Critical Race Theory and Conservative Panic

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In late April the Idaho state legislature passed a bill banning Critical Race Theory in the classroom and Idaho’s governor Brad Little quickly signed it into law. This timing put Idaho ahead of the curve for this kind of thing, but since then Critical Race Theory has become the right’s newest boogeyman of choice and debates around Critical Race Theory (CRT) have taken up rightwing air time and have received ample play at school board meetings across the country, including in Idaho where months ago some of the earliest inclining of this trend worked their way through the legislature. 


Idaho House Bill 377 or the “Critical Race Theory Ban” as it came to be known, specifically singled out CRT saying it undermined respect for the dignity of others and the right to express differing opinions. It also declared CRT eroded intellectual honesty, freedom of inquiry, and the freedom of speech and association.


The bill passed quickly, moving from committee to the governor’s desk within a week with the vast majority of Idaho’s Republican legislature voting to affirm the ban. The Idaho legislature was ahead of most Republicans in the country, many of whom at the time had likely never heard of CRT, let alone saw it as a threat. But the bill tapped into a deep seated fear and grievance in Republican politics that may have been nascent in April, but the bill’s sponsors knew they were early to a growing trend in conservative politics, and CRT has since become an animating issue on the right. The Idaho legislature’s framing of the bill spoke directly to the fear that would eventually ensure CRT, somewhat nonsensically, became the latest Republican moral panic. 

Critical Race Theory Meets the Marxist Boogeyman

One of the bill’s sponsors, Idaho Representative Ron Nate, released a statement which declared, “CRT, rooted in Marxist thought, is a pernicious way of viewing the world. It demands that everything in society be viewed through the lens of racism, sexism, and power. CRT tries to make kids feel bad because of the color of their skin, or their sex, or any other category – one group is seen as an aggrieved minority and the other as an oppressive majority. The legislative success of H.B. 377 is only the beginning of removing the cancer of CRT from universities and preventing it from spreading into our K-12 education. Now it’s up to the legislature to follow through on the new law and make sure not a single penny of public money goes to promoting those Marxist ideologies.”


At the time Ron Nate’s statement was on the cutting edge of the newly formed political understanding of CRT that has since permeated the right. This bill pre-dated ensuing months of right wing media figures like Tucker Carlson treating us to their theatrical diatribes against CRT,  framing it as the left’s latest attempt to destroy America and American values.  The media obsession then fueled the public outrage. Most importantly, it helped set the stage for the controversy to come and framed CRT as something to be afraid of, something that must be stopped, something to ban, something we must protect our children from. It’s also something that many of its new found opponents fail to define – because the power of the boogeyman and its ability to stoke outrage is in large part due to the fact that almost nobody actually knows what CRT is or has any previous experience with its concepts.

Defining Critical Race Theory

With this ban and the uproar around the country in the months since in mind, it’s worth defining what exactly Critical Race Theory is, which is something the proponents of the Idaho ban consistently failed to do during debate and public comment on the bill. Critical Race Theory is an academic legal framework that seeks to uncover the complex relationship between race, law, and other social systems. It attempts to explain and understand how race is socially constructed, specifically by the law, and how that social construction plays out in the lives of real people impacted by the legal system every single day. To effectively understand that complex relationship CRT draws on disciplines such as history, sociology, gender studies, and other social sciences to shed light on the complex machinations that make race a central force in social systems.


Critical Race Theory is complex and nuanced. And for the most part, only found in law schools and graduate programs. The rabid desire to “protect our children” from the grips of CRT is basically entirely a political construction. However, it’s a fairly effective one and one that has been very intentionally deployed to further entrench deep-seated racist tensions in our politics. Legislatures in Idaho and 20+ other states have latched on to that tension to help score the easy political points that right wing media has handed them. 


Simply listening to some of the public concerns that have been raised lays bare the actual motivation behind the Critical Race Theory outrage. Just as Representative Ron Nate’s statement played to generic fears of Marxism, the public outrage around CRT is also the product of age-old, rightwing moral panic. This time, that panic latched on to a niche field of academia and took advantage of the  lack  in the common knowledge  to stoke the same fears engendered by many a right wing boogeyman. Like many  before it, this one was explicitly created from the top of the right-wing mediaverse, and disseminated out to voters around the country, many of whom are just now beginning to publicly display their outrage. 


In early April, Critical Race Theory became a regular obsession of Fox News, appearing frequently both on its website and in nightly news broadcasts. In May, Tucker Carlson featured an outraged parent Shawntel Cooper of Virginia, who decried CRT as “a tactic used by Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan” that is “racist, abusive, and discriminates on one’s color.”   


Previously the issue had garnered slight attention when the Trump administration moved to ban critical race theory trainings from federal agencies, but it was far from the public outrage machine it started to become this spring. 

Critical Race Theory Becomes a National Conservative Outrage

By June a Morning Consult poll detailed that 42% of Republicans held very unfavorable views of CRT. Some were asked to comment specifically on their feelings and a few respondents stated CRT was “a farce that attempts to blame all of society’s ills on white people” and “a marxist proposal to indoctrinate children by blaming white people for everything.” By summer, CRT had become a vociferous issue for those on the right, thanks in large part to pressure created by conservative media and efforts like those in the Idaho legislature. 


In early August, during the public comment period of a Central Idaho school board meeting, Mary Mangold took to the stage and used her three minutes of public comment time to lament the state of public education, and CRT specifically. “In Idaho, the legislature did pass and Governor Little did sign, H.B. 377, to prevent teachers from indoctrinating students into belief systems that claim that members of any race, sex, or religion are inferior or superior to other groups, specifically Critical Race Theory,” she opened. 


Mangold continued, “we have been naive and complacent in terms of the Marxist and communist indoctrination that has been eroding education within our public school system and it shall be blamed on nobody but ourselves; and having witnessed a sinister plot to rig and steal the presidential election, roll out a ‘plandemic’ to induce fear… not to mention the jab [COVID-19 Vaccine] a dangerous plan at depopulation.” Mangold rounded out her statement with a call to “restore American values,” and a need to “point out the dishonesty in the struggle narrative of critical race theory.” 


Overall, this public comment and others like it are indicative of the reciprocal nature between Republican legislatures, outraged citizens, and the media environment that helps fuel it all. Both on the issue of CRT and pandemic response (more on that later). These local outcries take the shape of genuine concern but just below the surface are a slew of reactionary responses that perfectly outline sometimes years worth of conservative outrage cycles, of which CRT is only one of the latest and surely will not be the last. It’s not a coincidence that both the Idaho legislature, and the concerned Idaho school board attendee, begin with vague concerns of Marxism, a tried and true conservative boogeyman. It’s also not a coincidence that the school board attendee descended into a laundry list of other conservative paranoias, all of which, like CRT, are echoed throughout the conservative media ecosystem, almost constantly.

Outrage Cycle After Outrage Cycle is the Conservative Way

This has been the MO of conservative political media for decades now, outrage after outrage. That outrage has real consequences though, on the right, it flows from conservative media, conservative political organizations, and sometimes results in real legislation that real people latch on to. When it comes in the form of outrage over the formerly Mr. Potatohead dropping the ‘Mr.’ or a counter backlash to changing perceptions of pretty obviously racist Dr. Seuss books, both of which gripped conservative news cycles in 2021, it’s fairly easy to laugh off as conservative media manufactured outrage. When it comes in the form of the racist paranoia that flowed through the Trump campaign or the migrant caravan which gripped conservative imaginations before the midterms, the consequences are a little more tangible, feeding a politics that devastates millions. However, the media to politicians to regular people pipeline, remains largely the same.


The point is to keep people scared and outraged. People aren’t actually angry about the tenets of critical race theory or the work of scholars like Kimberley Crenshaw. People are angry about a million different things and the cumulative outrage is continually channeled into new wedge issues to attract people’s eye-balls, clicks, electoral support and public outrage. There is a lot of power in keeping people outraged. Millions and millions of dollars in ad revenue flow to the likes of Fox News and innumerable smaller networks and content creators, profiting off the same anger. Underlying that anger though is genuine fear, of a changing world, country, and society, that many people are now lashing out at.


Politicians are able to stoke that fear and outrage and respond to it, leaving constituents with the feeling that someone is fighting for them and solving their problems, when in reality they are simply responding to and helping fuel the very feedback loop these media narratives created in the first place. The entire outrage cycle is a political construction that solidifies the position of those in power and keeps millions of people who are barely holding on angry and scared enough to ignore deteriorated material conditions. It’s intentional, it’s top-down, and it works.


The fear of CRT has gripped people all around the country and scenes like that which played out on Tucker Carlson or the school board meeting in Idaho have become fairly commonplace. Fear of the pandemic response has created similar hysteria. Again it’s not due to the actual academic literature surrounding the discipline from the pandemic response, but rather this top-down phenomenon paired with a genuine desire to avoid dealing with the consequences of racism or white supremacy. Just as in the case of the Trump campaign or the migrant caravan, the message was top-down and politically constructed, the outrage flowed from that message, but the fear underlying it all is deep seated and rooted in forces that shape almost all social interactions. Those are the same forces CRT seeks to understand and explain in a very nuanced and academically rigorous fashion. People aren’t mad at that academic pursuit but instead they take it as a symbol that taps into much deeper fears rooted in a changing place in society, material percarity, and a shifting historical narrative of our culture.

Critical Race Theory Outrage is Created Top Down

When people lash out at CRT in school board meetings and elsewhere, fueled by similar instances seen on shows like Tucker Carlson, they’re generally lashing out at the idea that white supremacy is still very much with us today and rooted in our history and institutions. They’re lashing out at a much broader reading of our history that undermines traditional narratives because of who those narratives left out. A history that doesn’t grapple with slavery, Jim Crow, and the recreation of racial hierarchy today is severely lacking, but for many Americans there is an explicit attempt to sweep those forces under the rug, all in an attempt to further a more comfortable narrative that says, that was then, this is now, and the consequences of those systems have been resolved.


People respond because they feel something is genuinely at stake, even if they can’t clearly articulate what and that leaves them cycling through conservative boogeymen replicating the original insecurity once more. 


Just when it seemed that conservative hysteria surrounding the pandemic response had completely taken the wind out of CRT panic’s sails, Fox News turned to the boogeyman once more, this time alleging that the Biden Department of Justice was targeting conservatives who publicly opposed CRT. Once again melding the original panic surrounding Critical Race Theory with a bevy of topics previously the subject of conservative anger. Specifically, the vague general fear of “big government” and the more specific fear of the Biden administration and the political consequences therein. This once again propelled CRT into the political discourse and the front of conservative’s imagination. 

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