What Is 'Critical Race Theory' and Why Are Tories Talking About It?

Explaining the government's bizarre opposition to an American academic theory.
Kemi Badenoch MP. Photo: Russell Hart/Alamy Live News

Last week in Parliament, the government’s Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, spoke out against a dangerous ideology. One that is apparently on the lips of all politically-correct lefties, and teachers educating children about racism. Its name? Critical Race Theory (CRT).

According to Badenoch, CRT is “a dangerous trend” and an “ideology” of “victimhood”. “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” Badenoch warned, announcing that “this government stands unequivocally against Critical Race Theory”, rousing supportive shouts of “here here” by her colleagues.


Even in the age of the never-ending culture wars, seeing a government minister stand up in the House of Commons and declare that the British state “stands unequivocally against” a particular philosophical approach was strange. Like finding some old parliamentary footage of William Gladstone shouting “this government stands against German Romanticism”, or Nye Bevan declaring “this government stands against Existentialism”.

The theory has become a talking point among right-wing culture warriors recently, with controversy-monger Laurence Fox making a video warning of its evils. But what is Critical Race Theory? And why has it provoked such a dramatic response from a British government that, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, you might assume had more pressing matters to focus on?

Like many aspects of the UK’s current culture war, CRT is imported from the USA. The academic tradition that declared itself as Critical Race Theory emerged in the 1980s from that most dangerous of Marxist institutions, Harvard Law School.

CRT had important antecedents hailing from Caribbean and African colonial-era scholarship, but the figure often credited as the movement’s founder was the first Black Professor of Law at Harvard, Derrick Bell. Bell was a former civil rights attorney who had spent his early career on the front lines of the fight to overturn racial segregation laws across America.


By the 1980s, Bell surveyed the new, legally post-racial USA and found it lacking. With America’s cities still confining Black communities to ghettos through redlining, and America’s prisons growing ever-larger on a steady diet of Black bodies, Bell decried that “whatever the civil rights law or constitutional provision, blacks gain little protection against one or another form of racial discrimination”.

How could he go on teaching central tenets of legal study, such as “the law is blind” or “everyone is held to the same standard of proof”, when reality suggested otherwise? To overturn material inequality would require more than just legal equality; there would also need to be an analysis of power, history and discourse.

In 1990, Bell put his principles into practice when he famously committed to taking unpaid leave from Harvard until his school overcame its failure to hire a single Black woman, an action that drew the support of the President of the Harvard Law Review at that time, one Barack Obama. Harvard refused to budge, bringing an end to Bell’s historic tenure there. Nevertheless, his academic approach was propelled forward by a conveyor belt of outstanding Black female legal scholars, including Patricia WilliamsCheryl Harris and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is credited with having come up with the name Critical Race Theory.

Over the past few years, CRT has spread beyond the law school and even beyond the academy. But it still remains a relatively marginal social theory, especially in the UK. Even most academics who write on topics such as race, empire or migration in the UK would not define themselves as Critical Race Theorists, myself included. This is often because they maintain some intellectual critique of the CRT tradition – perhaps that is has been too America-focused, or that it has under-appreciated other factors, like political economy.


Any academic theory would expect this kind of criticism. What it wouldn’t expect is for a government minister to declare explicit opposition to it, or for that opposition to be cheered on by the same “free speech” outlets who just a few months ago were defending David Starkey’s right to argue that slavery wasn’t a genocide because “so many damn blacks” survived.

Online, there were some spineless explanations for this contradiction put forward, arguing that Badenoch was technically not banning CRT. Badenoch closed her attack by stating, “Let me be clear: any school that teaches these elements of Critical Race Theory as fact… is breaking the law.” Considering this was the state’s Minister for Equalities threatening legal consequences after just demonising the theory at length, it was hardly an invitation for teachers to bring the insights of CRT into the classroom alongside other ideas.

For conservative Britain, CRT is no longer the writings of Derrick Bell or Cheryl Harris, but a magical, catch-all term to describe any engagements with structural racism, whiteness, blackness, decolonialism, empire, identity, or any reflections on historical or contemporary race relations that might make them uncomfortable. Listening to Badenoch, the safest bet for any teacher who didn’t want to find themselves accused of breaking the law would be to just avoid all discussion of race with their students completely. Perhaps that is the point.