Credit where credit is due: Today’s Republican strategists are absolute masters of appealing to the fears, resentments and outright hatreds of their base. A current example is the GOP’s unremitting and very strategic attack on an imaginary critical race theory, or CRT.
There is, of course, an actual scholarly sub-field called Critical Race Theory. It’s a research area pursued almost exclusively by law professors, and it examines the various ways in which racial stereotyping has infected the nation’s legal systems. (Redlining is one example–negative beliefs about Black people were incorporated in housing policies that were discriminatory.) But the target of GOP’s anti-CRT campaign bears little or no resemblance to the real thing.
As the Brookings Institution recently confirmed, the GOP’s war on “divisive topics” has little or no relationship to the study of how racism distorted American legal systems. The bans on teaching “CRT” that have been passed in Red States, ironically, are intended to serve a clearly “divisive” purpose.
Many of these laws were embedded in broader initiatives to address sometimes legitimate parental concerns about public schools’ capabilities to deliver quality educational experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the specific focus on banning the teaching of racial history smacks of political motivation by a party that is trying to ignore this nation’s rising diversity and appeal to its largely white, culturally conservative voter base. In fact, the term “critical race theory”—a much narrower academic framework than what is commonly taught in K-12 courses on American racial history—is intentionally used as a scare tactic to appeal to that base.
Survey research shows that actual parents–as opposed to the GOP’s elderly base–are relatively unconcerned about this manufactured version of CRT.
Surveys taken in Virginia, Florida, and Texas show underwhelming support for banning the teaching of racial history and diversity in public schools among most respondents, including parents. Moreover, a February nationwide CBS poll found that more than eight in 10 Americans oppose banning books that discuss race or slavery from schools, and more than six in 10 believe that teaching about race in America makes students understand what others went through.
This is noteworthy because the demography of the nation’s school children and their parents is distinct from nonparent voters of the traditional Republican base—older white voters, especially those without college educations. Therefore, it is fair to say that the political strategy behind these laws, particularly in rapidly diversifying Republican states, is really intended to appeal to nonparent voters who are fearful of the nation’s changing demography.
Raise your hand if you are shocked by this conclusion…
If demographics are destiny, America’s diversity will eventually prevail: the data shows that children of color are already more than a majority of the nation’s K-12 students. That reality would seem to dictate the need for both white and nonwhite children to become familiar with “all elements—both good and bad—of the nation’s racial and ethnic history.”
Of course, what is reasonable–what a democratic polity requires–is irrelevant to the Republican strategists who are desperately working to delay the inevitable. As the Brookings article puts it,
The recent Republican-initiated state bans on teaching racial history or diversity in schools seem to be targeted to voters who are not parents of school-aged children.
This divide between older white populations on the one hand and younger minorities on the other is emblematic of what I have called the “cultural generation gap.” Older white Americans—especially those fearful of the nation’s changing demography—respond to political messages that favor curtailing immigration, suppressing minority votes, and providing less government support for education or other social service programs targeted to younger, more diverse generations, who they do not see as “their” children.
These voting blocs were on the frontlines of the Trump administration’s “war on demography,” which persists today. A July 2021 Pew Research Center survey showed that 35% of white residents age 65 and older feel that a declining share of white people in the U.S. is either “somewhat” or “very” bad for society, compared with just 5% who think it is either somewhat or very good. Among all residents age 18 to 29, the comparable figures are 13% versus 29%. Moreover, among Republicans age 65 and older, just 18% see increased public attention to slavery and racism in the history of America as somewhat or very good, compared with 54% who believe it to be somewhat or very bad. Among respondents age 18 to 29, the responses are 66% and 16%, respectively.
As I used to tell my students, my generation is leaving them a profoundly messed up country. (I may have used a stronger word than “messed up” to describe the situation…). When my age cohort dies off, I promised them, things will improve.
I just hope we can hang on that long….