PERSPECTIVE: At conservative schools, anti-critical race theory still looms large
As college students have returned to campus, anti-critical race theory efforts are in high gear, asserting that the legal academic concept poses a "threat" to conservative Christian colleges and other higher learning institutions.
Fear-mongering surrounding critical race theory has been brewing in conservative and evangelical spaces for more than two years, especially since the unprecedented outpouring of support for Black life after the police murder of George Floyd.
The term critical race theory, coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a concept created by the late attorney and Harvard University Prof. Derrick Bell, who believed racial progress was only achievable when Black and white goals converged.
The fear-mongering was largely generated by conservative journalist Christopher Rufo in 2020. In a New Yorker interview in June 2021, Rufo wrote: "Critical race theory is the perfect villain."
He told NPR recently that his use of the term is "both effective and accurate."
In November 2020, the Southern Baptist Convention's six seminary presidents signed a statement that "condemned racism in any form" and also said that "affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message."
In November 2021, parents and alumni of Grove City College, a formerly Presbyterian liberal arts school in Grove City, Pa., created a petition accusing GCC of "mission drift" by inviting guest speaker Dr. Jemar Tisby. In April, the board of trustees at GCC released a special report to address the accusations in the petition, ultimately saying the invite was a "mistake."
And in an interview, President Len Munsil of Arizona Christian University said he "would not tolerate any teaching or promotion of Critical Race Theory or Black Lives Matter at any time on his campus."
NPR reached out to GCC, the SBC and ACU for comment but didn't receive a response.
"No institution personifies racist religion both in its origin, in its development and even contemporarily like the Southern Baptist Convention," says Dr. Kevin Cosby.
Cosby is senior pastor at St. Stephen Baptist Church and president of HBCU Simmons College of Kentucky. Though Cosby has never been a functioning part of the SBC, he attended the SBC's flagship seminary school, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in the 1980s. He has long called out the SBC for what he sees as racism. In fact, the SBC was founded after southern Baptists disagreed with northern Baptists' stance against slavery in 1845.
Tisby, a historian, was labeled a critical race theory apologist. At GCC, he talked about the Bible's Queen Esther, a woman who spoke out during perilous times. He drew parallels to our current social climate.
Christian nationalism is the real threat to democracy, he says.
"It's not going to die out with older people," Tisby says. "It's being replicated in these conservative Christian colleges. And universities are incubators for really harmful ideas about democracy, about Christianity, and about society as a whole."
That danger, says Tisby, radiates beyond campuses. Take, for example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a provocateur known for her views on critical race theory, among other issues. There's also Randy Forbes, a former Virginia congressman who founded Project Blitz, a conservative group meant to model public education after Christian private schools.
Faithful America, a coalition of Christians, has launched several campaigns against anti-LGBTQ efforts and Christian nationalism. More than 16,000 Christians have signed a petition rejecting Greene's statements supporting Christian nationalism.
Faithful America's executive director, the Rev. Nathan Empsall, says Christian nationalism is all about seizing and holding power.
"We see these bills come up in state legislatures and local councils and education boards attacking CRT or attacking transpeople and then say this is about parents getting to decide the curiculums," Empsall says.
Curriculum transparency legislation has been introduced in at least eight states this year, with most being voted down. But in March, Florida's HB 7 and HB 1467, backed by conservative nonprofit organization Florida Citizens Alliance, were successfully passed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
"It looks grassroots, but it's actually all coming from places like Project Blitz and WallBuilders and the Family Research Council," Empsall says.
BlitzWatch, a project created by national civil rights organizations, has tracked more than 50 Blitz-related pieces of legislation being considered in 19 states. These bills include school boards revising their history curricula and designating the Holy Bible as the official state book in places such as Oklahoma.
Other coalitions such as the Christians Against Christian Nationalism have mobilized to stop Christian nationalist-type legislation from being passed. But historically, Black Christians have been sounding the alarm on nationalists and their misrepresentation of the faith.
"I would encourage people to look beyond Christian nationalism, because that's not the only expression of faith, and particularly to look at the Black church tradition which has understood the dynamic between faith and politics very differently," Tisby says.
That is something Black students at Brigham Young University can understand.
Though BYU hasn't released any official statement on critical race theory, the university has dealt with accusations of racism, including recently.
On Aug. 26 during BYU's doTERRA Classic, Rachel Richardson, who plays on Duke University's volleyball team, and her grandmother Lesa Pamplin, accused individuals in the school's student section of repeatedly using racial slurs toward her. Since then, BYU officials released a statement saying they would not tolerate the use of racial slurs and banned one Utah Valley University student from athletic events.
BYU Athletics later released a statement saying its probe found no evidence of the use of racial slurs and lifted the ban on the student.
"Out of the 5,000 people in attendance, not one had the bravery or courage to denounce pure racism," said The Black Menaces, a BYU student group.
In February, the small group at the Latter-Day Saints school in Utah, where the campus is more than 80 percent white, created an online coalition to support marginalized students at predominantly white institutions. Its TikTok account, where it conducts man-on-the-street interviews at PWIs, has garnered nearly 30 million likes and more than 700,000 followers. Two of the main objectives are getting the BYU administration to create a mandatory race class and annual training for faculty.
All five students said despite their own racist encounters on campus, they would endure it all over again, for the sake of helping marginalized students at PWIs.
"For so many people, their idea of Christianity is characterized by Christian nationalists who are against critical race theory, who are banning books, who want to make it harder to vote and not easier," Tisby said.
"It strikes me as incredibly tragically ironic since so many Christian nationalists place this high emphasis on evangelism and telling people about Jesus, and they're the ones who are pushing people away from Jesus."
Sierra Lyons was an Ida B. Wells Society intern on NPR's investigations team.