What is critical race theory?
Developed by the former Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell and other scholars in the 1970s and 80s, critical race theory, or CRT, examines the ways in which racism was embedded into American law and other modern institutions, maintaining the dominance of white people.
CRT argues that racism is not a matter of individual bigotry but a systemic issue that creates an uneven playing field for people of colour.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor widely credited with coining the term, told the New York Times: “It is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced, the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities.”
A year or so ago few people had heard of it, yet Republicans have whipped up a moral panic that CRT is being rammed down the throats of schoolchildren. They caricature it as teaching Black children to internalise victimhood and white children to self-identify as oppressors.
Is it taught in schools?
No, it is not a part of the secondary school curriculum. The National School Boards Association and other education leaders are adamant that CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools, which teach students from five to 18 years old.
But Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other rightwing media have turned it into a catch-all buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history. They loosely apply it to concepts such as equity and anti-bias training for teachers.
Patti Hidalgo Menders, president of the Loudoun County Republican Women’s Club in Virginia, told the Guardian last week: “They may not call it critical race theory, but they’re calling it equity, diversity, inclusion. They use culturally responsive training for their teachers. It is fundamentally CRT.
“It’s dividing our children into victims and oppressors and what’s a child supposed to do with that?”
Efforts to weaponise CRT were reinforced by former president Donald Trump and a rightwing ecosystem including influential thinktanks. Last year Christopher Rufo, a conservative scholar now at the Manhattan Institute, told the Fox News host Tucker Carlson that CRT was a form of “cult indoctrination”.
In January the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel discussion where the moderator, Angela Sailor, warned: “Critical race theory is the complete rejection of the best ideas of the American founding. This is some dangerous, dangerous philosophical poisoning in the blood stream.”
What role did CRT play in Virginia’s election?
Winning Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin’s signature issue was education. He hammered government schools on “culture war” issues such as race and transgender rights and falsely claimed that his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, called his friend, President Joe Biden, and asked the FBI to silence conservative parents.
Youngkin said he would ban the teaching of CRT in Virginia classrooms. At a campaign event in Glen Allen last month, the candidate said to applause: “What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through the lens of race. On day one, I will ban critical race theory.”
McAuliffe was forced on to the defensive and had to engage with the issue. He accused Republicans of using the Trump playbook of division and deceit, a message that did not cut through in the same way.
Why did the issue resonate with voters?
This can be seen as a rightwing backlash to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and conversations about structural racism that followed the police murder of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis. It also can be seen as a response to America’s changing demographics, specifically the increase in the minority population.
It also comes after lengthy school closures during the pandemic infuriated many parents. School board meetings in Virginia and elsewhere have turned ugly, even violent, and protest signs calling for bans on masks and CRT are sometimes almost interchangeable.
This week conservatives targeted school board elections nationwide over masking rules and teaching racial justice issues. In Virginia, 14% of voters listed education as a top issue, and about seven of 10 of those voted for Youngkin.
McAuliffe did not help himself when, during a debate, he said, “I don’t believe parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – a line that was constantly replayed in Youngkin attacks ads.
Youngkin also highlighted a high school bathroom sexual assault case in affluent Loudoun county, in northern Virginia, to argue against allowing transgender students into their chosen restrooms.
Is it just Virginia?
No. Officials in Republican-controlled states across America are proposing numerous laws to ban teachers from emphasizing the role of systemic racism. Legislation aiming to curb how teachers talk about race has been considered by at least 15 states, according to research by Education Week.
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, has described CRT as “state-sanctioned racism”.
Brad Little, the governor of Idaho, signed into law a measure banning public schools from teaching CRT, which it claimed will “exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the wellbeing of the state of Idaho and its citizens”.
Red states are also targeting the 1619 Project, a series by the New York Times which contends that modern American history began with the arrival of enslaved people four centuries ago and examines that legacy.
Republicans are expected to use the Youngkin formula to woo suburban voters in next year’s midterm elections for Congress.