NOEL KING, HOST:
Republican lawmakers across this country are advancing bills that, if they become law, would limit the teaching of critical race theory. That is an academic approach that examines American institutions through the lens of race and racism. Here's NPR's Barbara Sprunt.
BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Academics have studied critical race theory for decades, but its main entry into the partisan fray came in 2020 when former President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting certain racial sensitivity training. It was challenged in court, and President Biden rescinded the order the day he took office. But it's since taken hold as a rallying cry among some Republican lawmakers.
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DAN BISHOP: Critical race theory is a divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche.
MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: And that tears people apart.
CHIP ROY: Teaching our children that America is evil. We need to end it, and we need to end it now.
SPRUNT: That was a press conference in May where members of the House Freedom Caucus argued the theory divides students by race. States like Idaho and Oklahoma have adopted laws that limit how public school teachers can talk about race in the classroom, and there's movement on the national level, too. Florida Republican Congressman Byron Donalds says he's co-sponsoring legislation that would prevent federal dollars being spent on critical race theory in schools or government offices.
BYRON DONALDS: No matter how you feel about the history of our country, as a Black man, I think our history has actually been quite awful. I mean, that's without question. But you also have to take into account the progression of our country, especially over the last 60 to 70 years.
SPRUNT: But some scholars say the criticism misses the point.
ANDREW HARTMAN: I'm not really sure that the conservatives, right now, know what it is or know its history.
SPRUNT: That's Andrew Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University, who has written extensively about the history of culture wars.
HARTMAN: The basic premise of critical race theory is that racism is endemic to American society and history. And thus, we have to think about institutions, like the justice system or the educational system, through the lens of race and racism.
SPRUNT: He says the political right often points to the progress that has been made since the civil rights movement.
HARTMAN: Conservatives, since the 1960s, have increasingly defined American society as a colorblind society in the sense that there were some problems in the past, but American society corrected itself.
SPRUNT: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is a sociologist at Duke University and says the idea that society is colorblind is absurd.
EDUARDO BONILLA-SILVA: Let's not fool ourselves and believe that we are colorblind now because we are not. We are not because we watched a video of George Floyd. And we are not because we have the data on income inequality, on wealth inequality.
SPRUNT: He says critical race theory is meant to have an honest accounting and reckoning of the country's past and present in order to truly reach a more equitable future.
BONILLA-SILVA: I wish I could be just a Black Puerto Rican navigating America without race affecting my life chances, but race matters. In order for us to get to the promised land of colorblindness, we will have to go through race. It's the opposite of what these folks are arguing.
SPRUNT: What these folks are arguing is that critical race theory is a threat to society, and they're hoping to sell voters on that message. Christine Matthews is a public opinion pollster and says she sees critical race theory as a growing culture war issue.
CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: And it's what they want to make the 2022 midterms about because if you look at President Biden, his approval rating's in the mid-50s, which is significantly higher than President Trump's was ever.
SPRUNT: She thinks the GOP will use critical race theory to help rally the conservative base ahead of next year's midterm elections.
MATTHEWS: We have seen evidence that the Republican base is responding much more to threats on cultural issues. If Republicans can make them feel threatened and that - and their place in society is threatened, in terms of white culture and political correctness and cancel culture, that's a more visceral and emotional issue. And I do think it could impact turnout.
SPRUNT: Doug Heye is the former communications director for the RNC. He says, in some ways, telling schools what they can or cannot teach highlights just how far the party has moved away from traditionally conservative principles, like wanting less federal involvement in schools.
DOUG HEYE: What we might have described as conservative policy five years ago, 10 years ago, has really been upended under Donald Trump's kind of reign as the leader of the party.
SPRUNT: From a strategy perspective, Matthews says it will all come down to messaging.
MATTHEWS: The Republicans are trying to make it a bad thing, but I feel like if the Democrats got the messaging right, they could make it a good thing.
SPRUNT: Both sides have a little more than a year to do that.
Barbara Sprunt, NPR News.
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