Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

The Tower of Babel: Bridging the Divide between Critical Race Theory and "Mainstream" Civil Rights Scholarship

Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

The Tower of Babel: Bridging the Divide between Critical Race Theory and "Mainstream" Civil Rights Scholarship

Article excerpt

Poor Black people tell stories. I hear their stories daily. I have heard them in the words of a cousin who came dangerously close to losing a daughter to gang warfare. I have heard them in the words of an inmate as he explained just how a Black man from the projects had ended up on death row. I have heard them in the words of a client at the Yale clinic: the poor Black woman who explained how she made ends meet with three children and an AFDC(1) check of less than $500 a month.

Disenfranchised Black people also write poetry. I have heard poems in the words of the aspiring rap artists who frequent my hairdresser's parlor. I have heard poetry in the Negro spirituals that my grandmother sings as she braids my hair.

More privileged Black people tell stories and write poetry too. I have heard stories in the words of an uncle who was unable to buy a home in the suburbs, despite his college education and financial resources.

I too used to tell stories. Now they tell me that I write theory.


Critical race theory challenges the exclusion of voices "from the bottom"(2) in mainstream legal scholarship. Critical race theorists insist "on recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color and our communities of origin in analyzing law and society."(3) As Mari Matsuda describes this project: "From the ... namelessness of the slave, from the broken treaties of the indigenous Americans, the desire to know history from the bottom has forced ... scholars to sources often ignored: journals, poems, oral histories, and stories from their own experiences of life...."(4)

Critical race theorists' use of narrative epitomizes this attempt to include voices "from the bottom."(5) This reliance on narrative is explicitly pragmatic. First, critical race theorists use narrative in a self-conscious effort to include the voices of people of color who have traditionally been excluded from conventionally "appropriate" legal scholarship. Second, the use of narrative challenges the traditional meritocratic paradigm of the academy by attempting to subvert what are viewed as pretenses of "objectivity," "neutrality," "meritocracy," and "color-blindness." To the extent that one writes in the conventional mode, one glorifies these traditional meritocratic standards that were conceptualized in a "raced" world.(6)

The critical race theory "manifesto" might be characterized as follows: We, as people of color, were not there when conventional legal standards were being formulated. Little wonder that these traditional meritocratic standards have worked to exclude us historically, and still work to exclude us. Disenfranchised people of color theorize, but they theorize in different ways. They tell stories. Hear us, and hear us in our own voices. It is only then that you will truly hear us.

The response of the larger academy to this "upstart" movement has been one of decided ambivalence. It bears little resemblance to the reaction of the mainstream academy to the "outsider" movements of previous generations. A case in point is the emergence of the critical legal studies movement (CLS) two decades ago.(7) When CLS first issued its most damning critiques, the academy responded vigorously.(8) Liberal civil rights scholars, who saw themselves as actively involved in challenging legal inequality, began intellectual soul-searching as they struggled to defend their project. Although the gulf between CLS and the mainstream academy has arguably never been bridged, there can be little doubt that mainstream scholars have engaged in a sustained grappling with CLS's critiques. The academy has been pushed to look within.(9)

When it comes to legal scholarship addressing race, by contrast, it is striking that despite the existence of critical race theory for nearly a decade, the response to it has generally been a conversation among those who identify themselves as critical race theorists.(10) There simply has not been the sustained self-examination by traditional civil rights scholars that should result from the powerful critiques that critical race theory has posed to fundamental tenets of the academy. …

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