Kimberlé Crenshaw, Architect of Critical Race Theory, Awarded Highest AALS Honor

The winner of the sixth AALS Triennial Award for Lifetime Service to Legal Education and to the Law needs no introduction. The Association is proud to award this honor to Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw.

During her extraordinary 35-year career, Professor Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” developed the framework for critical race theory, created the #SayHerName campaign, worked to advance gender equality across the globe, and blazed a path forward for countless women in the legal academy.

The current face of societal collapse, according to political media across America, Professor Crenshaw has been a major focus of vitriol since the Black Lives Matter protest movement began. Since protests renewed in the summer of 2020, she’s been the target of relentless political hostility as the concepts she created have been misappropriated, misinterpreted, and repackaged as a catch-all focal point. 

As Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig (Boston University School of Law) said when nominating Professor Crenshaw, “The contribution of the theory of intersectionality alone would merit this award, but Professor Crenshaw’s impact through her research and leadership has been much broader and deeper than deepening our intellectual understanding of people’s experiences. Few professors, few people, could claim the kind of impact that Professor Crenshaw has had on our society.”

Professor Crenshaw’s CV is extensive: She received a JD from Harvard Law School in 1984 and an LLM from the University of Wisconsin in 1985. She joined the faculty at UCLA School of Law in 1986. In 1989, she published her landmark paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” and transformed her career. In 1991, she joined Anita Hill’s legal team during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 1995, she joined the faculty at Columbia Law School. In 1996, she founded the African American Policy Forum, which she still runs today. 

The Forum focuses on antiracist and social justice work, one aspect of which is the #SayHerName movement that Crenshaw started in 2014 to call attention to the (often invisible) Black women and girls who are victims of police violence. During the pandemic, she has been hosting the internet series “Under the Blacklight: The Intersectional Vulnerabilities that Covid Laid Bare,” which received a WEBBIE award recognition, and has continued producing her hit podcast Intersectionality Matters!.

Crenshaw’s work was influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution. She drafted the background paper on race and gender discrimination for the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism. She serves on the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academies of Science and on the board of the Sundance Institute. She has lectured and delivered workshops across six continents to help advance greater gender equality.

Crenshaw is the co-author of Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected. Her writing has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Review, the National Black Law Journal, the Stanford Law Review, and the Southern California Law Review. She is a co-editor of Critical Race Theory: Key Documents That Shaped the Movement. She has received lifetime achievement awards from Planned Parenthood and the ERA Coalition, and was voted one of the 10 most important thinkers in the world by Prospect Magazine. She is a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute, and she currently sits on the board of the Algorithmic Justice League.

Professor Crenshaw has always been—and, it seems, always will be—booked and busy. Through it all, she has maintained her dual appointments as the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and the Promise Institute Chair on Human Rights at UCLA Law School. The logistics of her schedule are, in a word, complex. She is bicoastal, splitting her time to teach at Columbia in the fall and at UCLA in the spring. 

Now, she has even more obligations: she must find time in her schedule to wage battle against a nation-wide political effort to distort and discredit her life’s work. 

Crenshaw was born in Canton, Ohio, an historically industrial city in the flat northeast of the state. The Civil Rights Act passed when she was just five years old. She grew up in what she has called a civil rights household: both of her parents were teachers, and while her father engaged in what Crenshaw has described as a more spiritual form of racial advocacy, her mother was directly involved with desegregation efforts in the Canton community.

The promise of the civil rights movement formed an integral aspect of her worldview. The choice to pursue a law degree, to advance that promise, was natural. 

“I was one of a cohort of students who went to law school because we wanted to run the next lap of the race toward racial justice,” she says. “We went to Harvard because Derrick Bell was there—or, so we thought. He left just before we arrived. Many of us became intellectual partners in trying to synthesize what we thought his approach to thinking about law through a racial justice lens would be. That agitation became the nucleus of an intellectual community.”

It was clear to Crenshaw’s cohort that the promises America made in 1964 remained unfulfilled for Black and brown people, and that institutions were responsible for limiting the scope of what could be accomplished now that white supremacy was (theoretically) no longer encoded in law. Harvard ignored their requests to increase the diversity of the student body and refused to include Derrick Bell’s work in their curriculum. Unless something else changed, the institution was set up to reproduce the effects of mandated inequality ad infinitum. 

In response to Harvard’s refusal, the cohort organized their own course to teach Derrick Bell with support from invited scholars from across the country. Soon, the group had grown to include supportive White faculty members as well. “A lot of my early articles are essentially cumulative transcripts of debates we were having with each other,” Crenshaw says. Critical legal theorists, feminist critical theorists, and her cohort worked in “concentric circles” around and with each other to develop their ideas. 

“I was trying to figure out how to integrate the experiences and expectations of groups of people who were not centered in legal education and law writ large. Some of what I was doing was translation, some of it was elbowing a way in, some of it was elevating stories of how law shaped the experiences of people who were multiply-situated and at a disadvantage relative to power,” she says. She knew these ideas were not at the center of traditional law, but she also felt a strong conviction that these were the questions her generation of lawyers were meant to address. 

Crenshaw’s collective would eventually coin the phrase “critical race theory” and revolutionize the way we understand how race operates under the law. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw, UCLA Law with Renée Hutchins, University of Maryland Law during a Plenary Session on law school clinics and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, UCLA Law with Renée Hutchins, University of Maryland Carey Law during a 2016 AALS Clinical Conference Plenary Session on law school clinics and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

At the same time, Professor Crenshaw was developing her own theory about how the law interacts with various aspects of identity. As a Black woman, she knew from personal experience that different forms of discrimination do not operate independently of one another. Rather, they overlap and compound upon themselves. She saw no point in being a professor who happened to be a Black woman, or in approaching law as it had always been done. She wanted to work from the vantage point of a Black woman law professor. And that vantage point was not a common one in legal education.

She both aligned and diverged with the theories being developed around her. While she and other race theorists agreed that race was significant, they were not aligned in their understanding of what race was, nor in their opinions about the best way to address it. More traditional theorists focused on neutralizing or ignoring race, under the assumption that law was neutral after subtracting race as a factor. She, somewhat dangerously, did not agree. She experienced a similar aligned and divergent relationship when she began to interrogate gender in the same way. 

“It’s always been a risk, I guess,” she says. Particularly, she pointed out, since the nature of her work at the crossroads of gender and race, combined with the limited diversity of the legal academy, guaranteed that any interested and receptive audience that her writing found would be small.

“What drove me was not doing clever things to be recognized within a writing tradition. I was really trying to understand certain social problems and how to frame them in ways that made them both visible and actionable.”

In 1989, she officially named this phenomenon “intersectionality” and published her landmark paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”

The paper radically altered feminism forever. Not, she says, that she realized it at the time. Instead, “I recall going to some job talks, and it occurred to me that I could be pissing off everyone in this room!” 

At the time, she says, she wasn’t fully aware that her work existed so far outside the contemporary norms of legal scholarship. In fact, there wasn’t a lot of literature addressing her concerns at all. 

“I thought I was approaching the questions that mattered to me in the same way that a lot of other people approached the questions that mattered to them,” she says. “What seemed relevant to them—and not—seemed to be shaped by world views that were grounded in their material reality. I thought I was doing similar things, but I was doing it from a different historical position relative to the legal institutions…I didn’t anticipate the work would be framed in the way it ultimately was.”

But her work did, in fact, have immediate reverberations within the legal academy. And everything that followed over the next 30 years made Crenshaw one of the most influential feminists and lawyers in history.

It is impossible to separate Professor Crenshaw’s incredible contributions to legal education and the law from the unusual context that now surrounds them. Crenshaw is in a truly singular position. 

Both of the academic concepts she is best known for have traveled outside of scholarly circles, entered the mainstream consciousness, and become our everyday language. In the case of intersectionality, the adoption has been relatively seamless. Even outside the context of legal scholarship, viewing the world through a prism of overlapping and compounding identities is a relevant and useful tool. 

The same cannot be said for critical race theory. In a catastrophic echo of the ways her thinking originally diverged from some of her contemporaries, the phrase has become catch-all shorthand for those who claim that talking about race at all is, in itself, racist. 

“It’s being lumped in with all of these stories, some of which are apocryphal, into a moral panic.”

The demonization began in earnest as a direct result of the June 2020 uprising against police-perpetrated racist violence. Lest multiple months of agitation lead to any progress toward dismantling institutionalized white supremacy, in September 2020, then-President Trump issued an executive order banning federal agencies from conducting diversity and inclusion trainings. The order claimed these trainings were “divisive, anti-American propaganda” and specifically cited intersectionality and critical race theory as problematic terms. 

Though President Biden’s administration rescinded the order almost immediately upon taking office the following January, the damage was done. By early 2021, politicians and pundits nationwide and beyond had latched onto the words and initiated a concerted, focused effort to censor them. A wave of backlash swept through every level of American education, from kindergarten to university. Parents, incited equally by misguided anger and manufactured panic, forced their way into school business to ensure their children were not being taught critical race theory. Legislatures aggressively pursued options to enact bans at state and local levels. Educators faced serious consequences for using teaching materials that fell outside a set of narrowly-defined parameters.

Shortly after the November 2021 elections, the Virginia gubernatorial race was fresh in Professor Crenshaw’s mind. Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin had—very publicly—denounced critical race theory and galvanized his supporters to crowd their local school board meetings as they sought to outlaw the concept—and, by association, any teaching or investigation of race whatsoever—from school curricula. An escalating series of protests ended with actual fistfights mere days before the election. Then, Youngkin won. 

Why is this happening, and is there any use in attempting to set the record straight? “I am asked this question every day,” Crenshaw says. “And every day I have a different answer because it’s a developing story.” 

Whereas intersectionality “escaped the law” two decades ago and traveled far and wide to become a commonly-used concept in multiple other disciplines, critical race theory did not. “It became popularized,” Crenshaw says, “because critics wanted to use it to stoke fear and division. When an idea travels not because people are engaging with the ideas but because they are trying to appropriate the geography and repopulate it with their own ideas, then you have trouble.”

“It’s not as if I can just go clear this up, or even have a debate. Critical race theory is a prism and a set of questions to be asked and applied to a wide variety of contexts. The current crisis is not an engagement of ideas. It’s an effort to attach a term that people don’t know about to fears that they are fully in touch with.”

“It’s using a legislative approach to shut down both subject matters and viewpoints about those subject matters…that’s not free thinking. That’s not inquiry. That’s about power.”

Crenshaw now occupies two worlds: one in which public outcry is at a fever pitch, and one in which academic and good-faith engagement with critical race theory has also never been higher. For the last two summers, the Policy Forum has sponsored a critical race theory summer school consisting of five days of intense course work applied to and across a range of issues. The course is not limited to academics, and accepts students from all walks of life.  

“It’s a new frontier,” she says. “Now [critical race theory is] the thing that cannot be spoken about…it makes people want to know what it is. That has been energizing. A new generation of critical race theorists have come out of this moment.”

On the other hand, on a personal level: “I don’t think there are many people in the academy who are being positioned in the political culture as spelling the end of civilization as we know it,” she says. “It’s almost like watching a crazy movie… Can people totally make up a universe and position other people in it? That part is without a script for how to experience it.”

She worries that the academy writ large is not giving serious attention to the significance of politics being allowed to dictate what fields of study are permissible and which are forbidden. There is no reason to believe that what is happening to Professor Crenshaw and to critical race theory will end there. To her, it represents a significant threat to democracy.

“It’s no accident that in a period of time when our democracy is on the ropes, our freedom to think and articulate the many ways in which our realities around race fall far afield from the promises of democracy [is censored]… The weaknesses of our democracy are made that way in part because of racial injustice, and our inability to move as fully as we want against racial injustice is grounded in the ways in which our democracy is incomplete. This is all coming to bear right now.”

She is understandably concerned that racial justice work may experience a chilling effect, as newer scholars see her school of thought suddenly decried as unamerican and dangerous. Backlash against social progress, she pointed out, is not a new phenomenon, and it doesn’t move on quickly. Reconstruction, for example, was followed by a century of backsliding. 

“When people think this moment is limited to one school of thought, I just think: Is that what people thought in 1876?” After all, Reconstruction failed not because those against it had any spectacular drive or political might; rather, those for it simply failed to act. 

Professor Crenshaw’s contributions to the way we talk about and understand social justice issues cannot be overstated. She has shaped and expanded our global understanding of oppression and structures of power, and our reckoning with racial and police violence. She represents a lifeline for many people inside academia and out; she is the person who first provided a framework and a language to talk about their daily experiences. But the chaos of our current political context can make it difficult to keep the positives at the forefront.

 “I wonder if a lot of people are just thinking ‘wow, I’m glad I’m not her right now!’” she says. “I get a lot of people who give a thumbs up and say hang in there. People ask me if I’m okay. ‘If she survives this…’”

You might expect that the recipient of a lifetime achievement award would be receiving such an honor because they consider their lifetime of achievements to be more or less at a natural stopping point. Professor Crenshaw has already produced more than a lifetime’s worth of work. She has already had more than a lifetime’s worth of impact. But by no means is she the end of her career. 

As more jurisdictions enact bans on teaching and materials that refer to critical race theory, Professor Crenshaw’s work has shifted toward supporting educators and communities affected by this censorship. “You don’t learn this in law school or as a young academic. It’s uncharted terrain.”

She would also like to see the legal academy continue to take diversification seriously. “This is where I need to dig deep for encouragement,” she admits. “I don’t want this to be the high point [of efforts] to create a professoriate that looks more like the communities in which we live. 

“I want doors to be consistently and continuously pried open. In my mind, that means a constant interrogation about the ways that legal education as an institution contributes to its demographic profile, and how to undo that… I got my start as a young law student asking why our faculty looked the way it did. I hope students today are able to express the same skepticism and hope that we can put thought into action to shape the professoriate of tomorrow.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s impact on the legal academy and beyond, on the professoriate of today and tomorrow, and on feminism and racial justice work itself, is absolutely undeniable. It is best illustrated by the words of those she has influenced, both directly and indirectly. 

Dean Onwuachi-Willig, who nominated Professor Crenshaw for the Triennial Award, summed it up: “Professor Crenshaw is incredibly deserving of this honor because of her contributions to legal scholarship; to diversity in the legal academy through her inspiration and mentoring of many faculty of color, especially women of color; and her contributions to the legal curriculum.”

In support of her nomination, Dean Onwuachi-Willig compiled pages of similar stories. 

From Professor Ann Thomas (New York Law School): “Injustices cannot be addressed until they are made visible. Crenshaw makes the oppression of Black women visible. Through her activism she challenges us in real time to make our society more just and more equitable.”

From Professor Shaakirah Sanders (University of Idaho College of Law): “No other living legal academic is as a pioneering scholar and writer on civil rights [and] critical race theory… Whether she knows it or not, Professor Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality validates every woman of color on the globe. This theory now validates every queer person.”

From Professor Wendy Greene (Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law): “Professor Crenshaw is a global force for social and legal change… Without her courageous voice, I would not have fully embraced the possibility and necessity of situating Black women at the center of not only my legal scholarship and activism but also human rights advocacy and movements.”

From Dean Kimberly Mutcherson (Rutgers Law School): “I learned the term intersectionality from [Professor Crenshaw], and it literally gave me language to think about the complexities of my life and lived experience in more sophisticated ways… She has taught an entire generation of feminists that we must refuse to engage in scholarly work or movements that demand that Black women flatten or ignore our own experiences in order to placate others.”

From Professor Khiara Bridges (University of California, Berkeley School of Law): “Kim Crenshaw has given us a vocabulary that not only describes black women’s experiences in the law, but black women’s experiences in the world. When I first encountered Crenshaw’s work as a 2L in law school, I felt seen. I felt recognized. And I felt empowered to insist upon my visibility and the visibility of others who exist at the intersections.”

And from Professor Mari Matsuda (University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law): “Professor Crenshaw has pushed other scholars forward, challenging their ideas, and creating a platform for them. I know my own work and career would not have succeeded without this kind of intellectual community… Like Justice Ginsburg, Professor Crenshaw will look back at the end of her career and be able to say: women’s bodies are safer, women’s lives are better, women are taken seriously because of the work I did.”

While we all stand on the shoulders of giants, we rarely get to walk alongside them. Kimberlé Crenshaw is one such figure, whose life and light we are privileged to witness. The impact of her cultivation of community, of her support and mentorship, of her shining and steadfast example, is immeasurable. The Association is proud to add Professor Crenshaw to the “Law Professors Hall of Fame,” and to award her our highest honor.

The presentation of the AALS Triennial Award for Lifetime Service to Legal Education and to the Law will be aired during the 2022 AALS Annual Meeting. Tune in virtually at 12:35 pm Eastern on Wednesday, January 5, 2022 to watch.