Protesters against school integration from the 1950s

In the wake of 2021’s very bad Election Day for Democrats, much talk has rightly focused on education as a wedge issue. In Virginia, particularly, schools and education were a cornerstone of Republican Glenn Younkin’s successful campaign against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Some of the contentiousness around schooling comes from pandemic-related closures, but much of it — especially for Republican voters — is about Critical Race Theory.

Critical Race Theory is the new War on Christmas, a daily favorite topic on Fox News and other Right Wing propaganda outfits, invoked every time one administrator at one of the 87,000 U.S. elementary schools provides a tiny nugget of grist for the outrage mill. What the two have in common is the elevation of any tiny deviation from the white Christian hegemony into full-on persecution, an existential threat to white Americans. The other thing they have in common: Democrats’ only response is to deny they exist.

But unlike the War on Christmas, Critical Race Theory is a real thing — it just isn’t what Democrats and the Left believe it to be.

People on the left are quick to declare that Critical Race Theory is a graduate-level concept, not taught anywhere at the elementary or even high-school level. The better informed can even describe how it emerged in the 1970s, and drop names like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell. They might call it “imaginary” or share mocking videos of Republican voters who cannot define the term.

But it’s the Left that no longer knows the definition of Critical Race Theory, because language is defined by usage — and the right has redefined it. There are around 200 ABA-approved law schools in the US, with a total enrollment of about 100,000 students each year. Fox News draws roughly 5 million viewers per night, and while they may not be able to articulate a definition of Critical Race Theory, they all use it the same way.

So what does Critical Race Theory mean now? It means, roughly, “miscegenation.” Critical Race Theory is any effort to disrupt the white hegemony in education by valuing diversity, inclusion, or equity. Like the War on Christmas, it is associated more than anything with a feeling: A feeling among many white Americans that their dominance is slowly eroding. Just as the greeter at Macy’s saying “Happy Holidays” is an act of violence against Christians, a schoolteacher who frames chattel slavery as a racist practice is sewing divisiveness against white people.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few examples of Republican efforts to combat “Critical Race Theory.”

  • In July of 2021, less than a month after passing a law against teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools, the Texas Senate considered a bill that would expand that law to remove works by Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chaves, and Dolores Huerta from the curriculum. The bill would also amend the law to remove a requirement to teach “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong.” When the Texas law was amended in September, it effectively banned most talk of slavery and race from classrooms.
  • Also in September, a group of students in York, Pennsylvania, successfully defeated a year-long ban, instituted by their school district in response to parent complaints about Critical Race Theory, that included the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, children’s books about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, and several dozen other books by Black and brown authors.
  • In August of 2021, a Black school principal in Texas was placed on leave after parents accused him of teaching Critical Race Theory. This followed school administrators asking that he take down Facebook photos in which he was hugging his wife, who is white, because parents said they were inappropriate.
  • Finally, and also in September of 2021, the Wisconsin Assembly considered a bill intended to fight Critical Race Theory that would ban a list of words and concepts from public schools. Among those words and concepts were “systemic racism,” “whiteness,” “equity,” and “multiculturalism.”

Anyone who believes Republicans are concerned with the academic theory developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, et al has completely lost the thread. The origins of the term are irrelevant to the present-day political discourse, and arguing about definitions will only ensure further wins in the Right’s fight to defend that white Christian hegemony.

Education and schooling has always been a powerful political motivator, especially when it triggered white racial fears. Opposition to integrating schools powered George Wallace to a strong third-party run for President in 1968. In the 1970s, “busing” became one of the most contentious political fights in the nation. Starting in the late 1990s and through today, it was “school choice” that dominated many political debates at local, state, and national levels.

At their essence these are all the same fight: Many white Americans do not want their children sharing schools with Black and brown students, hearing from Black and brown teachers, or learning Black and brown history. The fight has not changed much, but the tactics and the terminology have.

What makes “Critical Race Theory” such a popular buzzword is that it avoids accusations of racism by framing the other side as the racists. Teaching that white people enslaved Africans makes white children feel bad, they say. Teaching that white people committed systematic genocide against indigenous people makes white people seem inferior. Teaching that modern-day ills like urban blight and the racial wealth gap are the product of centuries of intitutional white supremacy only serves to divide us. It’s reverse racism, and the people who acknowledge the power of racism throughout American history, they are the real racists.

This is why so many efforts to ban Critical Race Theory focus on the way it allegedly makes white children feel. Whether the children actually feel this way, or merely serve as proxies for their parents’ own racial anxieties, is immaterial. By invoking that feeling of racial guilt or resentment, the Right gains the upper hand against forces it has fought for decades. By redefining the name of an academic theory developed in the 1970s, they can reinstitute the segregation of the 1950s and before, removing all traces of Black and brown history from school curriculum.

How can Democrats fight back? Certainly not by arguing definitions. Democrats have never prevailed in a policy debate by arguing about definitions, whether “welfare queens,” “partial-birth abortions,” or “anchor babies.” Insisting that Critical Race Theory means only one thing, and that thing is not present in primary school education, is a great way to lose.

A better tactic would be to go on the offensive: Argue, correctly, that Republicans are trying to teach our children pleasing lies. Argue that US history curriculum should be set by historians, teachers, and parents, not by Republican politicians and Fox News. Instead of explaining what Critical Race Theory used to mean, publicly reveal it for what it is: A Republican effort to reintroduce segregation, and remove non-white history from our schools.

Will that work? I don’t know for sure. The fight against racial equity in American schools is as old as those schools themselves. That’s the history opponents of Critical Race Theory want to obscure. But recognizing the Republican definition of Critical Race Theory, and fighting against what it is, will surely do more good than declaring it doesn’t exist.

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