The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory

Jun 2, 2021
Originally published on June 10, 2021 8:46 am

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 that progress is unlikely without examining the root causes of disparity in the country. 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 It was challenged in court, and President Biden rescinded the order the day he took office.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.

Legislative action

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. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said critical race theory "brings division" and "advances hate" during a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 12.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

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.

"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 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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NOEL KING, HOST:

Republican lawmakers across this country are advancing bills that, if they become law, would limit the teaching of critical race theory. That is an academic approach that examines American institutions through the lens of race and racism. Here's NPR's Barbara Sprunt.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Academics 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 training. It was challenged in court, and President Biden rescinded the order the day he took office. But it's since taken hold as a rallying cry among some Republican lawmakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DAN BISHOP: Critical race theory is a divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche.

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: And that tears people apart.

CHIP ROY: Teaching our children that America is evil. We need to end it, and we need to end it now.

SPRUNT: That was a press conference in May where members of the House Freedom Caucus argued the theory divides students by race. States like Idaho and Oklahoma have adopted laws that limit how public school teachers can talk about race in the classroom, and there's movement on the national level, too. Florida Republican Congressman Byron Donalds says he's co-sponsoring legislation that would prevent federal dollars being spent on critical race theory in schools or government offices.

BYRON DONALDS: 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.

SPRUNT: But some scholars say the criticism misses the point.

ANDREW HARTMAN: I'm not really sure that the conservatives, right now, know what it is or know its history.

SPRUNT: That's Andrew Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University, who has written extensively about the history of culture wars.

HARTMAN: The basic premise of critical race theory is that racism is endemic to American society and history. And thus, we have to think about institutions, like the justice system or the educational system, through the lens of race and racism.

SPRUNT: He says the political right often points to the progress that has been made since the civil rights movement.

HARTMAN: Conservatives, since the 1960s, have increasingly defined American society as a colorblind society in the sense that there were some problems in the past, but American society corrected itself.

SPRUNT: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is a sociologist at Duke University and says the idea that society is colorblind is absurd.

EDUARDO BONILLA-SILVA: Let's not fool ourselves and believe that we are colorblind now because we are not. We are not because we watched a video of George Floyd. And we are not because we have the data on income inequality, on wealth inequality.

SPRUNT: He says critical race theory is meant to have an honest accounting and reckoning of the country's past and present in order to truly reach a more equitable future.

BONILLA-SILVA: I wish I could be just a Black Puerto Rican navigating America without race affecting my life chances, but race matters. In order for us to get to the promised land of colorblindness, we will have to go through race. It's the opposite of what these folks are arguing.

SPRUNT: What these folks are arguing is that critical race theory is a threat to society, and they're hoping to sell voters on that message. Christine Matthews is a public opinion pollster and says she sees critical race theory as a growing culture war issue.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: And it's what they want to make the 2022 midterms about because if you look at President Biden, his approval rating's in the mid-50s, which is significantly higher than President Trump's was ever.

SPRUNT: She thinks the GOP will use critical race theory to help rally the conservative base ahead of next year's midterm elections.

MATTHEWS: We have seen evidence that the Republican base is responding much more to threats on cultural issues. If Republicans can make them feel threatened and that - and their place in society is threatened, in terms of white culture and political correctness and cancel culture, that's a more visceral and emotional issue. And I do think it could impact turnout.

SPRUNT: Doug Heye is the former communications director for the RNC. He says, in some ways, telling schools what they can or cannot teach highlights just how far the party has moved away from traditionally conservative principles, like wanting less federal involvement in schools.

DOUG HEYE: What we might have described as conservative policy five years ago, 10 years ago, has really been upended under Donald Trump's kind of reign as the leader of the party.

SPRUNT: From a strategy perspective, Matthews says it will all come down to messaging.

MATTHEWS: The Republicans are trying to make it a bad thing, but I feel like if the Democrats got the messaging right, they could make it a good thing.

SPRUNT: Both sides have a little more than a year to do that.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.