Conservatives warn of a conspiracy to indoctrinate schoolchildren, but critics dismiss claims as cynical political theater
A well-orchestrated and growing movement to ban Critical Race Theory from America’s classrooms has taken root in North Carolina, even though many educators say the concept is not taught in public schools.
Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. CRT emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.
Critics say they fear it will be used to teach young, impressionable students that America and white people are inherently and irredeemably racist. They often share stories about young white children who, after learning hard truths about American racism, return from school stung by the revelation that, historically, the nation has been imperfect in its treatment of Blacks and other people of color.
In recent months, attacks on CRT have fueled intense debates among educators, lawmakers and parents in conservative strongholds across the state. A recently organized nonprofit known as the Education First Alliance offers “bootcamps” to train parents how to fight against face mask mandates and other education policies deemed objectionable. But the primary target of the group’s complaints is CRT.
“Our government is weaponizing 400-year-old history to stereotype; to scapegoat; to shame and collectively punish teachers and children, and we will not allow that on the taxpayers’ nickel,” EFA president Sloan Rachmuth told Policy Watch.
Rachmuth frequently attends county-level Republican Party meetings to discuss CRT and devise strategies to keep it out of classrooms. The Craven County GOP recently denied Policy Watch access to one such virtual session it hosted for county residents.
“There are serious problems taking things that happened 400 years ago and bringing them into the present,” Rachmuth said. “You see, that’s what Critical Race Theory does, and this is what they teach, you’re going to reconnect every child in that room with exactly what happened 400 years ago; not from a historical perspective or enlightened perspective but from the perspective that this happened then, it’s happening now, it’s always going to happen.”
“Don’t give in to the hysteria”
State Board of Education member James Ford said such critics must take care to distinguish between what’s taught and how what’s taught is interpreted.
“It is unreasonable to expect that we can cover a shameful topic like systemic racism in the United States of America and then kids, in particular white kids, come away without feeling any shame,” Ford said. “That’s an unreasonable expectation. That does not mean students are being taught to feel ashamed or are being taught to feel guilty.”
Ford leads the Center for Racial Equity in Education, which focuses on closing racialized opportunity gaps in North Carolina. His work frequently focuses on how race shapes education access and outcomes.
“I would defy anyone to show me summarily where teachers who engage in anti-racism practices or teach in a culturally responsive way are teaching children to hate themselves, particularly white children,” Ford said.
The United States’ long and well-documented history of racist laws and practices, and the impact that history has had on modern white Americans, is not a new topic of discussion.
In a 1979 interview with ABC Television’s 20/20 news magazine recently unearthed by Esquire magazine, famed author and activist James Baldwin discussed the refusal and inability of many whites to own up to the nation’s racial past.
White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people—a tremendous uneasiness,” Baldwin said. “They don’t know what the Black face hides. They’re sure it’s hiding something. What it’s hiding is American history. What it’s hiding is what white people know they have done, and what they like doing. White people know very well one thing; it’s the only thing they have to know. They know this; everything else, they’ll say, is a lie. They know they would not like to be Black here. They know that, and they’re telling me lies. They’re telling me and my children nothing but lies.”
Despite widespread conservative angst regarding the subject, CRT has never been used to shape curricula in K-12 schools according to Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University.
“Treating it as a threat to public education is not only disingenuous, it is creating an atmosphere of panic that will discourage instruction in Black history, indigenous history and the history of race and immigration in the United States,” Naison said.
Culturally responsive teaching, which recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all forms of learning, is also targeted by those fighting to keep CRT out of schools.
Naison cautions that CRT and culturally responsive pedagogy are not interchangeable. “Treating it as such will have profoundly destructive consequences,” Naison said. “Do not give in to the hysteria.”
Rodney Pierce, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Nash County Public Schools, said opponents often conflate CRT and culturally responsive teaching.
“The detractors of Critical Race Theory say anything like culturally responsive teaching, equity, diversity and inclusion is Critical Race Theory,” Pierce said. “They lump them all in together like certain legislators lump things together in omnibus bills.”
The right pursues a coordinated campaign
Christopher Rufo is a Seattle-based anti-CRT activist and senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute — an influential New York-based think tank that seeks “to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility” and that claims to be “a leading voice of free-market ideas [and] shaping political culture.”
Last March, Rufo tweeted frankly about how the controversy fits into a larger conservative political strategy.
“We have successfully frozen their brand — “critical race theory” — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
In a separate tweet, Rufo said, “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
The State Board of Education and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction have indirectly taken up Critical Race Theory during contentious debates over the adoption of new social studies standards; the state rewrote the standards include a more diverse perspective of history.
In January, Republican Mark Robinson, the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, waded into the debate and fired one of the opening salvos in North Carolina’s latest culture war by denying the very existence of systemic racism.
“I think they’re politically charged,” Robinson said of the new social studies standards. “I think they’re divisive, and I think that they, quite frankly, smack of a lot of leftist dogma.”
Republican lawmakers weighed in on the subject last month with House Bill 324, which restricts what public schools can teach about America’s unflattering racial past. The House has approved the bill, and it now awaits Senate action.
“Our public schools should be a place of respect—not hateful ideologies,” House Education Committee Chairman John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, chimed in shortly after the state House approved HB 324.
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told a group of Republicans in Orange County this month that she will do everything in her power to “eradicate” CRT from the state’s public schools.
However, DPI spokesperson Blair Rhoades said in an email the department doesn’t have jurisdiction over local decisions about curriculum. “The Department implements the standards but teachers and local school boards drive decisions around curriculum – [in other words] what’s taught in a classroom,” Rhoades said.
As Truitt noted, Republicans across the nation have been remarkably cohesive in efforts to mobilize the party faithful against an obscure academic theory many of them likely didn’t know existed six months ago.
“Republicans are united on this,” Truitt said at the Orange County event.
National GOP leaders such as former president Donald Trump have also weighed in on CRT. “Republicans at every level should move immediately to ban Critical Race Theory in our schools,” Trump said during a speech at the recent state GOP annual convention. “And we should ban it in workplaces, we should ban it in our states, and we should ban it in the federal government.”
Other influential organizations of the right like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, held webinars throughout the winter warning conservative communities about the emerging threat of Critical Race Theory. ALEC also writes model bills on Republican causes.
Targeting The 1619 Project
One important spur to the debate over CRT has been the New York Time Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning educational initiative, “The 1619 Project.”
Recently, in response to a letter from Durham activist Paul Scott, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, (R-NC), said that CRT and the 1619 Project have no place in America’s classrooms.
As Policy Watch has reported, “The 1619 Project” is a long-form journalism undertaking that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” Veteran journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of the project and was among multiple staff writers, photographers and editors who put it together.
Hannah-Jones is now immersed in a legal fight with UNC-Chapel Hill after the university’s Hussman School of Journalism pursued her for its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, but then declined to extend her a tenure offer — a status it provided to previous Knight Chairs — after conservatives objected to her work on “The 1619 Project.”
Rhoades said NCDPI doesn’t have an “official policy” on “The 1619 Project.”
Tapping into conservative grievances
Parents protesting CRT have found allies among those pushing back against COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask mandates, as well as other K-12 education-related grievances.
Masks, vaccines and CRT brought dozens of Buncombe County parents to two recent local Board of Education meetings — both of which led to tense standoffs outside the building’s entrance as attendees refused to follow the board’s COVID-19 protocols for public comment.
Parents voiced opposition to mask mandates for children, saying that it hindered their children’s progress in school, with some calling it child abuse. Others lambasted the teaching of Critical Race Theory, even though it’s not a part of North Carolina’s teaching standards.
On May 6, parents outside the building would not comply with public safety requirements, so the board did not hold the public comment period as scheduled. The parents claimed that the COVID-19 protocol violated the state and U.S. constitutions.
A day later, the rowdy group delivered more than two dozen sworn and signed “affidavits” to school board members, the board’s attorney, the county sheriff and two deputies asking them to resign immediately or risk paying $250,000 — in “gold bullion” — that would, they claimed, be divided equally among all citizens in Buncombe. The so-called affidavits were not officially filed with any court of law.
“The demands that the sheriff and the school board resign and deliver $250,000 in gold bullion are not valid legal documents — it’s just paperwork,” Aaron Sarver, public information officer for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, said.
Protests over mask mandates and CRT have also occurred in Moore and Onslow counties, among others.
The protests illustrate how framing CRT as a “wedge issue” could be an effective strategy for the GOP in the 2022 midterm elections that will determine which party controls the U.S. House and Senate as well as the North Carolina General Assembly.
North Carolina is one of more than a dozen states weighing legislation to keep CRT out of K-12 classrooms. A handful of Republican-led states have already adopted rules to preempt school districts from teaching the concept.
Florida is the most recent, with Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, spearheading the effort. “The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read, but we will not let them bring nonsense ideology into Florida’s schools,” DeSantis chided in a statement.
Marxist indoctrination or a manufactured controversy?
Rachmuth’s EFA recently hosted conservative heavyweight Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, for a nearly hour-long discussion about CRT. The Center’s website says it applies the “riches of the Judeo-Christian tradition to contemporary questions.”
“It really is true that Critical Race Theory is a child of Marxism; it’s what they call neo-Marxism,” Kurtz told the 40 or so people who joined the virtual conference.
Marxism was developed by the 19th-century German economist and philosopher Karl Marx. Marx’s critical theories hold that capitalism can only thrive by exploiting the working class, and that capitalism is as much a political system as an economic one.
Despite his allegation, Kurtz acknowledges that it would be a “bad idea” to restrict discussion of key core concepts of CRT because doing so would prevent teachers from discussing its flaws.
He’s written model legislation for state lawmakers that would allow teachers to discuss the concepts of CRT.
“It says you should not inculcate these concepts, or in other words propagandize for these concepts,” Kurtz said. “You should not teach them on the premise that they are true; but you can discuss them, and that’s essential.”
Although opposition to CRT has primarily come from white conservatives, groups such as EFA have had success recruiting some Blacks and other people of color to share stories about how they’ve been harmed or “indoctrinated” by educators with progressive values.
Aaron Alexander, a program manager for EFA who is Black, claims that he was “indoctrinated” with “communist” and “Marxist ideals” while a student at Hillside High School in Durham.
“We as students, especially in the K-12 ages, we’re just sponges, we’re taking in everything our teachers tell us as straight fact,” Alexander said in a video posted on EFA’s website.
Alexander said Bryan Proffitt, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, was the Hillside teacher who led efforts to indoctrinate students at the predominately Black high school. Proffitt is a former Hillside High social studies teacher who also led the Durham Association of Educators.
Proffitt told Policy Watch that he can’t recall whether he taught Alexander but is “sorry” that he “feels that way” about his education at Hillside.
After matriculating to UNC Charlotte, Alexander said he ended up in therapy after becoming conflicted about depictions of Blacks as perpetual victims of racism while simultaneously enjoying the advantages offered at the university.
“We’re talking about 13 years of just indoctrination, 13 years of being told that even though these white people are very nice to you have to be wary of the fact that everything is a dog whistle.”
Notwithstanding Alexander’s allegations, progressives view the current controversy as principally an election-oriented effort by the political right.
Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center and veteran education policy advocate, said Critical Race Theory is being used to divide the nation and North Carolina for political gain.
“I’m very concerned about the protests that are occurring at school boards across the state, very concerned about people trying to run slates of candidates where this is the sole issue in their mind, and very concerned about the intimidation of superintendents, central service staff and teachers about how they go about teaching American history and democracy,” Glazier said. [Note: Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.]
State Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange) said the fact that conservatives have rallied to oppose CRT shows that progressives are winning the fight to advance equity in education and other sectors of society.
“We shouldn’t be distracted by their efforts to defend inequitable, unequal systems,” Meyer said. “We should continue to focus on creating educational opportunities for all kids and building more inclusive education systems and supporting system changes in other areas such as criminal justice and health care to have a more successful democracy.”
“This is all manufactured controversy designed to drive people based on their fears, and it’s the worst type of politics,” Meyer said.
[Editor’s note: This story originally reported that the Education First Alliance was affiliated with a New York-based organization known as the Lawfare Project. This was based on a disclosure that appeared on the donation page of the Education First Alliance website which read “Education First Alliance and Unity Commons are a project of LawFare, a 501c3, and your donation is tax deductible.” In light of the fact that this disclosure appears to have been removed in recent days, we have updated the story.]
UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a summer intern at NC Policy Watch.