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Tucker Carlson is very mad at ‘evil’ critical race theory, whatever it is

Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses 'Populism and the Right' during the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit in 2019 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

There is no reason by now to assume that Tucker Carlson’s nightly explorations of American culture are offered objectively or in good faith. Not only is his Fox News program part of the network’s opinion lineup, attorneys for Fox have in the past infamously admitted that viewers should understand inherently that he is exaggerating and not “stating actual facts.”

In a riff about Tuesday’s election results, for example, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s victory in New Jersey constituted his having “barely made it across the finish line” in winning by about a point, Carlson said on Wednesday, while the Republican candidate’s victory in Virginia’s contest “spanked” his Democratic opponent ... in winning by a little over two. It’s all like that, all just cheerleading and framing and rhetoric in service of his preferred narrative that the right is sane and sober and the left — a voluminous and expanding category of people — deranged and furious. It’s all fodder for Carlson’s fights.

For months, that’s included elevating a common theme on the network: the idea that “critical race theory” was injecting toxic discussions of race into schools. Setting aside any question of what that means or how accurate it is, this was unquestionably useful to that Republican in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin. Polling conducted by The Washington Post with the Schar School found that the shift in focus to education in Virginia’s race, a shift heavily but not exclusively powered by this question of how race and history were being taught, had benefited Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. So, like many others on his network, Carlson elevated the subject often. “Critical race theory” was mentioned at least 130 times on his show since May of last year.

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)

You may justifiably be wondering, then, what exactly “critical race theory” is and how it’s being manifested in our schools. Carlson offered an answer for that on his show Wednesday, too: he doesn’t know.

“I’ve never figured out where ‘critical race theory’ is, to be totally honest, after a year of talking about it,” Carlson said.

Oh, OK.

As revealing as that admission was, it’s not really surprising. The boundaries of “critical race theory” have been drawn with intentional fuzziness in part because it refers to an academic regimen that isn’t being taught to any significant extent in public schools and in part because it’s more politically useful for the term to serve as an umbrella descriptor for “discussions of race.”

Its prominence in political discourse is largely a function of a man named Christopher Rufo. Rufo has made a career of late in elevating anecdotal examples of things that he often describes as part of “critical race theory,” which, he adds, overlaps with Marxism. In a tweet earlier this year, he admitted that he’s intentionally using “critical race theory” in a vague way.

“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’ ” he wrote. “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” When Youngkin won, leveraging this tactic, Rufo was triumphant.

But back to Carlson. While he didn’t know what “critical race theory” is, some 18 months into his show’s discussion of it, he did know what cultural constructions (to use Rufo’s words) he didn’t like.

“They’re teaching that some races are morally superior to others,” he said after his admission, summarizing what he understood critical race theory to be. “That some are inherently sinful and some are inherently saintly. And that’s immoral to teach that because it’s wrong.”

Later, he went further: teaching such a thing is “evil.”

Those who know what critical race theory is will recognize that what Carlson describes is not, in fact, critical race theory. It is, instead, a straw man that Rufo and his allies have constructed, leveraging anecdotes and incidents in a way that’s strikingly similar to the effort to prove that the 2020 election was somehow stolen. Yes, there are examples of teachers who read from books that have messages on race that are at best odd. But despite Rufo’s efforts (and certainly his presentation of his efforts), the evidence for the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools is mostly evidence centered on those sorts of isolated examples.

To make that point clearly, let’s just go to Rufo himself, who appeared on Carlson’s show on Wednesday shortly after Youngkin himself. Given the opportunity to ask America’s foremost expert on what “critical race theory” means in the context of right-wing politics, Carlson instead mostly just asked Rufo to complain about the left’s criticisms of his tactics. But Rufo did nonetheless point to an example of what Carlson was talking about.

“I’ve shown through original-source document reporting that critical race theory is absolutely taught in dozens of schools,” he said. “Even a simple book that’s taught in elementary schools, called ‘Not My Idea,’ that tells White children that they are the devil. That their whiteness is equivalent with a pact with Satan. I mean, these books are everywhere. The evidence is out there.”

Helpfully, Rufo’s making two claims here that we can validate. The first is what the book contains. The second is where it’s being taught.

To the first point, we can look at the book itself. It includes both a story centered on a young White girl’s recognition of the role race plays in American society and a section that appears to be more centered on discussion material. In that section, there is an image in which the girl is being presented with a contract for “whiteness” by a figure with a devil’s tail. The next page differentiates “whiteness” from “being White,” at best a subtle and complicated distinction (as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf correctly pointed out) that risks being missed by any kid who’s reading it. But Rufo is not a child, and his claims about the book’s contents are incorrect or misleading.

To the second point, Rufo in July posted a list of school districts “teaching” the book. It is largely a list of places where the book was included on lists of suggested reading material, as in the Needham, Mass., public schools. It also includes several videos in which educators are reading the book. Many of the videos have been removed from the Internet, but one, published by a school in Illinois, doesn’t include the part of the book with the devil figure. It’s been watched about 1,600 times — probably often because of its inclusion on Rufo’s list.

What this is not is 1) an example of a book being included broadly in curriculums in the United States, 2) an example of a book being taught in Virginia, since none of Rufo’s examples are from that state, 3) an example of the teaching of “critical race theory” or 4) a book in which White children are being taught that they are the devil.

Because Rufo has so often been presented with the criticism that he is misrepresenting critical race theory — something that he, again, has admitted — there’s been an emergent defense of the claim that again does the sort of hand-waving we’ve grown used to for unsupported claims in the past 12 months. It’s not that critical race theory is being taught directly, this argument goes; it’s that its precepts are being taught to teachers who then incorporate it into their own lessons.

The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk, for example, admits that it is “technically accurate” that critical race theory isn’t being taught, but that teachers nonetheless have “begun to adopt a pedagogical program that owes its inspiration to ideas that are very fashionable on the academic left.” His evidence for this is a few anecdotal lesson plans and a story about a training for school principals in New York City.

Effective opponents of this purported tsunami, he writes, “do not pretend that grade schoolers are reading academic articles. Instead, they focus the ire of many parents on curricular content that can fairly be described as popularized, less sophisticated cousins of critical race theory.”

How such descriptors are “fair” is left unexplained, as is the extent to which that content actually makes its way to kids.

A lot of this is about the elevation of questions of privilege and systemic racism in the national political dialogue, an elevation that should probably be directly attributed more to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and questions about policing than a decades-old school of academic thought. Americans are realizing that this is a discussion that’s useful to have and, as such, some educators are trying to figure out how to have it with their students. Sometimes, a parent might incorrectly perceive an overheard lesson or reading assignment as making some point akin to that (again, as Friedersdorf pointed out). There’s lots of room for accidental misinterpretation.

There’s also room for willful misinterpretation, as Carlson and Rufo are obviously doing. Their goal is to use the issue to build political power as surely as the Southern Strategy leveraged race to the same end. Carlson doesn’t even have to pretend that he understands what “critical race theory” even is. He just needs to construct a straw man onto which he slaps that label and watch the politics fall into place.