critical race theory

‘Critical Race Theory’ Has Been a Winner for Decades

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

In the run-up to Glenn Youngkin’s election as governor of Virginia on Tuesday, I saw a post describing “critical race theory” as “the next caravan.” Those terms would’ve been gibberish to the average voter four years ago. Today, they’re part of our miserable lingua franca for talking about politics not only in Virginia, but across the United States.

For most of the campaign, Democrat Terry McAuliffe seemed to be in the driver’s seat, until Youngkin, the Republican, started ranting about CRT in schools. The polling gap closed. CRT panic had recently gripped parts of Virginia, which Joe Biden won by ten points in 2020. It was part of an electoral strategy cooked up last year by conservative activists, who started using CRT as a catch-all term for the supposed excesses of the left — anything “crazy in the newspaper,” according to Christopher Rufo, the Manhattan Institute fellow who pioneered its usage. Since then, CRT has been Astroturfed into a local cause célèbre, applied most often as a criticism of school curricula — including historically accurate lessons about Black enslavement — that might make white children feel bad.

The “caravan” comparison seemed apt: In recent elections, GOP politicians and conservative media have spent a lot of time and energy casting Central American migrants as invading hordes, only to abandon the issue once votes were tallied. Like CRT, caravan panic was an electoral ruse — a buzzy non-threat evoked to frighten voters. But if the link between the caravan and CRT neatly summarized the GOP’s cynicism, it also suggested a common misapprehension. The idea that the outcome in Virginia would dictate the Republicans’ CRT strategy moving forward misses how long it’s already been happening, and how much more of it we were going to see regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

The bulk of reporting and analysis of the Virginia race has described Youngkin’s decision to embrace CRT as a compromise — a way to unite two constituencies, Trumpists and moderates, that were seen as being at odds. It looked like a dicey task in a state that Democrats have dominated in recent elections, and where voters across the ideological spectrum seemed affronted by Trump. Youngkin was especially careful not to endorse the claim that the 2020 election was stolen, often seen as a litmus test for the ex-president’s supporters. But because 2021 is an off-year and turnout was expected to be low, the Youngkin campaign surmised — correctly, it seems — that the crucial difference on Tuesday would be which side got voters more energized.

The Republican chose education as his vehicle in part because COVID-19 has made it an unusually fraught issue. Parent frustration over pandemic-caused school closures, and more recent clashes over mask mandates, had already led to a groundswell of activist energy in the suburbs and rural areas where Youngkin needed to perform well.

But the more potent energy the Republican was trying to harness was less beholden to the peculiar passions of the pandemic moment. It should not be glossed over, even if it’s obvious, how openly the biggest proponents of the recent CRT panic have characterized their efforts to control public education as a defense of white childhood.

There’s merit to the notion that no kid should be miserable at school, and that might be a worthy cause if it was actually at stake. But when right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson describes CRT as the fulfillment of a Black revenge fantasy, and Tucker Carlson casts it as a harbinger of Rwanda-esque genocide against white people, we can fairly conclude that no small amount of cynical exaggeration is at play.

The idea that white students are dangerously embattled in today’s climate is undermined further by the examples that Youngkin and the machine behind his campaign provided. In an interview last month for Showtime’s The Circus, Patti Hidalgo Menders, president of the Republican Women’s Club in the battleground of Loudoun County, cited a song “putting down Andrew Jackson” for slaughtering Native Americans. Local activist Laura Murphy, who in 2013 tried to get Toni Morrison’s slavery novel Beloved banned from Fairfax County classrooms because it gave her teenaged son nightmares, was the subject of a Youngkin campaign ad a week before Election Day. Former vice-president Mike Pence flew down last week to say what great work they were all doing.

If the Virginia race was meant to serve as a blueprint for upcoming Republican campaigns, it’s the same blueprint that has animated local political activity, especially among white parents, for decades, and regardless of partisan persuasion. The lesson that links the desegregation clashes of the 1950s and 1960s to the bussing battles of the 1970s and 1980s, and informs the more recent disputes over affordable housing and gentrification in regions from New York City to St. Louis, is that few issues galvanize white activism more consistently than anything that could undermine a cloistered educational experience for their kids.

It should go without saying, again, that wanting one’s children to have a good education is a worthwhile cause, not to mention a desire shared by every parent I’ve met. But if your notion of a good education is one where white children don’t have to encounter too many Black children, or where withering appraisals of Andrew Jackson and graphic depictions of slavery are seen as anti-American propaganda, then you’re merely asking for a different kind of indoctrination — the sort where racial disadvantage is treated as a product of right and good, rather than avarice and force.

Whatever framing makes this tack most legible, it can’t honestly be said, amid the Democratic panic over how to respond to Youngkin’s victory, that the GOP has found a new toolkit to win elections. The sanctity of white children’s education is a national precept. You can label its latest invocation a war against “critical race theory,” or a savvy bid to weld moderates and reactionaries into a winning electoral coalition, but it’s been political dynamite for 70 years. The question of whether Republicans would continue treating it as precisely that is moot, even if it wasn’t a determinative factor in this race. Whether Youngkin had won, lost, or launched himself into the sun, they were always coming back to the issue they know gets parents lighting up school boards with their screams.

‘Critical Race Theory’ Has Been a Winner for Decades