Will the battle over "critical race theory" be a winning issue for the right? It already is

As used by Republicans, "critical race theory" is an empty term used to channel racist urges. That's why it works

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 22, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

For today's Republicans, Trumpists and other members of the white right, "critical race theory" is a form of political ectoplasm: It's both a liquid and a solid, something slimy and sticky which can be shaped into whatever frightening or dangerous thing suits their mood and needs in a given moment.

In this political context, "critical race theory" means both everything and nothing; it is a fetish object used to summon up centuries-old racist nightmares and fears about "scary" Black and brown people who are plotting a rebellion or uprising to undermine the (white) family, indoctrinate (white) children and attack (white) America.

By implication, if "critical race theory" and other Black and brown bogeymen are threats to (white) America, then preemptive violence is both necessary and reasonable. Moreover, multiracial democracy is seen, by definition, as incompatible with white people's safety, security and material interests.

Debates about language are a battlefield for questions of power. Critical race theory has an actual meaning: it is a rigorous academic framework for understanding how racism, white supremacy and other unequal outcomes across the color line in America are overdetermined by the country's legal system and other social and political institutions.

Of course, "critical race theory" as weaponized by conservatives and the white right doesn't mean that at all. In the right-wing political imagination, facts are unimportant. In that closed episteme, dogma is a substitute for truth, evidence, intellectual honesty and rigorous thinking.

Many liberals and "moderates" refuse to understand that core feature of today's right-wing movement. Instead, they want to argue "issues" and "facts" against believers of a political religion who care more almost exclusively about obtaining and keeping power, and have long since abandoned all abstract principles about "democracy" and "truth."

At In These Times, Hamilton Nolan elaborates, critiquing the premise "that misinformation and conspiracy theories and omnipresent propaganda have created a situation in which Americans don't seem to have a single set of mutually agreed upon facts":

That is true. But it does not capture an even more elementary flaw in what we are doing. We allow entire "issues" to be created and to be talked about endlessly in the national political media without ever determining what those issues mean.

The absurd effect of this failure is twofold. First, it allows bad faith political actors to purposely exploit this rhetorical vulnerability in order to smear the other side by inflating the definition of bad things to include whatever the other side is doing. This is standard issue political scumbag behavior, and is to be expected. Worse, though, it creates a self-reinforcing cycle in which widespread use of some vague, ill-defined term convinces the public that this term is something important, driving media coverage and creating impenetrable towers of meaninglessness that come to dominate our partisan political landscape. ...

This same dynamic applies to terms that may have once had a legitimate definition, but which become definition-less by the time they have been elevated into the popular mind, laden with propaganda. Do any of the politicians or commentators decrying "critical race theory" have a precise working definition for this academic term? Of course not. It now means "Anything that talks about white people's racism."

In a recent essay for the Atlantic, historian Ibram X. Kendi argues that there is no real "culture war" over race and racism, only a deliberate politics of division being practiced by the right

Republican operatives have buried the actual definition of critical race theory: "a way of looking at law's role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country," as the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who helped coin the term, recently defined it. Instead, the attacks on critical race theory are based on made-up definitions and descriptors. "Critical race theory says every white person is a racist," Senator Ted Cruz has said. "It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin," said the Alabama state legislator Chris Pringle.

There are differing points of view about race and racism. But what we are seeing and hearing on news shows, in school-district meetings, in op-ed pages, in legislative halls, and in social-media feeds aren't multiple sides with differing points of view. There's only one side in our so-called culture war right now.

The Republican operatives, who dismiss the expositions of critical race theorists and anti-racists in order to define critical race theory and anti-racism, and then attack those definitions, are effectively debating themselves. They have conjured an imagined monster to scare the American people and project themselves as the nation's defenders from that fictional monster….

It's entirely true that the white right's attacks on "critical race theory" are based on fantasies and lies. But that does nothing to diminish the force and impact and belief in the righteousness of those attacks.

On this, new research by the polling firm Morning Consult reveals ominous prospects for the Democrats:

Amid a spike in attention from conservative media outlets and leaders on the right regarding critical race theory, a new Morning Consult/Politico survey finds discussion of the topic resonating more deeply with Republican voters than their Democratic counterparts.

In turn, Republicans in the electorate have sharper views about the concept – as revealed by an analysis of open-ended responses among those who reported the highest level of awareness.

According to the June 18-20 survey, 3 in 10 Republicans said they'd seen, read or heard "a lot" about critical race theory, compared with 21 percent of Democrats. The skew toward Republican consumption ranked among the largest of roughly 200 other news events and topics tested so far this year, placing it alongside other issues of interest to conservatives such as immigration, increasing gas prices and the Dr. Seuss controversy….

The poll asked those who said they'd seen, read or heard "a lot" about critical race theory to describe it in their own words. Among informed Republican respondents, nearly 4 in 5 expressed negative sentiment, with one calling the theory a means to make white "people feel guilty about being white" and another saying it is a "way to villainize one race over another with twisted history."

The largest share of informed independent voters (46 percent) described critical race theory using negative terms, such as "BS" or "anti-white racism," compared with just 7 percent of Democrats, one of whom characterized the idea as trying "to combat racism by being racist against whites."

Public opinion and other research has repeatedly shown that a commitment to white (and male) supremacy is the primary driver of support for the Trump movement and its agenda.

"Critical race theory" is a way for right-wing politicians and other opinion leaders to channel and leverage such energy to advance their goals.

While some in the mainstream news media continue to carry water for the disproven claim that support for Trump is driven primarily by white working-class  "economic anxiety," new research further exposes that fiction. In an article at Alternet, Alex Henderson offers these details, reporting on an NPR interview with Johns Hopkins political scientist Lilliana Mason:

Mason told [Danielle] Kurtzleben, "So, the colloquial stories we hear about Trump suggest that he somehow created a whole bunch of hatred in American politics. And instead, what this data shows is that what he did was serve as a place where people who already held a lot of animus towards marginalized groups — they all sort of gathered around him. So, this was a latent faction of Americans that had just — that had already been sitting there and had already existed."

In other words, that hostility towards "marginalized groups" existed before Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, but he encouraged it. That "animus," according to Mason's research, "uniquely draws" those "Trump voters" to him.

Mason told Kurtzleben, "When we control for partisanship, what we found is that people in 2011 who have negative views of these particular groups are much more likely to approve of Trump in 2018. They're not any more likely to approve of the Republican Party, to approve of Mitch McConnell or to approve of Paul Ryan."

The battle over "critical race theory" — and over the teaching of America's real history, as opposed to literally whitewashed "patriotic education" — is simultaneously simple and complex, old and new.

This is a struggle over the American narrative and the role of the color line in American society. It is also a struggle over democracy and freedom, and the role of nonwhite people in the American story.

Will America be a society organized around white fictions, white fantasies and white lies, both large and small? Or will America be a society that learns from its complicated, painful, contradictory and sometimes beautiful past to make a better future for all its citizens? In the long term, lies undermine a society, while truths can uplift a society and make it stronger. Which will we choose?

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Critical Race Theory Donald Trump Elections Political Science Public Opinion Racism Republicans