Top Republicans are embracing opposition to critical race theory in schools as a new front in the culture wars aimed at exciting their voters ahead of both off-year and midterm elections.
The epicenter of the debate is in Northern Virginia, a key region of a commonwealth that represents perhaps the clearest early test of the political environment ahead of next year’s midterms.
Politically active parents in wealthy Loudoun County, Va., some of whom are professional Republican strategists, are leading a recall effort against school board members there. Increasingly heated school board meetings and those parents’ media savvy have earned attention from Fox News and other conservative news outlets.
Now, some Republican candidates — like Glenn Youngkin, the party’s nominee for governor in Virginia and a former chief executive of the Carlyle Group — are using their opposition to critical race theory to paint themselves as defenders of traditional American values and patriotism.
“Critical race theory is not an academic curriculum. It is a political agenda to divide people and actually put people into different buckets and then pit them against one another,” Youngkin said in a recent appearance on Fox News. “Critical race theory will not be in Virginia’s schools when I serve Virginians as the next governor.”
Other Virginia Republicans have embraced opposition to critical race theory as well.
“A lot of parents have overheard their kids’ lessons during virtual school and they didn’t like what they heard. America has had to work through problems but is not a country full of racists, and we shouldn’t be teaching our kids that our nation is fundamentally racist,” said state Del. Jason Miyares (R), the Republican nominee for attorney general. “We can’t survive as a nation if we are raising an entire generation of children to learn to hate their country.”
A spokesman for Loudoun County’s school district has said critical race theory is not taught in public schools there. Opponents of critical race theory have protested in several other Virginia school districts — Frederick County, Virginia Beach, Hanover County and Amherst County — all of which do not use the theory in their own curricula.
Youngkin’s opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), has dismissed the debate as a political fabrication that is not on the top of voters’ minds.
“That’s another right-wing conspiracy,” McAuliffe said in audio apparently recorded by a tracker and reported by Fox News. “This is totally made up by Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor’s race Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump Schumer vows next steps after ‘ridiculous,’ ‘awful’ GOP election bill filibuster MORE and Glenn Youngkin. This is who they are. It’s a conspiracy theory.”
Fox News’s role in promoting Youngkin’s opposition and McAuliffe’s dismissal is emblematic of the echo chamber that has amplified the recent outcry: The liberal outlet Media Matters for America reported last week that Fox News guests and hosts had mentioned critical race theory almost 1,300 times in the last three months, and more than 500 times in May alone.
The television attention has vaulted critical race theory to the forefront of state legislative agendas in conservative states. Legislators in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee have all approved bans on teaching critical race theory or other discussions of endemic racism. Similar measures have been introduced in 17 other states, and 39 Republican senators have signed a letter opposing education that teaches about systemic racism.
Now, some Republicans are beginning to foreshadow a greater focus on local education curriculum in next year’s midterm elections.
“Critical race theory is an absolute disaster for the Democrats,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), told reporters on Monday. “Parents want their schools to teach what I got taught: Reading, writing and arithmetic.”
It is not clear how many voters will be moved by a focus on what has been a relatively academic frame through which to view American history and society. For nearly half a century, few outside liberal institutions of higher education have discussed or debated critical race theory.
“Historically in the U.S., significant progress toward greater racial equality is met with significant backlash,” said Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University. “Republicans’ focus on critical race theory is a part of this cycle of backlash. Regardless of whether its critics can accurately define or describe CRT’s contributions to legal studies or any other field, the rhetoric surrounding it helps to define political in-groups and out-groups for competitive partisans.”
The concept is only vaguely defined in the American consciousness; only a third of Americans told pollsters for YouGov and The Economist that they had a good idea of what critical race theory means.
Even Republicans who oppose critical race theory have had trouble defining it.
Academics and legal theorists describe it as a concept seeking to challenge historically ingrained racism in the U.S. by reforming the law to enhance equity in American life.
But the party is sending early signals that they will use it to define themselves, and their Democratic opponents, over the next year. In a survey conducted for the NRSC and the Republican Governors Association, the Republican polling firm OnMessage Inc. found just 33 percent of voters agreed with the statement that “white Americans are inherently racist whether they know it or not because they benefit from the American culture of systematic racism and white privilege,” a framing no proponent of critical race theory would accept.
“Most people see [critical race theory] as wrong-headed and unnecessary in our K-12 education system,” Arizona Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyRepublicans see critical race theory as new front in ongoing culture wars Arizona is ‘building back better’ by reshoring critical technology Arizona reporting spike in coronavirus cases MORE (R) told reporters on Monday.
The focus on critical race theory is in some ways the evolution of a decades-old debate over the role of affirmative action in leveling the playing field for historically oppressed groups. A wave of legislation and ballot initiatives in the 1990s and 2000s sought to block affirmative action programs in states like California, Michigan and Washington. Today, the focus has shifted to curricula in K-12 schools.
“As a relatively obscure academic enterprise, CRT is a convenient although largely misplaced villain for anyone seeking to challenge the idea that racism is systemic in American society,” Victor wrote in an email. “This villainization helps Republicans to circle their wagons around the errant idea that any attempt to discuss racism in classrooms is itself racist. This view is consistent with a fantastical view of U.S. history in which America has entirely overcome its ugly racially unjust history.”
Democratic strategists are skeptical that critical race theory will break through into the average voters’ consciousness.
“Education is a huge issue in most governor’s races. It always polls as one of the top issues. The problem for Republicans here is this is not the education issue that people are worried about,” said Jared Leopold, a top adviser to several Democratic governors and gubernatorial candidates and a former top aide at the Democratic Governors Association. “I have yet to see any evidence that this is anything more than a base motivation strategy right now. I think Republicans would like this to become a swing issue in the suburbs, but I have not seen regular suburban people talk about this in any way, shape or form, in Virginia or elsewhere.”