Assessing Critical Race Theory in Education and Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice

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Scholars often use Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Bourdieusian analyses with the aim of studying inequities in education. Despite their usefulness and popularity, a theoretical discourse between the two frameworks has not yet transpired and the two are sometimes constructed as incompatible, if not at odds. The argument in this essay is three-fold: 1) CRT has never fully engaged with Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, 2) Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice and CRT, although distinct, are not necessarily in opposition, and 3) CRT and Bourdieusian concepts have the potential to inform each other, resulting in a more nuanced engagement of the interplay between structure, agency, and racial realities in education.

Keywords: critical race theory, sociology of education, black education

An Overdue Theoretical Discourse:

Pierre Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice and Critical Race Theory in Education

Critical Race Theory in education and Pierre Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice are widely used by scholars to better understand inequities in education (see Edgerton & Roberts, 2014; Howard & Navarro, 2016). Despite the preponderance of both frameworks in education research, no work has put these two theories in conversation, assessing their similarities and examining how, if at all, the theories might inform each other. Even Tara Yosso’s (2005) theory of Community Cultural Wealth, which was partly a Critical Race inspired critique of Bourdieusian frameworks in education, was not necessarily a conversation between the two theories. Beyond simply being an intriguing theoretical exercise, employing both frameworks in tandem might facilitate novel insights concerning students of color—and Black students in particular—as well as the interplay between structure, agency, and racial realities. My argument, in part, is informed by literature about Black life in the U.S.

During the height of Jim Crow segregation, two noted authors, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, critiqued Richard Wright’s Native Son, deeming it a protest novel (see Baldwin, 1998; Ellison, 1964). Protest novels, they argued, prioritized protest, militancy, and message over the quality of the story and the humanity of characters. According to the two authors, protest novels were incapable of creating an accurate portrayal of the complex humanity of Blacks. A Black person is not simply a consequence of a socio-political context, Ellison (1964) argued, but rather “a product of the interaction between his racial predicament, his individual will…Thus, he, too, in a limited way, is his own creation” (p. 112). In education research about Black students, a similar tension exists concerning engaging with racist structures and Black students’ agency.

Critical Race Theory (CRT), a theory birthed from protest, insists scholars take account of the ways race and racism are endemic to society (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012). While much education research neglected the role of racism in education, scholars took a bold stance, employing CRT to argue that race and racism matter in education (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Pierre Bourdieu (1984), a French sociologist, theorized a foundational framework of studying societal reproduction and power structures. Both theories, by themselves, have limitations in analyzing students’ racialized experiences and positioning. By employing Pierre Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, as informed by CRT in education, however, scholars might better study the interplay of students’ agency, or will, and societal structures with race in mind. To concretize use of the frameworks, I use literature concerning Black students attending historically white institutions (HWIs)1 of higher education as a conceptual case. 

Given the power of CRT in education to highlight racialized minorities experiences and Bourdieu’s usefulness of studying reproduction of inequality, I refer to literature concerning Black students attending HWIs. Research concerning this group is particularly useful to concretize the frameworks because Black students at HWIs are a) racially minoritized b) often report more negative experiences and have

 In this piece I show how CRT in education and Bourdieusian frameworks might be used in concert advantageously to engage in more nuanced analyses of educational inequities. My argument here is three-fold: 1) CRT has never fully engaged with Bourdieu, 2) Bourdieu and CRT, although distinct, are not necessarily in opposition, and 3) CRT and Bourdieusian analyses, if used in tandem, might result in a more nuanced engagement of the interplay between race, structure, and agency in education. In doing so, I first provide brief descriptions of both CRT and Bourdieu. I then put the theories in conversation, highlighting their congruence and describing how scholars might employ both theories in tandem.

Assessing Critical Race Theory in Education and Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice 

 In assessing CRT and Bourdieu, I provide short descriptions of each framework. CRT and Bourdieusian analyses, like all frameworks, have strengths and limitations. I make mention of perceived limitations of both frameworks in this section before returning to them in depth in my discussion of what Bourdieu and CRT might learn from each other. To be clear, these descriptions are not exhaustive. My aim, however, is to provide a working understanding of both frameworks.

Critical Race Theory in Education

CRT came about as a response to Critical Legal Studies—a legal framework created to challenge the law’s role in reifying class hierarchies. Although intended as a social justice framework for addressing and challenging oppression, the Critical Legal Studies approach was limited. A group of scholars argued that Critical Legal Studies scholars unduly focused on class and diminished the role of racism (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012). Given Critical Legal scholars’ inability to “come to terms with the particularity of race” (Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995, p. xxvi), the CRT movement began in the 1980s as legal scholars began to identify and develop common principles and guideposts to better engage with the role of racism in structural oppression (see Yosso, Parker, Solórzano., & Lynn, 2004; Delgado & Stefancic, 2012).

Drawing from CRT in the legal field, Ladson-Billings and Tate first introduced CRT to education in 1995. A CRT analysis demonstrates, “as West suggests, that ‘race matters,’ and as Smith insists, ‘Blackness matters in more detailed ways’” (as cited in Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 52). As a framework, CRT is at its best when its lens is directed at identifying racism and the racialized nature of different aspects of education. Using the interdisciplinary perspective of CRT, scholars use conceptual tools such as racial microaggressions (Solórzano et al., 2000), racial battle fatigue (Smith, Hung, & Franklin, 2011), and stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) to better understand manifestations of racism in education. Motivated by the goals of a more equitable society and transformative societal change, CRT in the field of education continues to evolve methodologically and conceptually to study the changing nature of race and racism in education (Howard & Navarro, 2016).

Key concepts, core assumptions, and limitations. Critical Race Scholars in education draw upon various tenets or offer different propositions depending upon their analysis (e.g., Harper, Patton, & Wooden, 2009; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Yosso, 2005). While CRT in education does not have a singular definition, CRT scholars often draw upon at least five tenets: 1) the centrality of racism and the interconnected nature of forms of oppression (e.g., classism or sexism), 2) the challenge to dominant ideology, 3) a commitment to social justice 4) the valuation of experiential knowledge, and 5) an interdisciplinary approach (Solórzano, 1997). In what follows, however, I only highlight two themes within CRT in education that are especially useful in how one might employ CRT and Bourdieusian thought in tandem.

Racial realism and centering race. A CRT analysis centers race and racism, but also engages with how race intersects with other identities and forms of subordination (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). This concept assumes that Black students, for example, are not all the same, and have varying experiences depending on their unique mutually constitutive identities of gender, class, sexuality, and other identities (Crenshaw, 1991). Beyond centering race and racism, however, a CRT analysis also operates under racial realism. 

In education literature, racial realism is often understood as an acceptance of the permanence of racism in society and education (see Patton, 2016). Derrick Bell, who coined the term “racial realism,” argued that a racial realist perspective “enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph” (1992, pp. 373-374). Bell used legal realism, a pragmatist form of understanding law, as a model for constructing racial realism. Similar to legal realists (Miles & Sunstein, 2008), Critical Race scholars often understand racial realism in different ways. Bell’s understanding of racial realism, for example, is sometimes critiqued for being overly pessimistic and deterministic (Powell, 1992). Critical Race theorists therefore “walk a fine line between promoting a hermeneutics of skepticism under which racism is inevitable and everywhere, and insisting that racism can be eliminated” (Harris, 2011, p. 349).

A racial realist perspective in higher education can free scholars to imagine new questions, methods, and research sites that can offer a wider scope of analysis of Black students’ experiences. In other words, questions concerning the permanence of racism such as, “Does race and racism play a role in higher education?” is already answered in the affirmative. With an acceptance of racism as a fact, research can move beyond demonstrating that racism matters and searching for negative racialized forces or encounters. Racial realism can be used to show the multitude of ways—from the positive to the negative to the mundane—that race matters in students’ everyday lives.

Valuation of experiential knowledge. Critical Legal scholarship was limited in its analysis of inequality by neglecting to listen to the lived experiences of marginalized people oppressed by structural racism (see Yosso et al., 2004). CRT served as a corrective. In a similar manner, CRT scholars in education hold that the experiential knowledge and histories of students of color can provide valuable insight to studying and eliminating educational inequities.

The unique voice of racially marginalized groups, through counterstorytelling and, more generally, qualitative methodologies, can complicate and/or disprove prevailing narratives about marginalized peoples (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012; Solórzano, 1997). Critical Race scholars take seriously the voices of people of color experiencing educational inequities, arguing “that we must look to experiences with and responses to racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism in and out of schools as valid, appropriate, and necessary forms of data” (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002, p. 37). Given their unique position, their voices, experiences, and stories—often obscured by dominant groups’ positions—can illuminate realities of race and racism. For example, while the majority of students might be satisfied with student services and feel a great sense of engagement with the campus (Harper & Hurtado, 2007), a CRT lens examines how racialized minorities experience the campus and just how race informs their experience.In this way, CRT scholars can use the individual experiences of marginalized persons to analyze and critique institutional policies and initiatives.

Potential limitations. In education literature, CRT is sometimes limited in its analysis of 1) agency and 2) intragroup diversity. CRT analyses of agency, as I highlight in greater depth later, revolve around students’ resistance (Solórzano & Bernal, 2001). Less work, however, examines students’ agency without centering oppressive structures. Another potential limitation of CRT analyses are examinations of intragroup diversity. While CRT engages with certain intersecting identities (e.g., race and gender), some scholars have noted the theory’s difficulty in engaging with intra-racial class differences (e.g., Leonardo, 2013). Similarly related to intragroup diversity, CRT is limited in its analysis of engaging with the ideas or perceptions of racialized minorities that are in alignment with ideas which CRT is against (e.g., colorblindness or adopting deficit-based assumptions of people of color). CRT usefully identifies people of color, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who propagate deficit-based, stereotype-riddled narratives of people from the same racial groups (e.g., Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). A CRT analysis, however, is limited in its exploration of how people of color come to adopt such narratives and beliefs. 

Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice

Pierre Bourdieu’s work centered on social and cultural reproduction, specifically, the power and structures that perpetuate inequality (1986). His theory aids in comprehending how groups in power, such as the wealthy and/or influential, remain in power, and how objective societal structures that exist for all inform the subjective behaviors exhibited by individuals. Bourdieu focused the actions, behaviors, and struggles of agents, as well as the role of societal structures and personal histories shaping those actions (Gonzales, 2014; Lizardo, 2012).

Key concepts, core assumptions, and limitations. Most education analyses focus on cultural and social capital (Lareau & Weininger, 2003; Yosso, 2005), yet the other pieces from his “toolkit” are similarly important (Emirbayer & Johnson, 2008).  Capital, field, and habitus, which I describe below, are the three theoretical tools that Bourdieu uses to explain practice.

 Capital. Bourdieu is credited with being the first to theorize social capital (Portes, 1998), and his conceptualization of cultural capital is heavily used and cited in education research (see Baez & Musoba, 2009; Edgerton & Roberts, 2014). Rather than a status symbol, however, capital might be understood as a toolkit (see Edgerton & Roberts, 2014). By highlighting the key concepts that constitute social and cultural capital, the qualities that make up this toolkit can be clarified.

Social capital refers to the type, quality, and amount of resources within one’s network in addition to the maintenance and size of the network (Portes, 1998). Depending on the characteristics of one’s network, social capital can facilitate access to resources and other forms of capital, such as economic or cultural capital. Cultural capital is comprised of repertoires, social and cultural competencies, and knowledge of pertinent information for a given field (Edgerton & Roberts, 2014). For example, Black students who attended predominantly white private, preparatory schools might have some of the cultural capital, or tool-kit of skills and habits, for them to easily adjust to elite HWIs. Cultural capital, however, is bound to the time period and location. Thus, context is required when applying Bourdieu’s social and cultural capital theory to an educational issue (Bourdieu, 1984; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; Edgerton & Roberts, 2014; Baez & Musoba, 2009). Bourdieu uses the concept of field to engage with context.

Field.Fields consist of complex relationships and have specific forms of cultural and social capital (Edgerton & Roberts, 2014). Bourdieu (1984) likens fields to worlds, or social arenas that have their own, often tacit, rules or principles. Examples of fields can be any social world and can span anywhere from classrooms, to organizations, to college campuses, to higher education in general. In these fields, agents are engaged in “the pursuit of distinction” and competing for capital or power (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 226). The value of one’s social or cultural capital, then, depends on the field. Bourdieu and Wacquant note that “capital does not exist and function except in relation to a field” (1992, p. 101). In addition to the particular rules of the field, and field-specific capital, one’s behavior in that field is determined by the actor’s habitus.

Habitus. Habitus is described as the dispositions one learns at a young age as a result of social class, culture, and family. One’s habitus is durable and can change, depending on what the person experiences, thereby manifesting the interplay of the possible and the probable (Pinto, 1999). In other words, habitus mediates the relationship between subjective and objective structures. Objective structures include the conditions that exist as a reality for all, while subjective structures include the individual actions people take. The objective structures shape much of one’s agency.

  Habitus gives one a feel for the game in a field, or “le sens pratique,” which is roughly translated to “a mode of knowledge that does not necessarily contain knowledge of its own principles” (Bourdieu, 1990, as cited in Reay, 2004). One’s habitus shows others in the same field whether or not he or she belongs. Bourdieu (1984) employs a useful example of handwriting to describe the context specific and unconscious nature of habitus. Like handwriting, habitus is expressed differently depending on the field (e.g., paper, canvas, or whiteboard), but still bears a distinctive style.

A strength of Bourdieu’s work is explaining why some groups engage in specific behaviors, while others do not (Bourdieu, 1990). The formula for practice, Bourdieu suggested, could be understood as [(habitus)(capital)] + field = practice (Bourdieu, 1984). Habitus determines the capital one brings to a particular field, which influences subsequent practice. For example, capital can broadly be understood as the skills and repertoires necessary to manage the obligations of being a college student. A Bourdieusian analysis views students as agents with the potential to succeed academically and develop capital, because or in spite of objective structures. The agency groups display, however, is shaped by objective structures.

Potential limitations. Bourdieusian analyses of education have at least two potential limitations: 1) engaging with reflexivity and 2) accounting for the racial context of U.S. Bourdieu’s framework has been critiqued for holding that the average person lacks the awareness to make sense of their social positioning and everyday situations (e.g., Reay, 2004; Sayer, 2005). Secondly, Bourdieu’s framework was tailored to the French context of domination and societal reproduction, which centered on class (Baez & Musoba, 2009). In the United States, at present, many other identities come to fore and shape inequality, including racial, gender, religious, and sexual identity. By itself, Bourdieu’s framework was not fashioned to analyze inequality in the U.S. context.

 The qualities, functions, and histories of both theories are certainly unique. Considering both frameworks’ aforementioned limitations, which I expound upon in latter sections, I suggest that CRT and Bourdieu might play complimentary roles in a more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of certain topics of race and education. In what follows, I put Bourdieu in conversation with CRT, addressing Bourdieusian analyses’ assumed weakness of deficit framing as well as how the two frameworks can be used in studying Black students attending HWIs.

Putting Bourdieu in Conversation with Critical Race Theory

Cited in over 1500 scholarly works since its publication, perhaps the most well-known example of a discourse between CRT and Bourdieu is Tara Yosso’s “Whose culture has capital? A Critical Race Theory discussion of Community Cultural Wealth” (2005). Yosso argues that popular notions of cultural capital render students of color as culture-poor and white, middle and upper class students as culture rich. Dominant forms of cultural capital, the norms displayed by white, middle and upper-class students, are celebrated and affirmed in school, while non-dominant cultural forms are unrecognized, unappreciated, and sometimes looked down upon.

Yosso points out that traditional understandings of Bourdieu’s theory wrongly viewed cultural capital as a “how-to” guide for educational success as opposed to a critique of schooling and society (2005). She argues that some scholars then attribute achievement gaps to minoritized students’ inability to assimilate, or adopt the dominant cultural forms and practices displayed by white, middle-class students. Based on this misinterpretation of Bourdieu, scholars might suggest that students of color simply abandon their cultural practices and adopt white, middle class, cultural norms for increased academic achievement. Asserting that such understandings of cultural capital paint students of color from a deficits-based view (Valencia, 2012), Yosso introduces a framework informed by CRT, Community Cultural Wealth, to better understand, affirm, and harness the non-dominant forms of capital, or cultural wealth, present in marginalized peoples’ communities (2005).

Considering Yosso’s position as a Critical Race scholar, and the prevalence of cultural capital as a conceptual framework in education literature, challenging popular misconceptions of cultural capital was a valuable theoretical move. Yosso (2005) presents a necessary critique of traditional misinterpretations of Bourdieu’s work. Her work, however, was in conversation with traditional appropriations of Bourdieu, and not Bourdieu’s theory of societal reproduction, itself. Bourdieu’s theory, of course, is more than its critiques and misunderstandings. Some scholars, however, have interpreted Yosso’s critique of deficit-based interpretations of Bourdieu as a critique of Bourdieu’s work in general (e.g., Hughes & Giles, 2010; Martinez, Chang, & Welton, 2017; Samuelson & Litzler, 2016). As a result of the preponderance of deficit-based misinterpretations of Bourdieu, Yosso’s critique of such interpretations, and the practical usefulness of Community Cultural Wealth, a theoretical discourse between Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice has not yet transpired.

My point here is neither to challenge nor to question the value of Community Cultural Wealth. I am in accordance with Yosso’s critique of mainstream understandings of cultural capital on all accounts. Yet, while the utility of Community Cultural Wealth is evident based on its continued use as a generative frame of analysis in education research, I suggest that Bourdieu and CRT might be used in a different, useful way that takes account of the interplay of race, structure, and agency. First, however, I demonstrate the ways in which CRT and a Bourdieusian approach are congruent. Then I describe how I use Bourdieu and CRT in tandem.

The Congruence of Bourdieu and CRT

Given that Bourdieu and CRT are sometimes portrayed as at odds, I first show how, in some ways, they are aligned. While distinct frameworks, yet, they are neither competing nor contradictory. Rather, I argue that the two theories are compatible, and can even inform each other. Both frameworks engage in a) critiquing deficit-based thought; b) demystifying reproduction of society; and c) describing the interplay of culture and structure. To be clear, I am not arguing that one can use either theory interchangeably, I am only suggesting that some of their qualities are aligned in order to justify using both in tandem. 

Critiquing deficit-based thought. Bourdieu and Passeron’s work (1990), as Yosso mentioned (2005), was at base a critique of society and schooling’s mode of reproducing class hierarchies; not a critique of marginalized peoples’ cultures or argument for adoption of dominant cultural styles. Contrary to deficit interpretations of Bourdieu, I argue that CRT and Bourdieu similarly oppose portrayals of marginalized groups that discount the role of institutional, often oppressive, structures.

Critical Race theorists seek to challenge dominant ideologies that “blame the victim,” or suggest the material, negative circumstances of disenfranchised and marginalized groups are the result of their own doing (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Yosso, 2005). An example of blaming the victim or deficit-thinking would be an argument hinging on anti-intellectualism in the Black community as the cause of the lower academic achievement of Black students in comparison to their counterparts of other races (e.g., Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). Challenging dominant ideologies which employ deficit-thinking is often seen as a core tenant of CRT (see Solórzano, 1997). In the spirit of challenging deficit-based thought and empowering marginalized peoples, Yosso theorized Community Cultural Wealth (2005).

A deficit-based interpretation of Bourdieu’s cultural capital might attribute low achievement or sense of belonging in the academic setting to Black students’ culture. Bourdieu and Passeron however, argue just the opposite stating, “It is impossible to take culture as a concrete totality, indivisibly responsible for its own causality” (1990, p. 187). They make clear throughout their work that objective conditions or structures often determine peoples’ subjective dispositions or cultural norms. Thus, oppressive structures, not the oppressed, themselves, are the cause of their circumstance. Bourdieu, himself, viewed the work of sociology as a martial art: “I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks” (“Sociology is a martial art,” 2016). As Yosso pointed out (2005), such unfair attacks, in the form of victim-blaming rhetoric and deficit-based ideologies, ironically used misappropriations of Bourdieu’s theory or cultural capital as justification. Continuing Bourdieu’s analogy, CRT and Bourdieusian thought are akin to Kung Fu and Karate, two unique martial arts, with similar goals of self-defense. Thus, while Bourdieu and CRT are certainly distinct, the frameworks are similar in their critiques of oppressive structures and in their defense of the marginalized.

Demystification of reproduction in society. An educational system predicated on meritocracy and equal opportunity, Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) argued, “confers on the privileged the supreme privilege of not seeing themselves as privileged” (p. 210). CRT and Bourdieu are united in bringing to light the ways in which privilege and domination work in society.CRT pointedly shows how seemingly non-racial ideologies, phenomena, or circumstances, are just the opposite, that is, shaped by race, racism, and white supremacy. In a Critical Race theorist’s challenge to dominant ideologies, one makes visible the manifestations of white privilege and refute “the claims that educational institutions make toward objectivity, meritocracy, colorblindness, race neutrality, and equal opportunity” (Yosso & Solórzano, 2005, p. 122).

Much like CRT, Bourdieu is aimed at demystification. While Bourdieu was primarily concerned with class, and CRT with race, both frameworks aim to show that institutions of education are not neutral, contributing to the reification of established racial and/or class hierarchies. Additionally, both a CRT and Bourdieusian framework would be suspicious of supposed meritocracy in the system of higher education and challenge frameworks that understand “the system as the system asks to be understood” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, p.159).

The forces that Bourdieu and Critical Race theorists describe are different, Bourdieu addresses social class in France, and CRT, white supremacy. Both frameworks, however, analyze the way such forces are reproduced. In CRT, race and racism are seen as permanent, acting as “the often invisible substance that in many ways structures the universe of modernity” (Winant, 2012, p. 605). Bourdieu argued that social class, in the French context, structured society and was reproduced generation after generation. Overt racism and overt classism are both impermissible in the social sphere, but scholars of both traditions argue that they simply manifest in new, subtle ways, with similar oppressive results (e.g., Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Lamont, 2012).

Interplay of practices and structures. Through CRT and Bourdieu, scholars can learn about macro-structures and institutions from the individuals’ personal experiences and behaviors. While the theorists use different conceptual tools, both camps of researchers might look to the micro to learn about the macro. In Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture (1990), the authors examine how the seemingly meritocratic French education system was informed by pedagogical norms that favored the upbringing of upper-class students, and excluded working class students. Scholars drawing from Bourdieusian thought often examine the taken for granted behaviors or practices of groups in order to learn how social status is reproduced generation after generation.

 Critical Race theorists similarly analyze how the concrete behaviors and experiences of individuals are manifestations or results of racist structures. For example, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a foundational CRT legal scholar, examined the experiences of Black women who were the victims of rape and domestic violence at the hands of men (1991). Their experiences, Crenshaw argued, were the result of intersecting racist and sexist policies, institutions, histories, and structures as opposed to isolated, aberrational personal matters. Education scholars employing CRT often examine the ways in which the everyday experiences of people are products of racists structures. From the relationship between Black students’ experiences with racial microaggressions and the campus climate (Solórzano et al., 2000), to an analysis of the campus environments and ideologies that give rise to racially themed parties (Garcia, Johnston, Garibay, Herrera, & Giraldo, 2011), CRT is useful for analyses connecting individual racialized encounters to larger structures of racism.

Bourdieu and Critical Race theorists are somewhat similar in their understandings of culture and structure. The role of culture is often a site of contestation in the scholarly and political realm in terms of its role in disparities in academic achievement (see Hays, 1994). Culture is a force that can potentially influence students’ academic success or failure, persistence or attrition, and engagement or disengagement. While CRT and Bourdieu conceptualize culture in different ways, neither view culture as an entity entirely of its own making.

Bourdieusian and CRT analyses both address the interplay of culture and objective structure. Bourdieu, for example, attempted to dissolve the binary between structure and culture or practice with his use of habitus (Wacquant, 2016). In Critical Race analyses, however, structure and practice seem more disparate concepts. My point here, however, is to demonstrate that both theoretical approaches refuse to see behavior or culture in a vacuum divorced from objective structures. 

Using Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice and CRT in Concert

Bourdieu responded to critics of Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture in 1990 arguing that some scholars both oversimplified and distorted his theory of reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, p. vii). He even acknowledged that critiques of the various misappropriations of his work were fully warranted. More recently, scholars (e.g., Edgerton & Roberts, 2014; Lareau & Weininger, 2003; Emirbayer & Johnson, 2008) have identified the misappropriation of his theory of reproduction as well.

Rampant misinterpretations of Bourdieu have led to necessary critique (e.g., Yosso, 2005), but also a preemptive dismissal of Bourdieu’s analytic potential to study Black students and other racialized minorities in education. In this section, I examine how Bourdieu and CRT together, can provide a stronger analysis of racialized educational inequities. Both Bourdieusian and Critical Race scholars have something to gain from the other. I show how certain strengths of CRT addresses limitations of Bourdieu, and vice versa.

What Bourdieu does for CRT’s analysis of agency. The Critical Race theorist is armed with analytical tools to understand and explore the deleterious impacts and insidious nature of racism and white supremacy (e.g., Solórzano, 1997, 1998). In analyzing the wicked structures and manifestations of racism, CRT is strong. Agency, however, is under-theorized. In CRT research in education, agency is often “acknowledged” or “considered” through a mentioning, but rarely is agency defined or studied in a nuanced manner. Solórzano and Bernal (2001) offer perhaps the most thorough engagement of agency in CRT in education research. They argue that their resistance framework acknowledges human agency and can analyze how people negotiate and challenge oppressive structures.

Solórzano and Bernal’s (2001) conception of agency, however, is only understood through a lens of resistance. This framework is useful in analyzing practices that are clear responses to oppression such as joining campus advocacy groups or protesting. Yet, the framework has less utility in analyzing other agentic behaviors that are not clearly related to oppression. For example, a resistance framework lacks the tools to analyze a Black student’s decision to participate in a school’s National Society of Black Engineering chapter but skip Black Student Union meetings. As such, one might be hesitant to characterize the totality of Black students’ experiences and engagement at an HWI along a spectrum of resistance. To be sure, studying agency is no simple task (see Emirbayer & Mische, 1998), but Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice might aid CRT in providing another layer of nuance in studying students’ agency and understanding their actions in different contexts.

 Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice is commonly critiqued for being deterministic (King, 2000; Reay, 2004; Solórzano & Bernal, 2001), yet, when using the concept of field and habitus, Bourdieu engages with agency. Agency, in a Bourdieusian sense, does not exist within the individual, but within fields, or relationships between other people and contexts (see Emirbayer & Mische, 1998).

Using the concept of field, the CRT scholar might learn more about previously unexplored relationships that influence Black students’ experiences, practices, and agency (Emirbayer & Johnson, 2008). For example, while most studies focus on students as the units of analysis (Harper, 2014), a field-informed approach might examine students as well as other players—faculty, administrators, or campus police—that influence Black students’ practices and forms of engagement at HWIs. How and why students interact with different actors in higher education would then be understood as a form of agency.

 What CRT does for Bourdieu’s lack of reflexivity. Bourdieu argued that scholars should be wary of “picturing all social agents in the image of the scientist” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 70), thereby avoiding the academic tendency to unduly intellectualize participants’ actions. Some scholars argue, however, that in an effort to avoid over-intellectualizing the behaviors of people, Bourdieu devalued the voices and reflexive capabilities of the common person (Couldry, 2005; Winant, 2012). Bourdieu’s own theoretical analyses, rather than the voices of participants, took precedence in his work. In this manner, Borudieu’s Theory of Practice, has been critiqued for underestimating the ability of the average person to understand their social situations (Reay, 2004).

Similarly, while useful in better understanding practice, and the interplay between subjective actions and objective conditions, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, in particular, is critiqued for the lack of reflexivity attributed to the agent (Sayer, 2005). Bourdieu’s framework tends to overemphasize the role of the unconscious in habitus, thereby neglecting the reflexivity that all humans possess and exercise (Reay, 2004; Sayer, 2005). In emphasizing the ways structures and histories shape participants’ actions, tastes, and dispositions, some Bourdieusian analyses inadvertently neglect to engage with how participants, themselves understand their actions and styles (Reay, 2004). Yet, in accordance with CRT, by valuing the accounts of participants, we might learn more about their thought processes and engage with their reflexivity.

Without debating the usefulness of attributing the embodiment of structure in peoples’ decision making and dispositions, a Bourdieusian analysis might stop short of exploring how people make sense of their dispositions, themselves. CRT, however, might attenuate a Bourdieusian impulse to gloss over an actors’ consciousness and reflexivity. As mentioned earlier, CRT holds participants’ experiential knowledge and narratives concerning race as a legitimate source of data and guiding frame of analysis (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002).

W.E.B. Du Bois, whose work informs CRT, and his concept of a double-consciousness can also serve as a reminder for Bourdieusian analysts to engage with peoples’ reflexivity. Black people in the U.S., Du Bois (1969) argued, have to live a double-life, both as Black people and as U.S. citizens. Unlike Bourdieu’s (1984) construction of habitus in Distinction, Du Bois (1969) highlights the agent’s consciousness and reflection: “from this must arise a painful self-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence” (p. 221). Drawing from Du Bois and CRT, a Bourdieusian scholar is better equipped to engage with the reflexive nature of people’s racial realities.

What Bourdieu does for CRT’s problem of heterogeneity.If the CRT researcher is not careful, the scholar might fall into a trap of authenticity, delegitimizing voices of students of color who are not in alignment with the tenets of CRT. For example, a CRT analysis argued that college students who disliked a CRT informed diversity course, were unaware of the role socialization and race plays in their lives and “unknowingly participate in the marginalization of Populations of Color” (Alemán & Gaytán, 2017, p. 1). The authors, despite the potential veracity of their critique, fail to delve into the social realities and experiences of the students they study. Consider students of color who are similarly misaligned or in opposition with assumptions held by CRT. By itself, CRT provides limited conceptual tools to provide a nuanced analysis of how students come to adopt such ideologies or beliefs.

CRT research might also struggle with homogenizing Black students’ experiences. To be clear, CRT explicitly states that Black students are not all the same. Yet, while honoring and engaging with heterogeneity in Blackness as an identity, CRT informed research often paints Black collegians’ experiences at HWIs in a uniform agonizing manner (Harper, 2008, 2012). Consider the use of microaggressions as a topic of study and concept in CRT research (e.g., Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). While useful in analyzing the subtle ways racism manifests in daily interactions, scholars have critiqued the microaggressions research project for suggesting that all racial minorities identify and experience microaggressions in a similarly negative manner (see Lilienfeld, 2017).

 Bourdieu’s habitus can aid in engaging with students’ complex and varying histories and social positioning.  For example, what might a scholar make make of a case where the minority of Black students perceive the campus racial climate as positive while the majority of the Black student population view the climate as hostile or chilly? A Critical Race scholar might stop an analysis there, simply determining that students who perceive the campus as welcoming as unworthy of study. Habitus, however, compels the Critical Race scholar to continue the analysis, examining how the students’ K-12 experiences led them to feeling welcome on campus. In other words, a Black student who attended an elite, predominantly white private high school might have a habitus aligned with an elite HWI, and consequently feel at ease.

 What Racial Realism does for Bourdieu. While created with enough malleability to be used in different contexts, Bourdieu theorized cultural reproduction in the French context in particular with a focus on class (Baez & Musoba, 2009). Even in his work in Algeria, however, Bourdieu did not attempt to engage with race (see Reay, 2004). Race, in the U.S. context, plays an integral role in domination (Bell, 1989, 1992; West, 1993), which forces the scholar to reconfigure a model of the dominant class’ attributes. Without such a reconfiguration, Bourdieusian concepts are ill equipped to analyze race, racism, and subsequently the particular context of Black students at HWIs. Neglecting race undermines Bourdieu’s framework by simplifying the true complexity of his Theory of Practice. Informed by CRT, and racial realism in particular, Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice might be better equipped to study the racial realities of Black collegians.

Over 80 years prior to Bell’s article on racial realism (1992), Du Bois expressed a similar sentiment. According to Du Bois, Blacks live under the Veil of Color (1903). Any action taken by a Black person is seen through the Veil of Color, a racialized lens. Recall my description of Bourdieu’s likening of habitus to handwriting; a distinctive style employed by the agent, recognizable regardless of the circumstance. Consider implementing the notion of the Veil of Color in Bourdieu’s handwriting example (1984); imagine that the writer’s script is like most others, except in every situation, whether on the chalkboard, paper, or computer screen, the writing is red. If a Black font color is used by the majority, then color, as opposed to style, becomes the noticeable quality of red script. I employ Bourdieu’s example of handwriting here to show how a signifying factor, such as race, may overpower other, subtler, distinctions. In this manner, a racial realist perspective, informs habitus to meet the needs of the U.S. context.For example, consider a Black and white sophomore who have similar education backgrounds and earned the same high grade on a business exam. Despite their similarities, non-Black students, faculty, and staff might view the Black student through a racialized lens. Rather than a strong student, others might just see him for his race—as a Black student. While Bourdieu can elucidate specifics of students’ backgrounds and dispositions, CRT can highlight how race matters in the development of dispositions as well as the formation of capital.


Du Bois (1935), concerning sociological research of the early twentieth century, explained that the literature review in his Black Reconstruction in America was, “of sheer necessity an arraignment of [White] American historians and an indictment of their ideals” (p. 725). As scholars continually ignore race and racism in higher education research (Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Harper, 2012), the aforementioned arraignment, led by Critical Race theorists, continues. Education research is indebted to the many scholars, who for so long, have asserted and analyzed how race, racism, and Blackness in particular, matter in education (e.g., Bell, 1989, 1992; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Solórzano et al., 2000). Because of their work, scholars are free to do something different—accept the humanity of Black students and the permanence of racism as a given.

Scholars, practitioners, and policymakers alike will be more equipped to serve students by better understanding students’ racial realities. The stakes are high. Yet, the intersection of race, inequality, and education is complex and continually evolving. As such, the frameworks we use must be similarly nuanced, evolving to better engage with this complexity. Beginning a theoretical conversation between CRT and Bourdieusian thought, this paper is an invitation for further work to consider how CRT might inform other theories to better understand the racialized realities of education.


1 A historically white institution of higher education’s traditions, practices, and symbols were largely designed for and by whites (see Allen, Epps, & Haniff, 1991).



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