How critical race theory became today’s defining culture-war issue
As the 2020 election entered its final stretch, President Trump was searching for a means of blunting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) fervor that threatened his electoral chances in some swing states. He’d had some success with claims that Democrats supported lawlessness and wanted to defund the police, but, understanding that the best defense is a strong offense, he apparently felt the need to mount a vigorous counterattack.
Trump discovered the perfect weapon on the Sept. 1 episode of Tucker Carlson’s show. Conservative writer and activist Christopher Rufo was expounding about the dangers of critical race theory (CRT), claiming it promoted the belief that America is an irredeemably racist society. Rufo’s presentation must have struck a responsive chord because Trump immediately picked up the theme. Just 22 days later, he churned out an executive order prohibiting the promotion of CRT, as well as sexism, in federal programs.
Although Trump lost the presidential race, he planted a seed that has been vigorously nourished by the extreme right ever since. CRT has become the weapon of choice in the Republican culture wars. Attacking CRT and claiming that kids from pre-K to the university level are being indoctrinated in the pernicious doctrine has become commonplace across the country.
While Fox News has been the primary purveyor of CRT hysteria on a national scale, a large network of conservative organizations has taken the fight to the state and local levels. These include the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Social Policy Network (SPN), which has affiliates in every state.
The SPN entity in Idaho, my home state, is called the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). The organization has developed significant clout in the Idaho Legislature in recent years with its hard-edged culture war tactics. Legislators defy the IFF’s wishes at their peril. They therefore paid close attention when IFF called for legislation this year banning CRT “indoctrination” in Idaho public schools.
Idaho’s State Board of Education and teachers were dumbfounded by the allegations that CRT existed in the public schools and that kids were being indoctrinated. Local school boards, which oversee educational operations, were equally mystified by the charges. Even the legislators being urged on by IFF to put a stop to CRT could not produce any credible evidence that it existed in the state.
Nevertheless, conservatives in the state legislature killed one school funding bill, stopped others in their tracks and made it known that nothing more would be done to fund education until a bill to combat CRT was passed. A bill drawing some wording from the Trump executive order was cobbled together and passed so that the legislature could get back to work.
Organizations like IFF have inspired legislative battles in other states to stamp out non-existent CRT indoctrination. Texas enacted a far-reaching CRT bill on June 17. The bill was strongly supported by IFF’s Texas counterpart and the national conservative network that has pushed such legislation in Idaho and across the nation.
The Texas concern about indoctrination is hard to square with the state’s long-standing use of textbooks having a definite racist slant. Indeed, school children in Texas and other former Confederate states were for many years presented with a skewed racial history of the South. Between 1889 and 1969, almost 70 million kids in southern states were taught the “Lost Cause” version of history, where plantation owners had good relations with their slaves, generally treated them kindly and fought the Civil War on the principle of states’ rights, not slavery.
The CRT culture warfare has also infected governmental bodies at the local level across the country. Local school boards have found themselves beseeched with unfounded claims that their schools are promoting the theory, resulting in heated confrontations, contested races for board positions and recall elections. According to an analysis of recent media reports, at least 165 groups have been formed “to disrupt lessons on race and gender.”
The fight over CRT was percolating before Trump embraced it as his own political weapon last September. His adoption of the divisive issue supercharged it on the national stage. It is not just a struggle over the curriculum at state-supported schools across the nation, but also a potent weapon of conservative candidates to stir division and win local, state and national elections.
The upshot is that CRT is virtually non-existent in public schools across the nation. It is misunderstood or misrepresented by those using it as a political weapon and has the potential to do extreme damage to the system of free public schools that has brought America to greatness.
Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho’s attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as an Idaho Supreme Court justice (2005-2107).