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Critical Race Theory and its Application in Education: The School-to-Prison Pipeline


Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a sociolegal theory that aims to expose how racial inequality is reproduced through the action of legal structures and social constructs commonly considered just and normal. It has its origins in the 1970s Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement; a small group of academics focusing on how structural class inequalities were reproduced in the USA. CRT was initially developed to answer the inadequacy of CLS in addressing racial inequalities.

One of the pioneers of CRT was Professor Derrick A. Bell Jr., Harvard’s first permanently-appointed Black law professor, whose work looked at the legal codification of racism in the USA and how this reproduced racial discrimination and inequality in society, the economy, culture, and politics.

Derrick A. Bell Jr., former professor at the Harvard University School of Law.

Though there are different positions among CRT theorists, and though CRT is always changing along with legal doctrine and policy discourse, they all have the following in common.

  • CRT assumes that race is a social construct originated from the need to oppress and exploit people of color (POC), where the oppressive action is racism, which is a social construct itself.

  • It also assumes interest convergence, meaning that people from the dominant group (i.e., white people) will only support change towards equality if it will benefit them.

  • CRT gives space to the voices and experiences of POC through story-telling, valuing their insight in what life looks like in practice for a person from a minority group, facilitating POC’s vocality about racism, and empowering them psychologically and spiritually.

  • For CRT, this oppressive system is based on white supremacy, the belief that white people are the superior race, which is prevalent in society and influenced - as in reproduced or, potentially, deconstructed - by law. Consequently, white supremacy presents itself in white people controlling the great majority of political, economic, and cultural power as well as material resources, as they are deemed ‘more capable’ of retaining and managing these.

The idea of white supremacy is then maintained through differential racialisation; where the dominant group in society racialises and gives focus to specific racial minorities at specific times to support hegemonic arguments of racial superiority and inferiority.

  • If the law of a State can shape institutionalised white supremacy and, consequently, the oppression of POC, CRT theorists believe that it is possible to achieve racial social justice through changes in the law and institutions, which need to recognise institutionalised racism and prevent it. These changes would not necessarily answer individual racist behaviours, but they aggregate behaviour towards race, along with criticism of current institutions. Hence, they would deconstruct the social construct of race, fight racism, and help in reaching a more equal society where POC are not discriminated against based on race, but granted the same dignity and treatments, by law, of everyone else. For instance, as the independent researcher and CRT scholar Sara Ahmed said (in her book ‘On Being Included’), to reach racial equality, workplaces and institutions should use CRT to address the racialised structures embedded in the white supremacist culture.

Sarah Ahmed, independent scholar on feminism and race studies.

It is also worth mentioning the concept of intersectionality, which became popularised in the late 80s/early 90s by theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and focuses on describing how gendered and racialised systems of oppression interact, impacting people’s social and political experiences [see Intersectionality: A Concept].

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School specialises in the intersection of race and gender issues, and coined the concept of intersectionality.

Now, how does the application of CRT to institutional environments, such as education, work in practice? Let’s look at the example of the school-to-prison pipeline.

In his articleThe School-to-Prison Pipeline: Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Children and Adolescents’, Christopher A. Mallett, professor at Cleveland State University, defines the school-to-prison pipeline as the disproportionate effects that punitive environmental norms of schools in the USA have on certain groups of adolescents, particularly children of colour. Though he does not mention CRT in his review, he depicts a comprehensive picture of the phenomena. Over the last 20 years, schools in the USA have started to host security guards, school resource officers, security cameras, inflexible discipline codes, and rigidity in school punishment, especially in urban areas. All these punitive measures, though, are found by research to have impacted minority students significantly more than their Caucasian peers, leading them on a path that has been defined as a ‘pipeline’ going from schools to prisons. Most interestingly, these disparities cannot be explained by higher rates of student misbehaviour or the difficulties of living in poverty, but by race.

Data presented by Mallett indicates this issue:

  • African American students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers, representing 18% of students in the USA, but 39% of expulsions and 42% of referrals to law enforcement while in school, and together with Hispanic students, they represent 42% of students but 72% of those arrested for school-related offenses.

  • Compared with their white peers, racial minority students are more often disciplined for more subjective infractions or misbehaviours, which are the most common cause in suspensions and expulsions.

  • Adolescents of colour are overrepresented in the USA juvenile justice system, with African Americans referred to the juvenile courts for delinquency adjudication at a rate 140% greater than their Caucasian counterparts.

  • Together, Hispanic and African American youth represent 1/3 of the USA’s adolescents but more than 2/3 of the ones held in the juvenile incarceration facilities, and are respectively 3 and 6 times more likely to be incarcerated in comparison to white youth offenders.

To indicate how theorists use CRT to examine the school-to-prison pipeline phenomena, featured below are a number of exemplificatory articles addressing different aspects of this issue, these can be chosen as further reading based on interest. The application of CRT works in practice, as its application can change amongst academics and topics.

  • In their articleBeyond School-to-Prison Pipeline and Toward an Educational and Penal Realism,’ Kenneth J. Fasching-Varner and colleagues use CRT to analyse how the education system was intended to disenfranchise young POC for the benefit of white youth. They address that the economic interests of prisons and the prison industry played in school failure and prison proliferation, and rely on racial realism – a concept stemming from CRT – to build a theory of educational and penal realism, towards a new discourse about schools and prisons that empowers people who want to engage critically with how racism permeates the USA’s education and justice systems.

  • In their article“Just as Bad as Prisons”: The Challenge of Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline Through Teacher and Community Education’, Quaylan Allen and Kimberly A. White-Smith use CRT to address the role of educators’ training in shaping the school-to-prison pipeline and how this affects young black males in the USA schooling system. They focus on how dispositions toward black males influence educator practices, and suggest how education preparation programs that are critical of structural racism can play a role in the transformation of Black male schooling.

  • In their articleThe Confluence of Language and Learning Disorders and The School-to-prison Pipeline Among Minority Students of Color: A Critical Race Theory’, Shameka Stanford and Bahiyyah Muhammad use CRT to analyse the experiences of racial minority students with language and learning disorders in the school-to-prison pipeline in the USA. They focus particularly on the following points: the development and use of zero-tolerance policies in schools; the disproportionate and subjectively harsh disciplinary laws implemented in low socioeconomic status (“low-SES”) Title I schools, and how these laws may be fuelled by symbolic and institutional racism; the correlation between the school-to-prison pipeline; special education systems for minority students with language and learning disorders, and minority students of colour with language and learning disorders; the disproportionate impact of corporal punishment on African American students; and the role that federal and state laws such as the Federal Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the dismantlement of the school-to-prison pipeline for minorities with language and learning disorders.

  • In her articleDismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Trauma-Informed, Critical Race Perspective on School Discipline’, Stacey Dutil proposes CRT and the integration of trauma-informed practices as the correct tools to develop a trauma-informed school and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. This new approach of schools would account for the trauma caused to students of colour by the enforcement of schools’ disciplinary policies on them – who are disproportionately affected in respect to their white peers.



Adjei, K. (2021). What is Critical Race Theory? CrossRef.

Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included. Duke University Press. CrossRef.

Allen, Q., & White-Smith, K. A. (2014). “Just as bad as prisons”: The challenge of dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline through teacher and community education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 445-460. CrossRef.

Bell, D. A. (1995). Who's afraid of critical race theory. U. Ill. L. Rev., 893.

Dutil, S. (2020). Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline: A trauma-informed, critical race perspective on school discipline. Children & Schools, 42(3), 171-178. CrossRef.

Fasching-Varner, K. J., Mitchell, R. W., Martin, L. L., & Bennett-Haron, K. P. (2014). Beyond school-to-prison pipeline and toward an educational and penal realism. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 410-429. CrossRef.

Mallett, C. A. (2017). The school-to-prison pipeline: Disproportionate impact on vulnerable children and adolescents. Education and urban society, 49(6), 563-592. CrossRef.

Rollock, N., & Gillborn, D. (2011). Critical race theory (CRT). British Educational Research Association. CrossRef.

Simba, M. (2021). Critical Race Theory: A Brief History. CrossRef.

Stanford, S., & Muhammad, B. (2017). The confluence of language and learning disorders and the school-to-prison pipeline among minority students of color: A critical race theory. Am. UJ Gender Soc. Pol'y & L., 26, 691. CrossRef.

Video resource North Carolina's School to Prison Pipeline was produced for Youth Justice NC and a coalition of education advocacy organizations in North Carolina by students of the documentary film course Video for Social Change offered at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. It unpacks the policies and practices that are pushing large numbers of our most vulnerable students out of schools and into the criminal justice system. With voices from advocates, students, and teachers, this video implores us to ask what actions we can take in our community to resolve this challenging social issue.


Eleonora Aiello is a current Masters student at King's College London studying MA Education, Policy Society. She has a completed undergraduate degree from Università degli Studi di Milano in International Studies & European Institutions. Her current work involves working with children & young people with disabilities in secondary education.


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