If you were to turn on Fox News or right-wing radio right now, you might not find any news at all about President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip: Conservative media has all but stopped covering any policy concerns, whether they be foreign or domestic. But you would hear hours of content about “critical race theory,” the hitherto relatively obscure academic concept that has, over the past few months, emerged as the right’s hot bogeyman of the summer.
Critical race theory has been studied for decades, but it received relatively little attention in the wider cultural sphere until the past year, when conservatives adopted it as a catch-all term to demonize and discredit the anti-racist, anti–police brutality movements that sprang up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Its academic context, which is chiefly concerned with the endemic racism in American institutions and power structures, is not actually essential to the current political discourse being promulgated by Republican politicians, conservative institutions, and the right-wing media. The conservative movement is simply wielding the academic jargon as a means to gin up a moral panic.
It’s working. A Media Matters study in May found that Fox News had mentioned “critical race theory” 552 times in the previous 11 months. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported last week that Fox had shoehorned it into its coverage 125 times in only five days. In Texas, Florida, and a grab bag of other Republican-led states, conservative lawmakers have moved to ban it from being taught in schools.
The “critical race theory” being talked up on Fox and right-wing radio has little in common with the academic discipline that emerged from the Ivy League 40 years ago. It is, instead, a mash-up of a clutch of right-wing tropes. Primarily, however, it is a reaction to students being taught the actual history of America—warts and all—instead of a puffed-up faux-patriotic rendition that passes for the truth in the works of non-historians such as Dinesh D’Souza and Bill O’Reilly. Among these ideamongers, there is a deep insecurity in acknowledging the racism of American institutions or the country’s often brutal past; the attacks on critical race theory are essentially an attempt to sweep the less-than-rosy stuff under the rug, in favor of glossy American exceptionalism.
There’s some classic conservative paternalism, color-blindness, and boot-strapping knit up in conservatives’ fear that students might learn about racism. “Minority students are going to suffer the most from this,” one teacher said at a recent anti-CRT rally. “When you teach students that the system is against them, they have no motivation to learn. They are not going to try to work. They are not going to try to improve themselves.” The bizarre logic that undergirds this premise is that students of color had never heard of racism before, nor used the acquisition of knowledge as a tool in overcoming it.
Additionally, critics assert that critical race theory is a Trojan horse for Marxism and that any effort to teach students about America’s past will inevitably lead to full communism. As Christopher Rufo—the Manhattan Institute fellow who has done more than his share to gin up this moral panic—wrote in a recent New York Post op-ed, “Identity is the means; Marxism is the end.”
Rufo and his fellow travelers hold that sinister forces are at work whenever students are exposed to real American history. It may seem good to educate yourself about racial injustices and the institutional structures that have propped them up for centuries, but that’s just a cover for a more fanciful threat: the takeover of American institutions by a cabal of Marxist-Leninists and social justice warriors.
“The base of the Republican Party is offended by the political focus on racism and racial justice that has been apparent for several years now, but especially since the George Floyd murder,” Andrew Hartman, Illinois State University history professor and author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, recently told Insider. “So, GOP politicians and conservative media obsess over the issue to gin up outrage that might translate into future votes, but in the meantime definitely translates into donations and ratings.”
The slipperiness of the right-wing version of “critical race theory” is the point: It is so loosely defined that almost anything of or pertaining to a conversation about race qualifies. In the conservative telling, critical race theory is a loosely defined but awesomely omnipresent phantasmogoric threat that’s infecting schools and institutions across the country. Anyone who speaks up against it is heralded as a hero, fighting on behalf of children who would otherwise be brainwashed into learning about racism and privilege.
In the conservative media, these tall tales are crowding out real news as their pages and airwaves fill with the dredged-up complaints from a parent or a teacher at a school board meeting decrying critical race theory’s dark forces. Fox News, for instance, has published several stories covering school board meetings and protests against critical race theory in tony Loudoun County, Virginia—despite insistences from Loudoun County’s public school officials that nothing remotely like critical race theory is part of their curriculum.
Much like their recent obsessions with “lab leak theory,” conservatives’ fixation with critical race theory can best be understood as a useful proxy villain filling the vacuum left by their failure to uncover a more substantive way of attacking Joe Biden during the first six months of his term—a vacuum that mainly exists because of the Republican Party’s retreat from policy debates. The fact that critical race theory is always so hazily defined—and also so completely malevolent—makes it the perfect catch-all malefactor for a culture-war-obsessed right that’s desperate to end conversations around corrupt policing and structural racism. It is everywhere and nowhere at once; a spectral threat forever lurking in the shadows that’s just nonexistent enough to ensure that it can never be defeated.