Critical race theory: US right-wing wages a culture war, the people fight back

Conservatives are going after a new boogeyman, “critical race theory”, or any attempt at teaching youth about the history of US racism

March 06, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Dr. J.R. Green, educator and member of the South Carolina Pro-Truth Coalition, testifies against “critical race theory” bans in South Carolina (Photo: NAACP Legal Defense Fund via Twitter)

As former White House Chief Strategist and notorious ultra right-wing pundit Steve Bannon put it, “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”

What did the US “nation” need saving from, and what do right-wing leaders like Bannon want to save it from? And why should this battle play out in the school boards?

The answer lies in an analysis of the leftward, and then rightward trend in US politics and culture. In 2020, the United States erupted in the largest protests in the country’s history. The death of George Floyd, captured in a video that circulated throughout the entire world, mobilized not hundreds of thousands, not millions, but tens of millions.

A year later came the sentencing of Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, a police officer who received over 20 years for the murder of a Black person—unprecedented in the US, a victory that demonstrated the power of the uprising. But beyond that central victory, activists argue that the entire culture of the United States shifted. As anti-police brutality organizer Kerbie Joseph told Peoples Dispatch back in 2021, “Because the struggle was that big and lasted for so long…It shifted the narrative of the jurors, it shifted the narrative of the media, it shifted the narrative of the music that was made…All of that shifted because of people being on the ground.”

This cultural shift was felt acutely in education. Throughout the country, both teachers and students began to demand a change in how US history, particularly the country’s racist past, is taught in schools. And in the beginning, schools did change. Leaders in public education throughout the country condemned the murder of George Floyd and the systematic targeting of Black people by police. Educators created materials for teaching anti-racism in classrooms. And notably, educators, school boards, teachers unions, and others in the world of education ignited a push to change the status quo of police officers acting as security in schools, a practice which has proven to be harmful and violent

Soon, however, as the movement against police brutality slowly dwindled, the right-wing of the US began to gain the upper hand.

US education shifts right

At the same time that school systems were experiencing a nationwide racial reckoning, those who believed that the US needed “saving” from an anti-racist curriculum, as Bannon put it, began to gather strength, and organize. 

Elena Fishbein, founder of the right-wing group No Left Turn in Education, writes this on the “Our Origin” section of her website:

“In June, shortly after the death of George Floyd and the protests, rioting and looting that ensued, the principal of my children’s elementary school issued a message to parents that shocked me. It described a hastily drawn up plan by a ‘Cultural Proficiency Committee’ at the school ‘to offer explicit lessons on equity and race for our students.’ …These lessons included topics such as ‘diversity,’ ‘racism,’ ‘justice,’ ‘equity’ and ‘privilege’…I opted my children out of these classes as well.”

After the summer of 2020, other right-wing groups, also focused specifically on rolling back progressive changes in K-12 curriculum, began to pop up. Moms for Liberty, a “parental rights” organization that organizes conservative parents to fight against COVID-19 safety measures in schools as well as what it deems “critical race theory curriculum”, was founded in January of 2021. Another similar group, Parents Defending Education, was also founded in 2021. These right-wing groups are making it their mission to roll back any progressive changes in education since the 2020 protests.

According to Jermaine, a history teacher based in Atlanta, Georgia, much of what right-wing parents were responding to was their fear. He told Peoples Dispatch, “The number one thing that comes to my mind is, [right-wing parents] are racist. Second, I guess they have this fear that maybe there’ll be some type of revenge by black people, or that children, especially African-American kids, will grow to hate their white peers or their friends in the school. And number three, is they just want to uphold the system that’s in place…These people were scared. Parents were scared, nervous.”

What is critical race theory?

Conservative media is inundated with confusing talking points on CRT: that it makes white children see themselves as inherent oppressors, or that it sows “racial division and sexual confusion among America’s young people”. But what is critical race theory, in reality?

Conservative activists have begun calling all curriculum which teaches the history of US racial oppression as “critical race theory”. Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, who is a leader in the movement against so-called critical race theory, openly admitted to engineering outrage at the term, tweeting: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”      

If critical race theory as a term has become synonymous with anything that is unpopular with conservatives, what does it really mean, and has it ever been taught in US public schools?

According to Dr. J. R. Green, school superintendent and member of the South Carolina Pro-Truth Coalition, the answer is “no”. In his testimony against anti-critical race theory bills in South Carolina, Green said, “When I hear members of the committee say they have heard from constituents, [and] suggest critical race theory is being taught in our K-12 schools, it is based on the faulty belief that critical race theory can be whatever they want it to be.” 

As Dr. Green told Peoples Dispatch, “Critical race theory was a legal theory developed in the late 1970s early 1980s…it really suggests that discrimination exists beyond the hearts and minds of individuals who may have a certain prejudice, but instead looks deeper into American systems.” CRT is only taught at the college level, not in K-12 education. However, as Christopher Rufo prophesied, the right-wing has ensured that critical race theory has become whatever conservatives need it to be. 

Opposition to CRT: who, why, and how

By recruiting parents of schoolchildren to their cause, groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education brand themselves as grassroots movements. In reality, the network of anti-CRT organizations is extremely well-funded. In Reno, Nevada as early as October 2020, conservatives organized to attend a school board meeting en masse to oppose a genuinely grassroots, student-led anti-racist resolution. The directors of Moms for Liberty have close ties to leaders in the Republican Party. The leader of Parents Defending Education, Nicole Neily, has connections to infamous conservative donors Charles and David Koch. Not to mention the right-wing media machine, including Fox News which is the most watched cable news channel in the US, frequently promotes the leaders of these organizations. 

Why are top conservative operatives fighting against progressive education? Dr. Green told Peoples Dispatch, “That there have been some individuals who are strategists, who have determined that there is some potential political benefit to…creating a kind of a new culture war, if you will.” The fight against so-called critical race theory coincides with a larger “culture war”, or wave of conservative attacks on the rights of people who are oppressed due to race, sexuality, or gender. Over the past two years, state legislatures have enacted unconstitutional abortion bans, such as the infamous Texas SB 8, over 200 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across the US in January 2022 alone, and there is an ongoing struggle being waged against anti-racist education. 

The wielding of such conservative talking points has proven to be politically advantageous to the Republican Party. Republican Greg Youngkin won his position as Virginia’s governor using an anti-CRT platform, in a state that elected Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020. A notable Youngkin campaign ad features a mother who wanted to ban the book Beloved from her son’s school, an award-winning fiction book recounting the horrors of US slavery, for “explicit” content. 

Some activists argue that “culture war” talking points are used by Republican politicians to pit working class people against each other, or to distract from failed and deadly policies. Texas, for example, has become a major battleground for the reactionary right-wing agenda on social issues; it is also a state where over 700 people died last year due to a preventable power outage. As long as scapegoating “critical race theory” remains a winning tactic, Republican leaders and donors will continue to use it.

The well-funded right-wing is able to use far-reaching, diverse tactics to move US education backwards. Beyond attending school board meetings, right-wingers have requested an unprecedented number of book bans of anti-racist books or books that touch on topics such as sexuality and gender. The primary excuse for this censorship is that these books are “explicit”, or “inappropriate” for children. Notable, Maus, Art Spiegelman’s classic holocaust memoir in graphic novel form, was banned across all Tennessee public schools for cursing and nudity. As the New York Times reported, “Mr. Spiegelman said he got the impression that the [Tennessee school] board members were asking, ‘Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?’”

Hyper-local tactics by anti-CRT activists, such as school board meetings and book bans, have proven to be effective organizing. But right-wing groups are not shying away from taking on larger battles in the state legislatures. According to Education Week, “Since January 2021, 41 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism”. Many states have responded to the right by enacting bans on teaching critical race theory in K-12 public schools. And although CRT was never taught to K-12 students, the implications of such bans are far-reaching. 

South Carolina: demonstrating the fight back

Peoples Dispatch spoke to A.D. Foster, a South Carolina graduate student who, along with his union, United Campus Workers, is fighting several bills in his state that aim to censor the teaching of “critical race theory”. These bills threaten education in South Carolina public K-12 schools and universities. One particularly worrying bill is House Bill 4392, which states that teachers “may not be compelled by a policy of a state agency, school district, or school administration to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs”. “Obviously, the question that we have is: Who defines what is controversial?” Foster told Peoples Dispatch

The bills, if passed, would enforce a warped, overly-positive teaching of US history. According to the South Carolina Pro-Truth Coalition, a key force in the fight against anti-CRT bills, H. 4392 would ban curriculum that teaches how “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” House Bill 4343 would ban the use of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a Pulitzer prize-winning project that examines the legacy of slavery in the US. Senate Bill 534 requires the teaching of inaccuracies, such as “the Native American legend of [George Washington’s] divine protection”, and that “each year, prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, all public schools shall read the original account of the first Thanksgiving feast as recorded by pilgrim Edward Winslow.” House Bill 4799 bans any instruction that concludes that slavery and racism are “anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the US”. According to Foster: “a key component, a key theme that runs through all of this legislation is a sort of disconnect, a severing of the present day and the past.” 

The South Carolina Pro-Truth Coalition, composed of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Lowcountry Black Parents Association, the ACLU of South Carolina, and the E3 Foundation, has been at the forefront of organizing public testimony against these bills. “The first thing is we have to understand that, first of all, we have to be present and we have to be vocal…this is what the pro-truth coalition understands when it comes to speaking out at the hearings, for example.” Foster told Peoples Dispatch. But Foster argues that a different form of organization, namely, labor unions, are also needed. 

“The purpose of a labor organization like the United Campus Workers is to build out the power of the workers as workers right in the university…Because they, in particular, are the targets of this legislation,” Foster continued, “Attending the hearings and attending lobbying days and these sorts of things are tactics. The real power comes when the folks that are engaged in these struggles join as members of the union, and begin to reach out to their coworkers and get their coworkers to join the union…as we become involved in these types of campaigns and other campaigns, as we increase our membership, our power in the ways that we can fight back is going to multiply exponentially.”

Teachers unions have vowed to defend members and ensure that US history is taught accurately, with a recognition of systemic racism. Jermaine, in Atlanta, also cites the power of unions as potential avenues for fighting the right-wing on this issue. “It’s hard because, you know, working in the school, a lot of the teachers just accept it…teachers are afraid of losing their license and losing their careers. But it takes a collective solidarity from teachers, here in the South. The south has a long history of fighting almost any type of all civil rights issues….we all need to be in solidarity and join unions, most importantly, to fight back against this critical race theory fear-mongering that’s going on.”

The current efforts by the left-wing in South Carolina and throughout the US are smaller, and most importantly, far less well-funded than the right-wing anti-CRT offensive. However, as A.D. Foster says of his own organizing experience: “While we have to understand that the right-wing is on the offensive, we also understand that people are aware of it. They’re not ignorant. They see what’s going on and they’re outraged and they want to fight back. And so we have to have the organization to be able to do that.”