I first learned of critical race theory during my first year in seminary. Bored with all the white, theology books that’d been assigned in my classes, I decided to read Brian Bantum’s Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christianity Hybridity, a book I’d learned about through theologian Jonathan Tran’s essay, “The New Black Theology: Retrieving Ancient Sources to Challenge Racism.” Bantum’s book resonated with me; in it, he argues that in the same way biracial people often hold two identities at once, Christ also held the two identities of God and man. “Christ’s existence is the mulattic assertion of utter difference inhered within one person,” writes Bantum. “In Christ this inherence, this hybridity, is not tragic, but rather the tragic is overcome.”
In the years since my supplemental seminary reading, CRT has attracted the ire of conservatives, who critique the theory as anti-white and anti-American. But while many Republican legislators are trying to ban the teaching of CRT in public schools, when asked to actually define CRT, they struggle to give even the broadest definition.
Admittedly, defining a theory is hard. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s by legal scholars, CRT attempts to provide an account for why racial inequalities continue to persist even after civil rights legislation was passed in the ’60s. Through the work of scholars like Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, critical race studies exposed how institutional racism is a central feature of the American experiment.
But not everything that critiques racism or thinks critically about racialization is critical race theory. And for those who are just beginning to think critically about racial identity, the creation of whiteness, and how race interacts with our faith and theology, the list below offers some helpful places to start. Some of the authors listed below, like Willie James Jennings and Brian Bantum, engage directly with the work of CRT; others, like Pamela Lightsey, are more focused on related ideas, like intersectionality. All are bound to make you consider the complexities of categorizing people by their race and how the consequences of those categorizations continue to manifest themselves in politics, media, health care, education, economics, and our churches.
If all this sounds complicated and abstract, I’d agree. But simple answers to the complex questions of how we form a more just society will not be sufficient in imagining new ways for humans to live into God’s beloved community. So, get to reading!
1. Race: A Theological Account. By J. Kameron Carter (Oxford University Press, 2008).
“Race: A Theological Account is an initial installment in filling this significant lacuna in modern knowledge about how the discourse of theology aided and abetted the process by which ‘man’ came to be viewed as a modern, racial being,” writes Carter in the prologue.
2. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. By Willie James Jennings (Yale University Press, 2011).
“Indeed, it is as though Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality,” writes Jennings. “It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered, and demanded native peoples enter its cultural logics, its ways of being in the world, and its conceptualities.”
3. Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity. By Brian Bantum (Baylor University Press, 2016).
“The interracial or mulatto/a body is the site that unveils race as a tragic illusion,” writes Bantum. “The tragic, so often accounted to mulatto/a peoples as a bodily inferiority or a profound loneliness, is instead seen as the necessity of negotiation within multiple worlds that refuse them or which they themselves refuse.”
4. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. By M. Shawn Copeland (Fortress Press, 2009).
“Since the radical and expedient subjugation of a people to demonized difference in the fifteenth century, all human bodies have been caught up in a near totalizing web of body commerce, body exchange, body value,” writes Copeland in the introduction. “Taking the black woman’s body as the starting point for theological anthropology allows us to interrogate the impact of that demonization in history, religion, culture, and society.”
5. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. By Kelly Brown Douglas (Orbis, 2015).
“Stand Your Ground law signals a social-cultural climate that makes the destruction and death of black bodies inevitable and even permissible,” writes Douglas in the introduction. “It is this very climate that also sustains the Prison Industrial Complex, which thrives on black male bodies. Most disturbing, this stand-your-ground climate seems only to have intensified as it continues to take young black lives such as those of Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, and Jordan Davis.”
6. Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology. By Pamela R. Lightsey (Pickwick Publications, 2015).
“Not unique to womanist scholarship is this work’s intersectional analysis that explores the impact of race, gender, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation on the theological understandings of LBTQ Black women,” writes Ligthsey in the introduction.