Yale News

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and civil rights scholar best known for coining the terms “intersectionality” and “critical race theory,” was presented with Yale School of Public Health’s Winslow Medal on Friday. 

Crenshaw visited New Haven on Feb. 3, where she was greeted with an award ceremony and a teach-in hosted by School of Public Health faculty on the concepts pivotal to her scholarship and career in academia. The teach-in specifically highlighted the significance of Crenshaw’s scholarship as the debate around critical race theory and its role in the American classroom has become fraught with controversy. 

“In our department, our focus is health equity and justice, and Professor Crenshaw’s work has had profound indirect and direct impact on the work we do in our department and public health itself,” wrote Trace Kershaw, chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at  the SPH. “From core conceptualizations of critical race theory to intersectionality, her scholarship has impacted how public health equity and justice scholars look at how unfair structures and systems drive inequities.” 

The C.E.A Winslow Medal, named after School of Public Health founder Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, is recognized as the school’s highest honor. It was created in 1999, and its past recipients include Dr. Anthony Fauci and former Yale University Provost Judith Rodin. 

While most former Winslow Medal recipients have contributed directly to research in the field of medicine and public health, the award was specifically created to honor those who emulate the values of its namesake, namely “his concern for the social factors affecting health.” 

“Public health as a field is inherently interdisciplinary — I think we often think of it largely as a field of epidemiology, but the field is impacted by theory and methods from a variety of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, psychology, and law,” Kershaw wrote. 

Crenshaw was initially selected as the YSPH Winslow Medal awardee in 2020, but her award ceremony was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Melinda Irwin, associate dean of research at the School of Public Health and chairperson of the Winslow Medal Award Committee, explained that Crenshaw’s work on critical race theory and intersectionality was much less ubiquitously understood in the lay committee prior to the pandemic. 

“Interestingly her seminal contributions on these topics date back to the 1990s, yet are more important now than ever before,” Irwin wrote. “At YSPH we believe structural and social determinants of health are primary factors impacting improved health for all. Awarding Dr. Crenshaw with our school’s highest honor was a pivotal moment in YSPH’s 100+ year history”   

Crenshaw, who currently holds teaching posts at both Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, initially rose to prominence after publishing a seminal paper introducing the theory of intersectionality into contemporary feminist discourse. Though the idea existed in scholastic circles prior to Crenshaw’s writing, she was the first to formally recognize the concept. 

Crenshaw’s experiences assisting Anita Hill’s legal team during her sexual harassment claims against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas heavily influenced her early interest in intersectionality. In her writings, Crenshaw reflects on the motivations of the two conflicting spheres driving public opinion: white feminists backing Hill and African Americans backing Thomas. 

Intersectionality theory holds that social justice frameworks must focus on the intersection of marginalized identities, rather than sticking to single-issue frameworks that assume people will naturally attend to those intersections on their own. 

“Without [frameworks] that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation,” Crenshaw explained in a 2016 TED Talk entitled “The Urgency of Intersectionality.” 

Crenshaw’s scholarship has recently been mired in controversy amid an acute onset of right-wing attention to critical race theory and its integration in American classrooms.  

In January of this year, Florida’s Department of Education — under the leadership of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis — announced their decision to ban College Board’s pilot AP African American Studies course. First introduced in the 2022-2023 academic year, AP African American Studies is the first College Board pilot course since 1952 and the only ethnic studies course ever developed by College Board.

DeSantis’ decision, announced as many speculate on the governor’s ambitions to run for president in 2024, may have played a role in College Board’s decision to revise the curriculum before expanding to a larger slate of schools. The altered curriculum, announced on the first day of Black History Month, has been widely criticized by those on the other side of the aisle for scrubbing out all mentions of intersectionality, Black feminism or the Black queer experience

This ongoing national debate about the importance of the theories she developed in teaching African American history underscored Crenshaw’s Yale visit. Daniel HoSang, professor of Ethnicity, Race and Migration and American Studies, moderated the teach-in with Crenshaw that was hosted after her awards ceremony.

“We talked about the kind of role that scholars and students within these disciplines can play in transforming these bodies of knowledge,” HoSang said. “I think it was just a really powerful reminder of the way we can use theory to understand and unpack everyday events in our lives.” 

The teach-in was open to Yale students, community organizers, public school teachers and parents in the New Haven community. HoSang described the environment as “electric” as this combination of groups gathered to engage with Crenshaw’s pioneering work in social justice and education reform. 

The event was cosponsored by many departments and units across Yale, including the African American Studies and Education Studies departments, as well as community organizations local to New Haven. Developments in College Board’s AP African American history curriculum — as well as the discourse resulting from Ron DeSantis’ ban on its integration — featured prominently in the teach-in. 

Crenshaw received her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1984. 

Ines Chomnalez writes for the University desk covering Yale Law School. She previously wrote for the Arts desk. Ines is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in History and Cognitive Science.