In the audio clip (available here) from the Impressions of America episode “Politics – Rudy Giuliani, JFK Jr., and Big Bird,” Vaughn gives a succinct explanation of Critical Race Theory, its history, how it is used in historical analysis, and context for how it is being used politically in the current moment during the 2021 Virginia Governor’s race. That audio clip includes the same information written here, but for a visual explanation, this is what Critical Race Theory means.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic theory used to interpret, among other things, history.
History and Foundations of Critical Race Theory
CRT began as a legal theory in the 1970s and 80s to provide an alternative lens within United States legal scholarship through which experts could read the law with African American and other minority communities’ experiences at the forefront. CRT was proposed as an alternative to conservative readings of the law and liberal Critical Legal Studies which took a similar approach but used social and economic class as its lens.
Within CRT, “racism” is defined as the social structural disadvantages built into the systems of governance and society, specifically applied to the United States. Racism, studies employing Critical Race Theory, is not defined as the individual instances of overt racism. Instead, as David Gillborn and Gloria Ladson-Billings explain, “CRT views racism as including actions, beliefs, and policies that are much more extensive and subtle than crude and obvious forms of race discrimination. Much CRT focuses on the complex and hidden processes that have the effect of discriminating regardless of their stated intent.”
The core tenets of Critical Race Theory are laid out in a 1993 piece by Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw:
- CRT recognizes that racism is endemic to American life.
- CRT expresses skepticism toward dominant legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, colour-blindness, and meritocracy.
- CRT challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law.
- CRT insists on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of colour.
- CRT is interdisciplinary and eclectic.
- CRT works toward the end of eliminating racial oppression as part of the broader goal of ending all forms of oppression.
Critical Race Theory was ultimately created as a way of viewing and interpreting the law to specifically understand how the US legal system is disadvantageous to non-White citizens of the US by design.
The theory expanded internationally and became interdisciplinary, as other social sciences began employing and adapting CRT for their own scholarship. Sociology, political science, education, and history are only some of the social sciences that use CRT as a theoretical framework.
How Theory Is Applied in Historical Scholarship
In the field of academic history, historians at graduate school level and above use theoretical frameworks for analysing history. Theoretical frameworks offer a vantage point to examine (or more frequently, re-examine) areas of history and historical subjects from a new perspective.
It should be noted clearly that theory is a higher education tool and not something that is taught to or applied to primary and secondary education curricula. Students in elementary and high schools are not learning Critical Race Theory.
Many history programs in universities do not even teach theory or theoretical foundations until a Master’s or PhD level.
When applying an academic theory, there are many different approaches a historian can take. Feminist theory might look at history from the perspective of women; gender theory might look at how gender influences a moment in history; Marxist theory might look at how class dynamics impact history.
The theory a historian aligns with is not necessarily their worldview; that is, a Marxist historian is not necessarily a political Marxist. Politics and academic theoretical foundation do not have to align for the historian to employ a theory correctly.
An Example of Theory Applied to Historical Analysis
Vaughn studies Cold War Christmas films for subversive messaging. She uses Marxist theories (specifically Gramscian and Althusserian) to look at the structures and superstructures within society, the ideological state apparatuses that have control over public messaging.
Note: This last sentence looks complex and may mean nothing to someone who is not a Marxist historian. That is because Marxist cultural theories are used in the highly specialised field of academic cultural history, similarly to how Critical Race Theory is used in highly specialised circles of academic history.
What it means to look at ideological state apparatuses and their control is to look at the ways in which messages are disseminated to a population in a Western society. These modes of messaging may be through public schools, churches, news media outlets, popular culture outlets, or as Vaughn studies, the film industry. These industries and outlets are operated by a central source and influenced by the people in a society with the most control, frequently the wealthy or the government.
This derivation is to explain how three different theories can be applied to Vaughn’s work:
“Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 and was the subject of a 1947 FBI report for allegedly communist undertones. The film depicts a nearly all-white cast and was marketed as a romantic love story despite the overarching tone and message being much darker concerning a small-town banker in a financial crisis against the town’s wealthy miser.” This sentence is an example of a straightforward description of It’s a Wonderful Life that could be read in any low-level history textbook.
Advanced historical scholarship looks at those facts about the film and applies theoretical frameworks to them.
A Marxist critique from Vaughn’s dissertation would analyse It’s a Wonderful Life like this:
“The FBI alleges communist undertones in It’s a Wonderful Life; however, the film has an overtly pro-capitalist message, pitting two bankers against each other and arguing for a more compassionate form of capitalism that helps the townspeople provide for themselves and their families. This messaging may have resonated with a post-Depression and post-WWII audience who may have had a lasting distrust of the banks and government’s ability to ensure financial safety.”
A Feminist critique:
“It’s a Wonderful Life’s true hero is George’s wife, Mary. Mary saves the day by subverting the roles of a traditional post-war woman and displaying financial independence and initiative to help her husband throughout the film, thereby making the film a love story predominantly and Mary a progressive feminist figure for the early Cold War period.”
A Critical Race Theoretical critique:
“It’s a Wonderful Life depicts townspeople and immigrants receiving help from the local financial institutions; however, only one black character is featured in the film, the Baileys’ maid, Annie. Annie is relegated to a servile role, as was common in the period, and she is never shown receiving the same aid other residents in the town are given. The film reflects Hollywood’s cultural views towards African Americans in the immediate post-war period by specifically having a black character in a role of servitude and comedic relief.”
The examples show how theory is applied to a basic fact in higher level historical analysis. None of these examples of critiques are things that would be used in an elementary or high school curriculum or textbook.
Critical Race Theory is not something to be feared or politicised in the ways it is at the current moment. It is a lens to view history through and it is not new. It is a theory historians have been working with for 30-40 years and it is part of the reason we have had advancements in historical scholarship in those decades, as all of academic history is built on shifting perspectives to re-analyse the past.
Gillborn, D., & Ladson-Billings, G. (2019). Critical Race Theory. In P. Atkinson, S. Delamont, A. Cernat, J.W. Sakshaug, & R.A. Williams (Eds.), SAGE Research Methods Foundations. https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781526421036764633
Lawrence, C. R., III, Matsuda, M. J., Delgado, R., & Crenshaw, K. W. (1993). Introduction. In M.
J. Matsuda III, C. R. Lawrence, R. Delgado, & K. W. Crenshaw (Eds.), Words that wound: Critical race theory, assaultive speech, and the first amendment. (pp. 1–15). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.