The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

4 in 10 Republicans don’t like schools teaching about history of racism

The new survey and others reinforce the slippery slope of the GOP’s anti-critical race theory push

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)

Republicans are all-in on making banning critical race theory a campaign issue in the 2022 elections, after Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) used it to rally the GOP base and make education a major issue in his upset win.

Even as he was doing so, though, Youngkin sought to emphasize this wasn’t about banning ugly historical truths such as racism and slavery from the classroom. “We are going to teach all history — the good and the bad,” he said. He added at another point that, “America has fabulous chapters, and it’s the greatest country in the world, but we also have some abhorrent chapters in our history. We must teach them.”

But new polling suggests a large chunk of that GOP base would indeed like to throw the baby out with the bathwater — to stop teaching about the history of racism at all. And it reflects both the potency of the issue for that base and how it could spill over into something more corrosive.

The Monmouth University poll shows 78 percent of Republicans oppose public schools teaching about critical race theory. Schools generally don’t actually teach it, but advocates have effectively used the phrase to refer to teaching about the ongoing impacts of racism.

Before the poll asked that question, though, it asked a broader one: “Do you approve or disapprove of public schools teaching about the history of racism?” More than 4 in 10 Republicans — 43 percent — opposed schools even broaching the subject. And about one-third — 34 percent — said they disapproved of it “strongly.”

Only a slight majority of 54 percent agreed that schools should teach about the history of racism. Among Democrats, 5 percent opposed schools teaching about the history of racism, including 2 percent “strongly.”

The survey is merely the latest to suggest that a very significant number of Republicans would like to take the history of racism and/or the impacts of slavery out of classrooms altogether.

A Brigham Young University poll released last month showed just 42 percent of non-White Republicans and 35 percent of White Republicans agreed that “schools should teach about the history of racism in the United States.” But they didn’t want to abandon discussions of race altogether; indeed, a slight majority of Republicans still wanted schools to teach “that there has been significant progress toward racial equality in the United States” — just not necessarily the ugly history that preceded it.

A July poll suggested Republicans were slightly less opposed to teaching these things, but 32 percent of Republicans still opposed teaching about the history of racism and its impacts.

That poll notably showed less resistance to teaching about slavery and its impacts, with just 16 percent opposed to that.

But then in September came an even more illustrative poll from the same pollster. The USA Today/Ipsos poll found that a majority of Republicans did not agree with teaching about the ongoing effects of slavery; just 38 percent supported doing so.

This creeps a little closer to the actual critical race theory-branded objections, in that it’s about how that history lingers today. But it’s incontrovertible that hundreds of years of slavery 150 years ago still has lingering effects — however pronounced you think they remain.

And that’s the point here. Republicans are wading into this territory while emphasizing that their objection is to the way these things are taught and not necessarily that they are taught at all. But significant portions of their base are indeed saying they don’t want them taught at all — and particularly as pertains to how much the ugly history might apply to today.

Perhaps these Republicans don’t want schools to teach about them at all because they simply don’t trust them to do so properly. But it’s contrary to the assurances provided by Youngkin and others that this won’t devolve into some kind of jingoistic effort to ignore our country’s past, warts and all.

It also speaks to how motivating this issue is for a certain subset of the base. As analyses of the Virginia race noted, Youngkin’s anti-critical race theory efforts were geared toward mobilizing conservative voters and not so much appealing to the broader electorate.

What these polls show is that this base is very much prepared to pick up that ball and run with it — going further than Youngkin insisted he wanted to, which raises questions about just how much a base that has often pulled the party to the extremes might influence the future of this debate. As much as 4 in 10 Republicans or even a majority of that base, depending upon the poll, is very much receptive not just to banning critical race theory, but to going significantly further than that in restricting discussions or racism and slavery in the classroom.

It seems more assurances like the ones Youngkin offered about the true goals of this effort would be warranted.