Political reporters are suckers for Republican scare stories. It was “death panels” in 2009. It was “migrant caravans” in 2018. It’s been “voter fraud” for decades. And now it’s “critical race theory” in public schools.
None of those things have ever been real problems. But by golly, there’s nothing like a manufactured panic to rile up the GOP’s grievance-filled, anti-government white Christian base. And simple, scary soundbites — repeated enough times — can also lure low-information voters who are uneasy but don’t know who to blame.
Political reporters lap it up. And like those before it, the panic over “critical race theory” is dramatic, it makes for awesome anecdotal leads, and well, you’ve got to admit it’s strategically brilliant.
But if you step back just a bit, isn’t it crazy that reporters are writing so much more about how winning a strategy it is than about what a lie it is? That they’re quoting people opposed to “critical race theory” who have no idea what it really is and yet are sure it’s in their schools even when it’s not?
Reporters know “critical race theory” isn’t a real issue. They know it’s euphemistic shorthand for all sorts of right-wing, often racist concerns about modest attempts to address diversity, equity and inclusion. They know it’s a backlash against Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project and its powerful recognition of slavery as a central element of the American narrative. They know it’s outrageous to suggest the history of racism in this country gets too much attention at schools when the reality is it gets way too little if any.
So shouldn’t news organizations be refuting this disinformation campaign, rather than marveling at its success?
There have been so many disappointing stories about “critical race theory” following the same, tired, formula that it’s hard to know where to start. But I’ll kick things off with “Energizing Conservative Voters, One School Board Election at a Time,” an Oct. 21 article by New York Times national reporter Stephanie Saul. It opens with a groan-worthy anecdotal lead:
Little more than a year ago, Scarlett Johnson was a stay-at-home mother, devoted to chauffeuring her children to school and supervising their homework.
Soon we learn that a video — apparently this one — offended Johnson by showing parents a “racism scale“. In the fourth paragraph, we learn of Johnson’s “concerns that her school district was ‘prioritizing race and identity’ and introducing critical race theory, an academic framework used in higher education that views racism as ingrained in law and other modern institutions.”
There is no further pushback, and certainly no refuting of Johnson’s false charge, anywhere in the top. This, instead, is the nut of Saul’s story:
Ms. Johnson’s rapid transformation into a sought-after activist illustrates how Republicans are using fears of critical race theory to drive school board recalls and energize conservatives, hoping to lay groundwork for the 2022 midterm elections.
And rather than definitively explain how those fears aren’t based on reality, when Saul finally introduces a rebuttal, it is attributed to administrators and union leaders:
“We should call this controversy what it is — a scare campaign cooked up by G.O.P. operatives” and others to “limit our students’ education and understanding of historical and current events,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Then it’s right back to how great an issue this is for Republicans:
But Republicans says critical race theory has invaded classrooms and erroneously casts all white people as oppressors and all Black people as victims. The issue has become a major rallying point for Republicans from Florida to Idaho, where state lawmakers have moved to ban it.
No no no no no.
The story here is that Republicans are riling up their voters with a lie designed to appeal to racism.
So why not say that?
Let me rewrite that for you.
My proposed headline:
Republicans riling up voters with a lie designed to appeal to racism
And my proposed top:
Republicans are successfully galvanizing their base with a disinformation campaign alleging that the widespread adoption of “critical race theory” has led to K-12 students being taught that white people are oppressors and Black people are victims.
But here’s what you need to know about critical race theory: It’s not what they say it is, it’s not being taught at your child’s school, and anyone who suggests otherwise is either misinformed or is lying to you.
Real-life critical race theory – which is mostly relegated to college and law school courses – involves a thoughtful, fact-based examination of how pervasively racism is embedded in American legal systems and policies. It’s not taught in public K-12 schools. And Democrats don’t want it to be.
The allegations about critical race theory are disinformation. But they are nevertheless effective as a euphemistic rallying cry for the many right-wing and white-supremacist grievances about public education.
Consider Scarlett Johnson, a white former stay-at-home mother in the Milwaukee suburbs who became a GOP celebrity after orchestrating a recall of her local school board based on the bogus allegation that the school district was “prioritizing race and identity” and engaging in critical race theory.
Although self-radicalized – initially by a video of two Black educational consultants talking to parents of her school district and showing them a “racism scale” – Johnson is now a state leader for No Left Turn in Education, a dark-money funded organization that opposes “radical indoctrination in K-12 education” — and a rising star in the Wisconsin GOP.
In midterm elections, where turnout is key, psyching up aggrieved white voters could be a winning strategy for Republicans, who see moms like Johnson as key to strong turnout.
And Republicans have so successfully coopted the terms of this debate that Democratic candidates see it as an issue to avoid — rather than, say, defending diversity and inclusion efforts in schools.
Over and Over Again
The Washington Post’s Oct. 9 story by Marc Fisher on the Virginia gubernatorial election starts with the obligatory anecdotal lead, this one featuring Bruce Carlson, a retiree who used to vote Democratic but no more. We learn that:
Carlson, a retired hospital administrator, is switching over to the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, because he believes public schools are pushing a radical agenda in which American history is portrayed as racist, and transgender kids are encouraged to use the bathroom of their choice.
Rather than refute Carlson’s misunderstanding about how American history is actually taught, Fisher just games it out as winning political strategy.
It turns out Fisher met Carlson, the guy in his lead, at a Youngkin rally. Here is Fisher’s description of that rally:
In his half-hour address, Youngkin never mentioned Trump, covid, vaccines or masks (only six of the 192 people at the indoor event wore masks). But he repeatedly hit on the idea that “left-liberal-progressive” Democrats were teaching “our children to view everything through the lens of race and divide everyone into different buckets to steal their dreams.”
“On day one,” he said, drawing his biggest cheers of the night, “we will ban critical race theory.”
To many in the all-White audience, the pledge to push back against social changes — many parents said they resented seeing their children taught to declare which pronouns should describe them — was catnip.
Well, gosh, Marc, there’s your anecdotal lead right there!
I don’t need to rewrite this at all. Start with those three paragraphs, then write a little something explaining why it’s catnip and that it’s all made up. Simple!
Sadly, however, you can read very similar stories everywhere these days – sometimes even from the same newsroom.
For instance, about a week before Saul’s story, the Times had published one by political correspondent Lisa Lerer, headlined “The Unlikely Issue Shaping the Virginia Governor’s Race: Schools“. Here comes the anecdotal lead!
As a lifelong Republican in her home state of Virginia, Tammy Yoder faithfully casts her ballot for those who want to lower taxes, oppose abortion and back other conservative causes.
But the issue that transformed Ms. Yoder, a stay-at-home mother, from a reliable voter to the kind of person who brings three young children to an evening campaign rally wasn’t her Christian values or her pocketbook.
It was something even more personal, she said: What her children learn in school.
“The past year has revealed a ton to me,” said Ms. Yoder, 41, as she waited in this Northern Virginia exurb for a speech by Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor. “The more I’ve listened and paid attention, the more that I see what’s happening in schools and on college campuses. And the stuff I see, I don’t want corrupting my children.”
Lerer’s conclusion is not that this white woman has fallen hook, line and sinker for a bunch of racist twaddle. It’s that:
Mr. Youngkin and his strategists believe that in the fights roiling schools they have discovered the rare issue that can galvanize their voters, even in places that are shifting the state to the left.
And boy is it working!
Mr. Youngkin’s attacks have forced Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic former governor trying to win back his old job, onto the defensive, and have thrust the ordinarily local issues surrounding schools into the middle of a rancorous nationwide shouting match.
McAuliffe “has dismissed the outrage surrounding critical race theory as ‘racist’ and ‘a dog whistle,’” Lerer writes. “But there are signs that Democrats sense danger.“
And special dishonorable mention goes to James Hohmann, late of the Washington Post newsroom, who in his opinion column asserts that McAuliffe is failing to recognize that these are legitimately concerned parents and that (because the GOP has played this so well) Democrats should just shut up about it.
What McAuliffe misses is that this term has become a stand-in for deeper-seated fears among parents about what their children are learning. CRT is now shorthand for a broader basket of issues relating to education. Polling shows a plurality of Virginia voters opposed to the teaching of this theory, so dismissing those who speak out against it as racist is doomed to backfire.
Meanwhile, 12 states have enacted restrictions on how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, 25 more are considering it. Reporters should be outraged by any laws that so blatantly violate First and 14th Amendment rights.
Here’s a much better story from Oct. 25 by Michael Melia of the Associated Press. Melia describes “an organized pushback in the overwhelmingly white community” against a Connecticut school district’s increased efforts to address racism in the wake of several incidents — including one where a student wore blackface to a football game.
The top issue on their platform is to fight critical race theory, which has become a rallying cry for activist candidates in the Nov. 2 elections all over the country who take issue with how schools have addressed diversity and inclusion.
Melia also offers some important context:
Schools have been addressing issues of diversity and culturally responsive teaching for years without stirring much controversy, but flames of frustration in some communities have been fanned by groups with bigger agendas, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University.
Back in September, the Associated Press published an important article by Thomas Beaumont and Stephen Groves about the “energy and resources being poured into the cauldron of political debate in the nation’s schools.” Specifically:
A loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in culture war fights in schools across the country.
Reporters should always follow the money.
I also recommend CNN correspondent Evan McMorris-Santoro‘s video report on one school district in Tennessee, where the battle is over something specific: four books being taught in second grade as part of an inclusion curriculum.
One tells a story of school segregation through the eyes of Mexican American students. One is about the march on Washington. And two are about civil rights icon Ruby Bridges.
McMorris-Santoro quotes the local head of “Moms for Liberty” saying “All this curriculum highlights is the mean white people and how she’s victimized and it speaks to nothing of the good.”
But, as the reporter quickly notes, “Educators across the country are alarmed by talk like this.” Kim Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association, tells him:
Well, I think we’re entering toward a pretty scary time if we’re talking about politicians banning books. I thought we were long past those days. Educators know how to talk about race with kids in an age-appropriate way. These conversations can be had and in a way that is in keeping with our core values as Americans.
Let’s Have a Real Debate – With Facts
Largely if not entirely missing from the coverage of “critical race theory” as a political issue is reporting on what children are actually being taught in school. Do the facts support the contention that children are being indoctrinated into thinking white people should feel guilty all the time? Or is this description, from Elie Mystal of the Nation, more accurate?
An essential project of that education system is to absolve present-day white people of any need to reckon with the horrors that made their world possible—and still make their world possible—by assuring them that whatever sins this country committed were redeemed or corrected by the efforts of previous Americans. As often as not, those sins and horrors are covered up to protect young white minds from ever knowing the truth about our country. This project is designed to leave white Americans feeling that they have nothing to atone for, so they can blithely continue doing the work of white supremacy and reaping the rewards of white privilege with a clear conscience. All historical tragedies, the ones that are mentioned at least, are framed through the eyes of some American (usually white) who fought against evil forces. Children are supposed to believe, as most kids are inclined to do anyway, that the forces of good eventually triumphed.
Let’s discuss the concerns of actual critical race theorists. Stephen Sawchuck, associate editor of Education Week, explains:
Scholars who study critical race theory in education look at how policies and practices in K-12 education contribute to persistent racial inequalities in education, and advocate for ways to change them. Among the topics they’ve studied: racially segregated schools, the underfunding of majority-Black and Latino school districts, disproportionate disciplining of Black students, barriers to gifted programs and selective-admission high schools, and curricula that reinforce racist ideas.
Let’s listen to actual teachers.
The Amoral of the Story
I’ll leave you with some thoughts from Michael Hobbes, a journalist and podcast host now blogging on Substack, about what he calls “moral panic journalism.”
His point is that journalists are suckers for scare stories. He traces their complicity back to the 1980s, when “we got ‘stranger danger,‘ a nationwide ulcer of anxiety about creeps in white vans kidnapping children,” and to the 1990s, when “the media convinced Americans that frivolous lawsuits were out of control.”
Journalism thrives on unconventional narratives. It may appear that Republicans are a threat to democracy, but the true threat lies on the left is a more compelling story than things are what they seem.”
And he concludes:
The “frivolous lawsuits” panic should be seen as a foundational embarrassment for the national media. Rather than educating the citizens of a functioning democracy — the role we journalists love to tell ourselves we’re playing — prestigious publications were de-educating them by presenting evidence of a national trend that didn’t exist.
They are doing the same thing now, playing with the same fire that has pulled the United States rightward and backward over and over again for the last 40 years.
The media has tremendous power to shape public opinion. Reporters and editors should not just be aware of their ability to spread moral panics. They should be terrified of it.
Well, I’m terrified. Are you?