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The Scholar Strategy: How ‘critical race theory’ alarms could convert racial anxiety into political energy

A man holds a sign against critical race theory being taught in schools during a rally outside the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Va., on June 12. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Columnist Kyle Whitmire wanted to understand why Alabama state Rep. Chris Pringle (R) so strongly opposed critical race theory that Pringle had introduced legislation to ban teaching it in the state. So Whitmire called and asked.

“It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period,” Pringle explained of the theory. Asked by Whitmire to identify specific theorists who offered such a toxic framing, Pringle fumbled.

“I can assure you,” he said, before pausing. “I’ll have to read a lot more.”

He cited an article purportedly claiming that White men had been sent to a “reeducation camp” but was unable to provide a link to that story when Whitmire asked.

This uncertainty is probably not terribly unusual. That phrase, “critical race theory,” has become detached from its original academic meaning, an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. In popular usage now, it refers to a broad mélange of race-related curriculums, claims and anecdotes. The Atlantic last month noted recent polling found only 1 in 5 Americans said they had heard the term. Exploiting that uncertainty, there has been an effort on the right to use the phrase as something of a catchall for nearly any discussion of or focus on race that might trigger frustration.

There has also been an effort to propagate legislation focused on this mutated iteration of the term. Pringle is by no means the only legislator to have introduced a bill focused on critical race theory in recent months. They’ve popped up all over the country and spurred activism in local communities aimed at uprooting lessons focused on the theory. Except, of course, that those lessons in local school districts are often simply about race, racism and American history. By being looped into this national racial boogeyman, they are fodder for outrage. Think of critical race theory as an authoritative sounding stand-in for “teaching kids to be ‘woke’ ” and you’ll get the gist.

NBC News’s Tyler Kingkade, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins explored the emergence of critical race theory (CRT) as a political focal point. What they found was grass-roots frustration about evolving lessons — frustration that mirrors the furor over Common Core during the Obama administration — that was at times being stoked by national organizations.

“It’s being exploited by actors at the national level,” Columbia University’s Jeffrey Henig told NBC, “who see it as an opportunity to reshuffle the politics of the standard educational reform debate.”

This question of how race is approached in schools became more pronounced following the renewed Black Lives Matters protests that began in May 2020. The national conversation about racism and how and where it exists in systems and society became an opportunity not only for educators to predicate lessons on the national conversation but, immediately, for political actors to use those lessons as fodder.

President Donald Trump, running for reelection, used curriculums based on the New York Times’s 1619 Project as a peg for a broad defense of how American history has long been taught. As the 2020 election approached, Trump made repeated announcements that framed discussions of race in the classroom as running contrary to patriotism and tradition. Most significantly, he created a group that, hours before he left office, produced a right-wing overview of American history meant to stand in contrast to curriculums like the 1619 one. President Biden quickly scrapped it.

But the political utility of the anti-CRT effort was obvious. A useful marker of the prominence of something in right-wing thought and conversations is how often it’s mentioned on Fox News. And in the past few months, Fox News has been talking about CRT far more than it used to and far more than its competitors. At the same time, the network is less likely to talk about “systemic racism.”

It’s important to note the third term included on that set of graphs. The word “racist” has been used a lot more on Fox News of late, with the term surging just ahead of the surge in mentions of CRT. The usage of the word on the network is usually in either the context of rebelling against White Americans being broadly categorized as racist (in keeping with Pringle’s presentation of CRT) or scoffing at some “anti-racist” effort. There was a spike in the use of the term on Fox News in mid-April, for example, as the network focused like a laser on an anti-racism curriculum at a New York City private school.

That first idea, though, that Whites are necessarily the victims of discussions of racism, is central to the political appeal.

There has long been a link between concern over discrimination against Whites and right-wing or Trumpian politics. In March, the Pew Research Center asked Americans how much discrimination they believed different racial and ethnic groups faced. Overall, most respondents said Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans faced more discrimination than Whites. More than half of Republicans, though, said that all four groups faced at least some discrimination. A quarter of Republicans said White Americans faced a lot of discrimination — a higher percentage than said the same for any other racial group.

The political target in the pushback against critical race theory isn’t simply convincing Republicans. According to NBC’s report, it’s in part to create an environment that engages parents and forces change at the school-board level. As NBC’s report notes, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon recently declared that the “path to save the nation” ran through school boards. There has been a surge in recall efforts targeting school board members as parents (aided by national groups or, in some cases, by the local Republican Party) seek to revamp educational leadership.

School boards have also been increasingly mentioned on Fox News this year. (The spike on the graph below is likely a function of the data for this week including only mentions through Tuesday.)

Trump’s campaign approach to critical race theory made obvious the overlap between views of traditional America and a particular approach to America’s legacy of racism. This is a flavor of the same overlap that powered his “make America great again” pitch in 2016, of course: an effort to stymie an America that was changing in ways that in part reflected its increasing diversity.

We are seeing that expand outward. New focus on racism leads to a new defensiveness. There’s a pushback against that focus, which itself gets blanketed by the appropriated term “woke.” Efforts to teach children about racism, from the well-structured to the clumsily intentioned, are framed as dangerous or dishonest. White parents get ensnared in a tactical pincer — their race on one side, their children on the other — that may aid the Republican Party.

Sometimes, of course, the subtext isn’t subtle.

“This is still the greatest country that’s ever, ever been in the history of the world,” Pringle told Whitmire. “And the radical left is trying to destroy that and tear us apart and divide this country based on race and class.”

Through critical race theory, whatever that is.