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How can Critical Race Theory be used as a practice paradigm for Social Work?

        Critical race theory first appeared as a movement of scholars and activists, mainly legal scholars and civil rights activists, who identified the intersection between racism and power as the central point of analysis when considering issues like civil rights, equality, and the law (Bell, 1992; Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1996; Delgado & Stefancic, 2012).  Critical race theorists, often diverse and at times splintered in their beliefs, identify two central, uniting themes: racism is common to, not a deviation from, modern society, and this racism serves a larger social, economic, and psychological purpose aimed at maintaining power and control in the hands of the dominant class (Crenshaw, 2002Delgado & Stefancic, 2012).  Critical race theory has evolved over time to include a certain type of research methodology which elevates the importance of experiential knowledge/storytelling, and the use of counter narratives to complicate and challenge our understanding of traditional, positivist research methods such as double bind, quantitative research (Critical Race as a Methodology, 2015).  In doing so, critical race theory has situated the experiences of people of color (and, by extension, other victims of oppression) as the sources of knowledge and discovery and has elevated the voices of the oppressed to the position of authority and challenged the dominant narrative.  


As social work practitioners, critical race theory provides a unique opportunity to combine our person-in-environment perspective and our clinical wisdom with research methodologies to produce new knowledge and to create a new way of knowing centered on social work values and ethics.

        Critical race theory can best be described as a theory insofar as it makes a claim about a particular phenomenon.  In other words, critical race theory takes the experience of racism in modern American society (particularly as experienced by individuals of color) and evaluates what racism is (both overt and implicit) and sheds light on the purpose of racism as a mechanism driving social structures and power differentials.  In seeking to provide a fuller interpretation of racism in America by using experience-near narrative data, critical race theory takes on an a posteriori approach to knowledge generation.  Critical race theorists then use that frame to evaluate the racist implications inherent in legal, social, and economic structures (Bell, 1992; Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1996; Delgado & Stefancic, 2012).


 From this nuanced understanding of racism, critical race theory has inspired writings from varied populations-- LatCrit, AsianCrit, TribalCrit, feminist, and LGBTQ critical writers (Critical Race as a Methodology, 2015; Delgado & Stafancic, 2012)-- aimed at deconstructing systems of power predicated on unjust principles and aimed at maintaining oppressive power structures.

         There are clear areas of intersection between social work and critical race theory.  Mainly, both critical race theory and social work focus on the person-in-environment as a point of departure for inquiry.  Whether evaluating a program or understanding an individual’s experience, social work and critical race theory value the subject’s location within a sociohistorical, economic, political, gendered, and racialized environment.  In doing so, both social work and critical race theory hold dear the concept that individuals, families, communities, agencies, governments, and systems emerge within a context of intersecting identities. Additionally, critical race theory and social work both originate from a place of critique for the purpose of elevating the oppressed.  Social work enjoys a long history that involves giving voice to the voiceless and being on the side of the oppressed. Critical race theory grew out of a similar philosophical place—recognizing the marginalization of people of color and seeking to identify it, understand it, and change it. As such, it becomes clear that critical race theory might make valuable contributions to social work practice that have not been previously articulated.

          Although the findings generated using critical race theory, at times, might be challenging to codify and generalize, critical race theory does, in fact, provide us with valuable, transferable, information.  For example, the experience-near, qualitative approach of critical race theory which emerged to identify and assess contemporary issues in the legal field has already been used to evaluate the field of education (Critical Race as a Methodology, 2015).  Therefore, when evaluating social work practice, education, and research in the current sociopolitical environment, the use of critical race theory as a framework for analysis might prove to be provocative and relevant in interesting, particular ways.  

Critical race theory can help to further evaluate systems within social work through a more overtly racialized (and subjugated more generally) lens than previously considered, thusly exposing some latent racism inherent in social work practice, education, theory, etc.  In doing so, social work can reify its position as a field that honors and values the experiences of the most vulnerable members of our society.

          Using critical race theory as a theory of social work has the potential to result in considerable avenues of inquiry, areas of possible research, and even theory development.  Furthermore, as we continue to work with individuals, in communities, and through systems in a sociopolitical environment characterized by racialized, gendered, and nationalistic rhetoric we must evaluate the role we play and the ways in which we may be, unwittingly or intentionally, perpetuating systems of oppression.  For example, critical race theory is a crucial theory for recognizing how much of our contemporary diagnostic frameworks are, actually, steeped in racial assumptions that center whiteness and do not consider the realities faced by our clients on a daily basis (McGee & Stovall, 2015).


          It is crucial therefore, for the purposes of ethical practice, that we become beacons of a paradigm that truly challenges systems of power and works to deconstruct racialized oppression. Critical race theory provides the theoretical mechanisms through which we can accomplish precisely that.



Bell, D. (1992). Faces at the bottom of the well: the permanence of racism. New York: Basic Books. 


Crenshaw, K.W., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., and Thomas, K. (Eds.). (1996). Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: The New Press.


Crenshaw, K.W. (2002). The first decade: Critical reflections, or a foot in the closing door. UCLA Law Review, 49(5), 1343-1373.

Critical Race as a Methodology. (2015). ASHE Higher Education Report, 41(3), 34-56.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical Race Theory : An Introduction, Second Edition. New York: NYU Press.

McGee, E. O., & Stovall, D. (2015). Reimagining critical race theory in education: Mental health, healing, and the pathway to liberatory praxis. Educational Theory, 65(5), 491-511.

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