In the past several months, multiple state legislatures have made moves to ban critical race theory — the latest hot-button issue in contemporary American politics — from their public schools. Activists have opined that critical race theory is either the cure for racial injustice in America or the most dangerous force threatening our democracy.
Plenty of writers have explained the main tenets of the theory, some in great detail. But where did it come from? How did an obscure academic theory come to dominate the national political conversation in only a few years?
The answer to these questions lies in the origins of the theory. Critical race theory emerged from one of America’s foremost institutions: Harvard University. Tracing the history of critical race theory reveals just how intimately connected it is with America’s most prestigious university.
In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legal scholars grappled with how the sweeping legislation would affect America’s racial struggles. By the 1970s, it was clear that anti-discrimination law and racial integration had not fully healed the nation’s race relations. This frustrated many civil rights advocates, who after Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968 lacked a moral lodestar to underpin their faith in American democracy to solve racial problems.
The Road Leads Back to Harvard
Borrowing from Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who posited a theory of “cultural hegemony” by the capitalist ruling class, a group of Ivy League law professors developed a school of thought called “critical legal studies,” synthesizing Gramsci’s theory of hegemony with racial classification. The most important thinkers of the group of critical legal theorists were all Harvard Law professors: Derrick Bell, Roberto Unger, Duncan Kennedy, and Morton Horwitz.
The main tenets of the philosophy included that justice is inherently subjective, the law is nothing but a political tool, and the system will only ever provide good outcomes for the wealthy and privileged. Their proposed solution was to overthrow Western liberal society. To this point, Unger wrote:
Liberalism must be seen all of a piece, not just as a set of doctrines about the disposition of power and wealth, but as a metaphysical conception of the mind and society. Only then can its true nature be understood, and its secret empire overthrown.
According to Furman University Professor of Education Dr. Michael Jennings, critical race theory“came directly out of law at Harvard, which Bell was a major part of.” In 1973, Bell authored a textbook entitled “Race, Racism, and American Law,” in which he contended the American legal system was implicitly racist and must be deconstructed to bring about racial equity. He used the textbook in his law classes, teaching race essentialism and an inchoate critical race theory to his Harvard law students for decades.
The Early Critical Race Theory Founders
Bell’s extreme pessimism about the “realities” of American law led him to support radical changes to legal theory and political activism. These early sentiments are now reflected in modern critical theory’s insistence that all aspects of society be interpreted within its framework.
Following the evidence reveals critical legal studies is the linchpin to understanding the origin of critical race theory. Former Harvard Law student and future Columbia Law professor Kimberle Crenshaw is widely recognized as the coiner of the term “critical race theory.”
The entire introduction of Crenshaw’s landmark text, “Critical Race Theory: the Key Writings that Formed the Movement,” is dedicated to explaining how and why critical race theory emerged from the critical legal studies movement at Harvard. Crenshaw’s introduction asserts that one must recognize “the centrality of Bell’s coursebook and his opposition to the traditional liberal approach to racism for the eventual development of the Critical Race Theory movement.”
In 1980, Bell left Harvard. His students demanded that his replacement also be black; Harvard replied there were no African-American applicants with sufficient credentials. In response, students organized a protest and formulated an “Alternative Course” that was only taught by black professors, portending today’s campus movement for black American-only professorships, clubs, and graduations.
Crenshaw called this protest one of the seminal moments in critical race theory. Other founders were highly involved: Mari Matsuda attended the protests, Richard Delgado taught at them, and Crenshaw was one of the primary student organizers (she was a Harvard Law student at the time).
Matsuda, at the time also a Harvard Law student, went on to argue that Asian Americans must join the black American battle against the “racial bourgeoisie,” that is, white Americans. In other words, using the ideology she and the other critical race theory progenitors helped develop while at Harvard, Matsuda accused white people of being an oppressor class and called for their overthrow within a Marxist framework.
Crenshaw went on to be a law professor at Columbia and the University of California at Los Angeles, while Matsuda has since become one of the most cited legal scholars in the country, with judges regularly quoting her work. Delgado took his teachings to the University of Colorado, then onto the University of Alabama Law School, where he still teaches. This framework has now disseminated across the country and become the standard for today’s critical race activism in our public schools and universities.
These early founders were all affiliated with Harvard, the most prestigious and culturally powerful university in the country. Some were professors, some students, some visitors who came to protest.
A Dangerous Combination
Why is this important? Because we have to note that critical race theory is the brainchild not of grassroots upswell, but Northeastern managerial elites. Critical race theory gained steam at Harvard Law, and married into the managerial attitudes of its neighbor Harvard Business School, which sought to eliminate inefficiencies in human relations by grouping and managing.
Managerialism at Harvard preached “a largely anonymous ‘technostructure’ of business leaders [that] could dictate to consumers what to buy and, implicitly, how to live.” The politically entrepreneurial critical race theorists combined that with grouping people by race and formed the basis of a managerial racialism that grouped people into privileged and oppressed classes, each with specific actions of racial solidarity or repentance to perform.
Harvard’s intertwinement with critical race theory continues to the present day. This is most clearly expressed in Harvard’s discrimination against Asian applicants, the subject of a lawsuit against the school. According to critical race theory, any racial inequity is evidence of systemic racism. Thus, the higher percentage of Asian Americans in the student body compared to the overall U.S. population must be “fixed” by discriminating against Asian-American applicants on the basis of race.
This behavior flies in the face of what most Americans would consider fair. Most people, in fact, would call it racist to deny students admission because of their race. It is only by the twisted, neo-Marxist logic of critical race theory that such discrimination becomes acceptable.
Because racial discrimination is still unpalatable to most Americans, Harvard hides behind its four centuries of academic excellence and cultural position as the most prestigious university in the world. Racism is what other, “low class” people do, not Harvard — even when their admissions process is blatantly racist.
Cracks are already showing in this defense, however. As far back as 1985, conservative professors were already worried that Harvard’s devotion to critical theory was destroying the school’s “scholarly eminence,” and that its brand was quickly becoming a “wasting asset.”
It’s Time to Reconsider Harvard
Harvard’s current prestige is the result of centuries of dedication to excellence at the highest level, but its responsibility for disseminating toxic critical race theory ideology threatens its reputation as the center of excellence in America and the world.
Harvard is still where some of the best and brightest go to be educated, and from there to have a tremendous effect on society. But so long as Harvard continues to implement policies based on critical race theory, their brand and its underlying excellence will continue to decline until it is clear they are simply riding upon the meritocratic efforts of their forebears. Once this becomes more fully apparent, it will no longer be possible for them to justify their ongoing discrimination against Asian Americans and their managerialism over race in America.
Ideas have consequences. Critical race theory is an idea with a demonstrated ability to cause racial disunity and discrimination. From teaching white children that they’re irredeemably racist to discriminating against Asian Americans in college admissions to force racial equity, critical theory in practice hurts Americans of all skin colors.
As the birthplace of the idea, Harvard’s elite culture has engendered the ill effects of critical race theory on society today. Benjamin Franklin said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Will critical race theory be the bad deed that will stain Harvard’s reputation forever?