The debate around critical race theory (CRT) can feel exceptionally stupid, reflexive, and marked by bad faith, even by the low standards of our era. Prominent Democrats have excused an assault on the liberal order and the embrace of racial reductionism, while too many Trumpy Republicans have responded to charges of racism and intolerance by seemingly doing their best to prove them true. The performative back and forth, aggravated by uncertainty as to just what CRT entails, can fuel a sense of “a plague on both your houses.” But that response, while understandable, is neither principled nor politic. In fact, this clash, seen rightly, is a huge opportunity for a serious conservatism.
Critical race theory, for all the quarrels about precisely what it is and whether it’s literally present in schools, really is an avowedly revolutionary and race-obsessed doctrine. As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk has observed, “Critical race theory emerged out of postmodernist thought, which tends to be skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism.” Proponents readily acknowledge such ambitions. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic unflinchingly explained in their book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
In short, the CRT debate has never been about whether schools should “teach kids about slavery.” Rather, CRT is a toxic doctrine that encompasses an array of troubling practices, including race-based affinity groups (in which schools separate students or staff by race for instructional purposes); exercises like “privilege walks” (in which students or staff are told to catalog identities and circumstances—like race, appearance, sexual preference, or number of books in the home—for hints of unearned privilege and “white supremacy culture”); or the insistence that schools reject “colorblind” norms (which the Biden administration supported by recommending resources explaining that such a mindset creates an “unsafe environment” for students).
When pushed to address these troubling practices, Democratic officials have opted for obfuscation. In the heat of Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe insisted, “[CRT] is not taught in Virginia, it’s never been taught in Virginia. And as I’ve said this a lot: It’s a dogwhistle. It’s racial, it’s division, and it’s used by Glenn Youngkin … to divide people.” American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten thundered, “Let’s be clear: Critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools. It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists.”
Such responses are emphatic. They’re also untrue. Indeed, internal documents show that, during McAuliffe’s previous tenure as governor, a Virginia Department of Education training program encouraged state public schools to “embrace critical race theory” and “engage in race-conscious teaching and learning” in order to advance “Culturally-Responsive Teaching and Learning Principles.”
Even this summer, in Virginia’s Loudoun County, a freedom of information request found that Loudoun’s schools “anti-racist” trainings taught teachers to reject “color blindness,” address their “Whiteness (e.g., white privilege),” and recognize that “independence and individual achievement” are racist hallmarks of “white individualism” (as is a commitment to “self-expression, individual thinking, personal choice”).
It is neither racist nor unreasonable to reject such teachings as wholly at odds with widely shared American values. These dogmas display an educational vision that’s one-part crude racial caricature and one-part half-baked campus Marxism. When confronted with the true face of CRT, rather than the sanitized “we just want to discuss Jim Crow” version favored by NPR and the New York Times, it’s one that most Americans—of every race—would emphatically reject.
Rasmussen reported in July that 74 percent of black voters say it’s important to teach the “traditional values of Western civilization,” not too far off from the 78 percent of white voters who say the same. While the question is more than a little vague, such responses sure don’t suggest much enthusiasm for CRT’s frontal assault on the liberal order. Indeed, black and white Americans sound an awful lot alike when asked about values that have been deemed “white supremacist” by anti-racist trainers. Sixty-four percent of white Americans and 67 percent of black Americans say it’s important to teach persistence. On the virtue of hard work, the respective figures are 90 and 91 percent; on “independence,” they’re 76 and 81 percent.
Meanwhile, Latinos may be the nation’s most culturally conservative demographic. Pew has reported that 77 percent of Hispanics agree that “most can get ahead with hard work”(among other Americans, the figure is 62 percent). Ruy Teixeira, who two decades ago co-authored the The Emerging Democratic Majority, observed last month that three-fifths of Latinos believe life will be better for the next generation, that most think America is “a fair society where everyone has a chance to get ahead,” and that, by more than 3 to 1, they’d “rather be a citizen of the United States than any other country.” As he put it, “Clearly, this constituency does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy.”
Results from a recent national AEI poll are similarly instructive. While just 58 percent of black Americans, 44 percent of Hispanics, and 42 percent of whites want schools to teach about “white privilege,” massive, broad-based majorities support teaching about the topics that are supposedly divisive. For instance, 74 percent of white Americans and 75 percent of black Americans “favor teaching students that the dispute over slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War.” Among Republicans and Democrats alike, more than 4 out of 5 say social studies textbooks should discuss that many Founders owned slaves, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the federal government’s maltreatment of Native Americans. Ninety percent of the public thinks that schools should have students read “works by a racially diverse set of authors.” At the same time, 61 percent of respondents say that schools are not doing enough to teach students to love their country.
In short, the public is in a reasonable, inclusive place while CRT’s toxic, illiberal, Marxist doctrines are wildly out of step with the values of most Americans—whatever their race or creed. Politico, for instance, interviewed left-leaning or moderate suburbanites in six states, five carried by Biden in 2020 and reports, “They are up in arms over their school systems’ new equity initiatives, which they argue are costly and divisive, encouraging students to group themselves by race and take pro-activist stances.” Politico profiled one Michigan mom who got interested in CRT when her daughter started “arguing that rioters who looted stores during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests were justified.” She’s slowly gotten involved in school board affairs and, while a lifelong Democrat, says, “I cannot continue [voting for Democratic candidates] in good faith.”
These issues hit parents where they live. They’re about what values their kids are bringing home from school. Conservatives have the chance to defend shared values that resonate deeply with many who have not historically found themselves on the right. This creates an enormous opportunity for conservatism.
Unfortunately, what should be a simple, principled pitch for conservatives—those guys are embracing a toxic, race-based assault on shared values and the liberal order while we believe in rationality, independent thought, and constitutional equality—has been undermined by right-wingers who have seemingly done what they can to inhabit left-wing caricatures.
In June, Moms for Liberty, a group that purports to stand up for parental rights at all levels of government, filed a complaint claiming that the “Civil Rights Heroes” module of Williamson County’s second-grade curriculum violated Tennessee’s new anti-CRT law. The source of the complaint? A picture book about Ruby Bridges and an second grade-level autobiography of the civil rights icon, a Penguin Young Reader book on Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, and a picture book titled Separate Is Never Equal (complainants were particularly irate that the Ruby Bridges books noted that young Ruby had been harassed by crowds of angry white people). Hard to occupy the moral high ground while countenancing complaints like this.
Just this week, it was reported that Utah’s Davis School District, north of Salt Lake City, has ignored racial harassment for years. The Justice Department found that “peers taunted Black students by making monkey noises at them, touching and pulling their hair without permission, repeatedly referencing slavery and lynching and telling Black students ‘go pick cotton’ and ‘you are my slave.’” Imagine being a black parent sending your child to such a school each day. Principled conservatives need to speak out against this disgrace with the same fury and frustration that they target on the excesses of CRT. That’s an essential first step in reassuring black and brown parents that we have their children’s needs at heart.
It also becomes more difficult to insist that the fight is about principle when prominent CRT critics are spending their time firing off tweets that say, “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions” or touting CRT as “the perfect villain.”
For what it’s worth, it’s tougher to find outrageous examples than one might expect. And some prominent Republicans have taken pains to sound some sensible notes. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said, “Of course we need to teach history. We need to teach about slavery” and schools need curriculum that “embraces all of the parts of our history.” Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted, “OF COURSE we should teach about slavery & racism.”
But much more is needed. On issues as fraught as these, it’s crucial to make a case that’s principled, precise, and welcoming. Needless to say, that’s not how these things tend to play out today. Indeed, the NPR and New York Times are eagerly waiting to insist that each untoward incident shows what’s really in the conservative heart. Therein lies the challenge. And provisions in anti-CRT laws that seem intent on “banning” particular topics or concepts, rather than restricting unconstitutional or illegal practices, don’t help. Feeding the narrative that the right wants to ban discussions of slavery is not only wrong-headed but also a regrettable unforced error, given that Republicans overwhelmingly say they support teaching the very topics supposedly in dispute.
There’s an extraordinary opportunity here if conservatives can clearly distinguish between blasting the toxic sludge that is CRT and embracing the deeply American ideal that every student should feel valued, welcome, and seen. After all, past all the arguments about test scores, virtual learning, and policy, parents want to know that schools are places where their children feel safe and affirmed, and are learning to respect the values that they hold dear.
It’s not hard to imagine conservatives convincing patriotic black and brown parents who believe in the promise of America to make common cause against wild-eyed zealots who believe that America is a “slavocracy” (as the 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones puts it) or that respect for “hard work” is a legacy of “white supremacy culture” (as KIPP charter schools have said). But it’s impossible to imagine conservatives convincing those same parents to join a fight that seems marked by hostility to black and brown kids and families.
For decades, Democrats have enjoyed a sizable advantage on education, fueled by support for ever-more school spending and the perception that they like teachers more than Republicans do. Now, the progressive base has aggressively staked out radical, unpopular ground in an emotional debate, and establishment Democrats have decided not to triangulate off the craziness but to rally to the cause. This presents the right, as we’ve seen this fall in the Virginia gubernatorial contest, a remarkable opportunity to do well by doing good. But only if conservatives can seize it.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.