Featured Scholar: Kimberlé W. Crenshaw and Critical Race Theory
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University. This introduction is taken from her profile page at the institution.
Crenshaw is a pioneering scholar and writer on civil rights, critical race theory, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism and the law. In addition to her position at Columbia Law School, she is a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Crenshaw’s work has been foundational in critical race theory and in “intersectionality,” a term she coined to describe the double bind of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice. Her studies, writing, and activism have identified key issues in the perpetuation of inequality, including the “school to prison pipeline” for African American children and the criminalization of behavior among Black teenage girls. Through the Columbia Law School African American Policy Forum (AAPF), which she co-founded, Crenshaw co-authored (with Andrea Ritchie) Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, which documented and drew attention to the killing of Black women and girls by police. Crenshaw and AAPF subsequently launched the #SayHerName campaign to call attention to police violence against Black women and girls.
Crenshaw is a sought-after speaker and conducts workshops and trainings. She is also the co-author of Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected. Her writing has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the National Black Law Journal, the Stanford Law Review, and the Southern California Law Review. She is a founding coordinator of the Critical Race Theory workshop and co-editor of Critical Race Theory: Key Documents That Shaped the Movement. In 1981, she assisted on the legal team of Anita Hill during her testimony at the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Crenshaw writes regularly for The New Republic, The Nation, and Ms. and provides commentary for media outlets, including MSNBC and NPR, and hosts the podcast Intersectionality Matters! In addition to frequent speaking engagements, training sessions, and town halls, Crenshaw has facilitated workshops for human rights activists in Brazil and in India and for constitutional court judges in South Africa. She serves on the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academies of Science.
Crenshaw’s groundbreaking work on intersectionality was influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution. She authored the background paper on race and gender discrimination for the United Nations’ World Conference on Racism in 2001, served as the rapporteur for the conference’s expert group on gender and race discrimination, and coordinated NGO efforts to ensure the inclusion of gender in the WCAR Conference Declaration.
Race Today: A Symposium on Race in America
“Race Today: A Symposium on Race in America” brought a group of the nation’s most respected intellectuals on race, racial theory and racial inequality together to consider the troubling state of black life in America today. What are the broader structural factors that shape race today? How do these factors work on the ground and institutionally and what are the consequences? What are the ideas about race, and racial identities that enable the normalcy of stark racial differences today? In particular, what role do key ideas such as “colorblindness” and “post race” play in shaping perception and outcomes? What can be done to challenge ideological and structural impediments to a racially egalitarian society?
Kimberlé Crenshaw is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law. Crenshaw teaches Civil Rights and other courses in critical race studies and constitutional law. Her primary scholarly interests center around race and the law, and she was a founder and has been a leader in the intellectual movement called Critical Race Theory. She now splits her time each year between UCLA and the Columbia School of Law. Crenshaw’s publications include Critical Race Theory (edited by Crenshaw, et al., 1995) and Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech and the First Amendment (with Matsuda, et al., 1993).
Biography and Works
Crenshaw is an American lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher, and a leading scholar of critical race theory. She is a full-time professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, where she specializes in race and gender issues. Crenshaw is also the founder of Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) and the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), as well as the president of the Berlin-based Center for Intersectional Justice (CIJ).
Crenshaw is known for the introduction and development of intersectionality, the theory of how overlapping or intersecting social identities, particularly minority identities, relate to systems and structures of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Her scholarship was essential in the development of intersectional feminism which examines the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination to which women are subject due to their ethnicity, sexuality and economic background.
Early Life and Education
She was born in 1959 in Canton, Ohio, to African American parents, Marian and Walter Clarence Crenshaw, Jr, both teachers. Her parents had a history in the desegregation movement; her mother helped desegregate a paddling pool. She attended Canton McKinley High School, as well as a Christian fundamentalist school where she experienced racism. She represented her school in debating and spelling competitions and aspired to be a lawyer from a young age.
In 1981, Crenshaw received a bachelor’s degree in government and Africana studies from Cornell University, where she was a member of the Quill and Dagger senior honor society. She received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1984, and the next year, an LL.M. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where she was a William H. Hastie Fellow. She was law clerk to Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Shirley Abrahamson.
- Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (editor), 1995.
- “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color,” in The Feminist Philosophy Reader, Alison Bailey and Chris Cuomo (eds.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 279–309.
- Reaffirming Racism: The faulty logic of Colorblindness, Remedy and Diversity, 2013.
- Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, African American Policy Forum, 2016.
- The Race Track: Understanding and Challenging Structural Racism, 2017.
- On Intersectionality: Essential Writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw, 2017.
- Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines, 2019.
Crenshaw is one of the founders of the field of critical race theory. While at Harvard Law School, she was one of the founding organizers of the Critical Race Theory Workshop, which originated the term.
Following completion of her Master of Laws degree, Crenshaw joined the faculty of the UCLA School of Law in 1986, where she lectured on critical race theory, civil rights, and constitutional law. At UCLA she currently teaches four classes with no requisites; her courses are Advanced Critical Race Theory; Civil Rights; Intersectional Perspectives on Race, Gender and the Criminalization of Women & Girls; and Race, Law and Representation. In 1991 and 1994, she was elected professor of the year by matriculating students. In 1995, Crenshaw was appointed as full professor at Columbia Law School, where she is the founder and director of the Center for Intersectionality & Social Policy Studies, established in 2011. At Columbia, Crenshaw’s courses include an Intersectionalities Workshop and an Intersectionalities Workshop centered around Civil Rights.
In 1996, she co-founded, and is the executive director of, the nonprofit think tank and information clearinghouse, the African American Policy Forum, which focuses on “dismantling structural inequality” and “advancing and expanding racial justice, gender equality, and the indivisibility of all human rights, both in the U.S. and internationally.” Its mission is to build bridges between scholarly research and public discourse in addressing inequality and discrimination. Crenshaw has been awarded the Fulbright Chair for Latin America in Brazil, and in 2008, she was awarded an in-residence fellowship at the Center of Advanced Behavioral Studies at Stanford University.
In 1991, she assisted the legal team representing Anita Hill at the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In 2001, she wrote the background paper on Race and Gender Discrimination for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), helped to facilitate the addition of gender in its Conference Declaration, and served as a member of the National Science Foundation’s Committee to Research Violence Against Women and the National Research Council panel on Research on Violence Against Women. Crenshaw was a member of the Domestic Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute from 1992 to 1995, the Women’s Media Initiative, and was a regular commentator on NPR’s The Tavis Smiley Show.
Her work has been cited as influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the Constitution of South Africa.
In 2017, Crenshaw gave an hour-long lecture to a maximum-capacity crowd of attendees at Rapaporte Treasure Hall. She explained the role intersectionality plays in modern-day society. After a three-day celebration of her work, Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz presented Crenshaw with the Toby Gittler award at a ceremony following a lecture in December.
She was invited to moderate a Sexual Harassment Panel hosted by Women in Animation and The Animation Guild, Local 839. Crenshaw discussed the history of harassment in the workplace and transitioned the discussion to how it plays a role in today’s work environments. The other panelists with Crenshaw agreed there have been many protective measures placed to combat sexual harassment in the workplace but many issues remain to be resolved for a complete settlement of the problem at hand.
She contributed the piece “Traffic at the Crossroads: Multiple Oppressions” to the 2003 anthology Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan.
She attended the Women of the World festival that took place from 8–13 March 2016 at the Southbank Centre in London, England. She delivered a keynote speech on the unique challenges facing women of colour when it comes to the struggle for gender equality, racial justice and well-being. A key challenge is police brutality against black women, she highlighted the #SayHerName campaign which is aimed at uplifting the stories of black women killed by the police.
Crenshaw introduced the theory of intersectionality in her 1989 paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. Influenced by black feminist criticism, the main argument of the paper is that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and of being a woman considered independently, but must include the interactions between the two, which frequently reinforce each other.
According to Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality predates her work and is congruous with the ideas of African American women from “every generation[,] every intellectual sphere and every political moment”, citing women who articulated it before as Anna Julia Cooper, Maria Stewart, Angela Davis and Deborah King. Her inspiration for the theory started during her college studies, when she realized that the gender aspect of race was extremely underdeveloped, although the school she was attending offered many classes that addressed both race and gender issues. In particular, women were only discussed in literature and poetry classes while men were also discussed in serious politics and economics.
Using the metaphor of intersecting roads to describe the merging of opression, Crenshaw highlighted how black women were treated by legal systems at the time, being seen as equal to both white women and black men, in regards to their sex and race, respectively; thus their claims of discrimination on the basis of race and sex were dimissed by the courts. Crenshaw’s analysis of the law’s invoking and creation of social identities aligns her with the broader intellectual tradition in critical race theory which discusses the same idea.
Crenshaw realized the idea of racialized sexism and sexualized racism. She broke down intersectional analysis into three forms, 1. Structural, which addresses racism and patriarchy in association with violence against women. 2. Political, which addresses the intersection of anti-race organizing and feminist organizing. And 3. Representational, which addresses the intersection of racial and gender stereotypes. Crenshaw’s participation in paradigms of identity which are mutually exclusive is one of rethinking identity politics from within, in general through systemic legal exclusions.
Crenshaw often refers to the case DeGraffenreid v. General Motors as an inspiration in writing, interviews, and lectures. In DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, Emma Degraffenreid and four other African-American women argued they were receiving compound discrimination excluding them from employment opportunities. They contended that although women were eligible for office and secretarial jobs, in practice such positions only were offered to white women, barring African-American women from seeking employment in the company. The courts weighed the allegations of race and gender discrimination separately, finding that the employment of African-American male factory workers disproved racial discrimination, and the employment of white female office workers disproved gender discrimination. The court declined to consider compound discrimination, and dismissed the case.
Crenshaw also discusses intersectionality in connection to her experience as part of the 1991 legal team for Anita Hill, the woman who accused then-US Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The case drew two crowds expressing contrasting views: white feminists in support of Hill and the opposing members of the African-American community that supported Clarence Thomas. The two lines of argument focused on the rights of women and Hill’s experience of being violated as a woman, on the one hand, and on the other the appeal to forgive Thomas or turn a blind eye to his conduct due to his opportunity to become only the second African American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Crenshaw argued that with these two groups rising up against one another during this case, Anita Hill lost her voice as a black woman. She had been unintentionally chosen to support the women’s side of things, silencing her racial contribution to the issue. “It was like one of these moments where you literally feel that you have been kicked out of your community, all because you are trying to introduce and talk about the way that African American women have experienced sexual harassment and violence. It was a defining moment.” “Many women who talk about the Anita Hill thing,” Crenshaw adds, “they celebrate what’s happened with women in general…. So sexual harassment is now recognized; what’s not doing as well is the recognition of black women’s unique experiences with discrimination.”
Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has been adopted on a worldwide scale and has expanded the study of opression. Professor of law, Devon W. Carbado, described the idea as “enormously influential”, noting its usage in multiple discipline and global adoption by scholars, human rights activists, community organizers, political figures, and lawyers alike.
In Gender & Society, published in 2012 by Christine E. Bose, she expands on how Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has and still is being applied on a global level. According to Bose, “U.S. scholars should not be surprised that an Intersectional approach is useful to European, Asian or African scholars studying inequalities in nations with diverse native populations or polarized class structures, or with increasing numbers of migrants and contract workers from other countries” (Bose 68). In the United States, intersectionality is rarely thought of as a policy issue, however, “feminists in European Union (EU) countries, where gender mainstreaming is common and where cross-national equality policies are being developed, view intersectionality as directly useful for such policies and considerably better than approaches that tend to foster a sense of competing oppressions” (Kantola and Nousiainen 2009). The problem now, according to Choo and Ferree, is how an intersectional analysis should be carried out. In 2010, they identified “three different understandings of intersectionality that have been used in sociological research, with each producing distinct methodological approaches to analyze inequalities. Their typology of group-centered, process-centered, and system-centered practices provides a useful framework for examining the global usage of intersectionality, and a way of thinking intersectionally about variations in political approaches to gender”. Since then, studies surrounding Crenshaw’s original theory of intersectionality, combined with the frameworks outlined by Choo and Ferree, have continued to develop on a global level.
My Brother’s Keeper
A nationwide initiative to open up a ladder of opportunities to youth males and males of color. Crenshaw and the other participants of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) have expressed the opinion in various media that although the initiative may have good intentions, it works in a way that excludes girls and in particular young girls of color. To address this problem, the AAPF started the campaign #WHYWECANTWAIT for the inclusion in the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative of all youth, including girls and boys of color. This campaign has received a lot of support from all over letters signed by men of color, letters signed by women of color and letters signed by allies that believe in the cause.
In an interview on the Laura Flanders Show Crenshaw explained that the program was introduced as response to the widespread grief from the African-American community after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the case of his shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenage boy. She describes the program as “feel-good”, and fatherly initiative but does not believe that it is a significant or structural program that will help fight the rollback of civil rights; the initiative will not provide the kinds of things that will really make a difference. She believes that because women and girls of color are a part of the same communities and disadvantages as the under-privileged males that are focused in the initiative, that in order to make it an effective program for the communities it needs to include all members of the community girls and boys alike.
- #Why we can’t wait: Women of Color Urging Inclusion in “My Brother’s Keeper”
- June 17, 2014 – a letter from more than 1000 girls and women of color
The letter is signed by women of all ages and a variety of backgrounds including high-school teens, professional actors, civil rights activists, and university professors commending President Obama on the efforts of the White House, private philanthropy, and social justice organizations to urge the inclusion of young women and girls. The realignment would be important to reflect the values of inclusion, equal opportunity and shared fate that have propelled our historic struggle for racial justice moving forward.
- May 30, 2014 – a letter of 200 Concerned Black Men and Other Men of Color calling for the Inclusion of Women and Girls in “My Brothers Keeper”
The letter is signed by a multitude of diverse men with different lifestyles to include scholars, recently incarcerated, taxi drivers, pastors, college students, fathers of sons, fathers of daughters and more. All the men believing that the girls within the communities that these men share homes, schools, recreational areas share a fate with one another and believe that the initiative is lacking in focus if that focus does not include both genders.
In 2014, after Barack Obama was elected as president, he signed to approve a program called “My Brother’s Keeper”. This program cost around $200 million and was a five-year program to support boys and young men of color, mostly African-American and Hispanic, by providing them with the opportunity for mentorships, internships, summer jobs and more. In a White House Summit address concerning working families, President Obama announced “new commitment to the program” with the support of corporations, schools and assorted nonprofits. In his speech he mentioned “all the heroic single moms out there.” He also stated, “ANYTHING that makes life harder for women makes life harder for families and makes life harder for children,” but the program lacked to address this. In response to this, Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote a New York Times article titled “The Girls Obama Forgot”. In her article, she elaborates on how “My Brother’s Keeper” is “the most significant contradiction of his efforts to remain a friend to women while navigating the tricky terrain of race.” The program lacked the representation of women of color who were a source of his main supporters during his campaign for presidency. In Obama’s speech he noted how “boys who grew up are more likely to be poor.” In Crenshaw’s article, she felt that there needed to be more representation of these boy’s sisters and mothers. “He noted that boys who grew up without a father were more likely to be poor. More likely than whom? Certainly not their sisters, who are growing up in the same households, attending the same underfunded schools and living in the same neighborhoods.” She noted how the White House had this false belief that black men were better off than black women; an idea in which Crenshaw strongly shut down.
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Biography and education published by Wikipedia, 03.27.2007, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. Video published on YouTube, 07.02.2015, by Brown University, republished with embed permission.