Kimberle Williams Crenshaw: The Making of a Critical Race Theorist.
WASHINGTON -- Kimberle Williams Crenshaw was literally an armchair activist in the 1960s; she had no choice, she was only 10.
"I was an avid television watcher, so I watched the civil rights movement on TV," says Crenshaw, an effervescent 35. "I couldn't be there, but at least I could experience it through television. I was just a kid at the time," adds the UCLA law professor and one of the nation's youngest and leading scholars on critical race theory -- a still evolving field of legal analysis that maintains that law plays a significant role in creating racial hierarchies.
The growing interest in critical race theory from outside the legal community is the impetus for a book she is editing titled, "Critical Race Theory: Key Documents that Shaped the Movement." To be published later this year by New Press, the book is a collection of the founding documents of critical race theory.
"We are finding increasingly that people and scholars outside of the law are quite interested in the issues of race and law," says Crenshaw. "Law is clearly becoming an arena where the basic fundamental tensions about race and society are being played out."
She says the recent flurry of [U.S. Supreme Court] decisions on affirmative action are cases in point. "We've been writing and predicting some of the social and legal developments of the past year -- affirmative action cases, the roll-back of most of the Great Society programs and civil rights policy.
"Cultural studies people, historians, economists, sociologists...all of them are starting to look increasingly to legal scholarship to get some sense of how race has traditionally been debated and critiqued.
"Unfortunately most of these materials are contained in law review articles, and a lot of scholars who aren't in the law don't have access to these publications." She says the "lightly edited" collection will offer readers such things as critiques of legal doctrine from a critical race perspective, debates between critical race theorists and liberal scholars and readings on some contemporary issues like post-modernism and identity politics or the intersection of race and gender."
To hear Crenshaw's mother tell it, her daughter's stellar legal career and her activism in and out of the classroom, was spawned the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
King's death was a time for mourning and reflection in her Canton, Ohio neighborhood. On that April afternoon in 1968, Crenshaw was among a group of African-American children who were rounded up by parents and community leaders and assembled in the local school hall for the purpose of sharing what they knew about the life of the late great civil rights leader.
"What they weren't anticipating was that a lot of kids didn't know who Martin Luther King was. They kept trying to get somebody to say something," recalls Crenshaw. She was the one.
Just what it was she said about King that day or how she said it, has been long forgotten, but she does fondly remember her mother's excitement and the neighbors' calls that ensued.
"By the time I had gotten home from the [King] assembly, neighbors had already called my mother saying, `Your daughter was talking up a storm today,'" says Crenshaw, giggling wildly as the memories came flooding back.
"My mother likes to say that's where it really began for me, but it was really with my parents and their parents who shaped our family's tradition of thinking politically about being African American."
Years later, Crenshaw would count Judge A. Leon Higginbotham -- now a Harvard University law professor -- and Derrick Bell -- now at New York University -- both legal luminaries and pioneers in the academy, among those who influenced her scholarship and activism.
"They are people who represented some of the earliest attempts to think about the relationship between law and race as an ongoing phenomenon, not something that was limited to some historical period in the past. And to think about how the law affects the lives of Black people, real people, rather than just talking about race in abstract terms or talking about civil rights laws in terms of balancing civil rights laws with other values in society like privacy, federalism or any other number of interests that traditional (by traditional I mean white) civil rights scholars, used to think about."
When Crenshaw entered Harvard Law School in 1981, she did so in part because of Bell, the institution's first African-American faculty member. But by the time she arrived, Bell had just resigned for a second time in protest over what he called the institution's racially discriminatory hiring practices and its inability to attract Black female professors to the faculty.
Bell had been the only professor at Harvard teaching a course on race and the law, and when he left, Crenshaw and a handful of other African-American law students felt the void.
"We, as students of color, started asking administrators what they were planning to do because there was nothing in the curriculum that addressed the relationship between race and the law...."
Harvard Law administrators responded to the students' question with questions: "What is it that is so special about race and law that you have to have a course that examines it? Why can't you get what you need to learn from taking a combination of constitutional law, legal aid placement and some other course on criminal procedure?" recalls Crenshaw, one of the student organizers.
Activist with a Cause
"The administration's response to us was the lightening rod and in some ways the focal point for the actual genesis of critical race theory," says Crenshaw. The fact that Harvard officials didn't see "race as a particular area of law, or how race shapes the law in an ongoing way, got us thinking about how do we articulate that this is important and that law schools should include the study of race and law into the curriculum."
Instead of the semester-long course the students demanded, they were offered a special three-week session on civil rights law. That was not enough. What they actually took was a course of study they devised with the help of "sympathetic faculty members."
Crenshaw and her classmates pooled their resources, solicited funds from minority student organizations, and scoured the country for 12 nationally known law scholars of color they invited to the campus to teach and lead discussions on chapters found in Bell's book, "Race, Racism in American Law." Richard Delgado, Linda Green and Neil Gotanda were among the law professors enlisted.
Coordinating the "alternative course" served as yet another milestone for Crenshaw. Efforts to transform Harvard's "traditional" legal curriculum created the impetus to look at race in "critical terms, not simply in liberal terms," Crenshaw contends.
Critical race theory is now an umbrella term for many different genres of race scholarship and subject matters. There are now even two or three generations of critical race scholars who attend workshops and critical race theory conferences.
Crenshaw and her contemporaries who initiated early workshops on critical race theory have begun writing more about race and popular social issues, while others have gone on to specialize in different intersections.
"Some of the originators [of critical race theory] are organizing Black gay and lesbian conferences, some edit books and others spend a lot of time mentoring and bringing in new generations of students to provide the same kind of encouragement that the older generation got from the few people who were around then....
"I write about race and gender," says Crenshaw. "A lot of my energy is focused on taking some of the concepts of critical race theory and applying them to gender issues where Black women's issues are being discussed."
Opposing Thomas, Supporting Anita
When, in 1991, Crenshaw agreed to assist the legal team representing University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill in the Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas for a seat in the U.S. Supreme Court -- in which Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment -- she knew that "any Black woman who was raising an issue like this was going to face obstacles that no other woman or person of color was going to have to face."
During the hearings, Crenshaw says she "made no bones about the fact that I was initially opposed to Clarence Thomas and felt overall that the African-American community was being duped into supporting someone simply because of their racial identity. If the same person [Clarence Thomas] nominated were of a different race, but the same politics, the Black community would have been unanimous in opposing him. I saw the whole thing as the manipulation of Black solidarity."
Initially, says Crenshaw, "We challenged him, while at the same time hoped that he'd come around," But now, she says, "It's fairly clear that his [Clarence Thomas] history has continued. His has been the fifth vote that has set us [African Americans] back in any number of ways.
"I'm hoping that the African-American intellectual community and political community can use this as an opportunity to rethink the practice of who we embrace and who we don't."
Photo (Kimberle Williams Crenshaw)…