A Ranking of Introductory Critical Race Theory Books

A Ranking of Introductory Critical Race Theory Books

This year, Critical Race Theory (CRT) was declared anti-American propaganda, but if you know the history of CRT, you know that this perception has followed the theory since its beginnings.

For some, recent soundbites about CRT have introduced them to the theory. But, unlike the way current leadership has used CRT, CRT does not describe any general theory of race. Nor does it mean anti-bias or microaggression training. It also doesn’t refer to ideas of anti-racism or discussions of white privilege. CRT is a specific theory with a specific history. In this post, I describe the theory and rank some of its introductory texts.

Critical Race Theory: A Summary

Critical Race Theory is a distinct theoretical framework that emerged primarily out of law in the 1980s. These scholars—Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, Neil Gotanda, and many others—critiqued Critical Legal Studies (CLS) and liberal discourse about race. Many felt that CLS, which did critique the neutrality of the law, didn’t pay enough attention to race. In other words, CLS scholarship acknowledged that the U.S. legal system wasn’t neutral, but the arguments didn’t focus on how the legal system was and is actively involved in the creation and maintenance of race and racial hierarchy. CRT scholars centralized race in their critique of U.S. law and other institutions, such as education and the criminal justice system.

Early CRT scholars’ critiques also addressed common understandings of race in a post-Civil Rights era. After the Civil Rights Movement, many people thought racism was no longer an issue and that race simply didn’t matter anymore. In fact, talking about race was now the problem. CRT scholar-activists responded to these ideas, arguing that race was still a problem in the U.S.—some even arguing that race will always be a problem.

As scholars wrote around these themes and began to meet, CRT eventually came together as a distinct theory of race. This theory has been taken up across social sciences in education, sociology, and in my discipline, communication, to name a few. The theory says a lot of things about race, like:

(1)   Race is a social construction. It’s not natural or biological, but something humans made.

(2)   Racism is everyday, normal stuff in the world, and even our supposedly “neutral” institutions like law have actively worked to fabricate race and worked against the interests of people of color.

(3)   Hallmarks of racial progress usually occur through interest-convergence, which is the idea that progress happens when the interests of White people and the state suddenly converge with the interests of people of color, like in Brown v Board of Education.

(4)   Colorblindness (or saying you can’t see race) won’t fix racism, and neither will declaring that we’re now postracial, or beyond race.

(5)   People of color, when informed by their experiences of oppression, speak with a different perspective and a distinct voice, so we should listen to them.

(6)   Context matters when seeking to understand race, racism, and oppression, because these things shift and change over time and across space.

(7)   Storytelling and narrative are powerful tools for understanding the lived experiences of people of color.

Overall, CRT works toward dismantling white supremacy, enacting social justice, and liberating people from racial oppression and related oppressions.

So, you can see why CRT is often thrown under the bus when debates about race arise. It doesn’t seem particularly cheery, and it takes an active stance against racist U.S. institutions. Everything people are saying about CRT today is what people were saying as it emerged 40 years ago.

It may be difficult to understand where to start learning about this theory. I’m refreshing my own knowledge of CRT for my doctoral comprehensive exams, so I’m offering my ranking of 4 CRT books. My ranking is based on how enthusiastically I’d recommend these as introductions to CRT.

4. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic)

This book is what it says it is—an introduction to CRT. It has a nifty glossary with some key definitions, and it reviews the major themes across CRT as a theoretical lens. Delgado and Stefancic recount a brief history of the theory, some of CRT’s major concepts, and its uses today. This book is at the bottom of my list because it oversimplifies a lot of the concepts and conversations involved in CRT. I believe this takes away the teeth of the theory and its arguments. However, it’s a decent starter book that only requires you to read descriptions about CRT and not the foundational academic and legal scholarship, which can be difficult to get through if you’re not used to those types of readings.

Favorite section: The discussion questions at the end of each chapter
Reading difficulty: An easy read

3. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement (Eds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, Kendall Thomas)

As the title suggests, this book provides key writings that created the theoretical body of work we now call Critical Race Theory. I’m recommending this in third place, because it’s incredibly useful for understanding the roots of CRT. In these key writings, you see the common themes that emerge, such as a critique of liberalism and a focus on narrative and perspectival knowledge. This book is pretty hefty, as it spans over 400 pages, but choosing only a few of these chapters will give you a solid idea of the theory. I’d recommend Derrick Bell’s “Brown v Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma” and Dorothy Roberts’ “Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality, and the Right of Privacy.”

Favorite section: The Foreword by Cornel West
Reading difficulty: A moderately difficult read

2. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge (Eds. Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado)

This book is fantastic, but it isn’t number one on the list, because it’s simply too long. The book is more of a tome, with 80+ chapters spanning 800+ pages. However, the organization of the book helps with finding important information. One might skip to the section on critical white studies, critical race feminism, or essentialism and antiessentialism to read what you’re interested in. The book also has a balance of foundational CRT work and contemporary writings. There is not much commentary in this book, so you really have to understand the arguments of the articles, themselves, but a lot of them are reader-friendly and narrative-based, like many CRT works.

Favorite section: The section “Beyond the Black-White Binary”
Reading difficulty: A moderately difficult read

1. Critical Race Theory: A Primer (Khiara M. Bridges)

This book takes first place because the first two chapters of Bridgers’ book have some of the most accessible explanations of CRT I’ve ever read. The book is clear, extremely well-organized, and reader-friendly. I would recommend this book for the first 3 chapters, alone, which provide a cogent genealogy of CRT’s emergence from CLS and critiques of liberal race discourse. Among other strengths, this book provides ample responses to criticisms of CRT. For those wanting to know more about CRT, its history, its responses to contemporary issues, and common pushback, this book does all of those things and more.

Favorite section: Chapter 3 “Critiques of Critical Race Theory”
Reading difficulty: An easy read

Let me know what CRT resources have been the most helpful to you!