Once again, the forces of capitalism are harnessing racism to do their dirty work.
More than 25 states have introduced legislation or taken other action that, backers claim, is aimed at banning “critical race theory” (CRT) from schools and government programs. Several states have already passed these bills, and discussion on this topic leads Fox News every night.
The common story about this surge of action is that this is a new “Tea Party” moment—a genuine uprising by grassroots Americans who are furious about CRT and demanding action from their state legislatures. But that story ignores the clear influence of a carefully built campaign by the network of radical free-market capitalist think tanks and action groups supported by billionaire businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David.
At least to some extent, Koch-funded entities have manufactured this cycle of outrage, and it is dangerous to ignore the role they are playing and their motivations. This is not just a guess. UnKoch My Campus did the research, and we know it’s true. State politicians were almost entirely silent on the topic until the Koch network started pushing the issue earlier this year, months after it was first raised by Fox News commentators.
When the right wing talks about “critical race theory,” it is really hijacking an obscure academic concept to attack any approach to education or policy that acknowledges the existence of historic and structural racism in this country. The popular story—heard not just on Fox News but repeated by the The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the The Atlantic—is that CRT became a national issue when a single conservative activist, Chris Rufo, appeared on Tucker Carlson in September 2020. President Trump, an avid Carlson fan, quickly responded with an executive order banning federal contractors for any diversity training that examined systemic racism. Since then, the story goes, the grassroots rage at CRT has boiled over.
Such a narrative is powerful, when true, because it gives an air of populist legitimacy to the cause. But that story doesn’t fit the facts.
Because after that brief moment in September, the debate around “critical race theory” went dormant for months. Almost no legislation was introduced at the state level in this period, according to Education Week. Fox News stopped talking about it, according to an analysis by Media Matters. Then, as the Biden administration took over, something happened. Mentions of CRT skyrocketed on Fox News. At the same time, state legislators started introducing bills. What was behind the surge, months after Rufo’s appearance?
Our research makes the answer clear: It was the Koch network.
As the head of UnKoch My Campus, I have spent years working to research and expose the insidious nationwide network of think tanks, action groups, and academics funded by the Kochs. While the network is often diffuse and hard to track, all of its branches purport to be dedicated to supporting free market capitalism.
But I have always known, as a Black woman, that the Koch brothers’ brand of radical capitalism relies on maintaining a system of white supremacy. That reality has rarely been as clear as now, when the Koch network is essentially working to manufacture a crisis to prove its case for privatizing education.
Unkoch My Campus reviewed the published materials of 28 conservative think tanks and political organizations with known ties to the Koch network from June 2020 to June 2021 and found that they had collectively published 79 articles, podcasts, reports or videos about Critical Race Theory.
These articles came out in a trickle last year, but then suddenly became a flood starting in February 2021, as President Biden took office and the threat to corporate profits became real. An average of five pieces per week dropped from late March to June 30, 2021. The pace of propaganda surged in both late May and late June—coinciding with the surge in action by state politicians.
Both the highly influential Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has known ties to the Kochs and a long history of driving conservative state legislation, held webinars devoted to attacking CRT. The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research alone devoted 43 separate articles or videos to the topic.
Why is the Koch network so dedicated to this cause? It is a prime example of how the network has built up an alliance between the three pillars of the right wing: the Republican Party, rich corporate elites, and conservative white and evangelical voters opposed to racial progress.
The CRT fight helps all three. Republicans get a manufactured controversy that motivates their base to keep them in power, and they get the financial support of the Kochs and their corporate friends. The Kochs and other radical capitalists get a false panic around the state of public education, which helps their ongoing campaign to privatize schools, and they gain allies who will push the economic agenda that keeps them at the top. The overwhelmingly white Republican base is rewarded with a story that is easier for them to accept than the true one—a story where they are both the heroes of American history and the true victims of the American present, oppressed by “political correctness.”
As my organization wrote in our expansive report, “Advancing White Supremacy,” the Koch network has purposefully exploited this relationship for years. The network has long-standing ties to white nationalist scholars and has used their research to drive policies that serve its economic goals at the expense of people of color, including efforts to resegregate our nation’s schools, dismantle voting rights, and expand the prison-industrial complex.
You can see this play out in how the Koch think tanks we studied propose “solving” the CRT problems. They propose solutions like deregulating teacher licensing and relaxing restrictions on which public schools parents can send their kids to, both long-standing goals of the organization. This dramatic mismatch between supposedly existential stakes on the one hand and technocratic fixes on the other exposes their true intentions. They are inciting outrages against racial justice, and then using that outrage as a Trojan horse for entrenching radical free market ideology in every institution possible.
Even a casual look at the facts makes it nearly impossible to deny the existence of structural racism and the deep harm it has caused the Black community. But the Koch forces are trying to make it invisible all the same. If they succeed, it will not be a triumph for white Americans. It will be a triumph for Charles Koch, his rich friends—and the politicians who gave them what they wanted.