In Washoe County, Nevada, parents protest critical race theory (CRT), while a conservative group is pushing for teachers to wear body cameras to make sure they aren’t indoctrinating students. In Loudon county, Virginia, home to Leesburg, a town named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, wealthy white parents scream in school meetings. Across the US, mostly white parents picket school board meetings, holding up “No CRT” signs as though it were 1954 and their schools were about to be integrated.
Understanding Racism in All Its Forms
This demonization of an academic theory is supported by virulent media discourses. Fox News says that the teachers’ unions support CRT and will push it on your schools at a cost of $127,600. Breitbart takes it further, suggesting that CRT is going to set up “a dictatorship of the anti-racists.” On Twitter, opponents compare CRT to anti-white racism and the far-right conspiracy of white genocide.
So what is critical race theory? Is it a radical anti-racist Marxist program bent on overturning power structures for an amount equivalent to what Tucker Carlson earns in a week? Scholars say CRT is in fact a framework from critical legal studies emphasizing not the social construction of race but the reality of racism, in particular racism’s deep roots in American history and its perpetuation in legal and social structures. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, emphasizes that it is an ongoing scholarly practice of interrogating racism.
Is it being taught in your schools? Nobody is teaching CRT to kindergarteners. Critical race theory has become part of education studies, one of many frameworks influencing researchers and instuctors who want a framework for understanding, and undoing, racism in education. Some link CRT in schools to The 1619 Project launched by The New York Times that seeks to center black history and slavery in the story of America’s founding.
So why does your uncle who spends too much time on the internet think this is a dictatorship of the woke? The moral panic over CRT is the brainchild of Chris Rufo, who began using the term to refer to a catch-all, nefarious force behind all kinds of social change, from Joe Biden’s weak liberalism to Black Lives Matter. Conservatives link CRT to trans rights and communism, the Heritage Foundation compares it to Marxist critical theory. The Trump administration launched a counter to The 1619 Project, the 1776 Commision, to elevate whiteness and fight “critical race theorists” and “anti-American historical revisionism.”
Moral panics position one idea, process, identity or group as evil, a threat to public order, values and morality, but they align institutional power with popular discourses to enforce the social positions and identities behind them. As of July, 22 states have proposed bills against teaching critical race theory and five have signed them into law. These bills ban teaching CRT, which they insist makes white students uncomfortable and introduces “divisive concepts.” For the right, the vision of US history is one that teaches color-blind unity and pride in being American. Of course, it also teaches that the KKK was OK.
This is far from the first moral panic over education. Historian Adam Laats compares the fight against CRT to the fight against the evolution of teaching. This first moral panic led to widespread distrust in public schools. More recent moral panics also led to divestment in social institutions. In the 1980s, a panic about satanic kindergartens in the US led to the reinforcement of dominant gender and racial power structures, but also to the withdrawal of support for daycare and early childhood education.
Panics over sex education, from Australia to Aabama, called for defunding these programs, shrinking already limited school budgets while increasing conservative opposition to public education. In the UK, the Conservative Party wants to ban teaching white privilege because it hurts working-class boys — while at the same time dismantling the free school meals program.
What will the effects of this anti-anti-racist panic be? Will they curb the freedom of teachers to share the truths of history or push them to teach a still more nationalist version of the American story? Will history classes explicitly celebrate white masculinity, full of heroic founders fulfilling a holy promise for freedom and capital? Or might it also serve as another push to demonize public schools, painting them not as (unequally funded) shared democratic institutions but as anti-American indoctrination centers?
Even if the bills do not reshape education standards, the dramatic language around CRT and white genocide continues the longstanding push to defund and privatize public schools. As education scholar Michael Apple notes, the right’s education reform has long linked neoliberal privatization with neoconservative curriculums, something that continues with the opposition to CRT.
Breitbart mentions Utah’s Say No to Indoctrination Act that will “keep taxpayer dollars from funding discriminatory practices and divisive worldviews,” linking cost and curriculum. It is not a coincidence that conservative media mention the price of anti-racist interventions and the dog whistle of “taxpayer dollars.” Fighting CRT might mean bills to change curriculum standards, but it could equally mean a push to cut funding for public schools reframed as cutting funding for CRT — as Senate candidate J.D. Vance suggests on Twitter — or a call for greater support for private, religious and home education.
Both increased nationalism and privatization of education were key issues for the right. Donald Trump’s 2020 education platform’s first point was to teach American exceptionalism; his second was to have school choice. With this panic over critical race theory, far-right drama serves to reinforce the more banal nationalism of capital and conservatism. Painting schools as cultural-Marxist madrassas makes it a lot easier to stop paying for them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.