What's Behind The GOP's 'Critical Race Theory' Rhetoric? : The NPR Politics Podcast Some Republican lawmakers have branded the efforts to teach about the effects of racism as "critical race theory." They have introduced legislation in statehouses around the country hoping to ban it.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, racial justice and politics correspondent Juana Summers, and political reporter Barbara Sprunt.

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What's Behind The GOP's 'Critical Race Theory' Rhetoric?

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DULGUUN: Hi. This is Dulguun (ph) from (unintelligible) in Mongolia, and I just cast my vote in a presidential election to elect our sixth president. This podcast was recorded at...


2:05 p.m. on Thursday, June 10.

DULGUUN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this.


DAVIS: I'm sorry. Did he say Mongolia?

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: I think he did. No matter what else is going on in the world, voters are always voting.


DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics and racial justice.

DAVIS: And we are welcoming a new voice from the Washington desk to the pod today, our dear friend and colleague, Barbara Sprunt. Barbara, please introduce yourself to our listeners.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Well, thank you, guys. I'm Barbara. Good to be here with you. Longtime listener, former producer of the podcast, longtime fan and currently covering politics.

DAVIS: Barbara has joined us on the Hill team and has been helping all of us out tremendously on the Hill, but doing a little bit of her own political reporting as well, which is why we wanted you on the pod today.

SPRUNT: Well, thank you.

DAVIS: So you've been reporting on an issue that has been getting a lot of attention in America's ongoing and never ending culture wars, and that's this idea of critical race theory. So before we dig in too deep to the politics and why this debate's happening, can you just take a step back and explain to us what we're talking about when we use the term critical race theory?

SPRUNT: Yeah. And, well, I think it's important to say, you know, there's a distinction between what it is and what people are trying to paint it as. So what it is is an academic approach that was developed by legal scholars in the late '70s and '80s that looks at American institutions through the lens of race and racism. So it takes the position that racism is endemic in society, and so you have to look for its effects in things like housing and the criminal justice system. So that's what it is, but that's not what you're hearing people talk about it as. And what you're hearing is the political right has co-opted this term and is using it as sort of a shorthand to basically refer to a whole host of white grievances when it comes to how society has been talking about race, you know, conversations that have really ticked up in the last year about systemic racism, white privilege, you know, the importance of allyship.

And conservative lawmakers and media are now arguing that "critical race theory" - and that's in quotes here - is being taught to students and in some government settings that, you know, white people are basically being told that they're racist for being white. And so perception is key here. And saying critical race theory is taught in public schools, K-12, is kind of like saying advanced electrical engineering is being taught at K-12. I mean, this is an advanced scholarly undertaking.

And there are certainly elements that come from critical race theory that can be seen in how people talk about anti-racism, certainly when talking about historical racism and history. But that's kind of an important distinction to have in the back of your mind when you're hearing people talk about this.

DAVIS: I hear this a lot. I mean, you're seeing the debate a lot on social media. We're seeing it in local politics. What is driving this? What is sort of percolating this into the debate right now?

SPRUNT: Right. So this has been around for decades. So, like, why are we hearing so much about it right now? Yeah. I mean, you know, the last year, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order that barred federal contractors from conducting various types of diversity training. And Trump started to really use language around critical race theory, how it's unpatriotic, how it forces people to judge each other by the color of their skin. The order was challenged in court, and President Biden rescinded it the first day on the job. But the messaging has stuck, and that's what's become sort of a rallying cry among the political right.

SUMMERS: And the other thing that comes up a lot, too, in this discussion, especially as it relates to education, is something called the 1619 Project, which was developed by The New York Times magazine. You'll hear occasionally hear conservatives bring that up in this conversation. And it's essentially, if you haven't heard of it, this big project that makes the case that the very origin of the United States traces back to when the first ship that carried enslaved people came to Virginia's shore. And it argues - it's a really expansive project - that the anti-Black racism of slavery is the foundation on which nearly everything that has made this country exceptional was founded on.

And the reason why that kind of has come into the education debate, and therefore, this larger conversation about critical race theory, is that in some places across the country, educators have started to use some curriculums that were created along with that project. And if you have seen on social media, there's been some pushback at local school board meetings. I was just looking at tweets of photos from one out of Loudoun County, Va., where there...

DAVIS: I saw that.

SUMMERS: ...Were hundreds of people, even amid the pandemic, going to a meeting about critical race theory in their children's curriculums.

DAVIS: It's also become an issue on the Hill. I mean, you've had - seen senators like Tom Cotton - he's a Republican from Arkansas, also one that might be considering running for president in 2024 and others - who have supported legislation that would ban money going to any schools that use the 1619 Project in their K-12 curriculum. So it is kind of percolating throughout federal and local politics right now. Juana, how bright of a connecting line do you see here in this debate over critical race theory to the racial justice protests that were happening at this time last year after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis?

SUMMERS: Yeah. I think that there is certainly a case to be made that some of this backlash against what conservatives and folks on the right have painted as critical race theory kind of harkens back to that and gives you, I think, a really interesting window into debates that we might hear and might be covering in the 2022 midterm elections, which are not that far away, I keep reminding myself.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, it's a tough conversation because I think, especially on the podcast, like, and the way we cover this at NPR, like, this isn't a both-sides debate, right? Like, systemic racism is real. It exists in the U.S. It's a day-to-day reality for millions of people. But, Barbara, can you explain sort of the argument Republicans are making for why they oppose critical race theory? I mean, why is it so controversial to say maybe we should teach about systemic racism in our education systems and to our schoolchildren? Why is that a controversial idea?

SPRUNT: Well, critical race theory - and, I mean, more to the point, because we've already identified that it's separate from what is being presently talked about - so, you know, I'm going to call it, like, anti-racism teachings. Like, that flies in the face of what a lot of conservatives have sort of increasingly argued since the civil rights era that, yes, the United States had racism and segregation, but those things have been remedied. And it's in the past. And the country is now a colorblind society where race doesn't really factor in.

And so, you know, this is completely arguing the opposite of that. And opponents to what they're calling critical race theory, what we would perhaps call anti-racism conversations, is the idea that pointing out race and examining racism in a critical way leads to more division within the country.

So I spoke recently with Byron Donalds. He's a Republican congressman from Florida. And he's co-sponsoring legislation that would prevent federal dollars from being spent on what he perceives as critical race theory in schools and government offices. And he said, you know, the full history of this country should be taught, but that these kinds of ideas will cause more problems than solutions. Here's what he had to say.

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: And so that's a common refrain that you'll hear, is that the country has progressed. And in order to move forward, conversations about race and racism just divides us.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about the politics of all this.


DAVIS: And we're back. And one of the reasons why we're talking about this topic today is that it's part of a broader wave of identity politics - right? - that has accelerated during the Trump administration and continues on, especially within the Republican Party, that's trying to continue to carry sort of that Trumpism mantle. So, Barbara, just to put it frankly, I mean, Republicans must just see this kind of issue as good politics for them.

SPRUNT: Yes. I mean, there's a reason that culture war issues have historically been stoked to rally the base, especially ahead of an election year, unlike issues like taxes or foreign policy, which, of course, people care about, a culture war issue like this one is much more emotional. It hits people right in their core, in their identity. It feels very existential. And that's the kind of thing that can really affect people's political motivation. So I recently talked to Christine Matthews. She's the president of Bellwether Research and a public opinion pollster. And she had some thoughts on this.

CHRISTINE 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 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: So Matthews is saying, like, this is the kind of issue that could maintain traction among certain white voters, even though the midterms are a year away.

SUMMERS: And it's interesting too because this kind of culture war playbook that Christine Matthews is referencing is what Republicans are doing while they are still also steering clear of things like Democrats' economic initiatives that have proved to be pretty popular with the public and instead are using things like critical race theory and other issues like it in an attempt to kind of characterize the Democratic Party as extreme and out of touch with mainstream America.

DAVIS: Which begs the question, are Democrats responding to any of this? I mean, it is certainly a debate that's happening - focused in conservative media and conservative circles. But I think of racial justice and racial issues is also being something that's been a driving motivation of the Biden administration. And even if they don't agree with the argument itself, can you just let this debate go on without responding to it as Democrats?

SUMMERS: Yes. So what I think is interesting about that, as you point out, Sue, these issues of systemic racism and equity have been huge for the Biden administration. I mean, think back to the first day in office, when President Biden made clear that equity was going to be kind of the overarching goal of the federal government. He also, on his first day in office, canceled the project known as the 1776 Commission that former President Trump set up during the 2020 campaign that was essentially trying to link what he described as left-wing indoctrination and schools to protests over police killings and police brutality.

So while you may not hear the White House directly responding to the debate over critical race theory and anti-racist teachings and theory, it's certainly clear where the president stands. And if you listen to the way he talks about these issues, how he views the role of systemic racism in this country, it's one of the things he named, I believe, as one of the four kind of overarching crises facing this country when he campaigned for the White House.

DAVIS: To that end, do you think that there's a risk here of backlash for Republicans? I mean, when you're talking about race and politics, it's just a very tricky issue to play. And we don't actually know how voters are going to absorb this issue. And maybe it has some unintended consequences here, because I think a lot of white voters also feel really uncomfortable being identified with a party that might be seen as preying on racism or racial tendencies. And we saw that with Trump, that there was a backlash towards a lot of the things he said and did that was seen as inflaming racial tensions in the country.

SPRUNT: Yeah, I think that's right, Sue. I think, like, the short answer is, could there be a backlash? I mean, possibly. I think it's a little too soon to know for sure. But using identity politics to push a political agenda can be very effective, and we've talked about that. We've seen it play out over the years. But it can also go too far. I mean, and as you said, like, it wasn't that long ago that we were talking about how Trump overplayed his hand a bit with a lot of the racist comments that he made that ultimately did not sit well with a lot of the electorate. But the slice of the electorate that he needed it to do well with in order to move the needle, that ultimately they were turned off by, is college-educated white suburban women.

DAVIS: Yeah.

SPRUNT: And so this is why the messaging is so important, because if conservatives can keep this under the guise of being critical race theory and not anti-racism, it's going to be easier for white folks who don't consider themselves to be racist to hop on board. This is why the messaging is so critical.

DAVIS: All right. We're going to leave it there for now. Barbara, it has been such a pleasure to host your inaugural podcast.

SPRUNT: Well, thank you so much.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

SUMMERS: I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics and racial justice.

SPRUNT: And I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

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