Engaging in Critical Conversations About Race

In a new book—Critical Race Theory: A Primer—and in her role as associate dean for equity, justice, and engagement, Professor Khiara M. Bridges pushes people to ask the hard questions.

Professor Khiara M. Bridges
Professor Khiara M. Bridges

Boston University School of Law Professor Khiara M. Bridges was a second-year law student when she took her first course on critical race theory.

The course, taught by Kendall Thomas, one of the founders of the field, was “an epiphany,” she says.

“All the lights started turning on,” says Bridges, who is also a professor in BU’s anthropology department.

Although she had enjoyed first-year classes such as civil procedure, contracts, and property, those subjects didn’t seem as connected to what she wanted to do in her own life.

“I didn’t want to go to law school to learn about personal jurisdiction,” she says. “I wanted to go to law school to figure out why we have a racially unequal society when we have a Constitution that purports to guarantee equality. When I took that course, I thought, ‘I can use this theory to ask and answer questions that are so very important to me.’”

Now, Bridges is answering questions about critical race theory for everyone else. In her latest book, Critical Race Theory: A Primer, Bridges offers an overview of the basic principles of critical race theory and shows how the framework applies to contemporary events, including the police shooting of Stephon Clark; recent political debates over birthright citizenship; and President Trump’s ban on travel to the United States for people from predominantly Muslim countries.

Bridges identifies four basic tenets of critical race theory (and notes that other scholars have suggested there are between two and eight):

  • A belief that race is a social construction, not a biological entity
  • A belief that racism is a normal feature of US society
  • A rejection of traditional liberal understandings of racism and how it can be defeated
  • A belief that scholarship must be connected to people’s lived experiences

“Critical race theory is not a thought experiment; it’s not an academic exercise; it’s not an interrogation that’s removed from real lives,” Bridges says. “It’s very much concerned with justice with a capital ‘J’—what are people’s lives like on the ground.”

Critical Race Theory: A Primer, by Khiara M. Bridges
Critical Race Theory: A Primer, by Khiara M. Bridges

In the book, Bridges also acts as an arbiter of sorts for prominent debates among scholars of race. For instance, on the question of whether inquiries into Latinx people’s experience with race and the law qualify as critical race theory or whether they are part of a separate theory called LatCrit, Bridges says they definitely fall under the umbrella of critical race theory.

To say otherwise, Bridges explains, would imply that “critical race theory is incapable of interrogating Latinx people’s lives.”

Bridges brings the same rigorous approach she uses in her scholarship to her new role as associate dean for equity, justice, and engagement at BU Law. To really address systemic injustice, she says, institutions need to push beyond their comfort zones to ask hard questions about why people of color and other marginalized groups have been historically excluded and are presently underrepresented.

“I’m not very satisfied with easy solutions,” she says.

Bridges has written two previous books: Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization (2011) and The Poverty of Privacy Rights (2017). She says she felt there was a need for an introductory book on critical race theory because so many scholars in the field rely in their teaching on compilations of preexisting critical race theory texts rather than broader overviews of concepts and themes. She also hopes her book demonstrates the field’s relevance in a fast-changing world.

“The book shows the continued timeliness of this theory,” she says. “It’s more than 30 years old now—some would say more than 40 years old—and it’s just as cutting edge as when it was first articulated.”

At the end of each chapter, Bridges poses discussion questions for her readers. They are meant to be hard, she says.

“I want people to see that the answers to questions about the role that race plays in society—and the role that race should play—are not easy,” she says.

Reported by Rebecca Beyer

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