It’s a way to attack civil rights. It’s a way to revise and deny sordid parts of American history. And it is highly likely that none of its critics have read a single document about it. Nevertheless, Republican Party politicians want to create an apocalyptic vision of jack-booted academics/public school teachers forcibly indoctrinating America’s youth with Critical Race Theory, which is fast becoming a right-wing culture warriors’ issue as we roll towards the 2022-midterm elections.
At its heart, Critical Race Theory maintains that racism has been a significant factor in the formation and function of the United States. It posits that American institutions like the justice system and educational institutions should be seen through the perspective of race and racism.
Critical Race Theory, which has been around for more than forty years, became a hot button issue for conservatives in 2019, with the publication on The New York Times’s 1619 Project, and the development of a 1619 curriculum. In 2020, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting certain racial sensitivity trainings, an order subsequently rescinded by President Joe Biden. The battle over Critical Race Theory was further engaged when Trump appointed a select, and academically flawed, 1776 Commission, which was supposed to set the nation straight on its history.
In his recent extensive Inside Higher Ed article titled “Where Does the Bizarre Hysteria About ‘Critical Race Theory’ Come From? Follow the Money!,” Isaac Kamola explained that for years, “wealthy right-wing and libertarian donors us[ed] their wealth to transform higher education in their own image.” Many of these gifts have come with provisos that the money will be spent in the ways the donors see fit.
Kamola wrote: “Most recently it has taken the form of a frontal assault on Hannah-Jones’s ‘1619 Project.’ The Trump administration even established the 1776 Commission to respond to Hannah-Jones’s claim that slavery must be recognized as central to the nation’s founding. Published two days before Trump left office, the 1776 Commission report was swiftly condemned as highly inaccurate, incoherent and regurgitating an outdated and false narrative of American exceptionalism.”
These days, the Republican Party’s multi-decade culture wars project has put Critical Race Theory in its crosshairs; making it the cause celebre for Republican politicians, conservative funders and right-wing think tanks. Some state legislatures are passing laws preventing critical race theory from being taught in the public schools. Universities are being forced to answer questions from their Board of Regents about whether Critical Race Theory is being taught on their campuses.
On a national level, NPR’s Barbara Sprunt recently reported, “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.” In another development, Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said he is co-sponsoring legislation that would prevent federal dollars from being spent on critical race theory in schools or government offices.”
At a May news conference, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., alongside six other members of the all-Republican House Freedom Caucus, said ““Folks, we’re in a cultural warfare today”: “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.”
The Lawrence Times (Kansas) recently reported that in response to “an inquiry from Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, the Kansas Board of Regents — which governs KU and the other five public universities in the state — asked the schools to produce a list of courses that teach the theory.”
“Jill Hummels, the communications manager for the office of KU’s provost, confirmed to The Lawrence Times that university administrators received and responded to the request from the Regents. Only one course, Hummels wrote in an email, was found to have Critical Race Theory in its description. She declined to identify the course.”
According to The Intercept’s George Chidi, “Gov. Brian Kemp wrote a letter to the state board of education last month, [before it passed a resolution restricting classroom discussion of racism] calling critical race theory a ‘divisive, anti-American agenda,” which “has no place in Georgia classrooms.’” The board drafted the resolution without public input and then blocked comments from the YouTube livestream.
Attacking Critical Race Theory could be the conservative movement’s next great culture wars cudgel. At this time, most agree that criticizing Critical Race Theory is still just a niche issue. But as we have seen before, once the conservative infrastructure takes hold of an issue – especially one as charged a race – they will wring every last propagandistic drop out of it. How these attacks on Critical Race Theory will play itself out in the 2022 mid-term elections and beyond is anybody’s guess.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His Conservative Watch columns document the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.