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Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education

by Gloria Ladson-Billings & William F. Tate IV - 1995

This article asserts that despite the salience of race in U.S. society, as a topic of scholarly inquiry, it remains untheorized. The article argues for a critical race theoretical perspective in education analogous to that of critical race theory in legal scholarship by developing three propositions: (1) race continues to be significant in the United States; (2) U.S. society is based on property rights rather than human rights; and (3) the intersection of race and property creates an analytical tool for understanding inequity. The article concludes with a look at the limitations of the current multicultural paradigm.

This article asserts that despite the salience of race in U.S. society, as a topic of scholarly inquiry, it remains untheorized. The article argues for a critical race theoretical perspective in education analogous to that of critical race theory in legal scholarship by developing three propositions: (1) race continues to be significant in the United States; (2) U.S. society is based on property rights rather than human rights; and (3) the intersection of race and property creates an analytical tool for understanding inequity. The article concludes with a look at the limitations of the current multicultural paradigm.

The presentation of truth in new forms provokes resistance, confounding those committed to accepted measures for determining the quality and validity of statements made and conclusions reached, and making it difficult for them to respond and adjudge what is acceptable.

Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers, not by me . . .

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

In 1991 social activist and education critic Jonathan Kozol delineated the great inequities that exist between the schooling experiences of white middle-class students and those of poor African-American and Latino students. And, while Kozols graphic descriptions may prompt some to question how it is possible that we allow these savage inequalities, this article suggests that these inequalities are a logical and predictable result of a racialized society in which discussions of race and racism continue to be muted and marginalized.1

In this article we attempt to theorize race and use it as an analytic tool for understanding school inequity.2 We begin with a set of propositions about race and property and their intersections. We situate our discussion in an explication of critical race theory and attempt to move beyond the boundaries of the educational research literature to include arguments and new perspectives from law and the social sciences. In doing so, we acknowledge and are indebted to a number of scholars whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries.3 We conclude by exploring the tensions between our conceptualization of a critical race theory in education and the educational reform movement identified as multicultural education.


Our discussion of social inequity in general, and school inequity in particular, is based on three central propositions:4

1. Race continues to be a significant factor in determining inequity in the United States.

2. U.S. society is based on property rights.

3. The intersection of race and property creates an analytic tool through which we can understand social (and, consequently, school) inequity.

In this section we expand on these propositions and provide supporting meta-propositions to make clear our line of reasoning and relevant application to educational or school settings.


The first propositionthat race continues to be a significant factor in determining inequity in the United Statesis easily documented in the statistical and demographic data. Hackers look at educational and life chances such as high school dropout rates, suspension rates, and incarceration rates echoes earlier statistics of the Childrens Defense Fund.5 However, in what we now call the postmodern era, some scholars question the usefulness of race as a category.

Omi and Winant argue that popular notions of race as either an ideological construct or an objective condition have epistemological limitations.6 Thinking of race strictly as an ideological construct denies the reality of a racialized society and its impact on raced people in their everyday lives. On the other hand, thinking of race solely as an objective condition denies the problematic aspects of racehow do we decide who fits into which racial classifications? How do we categorize racial mixtures? Indeed, the world of biology has found the concept of race virtually useless. Geneticist Cavalli-Sforza asserts that human populations are sometimes known as ethnic groups, or races. . . . They are hard to define in a way that is both rigorous and useful because human beings group themselves in a bewildering array of sets, some of them overlapping, all of them in a state of flux.7

Nonetheless, even when the concept of race fails to make sense, we continue to employ it. According to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison:

Race has become metaphoricala way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological race ever was.

Expensively kept, economically unsound, a spurious and useless political asset in election campaigns, racism is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment. It seems that is has a utility far beyond economy, beyond the sequestering of classes from one another, and has assumed a metaphorical life so completely embedded in daily discourse that it is perhaps more necessary and more on display than ever before.8

Despite the problematic nature of race, we offer as a first meta-proposition that race, unlike gender and class, remains untheorized.9 Over the past few decades theoretical and epistemological considerations of gender have proliferated.10 Though the field continues to struggle for legitimacy in academe, interest in and publications about feminist theories abound. At the same time, Marxist and Neo-Marxist formulations about class continue to merit consideration as theoretical models for understanding social inequity.11 We recognize the importance of both gender- and class-based analyses while at the same time pointing to their shortcomings vis-à-vis race. Roediger points out that the main body of writing by White Marxists in the United States has both naturalized whiteness and oversimplified race.12

Omi and Winant have done significant work in providing a sociological explanation of race in the United States. They argue that the paradigms of race have been conflated with notions of ethnicity, class, and nation because

theories of raceof its meaning, its transformations, the significance of racial eventshave never been a top priority in social science. In the U.S., although the founding fathers of American sociology . . . were explicitly concerned with the state of domestic race relations, racial theory remained one of the least developed fields of sociological inquiry.13

To mount a viable challenge to the dominant paradigm of ethnicity (i.e., we are all ethnic and, consequently, must assimilate and rise socially the same way European Americans have), Omi and Winant offer a racial formation theory that they define as the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed. . . . [It] is a process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized. Further, they link racial formation to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled. Their analysis suggests that race is a matter of both social structure and cultural representation.14

By arguing that race remains untheorized, we are not suggesting that other scholars have not looked carefully at race as a powerful tool for explaining social inequity, but that the intellectual salience of this theorizing has not been systematically employed in the analysis of educational inequality. Thus, like Omi and Winant, we are attempting to uncover or decipher the social-structural and cultural significance of race in education. Our work owes an intellectual debt to both Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois, who, although marginalized by the mainstream academic community, used race as a theoretical lens for assessing social inequity.15

Both Woodson and Du Bois presented cogent arguments for considering race as the central construct for understanding inequality. In many ways our work is an attempt to build on the foundation laid by these scholars.16 Briefly, Woodson, as far back as 1916, began to establish the legitimacy of race (and, in particular, African Americans) as a subject of scholarly inquiry.17 As founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and editor of its Journal of Negro History, Woodson revolutionized the thinking about African Americans from that of pathology and inferiority to a multitextured analysis of the uniqueness of African Americans and their situation in the United States. His most notable publication, The Miseducation of the Negro, identified the schools role in structuring inequality and demotivating African-American students:

The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples.18

Du Bois, perhaps better known among mainstream scholars, profoundly impacted the thinking of many identified as other by naming a double consciousness felt by African Americans. According to Du Bois, the African American ever feels his two-nessan American, A Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.19 In a current biography of Du Bois, Lewis details the intellectual impact of this concept:

It was a revolutionary concept. It was not just revolutionary; the concept of the divided self was profoundly mystical, for Du Bois invested this double consciousness with a capacity to see incomparably further and deeper. The African-Americanseventh son after the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolianpossessed the gift of second sight in this American world, an intuitive faculty (prelogical, in a sense) enabling him/her to see and say things about American society that possessed a heightened moral validity. Because he dwelt equally in the mind and heart of his oppressor as in his own beset psyche, the African American embraced a vision of the commonweal at its best.20

As a prophetic foreshadowing of the centrality of race in U.S. society, Du Bois reminded us that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.21

The second meta-proposition that we use to support the proposition that race continues to be significant in explaining inequity in the United States is that class- and gender-based explanations are not powerful enough to explain all of the difference (or variance) in school experience and performance. Although both class and gender can and do intersect race, as stand-alone variables they do not explain all of the educational achievement differences apparent between whites and students of color. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that even when we hold constant for class, middle-class African-American students do not achieve at the same level as their white counterparts.22 Although Oakes reports that in academic tracking, . . . poor and minority students are most likely to be placed at the lowest levels of the schools sorting system,23 we are less clear as to which factorrace or classis causal. Perhaps the larger question of the impact of race on social class is the more relevant one. Space limitations do not permit us to examine that question.

Issues of gender bias also figure in inequitable schooling.24 Females receive less attention from teachers, are counseled away from or out of advanced mathematics and science courses, and although they receive better grades than their male counterparts, their grades do not translate into advantages in college admission and/or the work place.25

But examination of class and gender, taken alone or together, do not account for the extraordinarily high rates of school dropout, suspension, explusion, and failure among African-American and Latino males.26 In the case of suspension, Majors and Billson argue that many African-American males are suspended or expelled from school for what they termed non-contact violationswearing banned items of clothing such as hats and jackets, or wearing these items in an unauthorized manner, such as backwards or inside out.27

The point we strive to make with this meta-proposition is not that class and gender are insignificant, but rather, as West suggests, that race matters, and, as Smith insists, blackness matters in more detailed ways.28


Our second proposition, that U.S. society is based on property rights, is best explicated by examining legal scholarship and interpretations of rights. To develop this proposition it is important to situate it in the context of critical race theory. Monaghan reports that critical race legal scholarship developed in the 1970s, in part because minority scholars thought they were being overlooked in critical legal studies, a better known movement that examines the way law encodes cultural norms.29 However, Delgado argues that despite the diversity contained within the critical race movement, there are some shared features:

an assumption that racism is not a series of isolated acts, but is endemic in American life, deeply ingrained legally, culturally, and even psychologically;

a call for a reinterpretation of civil-rights law in light of its ineffectuality, showing that laws to remedy racial injustices are often undermined before they can fulfill their promise;

a challenge to the traditional claims of legal neutrality, objectivity, color-blindness, and meritocracy as camouflages for the self-interest of dominant groups in American society;

an insistence on subjectivity and the reformulation of legal doctrine to reflect the perspectives of those who have experienced and been victimized by racism firsthand;

the use of stories or first-person accounts.30

In our analysis we add another aspect to this critical paradigm that disentangles democracy and capitalism. Many discussions of democracy conflate it with capitalism despite the fact that it is possible to have a democratic government with an economic system other than capitalism. Discussing the two ideologies as if they were one masks the pernicious effects of capitalism on those who are relegated to its lowest ranks. Traditional civil rights approaches to solving inequality have depended on the rightness of democracy while ignoring the structural inequality of capitalism.31 However, democracy in the U.S. context was built on capitalism.

In the early years of the republic only capitalists enjoyed the franchise. Two hundred years later when civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s built their pleas for social justice on an appeal to the civil and human rights, they were ignoring the fact that the society was based on property rights.32 An example from the 1600s undescores the centrality of property in the Americas from the beginning of European settlement:

When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a vacuum. The Indians, he said, had not subdued the land, and therefore had only a natural right to it, but not a civil right. A natural right did not have legal standing.33

Bell examined the events leading up to the Constitutions development and concluded that there exists a tension between property rights and human rights.34 This tension was greatly exacerbated by the presence of African peoples as slaves in America. The purpose of the government was to protect the main object of societyproperty. The slave status of most African Americans (as well as women and children) resulted in their being objectified as property. And, a government constructed to protect the rights of property owners lacked the incentive to secure human rights for the African American.35

According to Bell the concept of individual rights, unconnected to property rights, was totally foreign to these men of property; and thus, despite two decades of civil rights gains, most Blacks remain disadvantaged and deprived because of their race.36

The grand narrative of U.S. history is replete with tensions and struggles over propertyin its various forms. From the removal of Indians (and later Japanese Americans) from the land, to military conquest of the Mexicans,37 to the construction of Africans as property,38 the ability to define, possess, and own property has been a central feature of power in America. We do not suggest that other nations have not fought over and defined themselves by property and landownership.39 However, the contradiction of a reified symbolic individual juxtaposed to the reality of real estate means that emphasis on the centrality of property can be disguised. Thus, we talk about the importance of the individual, individual rights, and civil rights while social benefits accrue largely to property owners.40

Property relates to education in explicit and implicit ways. Recurring discussions about property tax relief indicate that more affluent communities (which have higher property values, hence higher tax assessments) resent paying for a public school system whose clientele is largely nonwhite and poor.41 In the simplest of equations, those with better property are entitled to better schools. Kozol illustrates the disparities: Average expenditures per pupil in the city of New York in 1987 were some $5,500. In the highest spending suburbs of New York (Great Neck or Manhasset, for example, on Long Island) funding levels rose above $11,000, with the highest districts in the state at $15,000.42

But the property differences manifest themselves in other ways. For example, curriculum represents a form of intellectual property.43 The quality and quantity of the curriculum varies with the property values of the school. The use of a critical race story44 appropriately represents this notion:

The teenage son of one of the authors of this article was preparing to attend high school. A friend had a youngster of similar age who also was preparing to enter high school. The boys excitedly poured over course offerings in their respective schools catalogues. One boy was planning on attending school in an upper-middle-class white community. The other would be attending school in an urban, largely African-American district. The difference between the course offerings as specified in the catalogues was striking. The boy attending the white, middle-class school had his choice of many foreign languagesSpanish, French, German, Latin, Greek, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese. His mathematics offerings included algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, general math, and business math. The science department at this school offered biology, chemistry, physics, geology, science in society, biochemistry, and general science. The other boys curriculum choices were not nearly as broad. His foreign language choices were Spanish and French. His mathematics choices were general math, business math, and algebra (there were no geometry or trig classes offered). His science choices were general science, life science, biology, and physical science. The differences in electives were even more pronounced, with the affluent school offering courses such as Film as Literature, Asian Studies, computer programming, and journalism. Very few elective courses were offered at the African-American school, which had no band, orchestra, or school newspaper.

The availability of rich (or enriched) intellectual property delimits what is now called opportunity to learn45the presumption that along with providing educational standards46 that detail what students should know and be able to do, they must have the material resources that support their learning. Thus, intellectual property must be undergirded by real property, that is, science labs, computers and other state-of-the-art technologies, appropriately certified and prepared teachers. Of course, Kozol demonstrated that schools that serve poor students of color are unlikely to have access to these resources and, consequently, students will have little or no opportunity to learn despite the attempt to mandate educational standards.47


With this notion of property rights as a defining feature of the society, we proceed to describe the ways that the features of critical race theory mentioned in the previous section can be applied to our understanding of educational inequity.

Racism as Endemic and Deeply Ingrained in American Life

If racism were merely isolated, unrelated, individual acts, we would expect to see at least a few examples of educational excellence and equity together in the nations public schools. Instead, those places where African Americans do experience educational success tend to be outside of the public schools.48 While some might argue that poor children, regardless of race, do worse in school, and that the high proportion of African-American poor contributes to their dismal school performance, we argue that the cause of their poverty in conjunction with the condition of their schools and schooling is institutional and structural racism. Thus, when we speak of racism we refer to Wellmans definition of culturally sanctioned beliefs which, regardless of the intentions involved, defend the advantages Whites have because of the subordinated positions of racial minorities. We must therefore contend with the problem facing White people [of coming] to grips with the demands made by Blacks and Whites while at the same time avoiding the possibility of institutional change and reorganization that might affect them.49

A Reinterpretation of Ineffective Civil Rights Law

In the case of education, the civil rights decision that best exemplifies our position is the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. While having the utmost respect for the work of Thurgood Marshall and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal defense team in arguing the Brown decision, with forty years of hindsight we recognize some serious shortcomings in that strategy. Today, students of color are more segregated than ever before.50 Although African Americans represent 12 percent of the national population, they are the majority in twenty-one of the twenty-two largest (urban) school districts.51 Instead of providing more and better educational opportunities, school desegregation has meant increased white flight along with a loss of African-American teaching and administrative positions.52 In explaining the double-edge sword of civil rights legislation, Crenshaw argued that

the civil rights community . . . must come to terms with the fact that antidiscrimination discourse is fundamentally ambiguous and can accommodate conservative as well as liberal views of race and equality. This dilemma suggests that the civil rights constituency cannot afford to view antidiscrimination doctrine as a permanent pronouncement of societys commitment to ending racial subordination. Rather, antidiscrimination law represents an ongoing ideological struggle in which occasional winners harness the moral, coercive, consensual power of law. Nonetheless, the victories it offers can be ephemeral and the risks of engagement substantial.53

An example of Crenshaws point about the ambiguity of civil rights legislation was demonstrated in a high school district in Northern California.54 Of the five high schools in the district, one was located in a predominantly African-American community. To entice white students to attend that school, the district funded a number of inducements including free camping and skiing trips. While the trips were available to all of the students, they were attended largely by the white students, who already owned the expensive camping and skiing equipment. However, these inducements were not enough to continuously attract white students. As enrollment began to fall, the district decided to close a school. Not surprisingly, the school in the African-American community was closed and all of its students had to be (and continue to be) bused to the four white schools in the district.

Lomotey and Staleys examination of Buffalos model desegregation program revealed that African-American and Latino students continued to be poorly served by the school system. The academic achievement of African-American and Latino students failed to improve while their suspension, expulsion, and dropout rates continued to rise. On the other hand, the desegregation plan provided special magnet programs and extended day care of which whites were able to take advantage. What, then, made Buffalo a model school desegregation program? In short, the benefits that whites derived from school desegregation and their seeming support of the districts desegregation program.55 Thus, a model desegregation program becomes defined as one that ensures that whites are happy (and do not leave the system altogether) regardless of whether African-American and other students of color achieve or remain.

Challenging Claims of Neutrality, Objectivity, Color-blindness, and Meritocracy

A theme of naming ones own reality or voice is entrenched in the work of critical race theorists. Many critical race theorists argue that the form and substance of scholarship are closely connected.56 These scholars use parables, chronicles, stories, counterstories, poetry, fiction, and revisionist histories to illustrate the false necessity and irony of much of current civil rights doctrine. Delgado suggests that there are at least three reasons for naming ones own reality in legal discourse:

1. Much of reality is socially constructed.

2. Stories provide members of outgroups a vehicle for psychic self-preservation.

3. The exchange of stories from teller to listener can help overcome ethnocentrism and the dysconscious conviction of viewing the world in one way.57

The first reason for naming ones own reality is to demonstrate how political and moral analysis is conducted in legal scholarship. Many mainstream legal scholars embrace universalism over particularity.58 According to Williams, theoretical legal understanding is characterized, in Anglo-American jurisprudence, by the acceptance of transcendent, acontextual, universal legal truths or procedures.59 For instance, some legal scholars might contend that the tort of fraud has always existed and that it is a component belonging to the universal system of right and wrong. This view tends to discount anything that is nontranscendent (historical), or contextual (socially constructed), or nonuniversal (specific) with the unscholarly labels of emotional, literary, personal, or false.

In contrast, critical race theorists argue that political and moral analysis is situationaltruths only exist for this person in this predicament at this time in history.60 For the critical race theorist, social reality is constructed by the formulation and the exchange of stories about individual situations.61 These stories serve as interpretive structures by which we impose order on experience and it on us.62

A second reason for the naming-ones-own-reality theme of critical race theory is the psychic preservation of marginalized groups. A factor contributing to the demoralization of marginalized groups is self-condemnation.63 Members of minority groups internalize the stereotypic images that certain elements of society have constructed in order to maintain their power.64 Historically, storytelling has been a kind of medicine to heal the wounds of pain caused by racial oppression.65 The story of ones condition leads to the realization of how one came to be oppressed and subjugated and allows one to stop inflicting mental violence on oneself.

Finally, naming ones own reality with stories can affect the oppressor. Most oppression does not seem like oppression to the perpetrator.66 Delgado argues that the dominant group justifies its power with storiesstock explanationsthat construct reality in ways to maintain their privilege.67 Thus, oppression is rationalized, causing little self-examination by the oppressor. Stories by people of color can catalyze the necessary cognitive conflict to jar dysconscious racism.

The voice component of critical race theory provides a way to communicate the experience and realities of the oppressed, a first step on the road to justice. As we attempt to make linkages between critical race theory and education, we contend that the voice of people of color is required for a complete analysis of the educational system. Delpit argues that one of the tragedies of education is the way in which the dialogue of people of color has been silenced. An example from her conversation with an African-American graduate student illustrates this point:

There comes a moment in every class when we have to discuss The Black Issue and whats appropriate education for Black children. I tell you, Im tired of arguing with those White people, because they wont listen. Well, I dont know if they really dont listen or if they just dont believe you. It seems like if you cant quote Vygotsky or something, then you dont have any validity to speak about your own kids. Anyway, Im not bothering with it anymore, now Im just in it for a grade.68

A growing number of education scholars of color are raising critical questions about the way that research is being conducted in communities of color.69 Thus, without authentic voices of people of color (as teachers, parents, administrators, students, and community members) it is doubtful that we can say or know anything useful about education in their communities.


In the previous sections of this article we argued that race is still a significant factor in determining inequity in the United States and that the society is based on property rights rather than on human rights. In this section we discuss the intersection of race and property as a central construct in understanding a critical race theoretical approach to education.

Harris argues that slavery linked the privilege of Whites to the subordination of Blacks through a legal regime that attempted the conversion of Blacks into objects of property. Similarly, the settlement and seizure of Native American land supported White privilege through a system of property rights in land in which the race of the Native Americans rendered their first possession right invisible and justified conquest. But, more pernicious and long lasting then the victimization of people of color is the construction of whiteness as the ultimate property. Possessionthe act necessary to lay the basis for rights in propertywas defined to include only the cultural practices of Whites. This definition laid the foundation for the idea that whitenessthat which Whites alone possessis valuable and is property.70

Because of space constraints, it is not possible to fully explicate Harriss thorough analysis of whiteness as property. However, it is important to delineate what she terms the property functions of whiteness, which include: (1) rights of disposition; (2) rights to use and enjoyment; (3) reputation and status property; and (4) the absolute right to exclude. How these rights apply to education is germane to our discussion.

Rights of disposition.

Because property rights are described as fully alienable, that is, transferable, it is difficult to see how whiteness can be construed as property.71 However, alienability of certain property is limited (e.g., entitlements, government licenses, professional degrees or licenses held by one party and financed by the labor of the other in the context of divorce). Thus, whiteness when conferred on certain student performances is alienable.72 When students are rewarded only for conformity to perceived white norms or sanctioned for cultural practices (e.g., dress, speech patterns, unauthorized conceptions of knowledge), white property is being rendered alienable.

Rights to use and enjoyment.

Legally, whites can use and enjoy the privileges of whiteness. As McIntosh has explicitly demonstrated, whiteness allows for specific social, cultural, and economic privileges.73 Fuller further asserts that whiteness is both performative and pleasurable.74 In the school setting, whiteness allows for extensive use of school property. Kozols description of the material differences in two New York City schools can be interpreted as the difference between those who possess the right to use and enjoy what schools can offer and those who do not:

The [white] school serves 825 children in the kindergarten through sixth grade. This is approximately half the student population crowded into [black] P.S. 79, where 1,550 children fill a space intended for 1,000, and a great deal smaller than the 1,300 children packed into the former skating rink.75

This right of use and enjoyment is also reflected in the structure of the curriculum, also described by Kozol:

The curriculum [the white school] follows emphasizes critical thinking, reasoning and logic. The planetarium, for instance, is employed not simply for the study of the universe as it exists. Children also are designing their own galaxies, the teacher says. . . .

In my [Kozols] notes: Six girls, four boys. Nine White, one Chinese. I am glad they have this class. But what about the others? Arent there ten Black children in the school who could enjoy this also?76

Reputation and status property.

The concept of reputation as property is regularly demonstrated in legal cases of libel and slander. Thus, to damage someones reputation is to damage some aspect of his or her personal property. In the case of race, to call a white person black is to defame him or her.77 In the case of schooling, to identify a school or program as nonwhite in any way is to diminish its reputation or status. For example, despite the prestige of foreign language learning, bilingual education as practiced in the United States as a nonwhite form of second language learning has lower status.78 The term urban, the root word of urbane, has come to mean black. Thus, urban schools (located in the urbane, sophisticated cities) lack the status and reputation of suburban (white) schools and when urban students move to or are bused to suburban schools, these schools lose their reputation.79

The absolute right to exclude.

Whiteness is constructed in this society as the absence of the contaminating influence of blackness. Thus, one drop of black blood constructs one as black, regardless of phenotypic markers.80 In schooling, the absolute right to exclude was demonstrated initially by denying blacks access to schooling altogether. Later, it was demonstrated by the creation and maintenance of separate schools. More recently it has been demonstrated by white flight and the growing insistence on vouchers, public funding of private schools, and schools of choice.81 Within schools, absolute right to exclude is demonstrated by resegregation via tracking,82 the institution of gifted programs, honors programs, and advanced placement classes. So complete is this exclusion that black students often come to the university in the role of intruderswho have been granted special permission to be there.

In this section we have attempted to draw parallels between the critical race legal theory notion of whiteness as property and educational inequity. In the final section we relate some of the intellectual/theoretical tensions that exist between critical race theory and multicultural education.


Throughout this article we have argued the need for a critical race theoretical perspective to cast a new gaze on the persistent problems of racism in schooling. We have argued the need for this perspective because of the failure of scholars to theorize race. We have drawn parallels between the way critical race legal scholars understand their position vis-à-vis traditional legal scholarship and the ways critical race theory applied to education offers a way to rethink traditional educational scholarship. We also have referred to the tensions that exist between traditional civil rights legislation and critical race legal theory. In this section we identify a necessary tension between critical race theory in education and what we term the multicultural paradigm.

Multicultural education has been conceptualized as a reform movement designed to effect change in the school and other educational institutions so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, and other social-class groups will experience educational equality.83 In more recent years, multicultural education has expanded to include issues of gender, ability, and sexual orientation. Although one could argue for an early history of the multicultural education movement as far back as the 1880s when George Washington Williams wrote his history of African Americans, much of the current multicultural education practice seems more appropriately rooted in the intergroup education movement of the 1950s, which was designed to help African Americans and other unmeltable ethnics become a part of Americas melting pot.84 Their goals were primarily assimilationist through the reduction of prejudice. However, after the civil rights unrest and growing self-awareness of African Americans in the 1960s, the desire to assimilate was supplanted by the reclamation of an authentic black personality that did not rely on the acceptance by or standards of white America. This new vision was evidenced in the academy in the form of first, black studies and later, when other groups made similar liberating moves, ethnic studies.85

Current practical demonstrations of multicultural education in schools often reduce it to trivial examples and artifacts of cultures such as eating ethnic or cultural foods, singing songs or dancing, reading folktales, and other less than scholarly pursuits of the fundamentally different conceptions of knowledge or quests for social justice.86 At the university level, much of the concern over multicultural education has been over curriculum inclusion.87 However, another level of debate emerged over what became known as multiculturalism.

Somewhat different from multicultural education in that it does not represent a particular educational reform or scholarly tradition, multiculturalism came to be viewed as a political philosophy of many cultures existing together in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance.88 Thus, outside of the classroom multiculturalism represented the attempt to bring both students and faculty from a variety of cultures into the school (or academy) environment. Today, the term is used interchangeably with the ever-expanding diversity, a term used to explain all types of differenceracial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, ability, gender, sexual orientation. Thus, popular music, clothes, media, books, and so forth, reflect a growing awareness of diversity and/or multiculturalism. Less often discussed are the growing tensions that exist between and among various groups that gather under the umbrella of multiculturalismthat is, the interests of groups can be competing or their perspectives can be at odds.89 We assert that the ever-expanding multicultural paradigm follows the traditions of liberalismallowing a proliferation of difference. Unfortunately, the tensions between and among these differences is rarely interrogated, presuming a unity of differencethat is, that all difference is both analogous and equivalent.90

To make parallel the analogy between critical race legal theory and traditional civil rights law with that of critical race theory in education and multicultural education we need to restate the point that critical race legal theorists have doubts about the foundation of moderate/incremental civil rights law.91 The foundation of civil rights law has been in human rights rather than in property rights. Thus, without disrespect to the pioneers of civil rights law, critical race legal scholars document the ways in which civil rights law is regularly subverted to benefit whites.92

We argue that the current multicultural paradigm functions in a manner similar to civil rights law. Instead of creating radically new paradigms that ensure justice, multicultural reforms are routinely sucked back into the system and just as traditional civil rights law is based on a foundation of human rights, the current multicultural paradigm is mired in liberal ideology that offers no radical change in the current order.93 Thus, critical race theory in education, like its antecedent in legal scholarship, is a radical critique of both the status quo and the purported reforms.

We make this observation of the limits of the current multicultural paradigm not to disparage the scholarly efforts and sacrifices of many of its proponents, but to underscore the difficulty (indeed, impossibility) of maintaining the spirit and intent of justice for the oppressed while simultaneously permitting the hegemonic rule of the oppressor.94 Thus, as critical race theory scholars we unabashedly reject a paradigm that attempts to be everything to everyone and consequently becomes nothing for anyone, allowing the status quo to prevail. Instead, we align our scholarship and activism with the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, who believed that the black man was universally oppressed on racial grounds, and that any program of emancipation would have to be built around the question of race first.95 In his own words, Garvey speaks to us clearly and unequivocally:

In a world of wolves one should go armed, and one of the most powerful defensive weapons within the reach of Negroes is the practice of race first in all parts of the world.96

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 1, 1995, p. 47-68
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1410, Date Accessed: 12/24/2021 11:35:02 AM

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  • Gloria Ladson-Billings
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
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  • William Tate IV
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
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