On October 3, Saturday Night Live opened with a parody school board meeting. “I’m so mad,” said actress Heidi Gardner, imitating an enraged parent. “Forget COVID. The real threat is critical race theory being taught in our schools.” She paused as the audience responded with laughter. “My question is,” she continued, looking around the room: “What is it? And why am I mad about it?”
Gardner’s performance echoes a very real phenomenon. When Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s Republican governor-elect, was asked what critical race theory was, he replied "I'm not going to get into the specifics of it because I don't understand it that much. But it's something... I don't care for." In May 2021, Natalie Cline, a conservative member of Utah’s state school board, listed phrases like “social justice,” “Social Emotional Learning,” and “critical self-reflection” as “euphemisms” for critical race theory. In October 2019, when sociologist Anne DeLession-Parson described CRT as “a framework for understanding the world that helps us understand that this entire country is racist” on a Fox news segment, conservative commentator Jesse Watters asked if she was implying that all White people in America were racist.
Discussions of critical race theory (CRT) often devolve into attacks like this. Former President Donald Trump described CRT as “psychological abuse,” branding it as the “left’s vile new theory.” In Missouri’s Rockwood school district, parents described it as “child abuse,” “racist,” and a form of “white shame.” Parents in Noblesville, Indiana branded CRT as a form of "indoctrination," opposing discussions of white privilege and even gender identity in the classroom. Other parents opposed the hiring of a diversity, equity and inclusion officer, describing the initiative as a product of CRT’s “left-wing ideology.”
It is easy for a phrase to be turned into a sound bite and weaponized in a national culture war, but CRT should not exist solely as a punchline or an avenue for “gotcha journalism.” With its implications in the classroom and at the voting booth, it is important to answer Gardner’s question: what exactly is critical race theory? And why are people so mad about it?
A Brief History of Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory is an academic framework that views history and modern-day society through the lens of race. For proponents of CRT, racism is interwoven into legal systems rather than simply expressed by individuals.
Before it became associated with schools, critical race theory existed as a branch of academic scholarship. As a precursor to Critical Legal Studies (CLS), critical race theory has its roots in the 1970s, emerging from a dissatisfaction with the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s. The first Workshop on Critical Race Theory was hosted in 1989, marking the official emergence of CRT as an organized field. CRT’s leading scholars argue that the civil rights movement promoted a colorblind politics that tried to erase race rather than continue to confront it. For Khiara Bridges, author of Critical Race Theory: A Primer, civil rights discourse assumed racism would simply end once individuals stopped thinking about it.
For CRT scholars, racism is too deeply rooted in American society to simply disappear with a few legal “cure-alls.” Basic tenets of critical race scholarship include an understanding of race as a social construct, the recognition of racism as omnipresent in America’s founding, and the underlying influences of various racially-charged stereotypes. Derrick Bell, the first Black tenured professor at Harvard University and a leading CRT scholar, cites zoning restrictions, persistent education disparities, and high unemployment rates as evidence of systemic racism in American institutions. Bridges also points to recent events, such as the killing of George Floyd and the pandemic’s disparate racial impacts, as further evidence. As CRT scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw puts it, recognizing the forces underlying these societal patterns “[tell] a more complete story of who we [as a nation] are.”
The (Political) Evolution of the Term
What does an academic framework look like when implemented in elementary school classrooms? According to a PBS article published in early November, there is little evidence that critical race theory is being taught to children on a widespread scale. While some students have been introduced to ideas central to the theory, such as concepts of “white bias” and the lingering effects of slavery, such concepts do not constitute a curriculum of true “critical race theory.” According to a July 2021 survey by NBC News, most teachers said K-12 schools are not requiring instruction on critical race theory, nor had they added the academic framework to their own classwork. According to Lisa Luten, a spokeswoman for North Carolina’s Wake County, CRT is “more of a theory in academia about race that adults use to discuss the context of their environment.”
Yet CRT’s political opponents claim otherwise. The CRT debate began shortly after the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests during the summer of 2020. On September 4, 2020, President Trump released a memo ordering the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding for federal employees' CRT training. The memo called the training a “propaganda effort,” introducing divisive language that would soon dominate local school board meetings.
Trump also attacked the 1619 Project, a New York Times project created by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project, which begins from the premise that the United States was founded when the first slaves were brought to the colonies in 1619, was labelled as “ideological poison” by the Trump Administration. While lesson plans and reading guides incorporating the 1619 Project have been introduced into classrooms, only school districts in Chicago, Newark, Buffalo, New York, and Washington, D.C. have announced 1619 Project-related events. However, this did not stop Trump from also releasing the “1776 Report” in January 2021, calling the project a “crusade against American history.” He even went a step further, warning that “if not removed, [the 1619 Project] will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” In doing so, Trump had ignited the first flames of a new culture war.
In May 2021, Republican members of Congress introduced a bill banning the teaching of CRT in federal institutions. Utah Representative Burgess Owens connected concerns with CRT on the federal level to school classrooms, introducing a resolution highlighting the dangers of teaching CRT in schools. In the memo, Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert accused Democrats of being “after our children. They pushed for segregated schools in the 60’s, and now they’re pushing this Critical Race Theory in our schools which is nothing more than modern day racism.” Neither Boebert nor any other representative quoted in the press release made an attempt to define critical race theory or provide evidence that it is taught in schools.
In June, Trump attended a GOP convention in North Carolina. When Trump called for a ban on critical race theory, he was met with resounding applause from his audience. On the crowd’s response, former Trump advisor Steve Bannon said, “I look at this and say, ‘Hey, this is how we are going to win.’ I see 50 [House] seats in 2022. Keep this up.” Bannon elaborated, explaining that critical race theory is a particularly salient issue for Republican leaders: “You’re going to see a lot more emphasis from Trump on it and DeSantis and others. People who are serious in 2024 and beyond are going to focus on it.”
While Republican motives are clear, what exactly they are attacking remains obscure. Trump decried educators’ use of the 1619 Project in public education, but gave little explanation for what else he opposes in the classroom. He’s not alone. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts announced that he was opposed to CRT shortly after the Republican Convention. Yet when asked to define it, he explained that the theory “starts creating those divisions between us about defining who we are based on race and that sort of thing and really not about how to bring us together as Americans” before recommending to the caller that they read about it on their own.
The obfuscation may be a political goal in itself. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, tweeted in March that “the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” Rufo’s meaning was far from cryptic. He wanted the term “critical race theory” to be a catch-all political soundbite, a war cry more symbol than substance.
Popular new outlets added more fuel to the flame. In April, May and June 2021, critical race theory was mentioned 1,640 times on Fox News. During that same period, the concept was mentioned just 250 times on CNN and 264 times on MSNBC. Charlie Sykes, longtime conservative commentator and editor at league for the Bulwark, explained that “you only need a handful of extreme comments on Fox News to create this picture out there that this is widespread. We do live in an age where anecdotes will always trump data.”
By August, it was clear that conservate tactics were working. Political fear mongering had quickly trickled down to local school boards, encouraged by the outrage of conservative political advocates and media outlets. By September 3, almost exactly a year after Trump released his memo, eight states—Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona, and South Carolina—had passed legislation restricting classroom content related to racism and sexism. 20 other states had introduced, or planned to introduce, similar legislation. At least 165 local and national groups have turned the right’s opposition to critical race theory into a political rallying point. Reinforced by think tanks, law firms, and activist parents, these groups have allied with families already frustrated over Covid-19 restrictions in schools. Activists and parents use CRT as a “catch-all” term to describe any equity and inclusion programs, despite most districts’ denial that they are teaching CRT. It is no coincidence that this conflation closely mirrors the language used by the Trump administration one year earlier.
A Tale of Two Debates
The critical race theory debate is not unprecedented. While CRT was emerging as an organized field in the 1960s and 70s, the fear was not that students would learn about racism, but that they would learn about sex. Accusations of classroom indoctrination dominated school board meetings. One New York Times article described “mistrust and hate on streets where good neighbors once lived.” Richard B. Bliss, a science consultant at Racine Unified School District, was called a “dirty communist traitor” for supporting a program about sex and family life in Racine, Wisconsin. Many advocacy groups went further, labelling school officials as purveyors of filth and pornography. According to Bliss, parents thought teachers were teaching sexual intercourse, rather than disease prevention, hygiene, and child care.
Opposition to sex education began in the late 1960s, when Billy James Hargis, the leader of the Christian Crusade, published a pamphlet entitled “Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” The John Birch Association quickly responded, calling for an “organized, nationwide...opposition to the now mushrooming program of so-called sex education.” Other advocacy groups, such as MOMS (Mothers Organized for Moral Stability) and POSE (Parents Opposed to Sex Education) were formed shortly after. By 1969, 19 state legislatures had considered measures to limit or outright prohibit sex education in public schools.
While morally-charged anxieties did exist in the 1960s, they were grassroots before they were politically coded. In September 1970, the Commision on Obscenity and Pornography, appointed by outgoing president Lyndon B. Johnson, recommended sex education for the nation’s youth. It was not until October 1970, over a year and a half after the Birch Association called for a nationwide opposition to sex education, that Richard Nixon declared there would be “no relaxation of the national effort to control and eliminate smut from our national life.” Ronald Reagan, California governor at the time, also called the controversy a “moral crisis.”
As in today’s CRT debate, the Republican party took advantage of the fact that families only have vague ideas of what happens inside the classroom space. Public education has always been a target for politically-charged debates for this reason. It is an issue that is simultaneously accessible for most adults to discuss and debate, but inaccessible to truly understand if they do not work in the school system. Regardless, most parents do not shy away from offering bold opinions with the authority of experts, because they see themselves as the frontline fighters when it comes to protecting their children. For politicians, classroom learning serves as the perfect avenue to address an issue that is personal for a large portion of American voters but can be safely distorted for political ends. However, unlike Nixon and Reagan, who stoked the flames of grassroots outrage, Trump seems to have ignited the fire himself, manufacturing a crisis from the top down.
So why can’t Republicans like Youngkin and Ricketts truly define what critical race theory is? It is because they are riding the coattails of a manufactured political crisis, one rooted not in real-world classroom practices but in a presidential administration using a tried-and-true conservative political tactic. Republicans are mirroring the strategies they used in the 1960s and 70s to fuel the flames of a culture war fed by conservative political aspirations.
It is no coincidence that the CRT culture war is rising right in time to lay the groundwork for the 2022 midterms. Already, Republicans like Blake Masters, a 2022 Senate candidate from Arizona, have slammed critical race theory as “anti-white racism.” Other candidates have vowed to make “parents’ rights” a central issue in 2022.
Despite its political motivations, there are real-world impacts of the CRT debate for teachers and students. Anthony Crawford, a teacher in Oklahoma, is already feeling the chilling effects of his state’s ban on teaching topics like systemic racism and implicit bias. “I don't want to talk about this knowing that it could be possibly a lawsuit or a possible way for me to lose my job,” Crawford worried. In addition, restricting the ability to learn about systemic racism can alienate students of color from conversations about American history, ironically sewing the very divisions that proponents of the ban argue need to be prevented in the classroom.
While support for CRT bans is spreading across the country, there is also emerging pushback. In July, Illinois became the first state to mandate Asian American history for elementary and high school students. In Connecticut, all high schools are set to offer African American and Latino studies by 2022. Writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lena Waithe penned an open letter in The Root supporting Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project. In the letter, Waithe and Coates explained that “this country stands at a crucial moment that will define the democratic expression and exchange of ideas for our own and future generations.” Citing state and local bans of the teaching of history and the 1619 Project, they called on “all people of conscience to decry this growing wave of repression” and labelled Republican efforts a “coordinated campaign” to suppress student inquiry.
Waithe and Coates call out the CRT debate for what it is: a product of political coordination, focused less on the reality of classroom learning and more on the political utility of classroom culture wars. As the issue continues to dominate school boards and campaign speeches, it is important not to lose sight of the historical origins and contemporary distortion of the term “critical race theory.” Allowing CRT to be weaponized as an amorphous, political sound bite does no good on the debate stage or in the classroom.