Kimberle Williams Crenshaw: The Making of a Critical Race Theorist

By Hawkins, B. Denise | Black Issues in Higher Education, August 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw: The Making of a Critical Race Theorist


Hawkins, B. Denise, Black Issues in Higher Education


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."

Family Values

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.

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