Reviews | Why the Right Loves Public School Culture Wars

There’s a quote from Ralph Reed that I come back to often when trying to understand how the right builds political power. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than a president and no school board members,” the former leader of the Christian Coalition said in 1996. School board elections are a great training ground for national activism. They can draw parents, especially mothers, into politics around intensely emotional issues, creating a thriving base and keeping it mobilized.

You could easily write a history of the modern right that only concerns schools. The battles were initially about race, specifically segregation and the bus. From these fights was born the Christian right, born in reaction to the revocation of tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools. As the Christian right grew, political struggles for control of schools became more explicitly religious. There have been campaigns against allowing homosexuals to work in schools and against the teaching of sex education and evolution.

Now the Christian right has more or less collapsed as something other than an identity category. There are still plenty of religious fundamentalists, but not, after Donald Trump, a movement that confidently asserts itself as the repository of sound family values. Instead, with the push to eradicate the teaching of “critical race theory,” race has returned to the center of public school culture wars.

I put critical race theory in quotes because the right has turned a term that originally referred to an academic school of thought into a catch-all for resentments about diversity initiatives and changing curriculums. ‘story. Since I first wrote about anti-criticism of race theory activism in February, it has become difficult to keep up with the wave of state bills seeking to ban the teaching of what often referred to as “divisive concepts”, including the idea, as a Rhode Island bill says, “the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist”. “We will reject critical race theory in our schools and public institutions, and we will CANCEL cancel culture wherever it occurs!” Mike Pence, defying irony tweeted last week.

As the Dave Weigel of the Washington Post pointed outVirginia Republican primary candidate Glenn Youngkin recently posted four anti-critical race theory videos in 24 hours.

Part of the reason the right is putting so much energy into this crusade is that it cannot elicit much opposition to the core of Joe Biden’s agenda. Biden’s spending plans are far more ambitious than Barack Obama’s, but there has been no new Tea Party version. Voters regard this president as more moderate than Obama, a misconception that scholars of critical race theory would have no trouble explaining. Republicans have complained about the difficulty in demonizing Biden. They need a scarier, more enraged villain to keep their people engaged.

Critical race theory – presented as an attack on history, a program of indoctrination of children and a stealthy form of Marxism – does the trick. The recent elections in Southlake, Texas, show how powerful the backlash of critical race theory can be politically.

In 2018, the affluent Texas suburb made headlines for a viral video of a group of laughing white college students shouting the N-word. Black residents told reporters of unambiguous instances of racism, like a sixth-grader joking with a black student, “How do you get a black man out of a tree?” You cut the rope. The video, NBC reported, “seemed to trigger some real soul-searching from school leaders,” and they created a diversity council made up of parents, teachers and students to come up with a plan to make their school more inclusive. The council, in turn, created a document called the Cultural Competency Action Plan.

The reaction from conservative parents was furious. A PAC trained to fight the plan. At a contentious school board meeting, the Dallas Morning News reported, a black student on the diversity board “was booed after testifying, ‘My life matters.'” Meetings Act, just because they texted the plan ahead of a board meeting. Conservative radio host Dana Loesch, who lives in Southlake, appeared on Tucker Carlson to denounce “far-left Marxist activists” who attempt to “implement critical race theory education.”

This weekend, in an election in Southlake that drew three times the ordinary number of voters, opponents of the cultural competency action plan dominated, winning two school board seats, two city council seats and the mayor’s office by about 40 points in each race. Their victories will likely serve as an example to conservative organizers across the country. The Federalist, a right-wing website, heralded the election as the start of a new “cultural Tea Party” organized against “critical race theory” instead of government spending.

The Christian Coalition took off under the presidency of Bill Clinton, when the religious right became involved locally because it felt excluded from national power. Clearly some conservatives believe that opposition to critical race theory could be the seed of something similar. Telling parents that liberals want their kids to hate their country and feel guilty for being white might be absurd and cynical. It also looks like it could be effective.

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Carol C. Reed