Since the summer of 2020, nearly 900 school districts around the country, covering 35 percent of K-12 students in the United States, have been roiled by campaigns against the teaching of critical race theory.
Those campaigns began shortly after the huge racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd put issues of racial equity center stage in the American political conversation. They picked up steam as Trump, in the final months of his presidency, accelerated his efforts to exploit any and all white resentments about that shifting conversation. In the year since the election, the GOP has picked up on CRT as its wedge issue du jour, one that its leaders hope will propel them to victory in the 2022 midterms.
Most of the school districts in which the local anti-CRT campaigns have picked up steam have two traits in common: They are racially diverse communities that have, over the past two decades, seen large drop-offs in the percentage of white students as demographic patterns shift; and they are in politically competitive districts where Republicans and Democrats both have a realistic chance at capturing the majority of votes.
These findings are in a just-released report out of California, titled The Conflict Campaign, by two University of California education professors—John Rogers, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access; and UCSD’s Mica Pollock.
The report clearly shows just how opportunistic the GOP’s anti-CRT campaign is: how it’s tailored to serve as a wedge issue in districts that are politically up for grabs, and how it’s designed specifically to foster racial resentment and cultural anxiety in communities that have recently become, or are becoming, less white.
Rogers and Pollocks analyzed over 10,000 media stories on critical race theory and public schools that ran between September 2020 and August 2021. They interviewed hundreds of educators around the country. And they reached out to 21 equity officers in districts where the debates about CRT had gotten particularly heated.
Teachers reported feeling deterred from teaching complex ideas around race and America’s unsavory history of institutional racism, even being asked by superintendents to steer clear of “controversial” topics. Equity officers reported being verbally harassed and threatened in response to their efforts to promote inclusionary school policies and programs.
When I spoke to Rogers earlier this week, he talked about how right-wing outlets were constructing a cartoonish image of CRT—something that really isn’t taught in the vast majority of America’s classrooms—to build a movement of resentment that, they hoped, would allow them to flex their electoral muscles.
“They pushed the issue in districts where they stood to gain the most politically,” Rogers said. It was, he continued, a “manufactured conflict” designed to exploit all-too-real political and cultural divisions in the country.
The research findings of Rogers and Pollock show how effectively the GOP has pushed this conflict at the micro level, zeroing in on politically competitive districts where a few hundred parents’ changing their voting patterns can fundamentally shift party dynamics. But, as this campaign has intensified, GOP operatives have realized that statewide resentment campaigns deliver more political bang for the buck than do fine-tuned local efforts.
In Virginia, GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin pushed a strong anti-CRT message that resonated with suburban voters who had abandoned the party in droves during the Trump years. He won election in November and, on his first day in office earlier this month, promptly signed an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory. Last summer, Florida’s and Utah’s statewide school boards acted to stop the theory from being taught in their schools.
Other states bypassed the school boards entirely, and have enacted, or are proposing, legislation barring critical race theory in classrooms. In Tennessee—formerly a slaveholding state and part of the Jim Crow South—public schools that do teach about white privilege will have their funding from the state withheld. The bill was pushed by Republican legislators, and signed into law by a Republican governor. Consider it an updated version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a biology teacher in Tennessee nearly a century ago was prosecuted for having the temerity to teach the theory of evolution to his students, a development that prompted a furious reaction from Bible-thumping parents and those who claimed to speak for them in the political arena.
Meanwhile, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a presidential hopeful, has personally written legislation barring the teaching of CRT in the state’s schools. It is likely to pass during the upcoming legislative session. This follows an earlier executive order signed by Noem that barred her state’s department of education from applying for millions of dollars in history and civics grants because of concerns that those grants came with strings attached that would have encouraged teachers to address issues of racial injustice and privilege in their classrooms. Instead, she said, she wanted teachers to focus on “honest, patriotic education.”
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill intended to limit the teaching of critical race theory, and, specifically, to bar teaching of the 1619 Project. In Florida, which has already seen school board action against CRT, Governor Ron DeSantis and his GOP allies in the legislature are now going further, pushing forward a bill that would outlaw teachings about race that make school students feel “discomfort” when hearing about racial discrimination. The governor has also promoted legislation allowing parents to sue schools over the teaching of critical race theory. Out West, in Arizona, legislators have also passed a law barring local governments from teaching critical race theory.
Even in California—which has headed in the opposite direction to conservative states regarding education policy, and where there is now a statewide mandate in place for schools to teach ethnic studies—Rogers and Pollock found 75 school districts where anti-CRT activists had launched significant campaigns, including recall efforts against liberal school board members.
Rogers told me that his research found that around the country teachers were now starting to self-censor themselves out of a desire to avoid attracting the wrath of politicians, angry parents, and conservative media. He told me that equity officers had reported receiving death threats, and that one of the officers they interviewed was so afraid for his personal safety that he would only park his car near CCTV surveillance cameras.
Playing wedge-issue politics around race might secure opportunistic politicians some votes, but it comes at a huge cost. Schools are becoming battlegrounds in ever-shriller American culture wars, and educators are being scared off from teaching about some of the most fraught and complex issues in American history.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Tennessee’s governor as a Democrat; he is a Republican.