Last week’s Virginia gubernatorial election pretty much guarantees that some Indiana Republicans will spend the 2022 legislative session posturing on so-called critical race theory and related issues.
They probably would have anyway. Hoosier legislators reportedly have been drafting bills to regulate what schools teach about race and promote transparency about K-12 curriculum, an echo of the “parents’ bill of rights” that state Attorney General Todd Rokita released in June.
Then came Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race after vowing to ban critical race theory and tapping into frustrations over COVID-related school closings and other topics. Republicans are pointing to that election, in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 points, to argue the party should lean into the culture war to win back the suburbs and win elections.
But the evidence that Youngkin won with education is “surprisingly weak,” as Zack Beauchamp of Vox explains. For one thing, it’s common for voters to turn against the party of a new president. We saw it with the tea party after Barack Obama was elected and the surge of liberal outrage toward Donald Trump. In Virginia, the president’s party has lost 11 of the past 12 elections, Beauchamp writes.
The shift this year from Democratic to Republican took place uniformly across the state, not just in the affluent Washington, D.C., suburbs where Youngkin’s education message was supposed to resonate. Around the country, school board candidates who ran against critical race theory had mixed success despite generous support, in some cases, from right-wing political action committees.
But even if education culture war rhetoric doesn’t win elections, Democrats need to do a better job of countering it. Yes, it’s hard to respond clearly to attacks that are not made in good faith. You risk calling more attention to the claims, even if they are false. And in this case, they are.
Critical race theory is an academic framework studied in university graduate programs and law schools. It’s almost never taught in K-12 schools. But conservative activists have seized on the label and applied it to an amalgam of practices, including classroom discussions of race, stories about people of color, diversity training for teachers, social-emotional learning and readings that center the lasting influence of slavery and segregation, such as the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”
Democrats spend entirely too much time, however, trying to explain what CRT is and what it isn’t. The best assessment I’ve read on this question comes from Garrett Bucks, in his newsletter The White Pages.
“Nobody actually cares if CRT is real, or if it’s being taught in kindergarten!” he writes. “What is at play is that there is a group of (disproportionally but not solely) White people who are feeling something about their relationship with schools and, in many communities, the only people willing to talk to them about it are the worst, most malevolent, bad faith racist grifters.”
Yes, the attacks on critical race theory cynically appeal to racial resentment. When has that ever not been a thing in American politics? It’s essential to push back against them. But the attacks can work because of something that’s genuine and understandable: the vulnerability of families that trust their children’s wellbeing to their local schools.
It’s up to schools to engage with families and community members and to embrace their mission as public institutions: to be open and transparent about what they do and why they do it.
The Indiana legislative session starts in early January. We should expect some lawmakers to spout outrageous claims about how schools are indoctrinating our children in “wokeness” and social justice. Democrats – and supporters of public schools, regardless of party – should be ready with a positive story about what we expect from our schools.
There are a few noisy (and sometimes threatening) exceptions, but most Hoosiers want our children to learn the truth, both good and bad, about American history and our nation’s efforts to grapple with race. We want our schools to be welcoming places where all students learn and thrive.
We need to do everything we can to ensure that schools live up to that vision, every day. The best counter to bad-faith criticism is good-faith results. The best response to a lie is the truth.