Why Republicans Want Voters to Panic About Critical Race Theory

Protesters against alleged critical race theory “indoctrination” in suburban Loudon County, Virginia, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

It’s hard to get within shouting distance of a Republican at present without hearing about critical race theory as a threat to national unity (and more quietly, as a key to GOP success in the 2022 midterms).

This is a classic phantom menace. To the extent it is even clearly definable, CRT is an academic school of thought (initially developed in legal circles) existing almost entirely in higher education. It encourages reevaluation of history, literature, and other bodies of received knowledge to take into account racism as an often-pervasive social construct. It’s an approach, not a set “theory” that is “taught” or “trained,” and it focuses on analysis of institutions and policies, not individual culpability for injustice.

In other words, the current panic-stricken right-wing movement to condemn CRT in settings ranging from K-12 education to corporate diversity training is wildly off-target. There is no there there, for the most part. And the proponents of this witch hunt without witches generally aren’t bothering to supply any evidence of what they are attacking. Alabama Media Group columnist Kyle Whitmire had great sport with the author of legislation on the subject in his own state:

I called an Alabama lawmaker, state Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, who wants to make it illegal to teach critical race theory in Alabama …

“It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period,” Pringle said.

That sounded very serious, indeed. Nazi-like, even. So I asked Pringle if there were any critical race theorists he could point to who have been spreading such toxic garbage?

“Yeah, uh, well — I can assure you — I’ll have to read a lot more,” he said …

Were there other examples he could give me where critical race theory was being put into practice?

“These people, when they were doing the training programs — and the government — if you didn’t buy into what they taught you a hundred percent, they sent you away to a reeducation camp,” Pringle said.

To put it bluntly, this legislator had no idea what he was talking about. You can pretty much say the same about legislators in the 22 other states where similar laws have been proposed, including five (Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, and Tennessee) that have enacted them. Countless local school-board members and parental groups share the angry ignorance and are repudiating non-existent “indoctrination” in a rapidly growing number of places. They are promoting multiple if ill-defined fears, as NBC News reports:

Legislators behind the Idaho bill said critical race theory “tries to make kids feel bad.” Tennessee lawmakers said teaching about racism promotes “division,” and a pending bill in Rhode Island bans teaching the idea that “the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist.” The fight over race and equity in schools is a coordinated one, backed by well-connected conservative groups and media outlets.

The Heritage Foundation has supplied pseudo-intellectual credibility to the crusade against CRT, and Fox News has been its chief propagandist, with a reported 1,300 on-air references to CRT in just the last three-and-a-half months.

But to an ever-increasing extent, it’s the MAGA wing of the Republican Party at the center of this appropriately paranoid movement, as Politico explains:

Former top aides to President Donald Trump have begun an aggressive push to combat the teaching of critical race theory and capitalize on the issue politically, confident that a backlash will vault them back into power …

“This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser who has zeroed in on local school board fights over critical race theory, said in an interview. “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.”

It’s no coincidence that Trump himself gave impetus to the CRT conspiracy theory via attacks on the New York Times“1619 Project” examining the pervasive role of slavery in America’s founding. His Office of Management and Budget also fed the flames with a 2020 memo banning federal employee “training on “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

Why is CRT a convenient myth for Republicans? Like earlier and continuing attacks on “political correctness” and “woke corporations,” the war on CRT takes an abstract white nationalist concept and makes it viscerally immediate for white middle-class voters who might not otherwise be too agitated about cultural changes. “PC” and “cancel culture” are thought to threaten everyday freedom of speech; “woke” businesses threaten the livelihoods of their non-compliant employees; and CRT is treated as a threat to parental control of the world views of their own children — as “brainwashing” or “indoctrination” rather than as simply encouragement to think critically and independently about one’s inherited assumptions concerning America and its alleged meritocracy.

Most of all, claims that CRT dominates U.S. schools whitewash racial resentment and turn it into a righteous grievance held by victims. Self-identified Republicans already believe to an alarming extent that white Americans suffer discrimination as much as or more than their Black fellow citizens. Spreading that belief beyond the ranks of the already committed GOP partisan is, unfortunately, a logical if evil “outreach” strategy for those whose goal is to restore an American “greatness” closely associated with a time when women and minorities knew their place and only subversives doubted the nation’s essential virtue.

Maybe I am unsympathetic to fears of critical race theory because I grew up in Georgia, being taught via schools, textbooks, and popular culture that slavery was a quaint and misunderstood institution; that the Civil War was a quarrel over constitutional law; that Reconstruction was an unmitigated disaster; and that Jim Crow made it possible for the North and South to reconcile and live in peace. Personally, I could have used some CRT in my own public school education. But today we are living in an era where uncomfortable truths engender the kind of white-hot anger that one of our two major political parties views as an electoral asset. So even if the demonization of white people and of America that CRT is supposed to represent is a complete fabrication, it is too useful to followers of the father of lies in Mar-a-Lago to give up.

Republicans Want Voters to Panic About Critical Race Theory