Politics

The Problem Isn’t That Some Republicans Don’t Know What “Critical Race Theory” Is. It’s That Many of Them Do.

Shapiro, wearing a gray suit jacket over a dark shirt, smiles while seated at a desk.
Right-wing pundit/Facebook spam entrepreneur Ben Shapiro at a television taping in Nashville on April 28. Jason Kempin/Getty Images

There have been some laughs on the left in the last few weeks over Republican figures advocating for the prohibition of “critical race theory” in schools but not being able to explain what this purportedly insidious theory actually is.

These instances are, on their own, funny in a grim way. TD Ameritrade heir and Republican Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told a radio caller that “the critical race theory—and I can’t think of the author right off the top of my head who wrote about this—really had a theory that, at the high level, is one that really starts creating those divisions between us about defining who we are based on race and that sort of thing and really not about how to bring us together as Americans rather than—and dividing us and also having a lot of very socialist-type ideas about how that would be implemented in our state.” Alabama state legislator Chris Pringle asserted to a skeptical local columnist that race theory “teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin” and involves government-affiliated training programs and a “reeducation camp” for white business executives. A member of the Utah board of education gave a presentation in which the centuries-old phrase “social justice” was identified as one of 25 (!) “euphamisms” by which CRT is sneaked into public school curriculums. Longtime Beltway attention-economy remora Dick Morris, meanwhile, has just weighed in with this marvel:

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One common response to this kind of rhetoric is to laugh it off as uninformed shadow-grasping by figures who don’t understand that critical race theory is a college-level academic subject that isn’t taught, per se, in public K–12 schools. The Republican Party’s institutional embrace of CRT panic, this line of reasoning implies, is thus an only slightly more reality-based version of its efforts to leverage the QAnon conspiracy and COVID denialism—getting people worked up about a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

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This is true, as far as it goes. Pete Ricketts doesn’t appear to have a detailed understanding of what critical race theory is. He, Chris Pringle, and many other party figures seem to have formed their opinions of the concept via the far-right media hyperbole chamber, in which second- and thirdhand anecdotes about corporate sensitivity training sessions and middle school history lessons become proof of a nationwide effort to make white children believe that their country is fundamentally evil.

Accordingly, voters outside of the Republican base seem to be treating critical race theory like they’ve treated other MAGA-media efforts to create wedge issues out of subjects like transgender bathroom access and the “migrant caravan”: by dismissing or ignoring them. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that only 35 percent of Americans say they’ve heard of critical race theory and understand what it is; only 20 percent of respondents said they know what it is and don’t like it. A Morning Consult poll found that 31 percent of independent voters have negative views of the concept, which means that almost 70 percent of them either don’t see it as a problem or haven’t heard of it at all. While there have been high-profile cases of anti-CRT panic at the local level, those poll results are not numbers that should concern elected Democrats as a matter of politics right now.

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What is more concerning is that as a matter of substance, some Republicans do understand what critical race theory is and have noticed some of its ideas have trickled down from higher education to become fairly mainstream interpretations of history. Those Republicans are pursuing laws that target the kind of teaching that could actually exist, or already does, which is troubling news both for the quality of American education and the more general cause of being allowed to say things that are true.

Put simply, critical race theory’s originators argued that formal legal rights and institutional colorblindness don’t guarantee racial equality. This concept, first introduced in academic legal writing, can be applied in easy-to-grasp ways to widely recognized features of contemporary American society. Consider school districts: It’s no longer legal to send Black and white students who live in the same neighborhood to different schools for purposes of racial separation, and it’s also illegal to refuse to sell or rent a home to Black buyers because they’re Black. But because of residential patterns and wealth gaps established when such discrimination was legal, Black families disproportionately live in lower-income areas with underperforming schools—which means that the average Black student, through no fault of their own, is less likely to meet the standards of academic achievement that correspond with the eventual attainment of a higher income and the means to move their own children to a higher-performing district. Thus a racially discriminatory outcome is passed on from generation to generation without any specific white person in the present day necessarily doing something racist.

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That’s systemic racism—and in the recent Economist/YouGov poll, 57 percent of respondents said they believe it’s real, or, to be specific, that racism is “a broader problem that exists within the country’s organizational, societal and legal structure” as opposed to “only a problem with individuals.” (Thirty-one percent of respondents said the latter.) The more-informed conservatives responsible for cultivating CRT panic as an issue are trying to prohibit it—the real CRT, not the Gateway Pundit version—from being taught, and they are succeeding.

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To wit, the right-wing Heritage Foundation’s CRT report explicitly cites the normalization of “the idea of systemic racism” as a troubling trend to be eradicated. An opinion issued in late May by the Republican attorney general of Montana, which ultimately concluded that the advocacy of critical race theory concepts violates civil rights laws, argued that “the popular shibboleths of ‘systemic,’ ‘institutional,’ or ‘structural’ racism” are “used as a pretext to justify intentional discrimination against individuals on the basis of race.” Influential pundit Ben Shapiro wrote a Monday column urging conservatives to continue pursuing CRT prohibitions because, he says, it’s critical to prevent children from learning that racism is “embedded deeply in American life.” In Florida, a rule passed earlier this month by a state board at the behest of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis forbids educators from saying that “racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” A Manhattan Institute fellow named Christopher Rufo is tracking (and encouraging) CRT bills here, and teachers say even the ones that are vague and flimsy could legitimately set back the cause of saying accurate things about history to students in history classes.

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The critical race theory news cycle has farcical dimensions, but it’s part of a consequential debate over racism and American institutions that dates back to the creation of American institutions. It’s being pursued strategically at the state level where Republicans have power, and threatens to undermine actual advancements in the popular understanding of American history. That’s the problem with laughably negligible Trump-era Republican hysterias: They end with crackdowns that are not so comical. Last fall, truly insane allegations of Bolivian-directed voter fraud opened the door for actual voter suppression, and now, the same thing is happening on the subject of ideological indoctrination. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Dick Morris appearing on a fringe cable network to speculate about children killing their fathers and marrying their mothers is even funny at all.

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