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Race Ethnicity and Education
Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2005, pp. 115–119
The evolving role of critical race theory
in educational scholarship
Gloria Ladson-Billings*
University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
[email protected]
Ltd (online)
In 1994 the legal scholarship movement, critical race theory (CRT), was introduced in education.
Since that time, a variety of scholars have taken up CRT as a way to analyze and critique educational
research and practice. In this brief summary the author addresses the themes of the articles found
in this issue and offers words of encouragement to a new generation of scholars who see CRT as a
valuable tool for making sense of persistent racial inequities in US schools.
The articles that comprise this issue come from a symposium held at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in April 2004. The
title of the session was ‘And we are still not saved’. This title has two sources. One
source is critical race theory (CRT) legal scholar, Derrick Bell (1992), who used it in
the title of his book on the ‘elusive quest for racial justice’. The other source is its true
source—the Biblical passage from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 8: 20) who mourned for
his people’s lack of deliverance with the words, ‘The harvest is past, the summer is
ended, and we are not saved’. Bell used this scriptural passage because he felt it
appropriately described the plight of people of colour, particularly African-American
people, in this present age.
The session organizers amended the title to say, ‘And we are still not saved’ as an
indicator of the limited progress that we have made in educational equity since William
Tate and I raised the issue of critical race theory in education 10 years ago at AERA
and subsequently in a paper published in Teachers College Record (1995). It seems hard
to believe that a decade has gone by since the term ‘critical race theory’ was introduced
into educational scholarship and at the same time a very appropriate interval at which
to take stock of where we are.
The articles in this issue take different approaches to explain where we are and
where we need to go. Two articles address the state of the literature to this point.
*University of Wisconsin-Madison, 210 N. Mills Street, Teacher Education Building, Madison, WI
53705, USA. Email: [email protected]
ISSN 1361-3324 (print)/ISSN 1470-109X (online)/05/010115–05
© 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/1361332052000341024
116 G. Ladson-Billings
Another article offers an application of the theory and two represent extensions of
critical race theory concepts.
In her article, Yosso reasserts the significance of race in our social science
discourse and pushes us to move past black/white binaries. This work reminds me of
more complex renderings of race such as that in Howard Winant’s (2001) work
(particularly, The world is a ghetto: race and democracy since World War II) that articulates the race-making project in modernity and provides an important historical and
international context in which to understand our present racial predicament. I find
Yosso’s CRT family tree intriguing but caution against the construction of such
lineages because of the possibility of unsubstantiated alliances or unintended omissions. I am reminded that conversations about the critical theory project acknowledge the work of the Frankfurt School but omit DuBois, who was an intellectual
contemporary of the members of the Frankfurt School who not only asked similar
questions but also was studying in Germany at the same moment these critical
formulations were emerging.
It is also important to investigate the genealogy of the black/white binaries. Some
of the demographic literature (Lee, 1993) indicate that in 1890, when question four
(‘what is your race?’) was first included in the census, there were almost 16 racial categories ranging from White to Black. There were categories for degrees of Blackness
such as ‘mulatto’, ‘quadroon’, and ‘octoroon’. Over the more than 100 year history
of the question on the census form the two stable categories have been Black and
White and while other groups may not have been able to take full advantage of the
privilege of whiteness, there are historical instances where they have been categorized
as such.
Asian Indians were phenotypically determined to be White. In the Lemon Grove
School District Incident, Mexican American parents won their suit against having
their children sent to a segregated school because they were categorized as White,
and for a short time the Cherokee Indians were considered White as they worked
hard to assimilate into US society. So the real issue is not necessarily the black/white
binary as much as it is the way everyone regardless of his/her declared racial and
ethnic identity is positioned in relation to Whiteness. Indeed, during his US Presidential administration Bill Clinton’s class position made his grip on Whiteness quite
tenuous. Scholars like Vijay Prashad (2001) in his book, Everybody was Kung fu fighting: Afro-Asian connections and the myth of cultural purity, challenge the hegemony of
White racial discourses and help us reorganize our discourses from ‘us versus them’
to a look at both symbolic and structural barriers that are constructed as a result of
White supremacist discourses.
In addition to tracing the lineage of CRT, Yosso also offers an articulation of
cultural capital that departs from tradition. I appreciate Yosso’s re-articulation of
Bourdieu’s (in Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990) notion of cultural capital to include the
notion of ‘funds of knowledge’ found in Moll’s (in Gonzales et al., 2004) and other
Latino scholars work and encourage them not be naïve about the way capital can be
deployed as a way to create hierarchy and inequity, i.e., the institutions of a capitalist and White supremacist society will happily allow you to have your new forms of
Evolving role of critical race theory 117
capital as long as they do not infringe on their old established ones. More insidious,
they will appropriate your forms of capital and repackage them to produce their
forms. A great example of this is the Coca Cola commercial airing on US television
where a brown-skinned young man comes to his apartment and finds a plate with
empañadas and Coke, ostensibly from his mother. A few minutes later as he is
finishing the treat, his Black roommate arrives and finds a note in the kitchen to
Tito from Mom and is furious that his roommate ate his homemade treat. The
media in this instance is playing on our immediate tendency to separate categories
of Latino-ness from categories of Blackness as a ‘twist’ in the commercial—i.e., the
Black person could not be the Latino person.
The Dixson and Rousseau article is a review of the literature in critical race theory
that speaks directly to CRT in education. What I find particularly appealing about
this review is that it is genealogical and synthetic. Perhaps it is my graduate adviser
bias but I am pleased to see a review where the literature is in conversation with itself.
Too often, we merely see a litany of work in an area without any type of scholarly integration. This synthetic approach helps the reader understand how this project has
emerged over the last 10 years in education. Because the literature is relatively thin in
the field, Dixson and Rousseau have the opportunity to provide a more robust treatment of what has happened over the past decade. Like Yosso, Dixson and Rousseau
present their review through a set of generally agreed upon features of CRT. Their
work is a more traditional search of the literature that indicates the field is still in its
infancy in education (perhaps because of my stern warning to folks in education to
proceed with caution). Their article does a good job of pulling at thematic strands and
highlights Crenshaw’s (1988) notion of restricted and expansive views of equality
(which is one of the more under developed themes of CRT in education). This is
particularly timely as we look at commemorations of landmark US legal decisions of
Brown vs Board of Education and Lau vs Nichols, that addressed school segregation and
bilingual education, respectively.
Dixson and Rousseau also pay attention to the storytelling aspect of CRT with their
opening vignette. I sometimes worry that scholars who are attracted to CRT focus on
storytelling to the exclusion of the central ideas such stories purport to illustrate. Thus
I clamour for richer, more detailed stories that place our stories in more robust and
powerful contexts. For example, Patricia Williams’ (1991) discussion of finding the
bill of sale for her enslaved great grandmother is a powerful story to set up the work
of students in a contracts law course. The point here is not the titillation of the story
but rather than way notions of contracts are not sterile or neutral. They are a part of
larger social contexts that can be used to exploit one person or group while simultaneously advantaging another.
Chapman’s article is an application of CRT that was probably easier to achieve since
she looked directly at the implementation of a legal ruling through a CRT lens. In an
earlier work Bell (1983) himself argued that if Brown were to be heard today, it would
be important not just for social science to weigh in on the deleterious effect of school
segregation, but also for educators to be an integral part of the conversation. Chapman
outlines just how intransigent the racial rhetoric is around school desegregation and
118 G. Ladson-Billings
takes us through the vicissitudes of the Rockford School desegregation fight. We see
desegregation from Brown to Milliken to Dowell in one school district and begin to
understand the degree to which Whites will go to avoid school desegregation.
In the Donnor article we have an extension of CRT with a new concept—educational
malpractice. This term is interesting because it raises a whole set of questions about
the professionalization of teaching. If teachers held similar professional status as
doctors, lawyers, architects or accountants they could be held libel for malpractice.
However, scholars of the profession, like Lortie, argue that teaching remains a semiprofession and not amenable to the professional standards found in other fields.
Donnor suggests that what is happening to African-American football scholarship
student athletes constitutes educational malpractice, or perhaps a breach of contract.
This legal discourse works well with the CRT framework and indeed, if we consider
schools as institutions who promise certain knowledge and skills—literacy, numeracy,
civic competency, vocational preparation—then a kind of contract is set forth. In public
school settings the students are entitled to this knowledge and skill regardless of
personal and cultural resources. In the case of elite college athletes, the contract is even
more explicit. By virtue of NCAA rules, athletes are offered a tender in exchange for
their athletic services. The athlete promises to play by the rules, participate in practices
and team meetings, and perform competitively. The school promises to pay for tuition,
fees, books, meals during the season, athletic gear and medical insurance. However,
two regular practices—steering student athletes into easy courses that fail to yield a
degree or other marketable post competition skills and recruiting students who are
marginally prepared for college level courses—can be construed as malpractice. The
Donnor article looks at the roots of this process by calling forth the voices of athletes
and their understandings of how their pre-collegiate education failed to prepare them
to take advantage of the contractual offerings of the college or university.
While Donnor examines the implied contractual relationship between scholarship
athletes and colleges, I might push his implication to the pre-collegiate level to ask
what is the nature of the implied contract between citizens and their schools in democratic nations? Is there some minimal level of educational competency that public
support of schools should legally expect? How might we enforce these contracts?
What sanctions are available to citizens when schools fail to live up to their end of the
contract? What recompense should students who fail to receive an education reasonably expect?
The Duncan article is also an extension of CRT and represents a fresh cut on what
Tate and I originally proposed. In his use of allochronism and coevalness he incorporates the anthropological literature into the CRT race project in new and exciting
ways. In particular, he points to the allochronic discourses present in both historical
and contemporary education. In this way, Duncan provides a lens through which to
understand the role of time in the construction of educational inequity. While
Duncan points to the way school creates race for everyone, regardless of racial and
ethnic affiliation, I argue that race is one of those concepts that is already well established before students even get to school. Duncan’s assertion is not rejected however
by my argument. Actually, Duncan demonstrates how schools take advantage of this
Evolving role of critical race theory 119
pre-school establishment to complete its race-making project. The power of the
Duncan article lay in its intellectual daring and synchronic rendering of the economic,
social, cultural, political and educational moment in which Black students find themselves.
The articles that comprised this issue come from a symposium that states ‘we are
still not saved’, the paraphrase from the prophet Jeremiah, but I would point us
toward Pauline pronouncements that suggest ‘we have this treasure in earthen
vessels’ (2 Cor. 4: 7), that is, CRT is a theoretical treasure—a new scholarly covenant,
if you will, that we as scholars are still parsing and moving toward new exegesis. And
about that, somebody ought to say ‘Amen’.
Bell, D. (1983) Time for teachers: putting educators back into the Brown remedy, The Journal of
Negro Education, 52(3), 290–301.
Bell, D. (1992) And we are not saved: the elusive quest for racial justice (New York, Basic Books).
Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. (1990) Reproduction in education, society and culture (Thousand Oaks,
CA, Sage).
Crenshaw, K. W. (1988) Race, reform and retrenchment: transformation and legitimation in
antidiscrimination law, Harvard Law Review, 101, 1331–1387.
Gonzales, N., Moll, C. & Amanti, C. (2004) Funds of knowledge: theorizing practices in households
and classrooms (Mawah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum).
Ladson-Billings, G. & Tate, W. F. (1995) Toward a critical race theory of education, Teachers
College Record, 97, 47–68.
Lee, S. M. (1993) Racial classification in the US census: 1890–1990, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 16,
Lortie, D. (1975) School teacher (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).
Prashad, V. (2001) Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: Afro-Asian connections and the myth of cultural
purity (New York, Beacon Press).
Williams, P. (1991) The alchemy of race and rights: diary of a law professor (Cambridge, MA,
Harvard University Press).
Winant, H. (2001) The world is a ghetto: race and democracy since World War II (New York, Basic

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