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
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