Say their Name: Early Critical Race Theory Scholars and their Place in the Debate

We often read statements that say, “The originators of CRT include Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Tara Yosso…” And yes, it is true, scholars like Derrick Bell (1980), Cheryl Harris (1993) and Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) conceptualized Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a framework than can be used to examine race as a unit of analysis and is premised on seven major tenets: the permanence of racism; the critique of liberalism; interest convergence; the notion of whiteness as property; intersectionality; the use of counter-storytelling; and social justice (Delgado et.al., 2017). However, Critical Race Theory has roots in the Black Radical Tradition and uses scholarship to challenge and critique the present racialization of the American legal system and more recently, the field of education (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Dixson &Anderson, 2018). Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) argued that race must be understood as an ideological phenomenon that has material consequences. Additionally, Ladson-Billings (1998) made the claim that race functions as a master category and can be used as the central construct for understanding inequality. Dr. Cynthia TysonDr. Cynthia Tyson

Building on CRT as articulated by Bell and others, scholars like Solarzano & Yosso (2001), Brayboy (2004), and Lensmire (2014) have expanded the CRT framework to explore race within contexts with culturally specific norms such as LatCrit, TribalCrit, and Critical whiteness studies. These scholars utilize derivatives of CRT as an opportunity to redefine and shape identity and spaces as places of resistance. Lived experiences captured through counter-storytelling, in particular, offer pathways for racial justice. However, this work draws from a foundation set by scholars that precede the initial coining of CRT as a framework.

These scholars indeed contributed to the development of CRT as we know it today. But using the words of the late radio show host Paul Harvey, we must ask, “What is the rest of the story?” For example, Carter G. Woodson, known as “the father of Black History” and also the second Black person in history to receive a Ph.D., as well as a scholar well versed in the American education system – in what we would now label a CRT theoretical analysis, supported centering Black excellence in school curricula as the only way to achieve racial equality. In his work The Miseducation of the Negro (1933) centered race as the unit of analysis stating, “When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary” (Woodson, 1933, p. 21). Examination of Woodson’s earlier work clearly reflects it contributed to a CRT framework creating “endarkened wisdom” (Lynn & Bridges, 2009) to examine all aspects of African American education.

Dr. Carter G Woodson is just one scholar in the CRT lineage that we should include in our literature reviews as we pay homage to the centering ring of race as the unit of analysis – CRT in education. We should be including the work or Anna Julia Cooper (Cooper, 1892; Cooper, 2000), Black feminist scholar, educator and activist that introduced border crossing as intersectionality; Septima P. Clark (Septima P. Clark papers, AMN 1000) looked at the ways that systemic racism contributed to the educational disentrancement for African Americans focusing on centering a student’s language and cultural background, race and class as needed pedagogical moves for empowerment and liberation (Charron, 2012), Ida Wells Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune and this lineage can go on.

The point is this: we stand on the shoulders of those “whose ideologies emerged from a particular consciousness” (Clark, 2003) – a consciousness that is the foundation of CRT. This theoretical construct examines the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color that continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation, especially in education. We must be intentional to say their names.


Dr. Cynthia A. Tyson is a Professor of Education in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University.

Racquel Armstrong is a doctoral student in Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education at The Ohio State University.