The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory
Updated June 29, 2021 at 5:45 PM ET
Last month, Republican lawmakers decried critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in American institutions.
"Folks, we're in a cultural warfare today," Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said at a news conference alongside six other members of the all-Republican House Freedom Caucus. "Critical race theory asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist, not because of their actions, words or what they actually believe in their heart — but by virtue of the color of their skin."
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., added: "Democrats want to teach our children to hate each other."
Many Republican lawmakers, who are fighting what they label as the teaching of critical race theory in schools, contend it divides Americans. Democrats and their allies maintain progress is unlikely without examining the root causes of disparity in the country, although they push back on the idea that critical race theory itself — a scholarly undertaking — is being taught on the K-12 level. The issue is shaping up to be a major cultural battle ahead of next year's midterm elections.
Academics, particularly legal scholars, have studied critical race theory for decades. But its main entry into the partisan fray came in 2020, when former President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting certain racial sensitivity trainings. It was challenged in court, and President Biden rescinded the order the day he took office.
Since then, the issue has taken hold as a rallying cry among some Republican lawmakers who argue the approach unfairly forces students to consider race and racism.
"A stand-in for this larger anxiety"
Andrew Hartman, a history professor at Illinois State University, described the battle over critical race theory as typical of the culture wars, where "the issue itself is not always the thing driving the controversy."
"I'm not really sure that the conservatives right now know what it is or know its history," said Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.
He said critical race theory posits that racism is endemic to American society through history and that, consequently, Americans have to think about institutions like the justice system or schools through the perspective of race and racism.
However, he said, "conservatives, since the 1960s, have increasingly defined American society as a colorblind society, in the sense that maybe there were some problems in the past but American society corrected itself and now we have these laws and institutions that are meritocratic and anybody, regardless of race, can achieve the American dream."
Confronted by the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 curriculum, which roots American history in its racist past, Hartman said many Americans want simple answers.
"And so critical race theory becomes a stand-in for this larger anxiety about people being upset about persistent racism," he said.
States such as Idaho and Oklahoma have adopted laws that limit how public school teachers can talk about race in the classroom, and Republican legislatures in nearly half a dozen states have advanced similar bills that target teachings that some educators say they don't teach anyway.
There's movement on the national level too.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has introduced the Combating Racist Training in the Military Act, a bill that would prohibit the armed forces and academics at the Defense Department from promoting "anti-American and racist theories," which, according to the bill's text, includes critical race theory.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said he is co-sponsoring legislation that would prevent federal dollars from being spent on what he labels critical race theory in schools or government offices.
"The ideas behind critical race theory and [its] implementation is creating this oppressor-oppressed divide amongst our people," Donalds told NPR. "And so no matter how you feel about the history of our country — as a Black man, I think our history has actually been quite awful, I mean, that's without question — but you also have to take into account the progression of our country, especially over the last 60 to 70 years."
Donalds said the country's history, including its ills, should be taught, but that critical race theory causes more problems than solutions.
"It only causes more divisions, which doesn't help our union become the more perfect union," he said.
A post-racial country?
Nearly half of the speakers at the Republican news conference in May invoked Martin Luther King Jr., expressing their desire to be judged "by the content of their character, not the color of their skin."
But Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociology professor at Duke University, said King's dream was about the future. "He didn't say, 'We are now in a colorblind society,' " he said.
Bonilla-Silva, whose book Racism Without Racists critiques the notion that America is now "colorblind," says he too shares King's dream, "but in order for us to get to the promised land of colorblindness, we have to go through race. It's the opposite of what these folks are arguing."
He says the idea that American society is post-racial is nonsense.
"We are not, because we watched the video of George Floyd, and we are not because we have the data on income inequality, on wealth inequality, on housing inequality," he said.
As an example, Bonilla-Silva noted the opposition of whites to affirmative action in the post-civil rights era.
"Many whites said things such as, 'I'm not a racist. I believe in equal opportunity, which is why I oppose affirmative action, because affirmative action is discrimination in reverse,' " he noted.
"That statement only works if one believes that discrimination has ended," he added. "But because it has not ended, claiming that you oppose affirmative action because it's presumably discrimination in reverse ends up justifying the racial status quo and the inequalities."
Motivator for the midterms?
The fight over Republicans' rebranding of critical race theory will likely continue to be a heated issue ahead of next year's midterm elections. Although November 2022 seems a long way away, Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research and a public opinion pollster, says pushback to anti-racism teaching is exactly the kind of issue that could maintain traction among certain voters.
"I think it's just one more addition to the culture war that the Republicans really want to fight and it's what they want to make the 2022 midterms about," she said.
Matthews noted that Biden's approval ratings, in the mid-50s, are significantly higher than Trump's were throughout his term in office, "so Republicans are wanting to make this about othering the Democrats and making them seem as extreme and threatening to white culture as possible."
"If Republicans can make [voters] feel threatened and their place in society threatened in terms of white culture and political correctness and cancel culture, that's a visceral and emotional issue, and I do think it could impact turnout."
These issues could be used to galvanize conservative voters and increase their numbers at the polls.
"We have seen evidence that the Republican base is responding much more to threats on cultural issues, even to some degree more than economic issues," Matthews said.
But Rep. Donalds said the Republican Party doesn't need to rally the base to get it to show up to vote.
"When it comes to the '22 elections, we don't need additional ammunition," he said, pointing to what he views as a list of failures from the Biden administration, from budget and taxes to shutting down the Keystone pipeline.
Doug Heye, the former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said in some ways, the attempts to mandate what schools can or can't teach highlights just how far the GOP under Trump has moved away from traditionally conservative principles — like wanting less federal involvement in schools.
"A lot of what we might have described as conservative policy five years ago, 10 years ago, now just isn't that case," he said. "If we're pushing what is a current priority for the Trump base, that's defined as conservative, whether or not that's a federal top-down policy or not. So the old issues of federalism has really been upended under Donald Trump's reign as the leader of the party."
Heye said at this point, critical race theory is still politically a "niche issue" among conservative voters, but he expects it to play a larger role in state assemblies, governors races and school boards rather than in national politics.
He said he believes it's an issue some candidates will raise "to further rile up the base that is already pretty riled."
"So the question will be then for Republicans: What else are they really emphasizing?" he said.
From a strategy perspective, Matthews says she thinks it will all come down to messaging.
"The Republicans are trying to make it a bad thing," she said, "but I feel like if the Democrats got the messaging right, they could make it a good thing."
Both sides have a little more than a year to do that.
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