No, School Board Fights Over Critical Race Theory Are Not Going to Hurt Democrats

In red-turned-blue Loudoun County, Virginia a fight over how to teach students about America’s racial history has animated Fox News and conservatives. But it’s faux outrage.

With conservatives in Loudoun County, Virginia mobilizing to recall several Democratic county school board members, a Politico headline this week asked, “Could a School-Board Fight Over Critical Race Theory Help Turn Virginia Red?”

Also this week, when The Washington Post examined the heated Loudoun County debate, it quoted a former school board member, and self-described former conservative-turned-moderate, who argued, “this is the last gasp of the old guard of Republicans in Virginia before they either move to Tennessee or die out or whatever. It’s almost like the cicadas. The cicadas got louder before they died.”

Which is it? The beginning of the white backlash? Or the end?

I’m the kind of person who, in general, worries about backlashes, as mandates can be misinterpreted or outright illusory. And we know that progress towards racial justice can trigger fierce resistance. Obama was followed by Trump. LBJ was followed by Nixon. Reconstruction was followed by Jim Crow.

But with the CRT controversy, we are not witnessing risky political overreach from the left. We are witnessing manufactured outrage from the right.

The CRT battles are not parallel to the busing battles of the 70s, which stoked so much white anger that they helped shift the entire country rightward. Busing to achieve racial integration was an actual policy that for many districts changed the actual assigned school for actual children. Our nation’s K-12 schools aren’t actually teaching CRT, a stubborn fact that keeps getting mentioned in local coverage.

“False Claims of Critical Race Theory in Virginia Schools Spark Resistance” reported Virginia’s VPM radio about the Loudoun County controversy. “Critical Race theory isn’t taught in Michigan schools, so why is it such a hot topic?” headlined Michigan’s MLive. “Denver metro schools don’t teach critical race theory—but that hasn’t stopped the complaints,” noted the Denver Post. “Texas educators say they don’t teach it, and experts say most people—including critics—don’t even know what is,” reported KERA radio. “Accusations about teaching ‘critical race theory’ in Connecticut often lack evidence, used as a vehicle for broader attacks on equity and inclusion,” the Hartford Courant found.

 What is actually happening, as Connecticut school superintendents explained to the Hartford Courant, is that “critics fundamentally misunderstand their efforts to create inclusive educational environments and teach students to approach history with nuance.”

Of course, that misunderstanding may be deliberate. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation shared a Twitter infographic designed to teach people “how to identify Critical Race Theory in the classroom” when certain words are used—including basic words and phrases such as, “diversity, “inclusion” and “white supremacy. That suggests what’s really desired is the removal of almost any discussion of racism from the classroom (After being subject to a flood of criticism, TPPF deleted the tweet.)

In fact, several conservative state legislatures have gone so far as to enact legislation, which is advertised as banning CRT in the classroom, but, in the legislative text, restrict far more. Tennessee’s new law seems like protection for conservative snowflakes: It bans instruction that could cause “discomfort … because of the individual’s race.” Texas’ new law bans teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.” An ideologically diverse quartet, in a New York Times opinion piece, branded these new laws, “speech codes” which  “seek to change public education by banning the expression of ideas.”

While Republican areas are engaging in right-wing excess, Democratic areas are doing a better job of reining in left-wing excess. When San Francisco’s school board members proposed removing the names of historic figures from several schools—including Abraham Lincoln—based on sloppy research, the public outcry from their almost uniformly liberal constituents prompted them to back down. A recent poll finds a whopping 71 percent of San Franciscans view the school board negatively, and only 10 percent positively. Petitions are now being circulated in an attempt to force a recall election of several school board members.

Loudoun County has become a flashpoint because of its proximity to the political media capital, Washington, DC, and the role of a former Trump administration official in organizing anti-CRT protests. (Fox News has been covering the Loudoun County school board meetings as if the conservative news operation  were the local newspaper.) Furthermore, Loudoun County is a suburban area that has shifted from red to blue. George W. Bush won the county by double digits, twice. Then Obama won it twice, though only by 4.5 points in 2012. And Loudoun was represented in the U.S. House by a Republican from 1981 to 2019. Hypothetically, if CRT is causing the political pendulum to swing right in a swing county like Loudoun, that would spell trouble for Democrats. But count me as skeptical that Loudoun is poised to tip backwards.

Loudoun County is a prosperous, highly educated suburb—61 percent of people 25-and-up have a college degree, compared to 36 percent nationally—exactly the kind of place where an electorate that was once Republican recoiled from Donald Trump’s race-baiting and fled the party. As political scientist Michael Tesler explained after the 2016 election, “College-educated whites and whites who live in highly educated areas of the country have long been much more racially tolerant than other white Americans” and in turn “this relationship between education and racial attitudes explains a very large portion of the education gap in white support for Trump.”

Tesler’s analysis is backed up by the election results in Loudoun County, where Clinton beat Trump by 17 points, and Biden beat him by 25 points. Virginia’s 10th congressional district, which includes all of Loudoun but also some more conservative counties to its west towards West Virginia, voted for Democrat Jennifer Wexton in the last two House elections, most recently by a 13-point margin.

A highly educated county is the type of place where most white parents want their kids to learn about racism’s role in American history and talk openly about how to combat racism today. Of course, there are plenty of superficially progressive white people who can drift rightward when there is any whiff of personal sacrifice—such as putting their kid on a long bus ride to a school in a less prosperous community. But sending your kid to a school that talks openly about racism isn’t the hard stuff. This is the stuff for which progressive parents pat themselves on the back.

When conservatives lose their minds over the easy stuff, they’re not helping Republicans win back lost white voters. The former school board member who likened Loudoun’s conservative critics to loud-yet-dying cicadas would appear to have hit the mark.

So, Democrats should not worry about stoutly defending good-faith attempts by teachers, administrators, and school boards to address racism in their curricula. CRT is not a BFD. Just leave Lincoln’s name alone.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"