Kimberle Crenshaw

individual

Overview

  • Radical professor of Critical Race Theory at UCLA
  • Rejects the concept of a post-racial world
  • Vehement defender of racial preferences
  • Views America as an irremediably racist nation

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw was born in 1959 in Canton, Ohio. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Cornell University in 1981, a JD from Harvard Law School in 1984, and a Master of Laws from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985. In 1986 Crenshaw joined the faculty of UCLA Law School, where she has continued to work ever since. She is also the director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, which she founded in 2011.

In 1996 Crenshaw and Vassar College political-science professor Luke Charles Harris co-founded the African-American Policy Forum (AAPF) “to promote women’s rights in the context of struggles for racial justice” and “to advance racial justice, gender equality and human rights, both in the United States and internationally.” Crenshaw is currently the executive director of that organization.

Crenshaw is a foundational figure in the field of Critical Race Theory, a radical legal framework founded by the late Derrick Bell, which maintains that because the entire structure and history of America are founded upon racism and oppression, the nation’s laws and legal institutions are necessarily unjust, invalid, and undeserving of nonwhite minorities’ respect. By Crenshaw’s telling, minorities in America have “a shared sense of being under collective assault.”

From 2009-11, Crenshaw served as faculty director of the UCLA Law School’s Critical Race Studies program, which seeks to “transform racial justice advocacy” and to serve as “a training ground for a new generation of practitioners, scholars and advocates committed to racial justice theory and practice.”

One of Crenshaw’s key contributions to the field of Critical Race Theory has been the idea of “intersectionality,” which examines how different types of discrimination (such as racism and misogyny) overlap and thereby compound one another’s effect on minorities, particularly nonwhite women. Crenshaw coined the term in 1989. She believes that because discrimination against women and nonwhites have typically been studied only by means of “single-axis analysis” focusing on either racism or sexism in isolation, black women have been “theoretically erased” as a result. “It’s important to clarify,” Crenshaw elaborates, “that the term [‘intersectionality’] was used to capture the applicability of black feminism to anti-discrimination law…. The particular challenge in the law was one that was grounded in the fact that anti-discrimination law looks at race and gender separately. The consequence of that is when African-American women or any other women of color experience either compound or overlapping discrimination, the law initially just was not there to come to their defense.”

In 1991, Crenshaw was part of the legal team representing Anita Hill in her famous accusations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Crenshaw states that because Hill’s cause was taken up by white feminists, often in opposition to African-Americans who defended Thomas, Hill’s identity as a black female was nullified: “She simply became a colorless woman, and we as African American women feminists were trying to say, ‘you cannot talk about this just in gender terms—you have to be intersectional—there is a long history you cannot ignore.’”[1]

In Crenshaw’s calculus, white Americans’ deep-seated racism was displayed starkly in their reaction to the “not-guilty” jury verdict in O.J. Simpson’s 1995 double-murder trial. She states: “[I]t was for me, as an observer, a bone-chilling moment, because I and others of my generation are the post-civil rights generation, we didn’t grow up around lynchings or white riots or really seeing the bare face of white rage…. So white rage, group punishment—these are the ingredients that formed lynching in the past. And that was one of the most frightening moments that I experienced.”

In 2013 Crenshaw commented on the racial dimension of yet another highly publicized interracial homicide—Hispanic neighborhood-watch captain George Zimmerman’s 2012 killing (allegedly in self-defense) of a black Florida teen named Trayvon Martin. “When jurors assess the reasonableness of the claim of self-defense,” wrote Crenshaw, “that assessment can’t help but have race and gender dimensions to it…. The threat is attached to the Black body. The idea that a Black person might feel threatened by a White person is almost incomprehensible.”

The election of Barack Obama as U.S. President in 2008 did nothing to shake Crenshaw’s belief that America and its institutions remain rigged against black people. As she wrote in February 2009: “While there is certainly reason to celebrate, one danger in overclaiming what the moment means is that we all may confuse this particular milestone—one in which a spectacular man breaks through a monumental racial barrier—with the broader reach of King’s dream, that of ending the everyday racial realities that shape the lives of everyday people.” Moreover, she cautioned against “premature claims that this [is] a ‘post-racial’ era.”

In a 2013 article which she co-authored for The Nation, Crenshaw lashed out at Republicans for their efforts “to install highly restrictive and unnecessary voter identification laws previously blocked by the VRA [Voting Rights Act], knowing full well the negative impact those laws will have on people of color and poor people.” Deriding “calls to ‘get beyond the black/white paradigm,’” she stated contemptuously: “In this new post-racial world, we are to seek remedies for racial inequality without using the ‘r’ word and [are] particularly admonished to avoid any reference to specific forms of anti-black racism.”

Deeply suspicious of traditional American values such as “liberty” and “freedom,” Crenshaw says that these terms “have had a very torrid sort of history with respect to race and equality.” “I think about [Orval] Faubus standing in the schoolhouse door,” she elaborates. “I think about owners of restaurants during the attempt to integrate them using an axe to say, (a) I don’t want any African-Americans in my establishment, and (b) it is my right protected by the Constitution as a property owner and as an individual to express my liberty to discriminate as much as I want to.”

In 2015, Crenshaw was featured in the “Ebony Power 100” list; she was #1 on Ms. Magazine’s list of “Feminist Heroes”; she was honored as one of Harvard Law School’s “Women Inspiring Change”; and she was recognized by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education as one of the “Top 25 Women in Higher Education.” Over the years, she also has received awards from the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law and the ACLU.

In addition to her duties at UCLA and Columbia, Crenshaw was the Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics’s Gender Institute from 2015-18.

Further Reading:Kimberle Crenshaw” (AAPF.org); “Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality” (New Statesman, 4-2-2014); “The Left’s New Favorite Multisyllable Buzzword: Intersectionality” (American Thinker, 3-21-2019); “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” (by Kimberle Crenshaw, 1989); “Interview [with] Kimberle Williams Crenshaw” (PBS.org, 4-22-2005, re: the O.J. Simpson jury verdict); “Whites Who Kill Blacks More Likely to Escape Punishment” (Black Press USA, 8-27-2013, re: Trayvon Martin case); “Dr. King’s True Legacy: A Lesson for Progressives in the Age of Obama” (by Kimberle Crenshaw, 2-27-2009); “Why We Can’t Celebrate” (by Kimberle Crenshaw, The Nation, 7-8-2013).

 

Footnotes

  1. Crenshaw describes how she felt, witnessing large crowds of black women protesting in support of Clarence Thomas: “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.” When African-American presidential candidate Herman Cain, a conservative Republican, faced similar allegations of sexual harassment in 2011, Crenshaw was quick to condemn him as being unfit for leadership. In an article co-authored with radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, Crenshaw wrote: “Sexual harassment is no private problem, readily compartmentalized, or a merely symbolic disqualifier. The allegations of sexual harassment go to the core of Mr. Cain’s qualifications to lead. Even lacking certainty about facts, what emerges as the Cain story unfolds is a picture of a man with significant deficits in terms of temperament, judgment and, potentially, veracity.”

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