Roll over Beethoven*: "A Critical Examination of Recent Writing about Race"

By Johnson, Kevin R. | Texas Law Review, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Roll over Beethoven*: "A Critical Examination of Recent Writing about Race"


Johnson, Kevin R., Texas Law Review


I. Introduction

Richard Delgado, an influential civil rights scholar, has written foundational work on hate speech,1 storytelling in legal scholarship,2 and countless other areas of civil rights law.3 One of the founders of Critical Race Theory,4 Delgado's award-winning series of narratives-the Rodrigo Chronicles-have been published in some of the most prestigious law reviews in the country5 and several well-received books.6

To borrow from a now-dated advertising jingle, when Richard Delgado talks, people listen. Delgado recently published a book review essay in the Texas Law Review criticizing the current direction of Critical Race Theory (CRT).7 Many scholars unquestionably will pay attention, especially because Delgado, one of the founders of CRT, questions its scholarly direction.8

As the starting point for his criticism, Delgado reviews Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory, edited by Francisco Valdes, Jerome McCristal Gulp, and Angela P. Harris.9 The volume consists primarily of papers and speeches presented at the Critical Race Theory Conference at Yale Law School in 1997, an important event commemorating CRT's tenth anniversary. Among the contributors to Crossroads are influential CRT scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Charles Lawrence III, Mari Matsuda, and many others.

Delgado laments CRT's current focus, which he characterizes as "idealist," and too much talk of discourse about inequality, as opposed to the "materialist," and analysis of the power disparities contributing to racial injustice.10 Crossroads, to Delgado, devotes too much to the ideal and, put simply, is filled with discourse about discourse.11

As is customary of his scholarship, Delgado's commentary is powerfully argued and clearly written. Part of the essay, however, reminds me of the father who hates the music of his teenager; the "generation gap" as it is often called, is difficult to avoid. We all experience change as unsettling. Nonetheless, as CRT's new directions suggest, new approaches to old problems are part and parcel of intellectual growth. Growing pains can be expected in a new and constantly evolving field like CRT.

II. The Direction of Critical Race Theory

Delgado makes important points concerning the distinct strands of CRT analysis. He may be right that critical scholars should more fully engage the central social justice issues of modern times. In my estimation, however, Delgado overstates the distinction between ideal and material forms of discourse.12 In so doing, Delgado excessively criticizes CRT's direction and fails to acknowledge the emerging critical scholarship that analyzes current racial justice issues.

A. The Balance of CRT Analysis

Delgado's cogent analysis of CRT offers much food for thought. He posits a bright-line distinction between the materialist and idealist approaches, with Crossroads constituting "a major, implicit statement in favor of discourse analysis and against the materialist/realist approaches of the movement's founding figures."13 Delgado further states that CRT, "after a promising beginning, began to focus almost exclusively on discourse at the expense of power, history, and similar material determinants of minority-group fortunes."14

Delgado ultimately must be concerned about the balance of CRT scholarship rather than rejecting outright the importance of discursive analysis. The deep interrelationship between the ideal and material analysis of racial subordination requires the study of both, as well as how they are connected.15 Idealist discourse helps us understand how society rationalizes racial subordination that power disparities create. A simple example makes this point. Poor education and employment opportunities for racial minorities result in economic inequality, with many whites materially benefiting. Consequently, many whites have a vested interest in the economic status quo. Sociological, psychological, and other explanations help us appreciate how economic inequality translates into domestic violence, substance abuse, and crime. …

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