The Slatest

What the Critical Race Theory Panic Was Really About (and the Data to Prove It)

Signs that read "stop teaching critical racist theory to our kids" are seen on a bench during a rally against "critical race theory" being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021.
A rally against “critical race theory” being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12. Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds/Getty Images

When, this past spring, a succession of stories about communities pushing back, angrily, against the supposed teaching of critical race theory in their school districts began to overtake my social media feeds, I had a hunch that it was a direct result of white fear. But a recent data analysis from NBC News confirms it.

Reporters found that the districts hosting some of the most combative debates over diversity and inclusion initiatives—including just teaching about racism—have seen a steady increase in students of color attending their schools. In Gwinnett County, Georgia, where parents have squared off over critical race theory, there has been a 52.4 percent increase in students of color since 1994. And in Loudoun County, Virginia, where the rights of transgender students and teaching racism have become ugly, loud battleground issues, there has been a 29.5 percent increase in that span of time.

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If you’ve been following how whiteness has evolved since the 2016 election, this isn’t surprising. But it is nice to have the numbers to back it up. It reminded one of my colleagues of a similar, equally unsurprising yet very real finding following the Capitol riot. Political scientist Robert Pape, after going through polling and demographic data, discovered that most people who participated in the riots came to D.C. from places where residents were terrified of being replaced by people of color and immigrants. More specifically, as the New York Times put it, “counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic white population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists.”

“If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups,” Pape told the New York Times. “You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.”

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Similarly, in response to NBC’s findings on the CRT panic, Stanford University professor Tomás Jiménez said, “In virtually any community, when there is rapid demographic change you see a backlash.” (Or as one Black mom told NBC of the pushback in her town, “Folks like me welcome [diversity], and there are a lot of folks who do not feel that way—I think they feel very threatened.”)

This is all, of course, part of a much larger and longer pattern. During the Reconstruction era, as Black Americans started to get some rights, domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Louisiana’s White League, and the Knights of the White Camelia organized in order to stop the progress.* In more recent years, the fear stems back to white replacement theory, or “the great replacement,” a racist and delusional ideology devised by French writer Renaud Camus asserting that there’s a deliberate plot to rid the world of white people. It’s popped up during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, in tweets from known white supremacist and former lawmaker Steve King, and in manifestos from racist mass shooters—to name a few. As suburbs become more racially diverse, white families are moving out into whiter communities. And, pretty much every immigration law was constructed to keep America as white as possible.

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The NBC News reporting on CRT backlash is important because it makes clear that the fights currently happening in school districts nationwide are an extension of those desperate grasps to maintain power and limit interactions with people of color. Sure, a white parent shouting at a school board meeting because they don’t want their child learning the truth about racial inequality isn’t as blatant as the violence carried out by the Klan. But it is motivated by the same desire to protect whiteness, its stature, and the privilege it bestows.

Correction, Sept. 16, 2021: This article originally misidentified the Ku Klux Klan as the Klu Klux Klan.

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