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Opinion Democrats can win the debate over critical race theory. Here’s how.

A lawn sign for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is displayed outside the Loudoun County School Board building in Broadlands, Va., on Sept. 28. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
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Democrats, beware: Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for governor of Virginia will serve as a template for Republican candidates eager to exploit fears of critical race theory by demanding “parental control” of education. Democrats must do a better job of responding than Youngkin’s hapless opponent, Terry McAuliffe, did.

The absolute worst thing you can say is what McAuliffe said: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” At some level, he was right; there would be chaos if every teacher had to run every lesson plan by the parents of every student. But his comment came across as tone-deaf after parents had spent 18 months supervising their kids’ education at home — and stewing about shuttered classrooms. McAuliffe paid the price for not feeling parents’ pain.

It’s also not productive to argue, as many on the left have, that critical race theory, or CRT, isn’t being taught and that raising the issue is nothing but a dog whistle to racists. It’s true that “parental control” has become the new “states’ rights” — a deceptively anodyne slogan for tapping racist fears. It’s also true that even those who are most hysterical about CRT have trouble defining it. Fox News host Tucker Carlson just admitted: “I’ve never figured out what ‘critical race theory’ is, to be totally honest, after a year of talking about it.”

But as a practical, political issue, none of that matters. CRT might have started off as an esoteric academic theory about structural racism. But it has now become a generic term for widely publicized excesses in diversity education, such as disparaging “individualism” and “objectivity” as examples of “white supremacy culture” or teaching first-graders about microaggressions and structural racism. You don’t have to be a Republican to be put off by the incessant attention on race in so many classrooms.

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George Packer wrote in the Atlantic in October 2019 that he knew “several mixed-race families” that transferred their kids out of a New York City school that “had taken to dividing their students by race into consciousness-raising ‘affinity groups.’” Packer spoke for many liberal parents when he protested the tendency to make “race, which is a dubious and sinister social construct, an essence that defines individuals regardless of agency or circumstance.” As an example, he cited Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) saying, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice; we don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”

This is the kind of “stupid wokeness” that Democratic strategist James Carville blamed for his party’s setbacks in Virginia and New Jersey — and it is something that Democrats need to disavow if they want to win outside of deep-blue enclaves. Democrats should admit that, even as racism remains a pervasive problem, some efforts to combat it backfire if they exacerbate racial divisions or stigmatize White students.

But while acknowledging some conservative concerns as legitimate, Democrats also need to call out the GOP’s cynical and destructive use of the CRT issue. Just as an earlier generation of liberals protested all the lives Joseph McCarthy was destroying in the name of anti-communism, liberals today need to focus on the collateral damage that Republicans inflict in the name of fighting CRT: They are trying to ban books and fire educators. In short, they are practicing the very “cancel culture” they decry.

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Video: Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Seven states have outlawed teaching CRT, and 13 others are considering such bills. These laws have provoked opposition even from staunch conservatives, such as David French, who worry about the chilling effect on speech. French lives in a Tennessee county where right-wing activists are trying to use an anti-CRT law to purge from the curriculum books about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges. They even take issue with Normal Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With,” which shows Bridges being escorted to her New Orleans elementary school in 1960 by federal marshals enforcing desegregation.

The chairman of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating demanded on Oct. 25 that schools in that state report whether they stock any books “that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex” — and included 850 examples of such suspect works. In Southlake, Tex., an anti-CRT law was even invoked by a school administrator who instructed teachers to offer an “opposing” perspective on the Holocaust. What would that be — neo-Nazism?

James Whitfield, the first Black principal of a high school in Colleyville, Tex., is in the process of being fired. His apparent offense was writing, after the George Floyd murder, that systemic racism was “alive and well” and asking students and parents to be “anti-racist.” (The school district denies that CRT was a factor in its decision.) In Blountville, Tenn., a teacher was fired in part for assigning an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates arguing that Donald Trump was elected by harnessing white grievances.

Conservatives argue that CRT, with its focus on group identity, is un-American. But what’s more un-American than attempting to ban books and fire teachers for their views? That’s what happens in China. Democrats can win the CRT debate if they call out the illiberal excesses of both the woke left and the anti-woke right.