher, 35(7), pp. 3–12.

Lander, V. and Gillborn, D. (2020) Critical Race Theory, University of Birmingham. Available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/crre/critical-race-theory/index.aspx (Accessed: 11 February 2021).

Rollock, N. and Gillborn, D. (2011) ‘Critical Race Theory (CRT)’, British Educational Research Association online resource. Available at: https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/critical-race-theory-crt (Accessed: 11 February 2021).

Solorzano, D. and Yosso, T. (2000) ‘Toward a critical race theory of Chicana and Chicano education’, in C. Tejeda, C. Martinez and Z. Leonardo (eds) Demarcating the Border of Chicana(o)/Latina(o) Education. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 38–45.


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