Introduction to Keywords Now: Critical Race Theory

In the latest skirmish in a decades-long culture war, the right-wing indignation industry in the United States has identified something it calls “Critical Race Theory” as an existential threat to the nation and its youth. Often abbreviating it as “CRT,” legislatures have passed ordinances against teaching various forms of critical race pedagogy, and teachers in universities, colleges, high schools, and even elementary schools have been pressured to commit to banning them from their classrooms. The impact has been, at best, a heightened nervousness among educators about teaching critical theories and histories of race and racism or, at worst, a turning away from critical pedagogy altogether.

We intend this Keywords Now cluster to support educators as they teach critical theories of race and racism, and to enable students to encounter that teaching openly. As we explain in our introduction to Keywords for American Cultural Studies, we believe that attention to the usage history of words that structure contemporary debates can help to unpack and reframe the stakes of those debates. In this case, we have asked scholars of American studies and cultural studies to provide short commentaries on the three keywords in play here: “Critical,” “Race,” and “Theory.” We asked them to address a shared question: “What is the work your keyword does and should do in the discussion of CRT in the current conjuncture.”1

Our hope is that this cluster of essays will counter the reduction of an immense body of thought, writing, and movement-building practice to the CRT meme-of-the-moment. Rarely can those advocating for the prohibition of CRT provide even the most rudimentary definition of what they are targeting, let alone trace the history of the particular ideas that have traveled under that name. And they often conflate CRT with any and all critical analyses of race and racism. The essays included in this cluster are our modest attempt to keep open a rich, important, and long-running debate that the right-wing indignation industry would prefer to foreclose.

-Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler

  1. Conjuncture is itself a keyword drawn from cultural theory. For French Marxist Louis Althusser “it denotes the exact balance of forces, state of overdetermination of the contradictions at any given moment to which political tactics must be applied.” Cultural Studies scholar Stuart Hall made the concept more dynamic; for Hall “a conjuncture was both a moment of danger and one of opportunity; it was something to intervene in, a configuration whose components were to be rearranged through practice. It was a call to action—intellectual, social, cultural, political” (Bennett 2016).