By Eric Dai
If you don’t watch certain news, it may seem like “critical race theory” became a cultural flashpoint seemingly out of nowhere. Pundits on cable news have railed against critical race theory as “neo-Marxist rhetoric,” “mandatory indoctrination,” and “a disease born from the hateful halls of left-wing academia.” In state legislatures around the country, lawmakers introduced bills implicitly or explicitly banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, with those bills becoming law in six states (and counting). In Republican-led states, state boards of education have enacted various policies aimed at restricting teachers from covering critical race theory or other topics surrounding racism and sexism, as seen with an amendment passed by the Florida State Board of Education in June that apparently equates critical race theory with Holocaust denial.
Those who get most of their information from Fox News or other conservative outlets may hold some strong opinions about critical race theory. But just what is critical race theory, and why have so many people been talking about it?
Critical race theory, in short, is an academic movement that posits that racism is a social construct that is reinforced by laws and public policy. Originating from the work of a small group of legal scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, it has been around for decades in academia as a theoretical framework used to understand how racial inequality and racist structures remained in the United States despite the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. Social scientists and other academics have long unremarkably used critical race theory to explain the persistence of racial inequality in American society. Over the past year, however, critical race theory has evolved to become a focal talking point of the American right, who levy the term as a weapon to derail discussions about race and tap into the animosity of the raging culture war between liberals and conservatives.
Much of the recent controversy stems from the work of activist Chris Rufo, who first earned himself a name in conservative circles in 2020 by going after the city of Seattle’s implicit bias trainings, which he claimed endorsed “principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism.” Riding off his newfound publicity, Rufo started a new project taking aim at diversity trainings within the federal government. He began soliciting tips from federal employees who participated in those workplace-mandated trainings, and from the various pieces of evidence that he gathered, Rufo noticed that many of them cited a select group of scholars who studied racial inequality in the United States and called their work “critical race theory.” With this information, Rufo saw an opportunity to push an elaborate argument — that critical race theory was an un-American plot to erode the country from within.
On September 2, 2020, Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News. “Critical race theory,” he declared to Fox News’ primetime audience, “has pervaded every aspect of the federal government…. Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States, and the bureaucracy — even under Trump — is being weaponized against American values.” That night, millions of Americans were first exposed to the idea of critical race theory and were told to think of it as an existential threat to their country and their way of life.
One of those Americans was Donald Trump. He heeded Rufo’s call to action — two days later he issued an executive order banning the federal government from conducting all employee diversity trainings based on critical race theory or “white privilege.” His order went on to state, “the divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government.” During that month, Trump relentlessly pushed the issue of critical race theory as a political weapon, using it to fire up his conservative base in time for upcoming presidential election. Over a span of six days in September, Trump retweeted posts from right-wing personalities about critical race theory 14 times; his account had never mentioned the term before that month. Following Trump’s lead, conservative media pounced on its new target, with various conservative personalities from Breitbart, Fox News, and other right-wing outlets decrying critical race theory as the left’s newest attempt to destroy America. A perfect villain for the conservative movement was born.
It’s important to note that much of the outrage surrounding critical race theory is not organic, but rather manufactured and weaponized as a deliberate political tool. At a time when the nation is undergoing a racial reckoning, pundits and politicians see an opportunity to throw around the term “critical race theory” to distract and detract from real discussions about race. Chris Rufo has admitted as much: in a tweet thread from last March, he boasted that this deliberate strategy to craft a political weapon had paid off. He tweeted, “we have successfully frozen their brand — “critical race theory” — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions… the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”
Today, conservatives have fully embraced the strategy of using “critical race theory” as an election-winning tool. As Rufo conveniently explained, the ultimate aim of the anti-critical race theory movement is to drive up the issue’s salience with the American public, because conservatives believe that it will help them politically in the future. It’s why conservative activists and politicians have appeared on Fox News to whip up fear about critical race theory in their conservative base and why public officials from across the country have gone through such an effort to ban critical race theory in public schools.
The recent uproar over critical race theory is nothing more than a political trick, and every second spent talking about critical race theory, and not about racism, is a win for those seeking to distract from the real issues at hand.
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.