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Critical race theory pioneer to receive legal education’s top honor

3 minute read

REUTERS/Yara Nardi

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  • The Association of American Law Schools' Lifetime Service award is given out every three years

(Reuters) - The Association of American Law Schools will give its highest award to Kimberlé Crenshaw, who established the concept of intersectionality and helped to advance and define critical race theory.

Crenshaw, who is on the faculties of both Columbia Law School and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, will receive the 2021 AALS Triennial Award for Lifetime Service to Legal Education and the Legal Profession. Her recognition is particularly relevant amid growing attacks on critical race theory by conservatives in recent months, Crenshaw noted in a statement that accompanied the AALS’ announcement Thursday of her selection.

“I would have been delighted to have received the AALS Triennial Award under any circumstances, but it is especially heartening to be honored by my colleagues at a time in which critical race theory and intersectionality have become targets of censorship and legal prohibition in many parts of our country,” Crenshaw said.

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The award marks the second time in two months that legal education’s largest organization has publicly backed critical race theory, which argues that racism and prejudice are embedded within legal and other societal systems, and which emerged out of law schools in the 1980s. The AALS in early August released a public statement defending critical race theory and warning that laws banning its teaching set a dangerous precedent of government censorship. It was an unusual step for the group, which rarely weighs in on issues outside of legal education.

Republican lawmakers in more than 20 states have introduced legislation that would restrict schools from teaching about critical race theory and structural racism, with proponents of those measures arguing that the concepts are divisive and lead to intolerance.

“Looking back through today’s conditions, I do not take for granted how the liberty I enjoyed as a young scholar was guarded not only by those who found value in the substance of my work, but also by critics who defended my right to think, teach, and write,” Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw graduated from Harvard Law School in 1984 and began teaching two years later. She was among the small group of legal scholars who built upon the work of the late law professor Derrick Bell in the 1980s, holding conferences on race and the law and writing on the subject. Crenshaw coined the term "critical race theory".

She also pioneered the concept of intersectionality, which concerns how overlapping race, gender, class and other characteristics can intensify structural and systemic inequality and discrimination.

“Professor Crenshaw is incredibly deserving of this honor because of her contributions to legal scholarship, her commitment to diversity in the legal academy, her decades of providing inspiration and mentoring to students and faculty, and her contributions to the legal curriculum,” said Boston University Law Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig in a prepared statement.

Previous recipients of the AALS’ Lifetime Service award include retired University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas, who helped open doors for a generation of Hispanic legal scholars; Herma Hill Kay, who was among the first female tenured law professors in the country; and former Yale Law Dean Guido Calabresi. Derrick Bell also received the award in 2012.

Crenshaw’s award will be presented at the AALS’ annual meeting in January, which will take place virtually.

Read more:

Law school association: Banning critical race theory is censorship

Partisan war over teaching history and racism stokes tensions in U.S. schools

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