The Folk Devil Made Me Do It : Code Switch What moral panics reveal about the ongoing freakout over critical race theory in schools.

The Folk Devil Made Me Do It

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Just a quick heads-up, y'all. The following podcast contains explicit language. That means there's going to be some cussin'.

You are listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby. And this...


DEMBY: ...This is actually our 300th episode. Damn, go us. It's not our 300th anniversary because that would be 300 years. What would you get somebody for their 300th anniversary? It would have to be beyond, like, you know, precious jewels or whatever. It'd have to be, like, you know, I don't know, a trip to the sun (laughter) or something like that. Anyway, back to the lesson at hand.


DEMBY: Can you remember another fall, another back-to-school season, that was this contentious? Like, you might have to go back to the fights over integration and busing in the 1960s and 1970s. Because right now, all over the country, parents and politicians and school administrators are beefing over how to run their schools when kids come back or whether there should even be kids in schools coming back, you know, because we have this ongoing pandemic that has claimed the lives of 600,000 people in the United States. People are fighting over whether teachers should be vaccinated, whether students should have to wear masks. Oh, and then we have these very ugly fights over what's being taught in those schools.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: An intense debate has focused on critical race theory and its...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Critical race theory - it suddenly became...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Critical race theory and affects not only the...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The theory of critical race theory...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Implement critical race theory, also called CRT, in our schools...

DEMBY: Critical race theory. These battles over CRT and how it's allegedly being taught in grade schools and high schools has been raging for months now.


LAURA INGRAHAM: Parents are coming to recognize that this far-left ideology is itself racist.

KEISHA KING: It is sad that we are even contemplating something like critical race theory, where children will be separated by their skin color and deemed permanently oppressors or oppressed in 2021.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We do not want our children to be taught that America is systemically racist.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So whether or not you call it critical race theory or DEI or SEL, it's all based on the same thing. And it's not acceptable.

INGRAHAM: And I'll say it again - is itself racist.

DEMBY: In Tennessee, some parents objected to a book about how 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated an all-white elementary school in New Orleans back in 1960. Another group of parents in Nevada wanted to put body cameras on teachers to make sure that they were not teaching critical race theory in classrooms. Never mind that critical race theory, which is a legal doctrine taught as an elective in graduate schools and law schools, is not being taught to fifth-graders or high schoolers or anybody in K-12 setting. As I learned all this apoplexy, the anger and anxiety and fear about a supposedly dangerous curriculum that it seemed so few people can even accurately define, we have been here before, like, a lot because kids plus schools plus curriculum equals fertile soil for moral panics. That's algebra.

ZULEYKA ZEVALLOS: Moral panics are hooking into something that seems new or novel or something that's topical, but it's hooking into old debates, an idea that this new thing that's happening could spell the end to our society to the way in which we live.

ADAM LAATS: So I think the reason that schools are a particularly hot flash point is because it's a very low bar to put it on a front headline. You know, the headline "People Disagree At Bar" - that's not much of a headline. However, "Children Being Harmed On Purpose" - now, that's a headline.

DEMBY: So I wanted to know what exactly constitutes a moral panic. Does the controversy over CRT really fit into that category? And if it does, what are the potential consequences? Like, how does a moral panic end? I mean, does it end? I had a lot of questions, y'all, and, spoiler alert, the answers didn't do much to quell my personal panic. But we'll get into all that after the break. Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene, just Gene today, CODE SWITCH. And we're talking about what makes a moral panic and whether this controversy over critical race theory being taught in grade schools and high schools, if that fits the bill. Because I had a feeling that some of the ire around this topic this summer might be more consequential than just, like, your typical culture war kerfuffle. So what exactly is a moral panic? I know calling it a moral panic seems like I'm making some kind of, like, moral judgment. But moral panics are a sociological phenomenon. And it turns out there are quite a few academics who study them and how they work, like Zuleyka Zevallos. She's a sociologist and a policy researcher in Sydney, Australia. And relevant to our interests here on CODE SWITCH, Zuleyka studies moral panics and what they have to do with race. And she told me that moral panics tend to have some broad things in common.

ZEVALLOS: So there are effectively three components to a moral panic. The first is that the threat is perceived as new, but it's been linked to old notions of other things that society has been afraid of in the past.

DEMBY: So you have an old thing or maybe some social group that the public was already broadly suspicious of. In the parlance of people who study moral panics, those threats are called folk devils. And then, you know, something happens in the world that reactivates all of those suspicions toward folk devils that were already out there in the world. Let's use the example of video games.


DEMBY: So me, myself, I'm an elder millennial, as much as it hurts my heart to say that. And I've lived through people losing their shit over video games for as long as I've been alive basically. When I was real young, I vaguely remember people freaking out about the dangers of arcades. And I almost want to do an explanatory comma here for arcades just to troll any Gen Xers that might be listening, make them feel real old.

Anyway, people were worried that video game arcades were dens of flashing lights and beeping machines and iniquity and delinquency. When video games became things that people primarily played at home, a lot of people worried that they would make kids sedentary, antisocial, violent.

What was really going on was that adults were freaking out about the things they always freaked out about - technology corrupting kids. This happened with the advent of television. It even happened to some extent, as I learned, with the printing press. But yeah, that's component No. 1

The second component of a moral panic, Zuleyka told me, is that whatever the current thing that people are freaking out about is seen as both damaging by itself, right? But also, it is seen as a harbinger of some deeper, potentially more dangerous societal problem. So go back to video games again. Video games were thought to represent a new permissiveness around violence. You know, so many games focus on fighting and shooting and Mario Karting (ph). People will blame video games for things like school shooting and rising violent crime. There was even a congressional hearing about the specific dangerous posed by video games in the 1990s.

ZEVALLOS: And then the third component is that it needs to be an issue that lots of people can see, but the threat seems difficult. It seems opaque.

DEMBY: So it has to be something that people can point to, like something that exists in the world, again, but that if you're on the outside of it, you can't quite make sense of it - at least not on your own.

ZEVALLOS: It means that the general public are relying on experts to explain what's happening to them.

DEMBY: And sometimes, these so-called experts are just people who are themselves freaking out, like a parent seeing their kid play Grand Theft Auto and saying, oh, my God, my child is going to be out here stealing cars. Other times, these experts are, like, cynics. They're capitalizing on the freakout for some reason. But either way, these experts are saying the same thing; this is bad, but let me tell you why it's actually way worse than you think.

ZEVALLOS: And unfortunately, the experts that come to the forefront then feed into that panic and explain it in a way that seems very threatening. So in the case of - whether it's video games, social media, other technologies, it's, you know, they're corrupting our young people.

DEMBY: So you can see how critical race theory meets these criteria, right? One...


DEMBY: ...It's old and new, right? It's about race and schools, so that's an old American anxiety. But the branding, at least in terms of this freakout, is new. The second component...


DEMBY: ...Is this idea that the problem is specific, but also speaks to deeper issues in society. Obviously, I mean, we don't have to explain that one too much. Y'all have been here for the last four years. You saw what it was. There's a lot of anxiety around race in America and around changing racial demographics in America. All of that stuff is being activated by this critical race theory moral panic. And three...


DEMBY: ...Again, is the idea that the thing in question is invisible but opaque. There is this thing called critical race theory out in the world. And it's not being taught in schools, but it's the kind of thing that is easily misunderstood, both willfully, but also because, you know, this is America, and we are bad about talking about race. So you take all three of those things, and then you throw kids in classrooms in there, and you have everything you need for a moral panic.

Just to square the circle on the video game thing again - so crime was climbing in the 1980s. But it's clear now that that probably didn't have much to do with video games. But freaking out over video games was certainly politically easier, less complicated and definitely more satisfying than, like, committing more money to anti-poverty programs or housing. And when it comes to CRT, people are freaking out about curriculum in schools because that's easier to grapple with than acknowledging these questions about power and justice and history in America.

Anyway, way back in the 1970s, this guy named Stanley Cohen laid down a lot of the foundations of thinking about moral panics. And he, in his time, was writing about people losing their minds over the supposed dangers of mods and rock musicians. And if you think about the other moral panics, almost by decade in American life - right? - there were the flappers of the '20s, there was jazz music, there was comic books, hippies, heavy metal, gangsta rap. Whatever weird thing that young people are getting into, there are adults very seriously freaking out about it.

And I know you're asking, OK, OK, so what does this have to do with race, Gene? This is CODE SWITCH, baby. I didn't come here for all this. Well (laughter), Zuleyka said it's important to understand that many of the inflection points in America's racial history - you know, the moment when race becomes stratified, when that gets entrenched - they come directly out of moral panics.

ZEVALLOS: Racism is malleable. Like, it changes. It morphs. And it no longer relies on those overt examples of racial hatred. And instead, it's much more reliant nowadays on moral appeals. It's a threat to our values. It's a threat to who we are as a people. And so a moral panic is feeding into this idea that at any moment, society could just unfold.

DEMBY: Because during moral panics, there is more room for everyone to be scared and everyone to be very worked up. And so people say things and they do things that might be frowned upon or even just out of bounds during other relatively calmer political moments. And so Zuleyka says these panics can carve out a kind of conceptual space for more discrimination - not just the informal kind between individuals, but official discrimination - new laws, new policies. Like, this is an emergency. We have to fix it.

So if we just take a quick survey of the last 150 years of U.S. history - right? - you have the anti-immigrant yellow scares and pogroms of the 1870s, which led directly to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which shaped American immigration policy for, like, the next 100 years. Those same fears of sneaky, untrustworthy Asians - they got recycled through the 1940s, when the U.S. interned Japanese Americans. The panic during the early days of the AIDS crisis led to a federal ban on gay men donating blood - a ban which is still on the books today. The post-9/11 moment made way for the broad acceptance of surveillance and profiling of Muslims, people of Middle Eastern, North African descent and South Asians. I mean, the war on drugs, like, by itself is, like, a hydrant of moral panics. You've got crack, you've got crack babies, you've got super predators. All of that led to more policing of Black and Latino neighborhoods and mass incarceration.

And in retrospect, we can see how baseless and overheated each of those supposed threats were. But when they were happening, they were treated as not just politically legitimate, but politically urgent.


DEMBY: So given the criteria that we laid out, it should not be surprising that schools are often the site of moral panics. Think about it for a second, right? You've got parents who are handing over their beloved children to teachers and administrators - to the state, essentially - to be socialized outside of the home. Add to that the fact that schools are basically where the rubber hits the road on so many of these foundational social questions. You've got race. You've got property rights. You've got taxes. You've got ideology. Yeah, you've got yourself a geyser for moral panics.


LAATS: The people who want to cause more panic, you know, from that lady on "The Simpsons" on up...


MAGGIE ROSWELL: (As Helen Lovejoy) Won't somebody please think of the children?

LAATS: If you want to cause a moral panic, you can always warn that something nefarious is being done to someone else's children.

DEMBY: That voice - not Helen Lovejoy from "The Simpsons," but the other voice. That belongs to Adam Laats.

LAATS: I think the reason that schools are a particularly hot flash point is because it's a very low bar to put it on a front headline. You know, the headline "People Disagree At Bar" - that's not much of a headline. However, "Children Being Harmed On Purpose" - now, that's a headline.


DEMBY: Adam is a historian at Binghamton University. He's the author of the book "The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism In American Education."

GILLIAN FRANK: Let me build off that and echo and rephrase some of what Adam said.

DEMBY: And that's Gillian Frank. He's a historian, too, and the host of the podcast "Sexing History." Ow (ph).

FRANK: Now, conservatives for a long time - we're talking about well over seven decades - have seen - actually closer to a century - have seen schools as a key front to produce and reproduce their core values. Childhood in the conservative imagination is always something that needs to be protected from outside dangers. Now, how do you protect? Well, you control all these harmful influences, whether it's pornography or Black people. We need to see the schools as their site for children's purity, their innocence and as a site of exclusions.


DEMBY: I called up Adam and Gillian because they wrote an essay together for Slate, titled "This Critical Race Theory Panic Is A Chip Off The Old Block." And in it, they talk about all the other curriculum fights that are basically a template for this one that we're living through right now.

FRANK: So you can look at a number of historic panics, whether it's textbooks or gay teachers in the schools or integration. Conservatives have used schools as a way of erecting social and actual boundaries to police and to push out others that they deem undesirable.

LAATS: To take just one example, the books by Harold Rugg - and it was a team led by Harold Rugg, really - had been used for years in schools all across the country.

DEMBY: Explanatory comma time. Harold Rugg was this reform-minded educator from Columbia University. And in the 1930s, his school textbooks were a big deal. Like, they were used in middle schools all over the country.

LAATS: Millions of copies. They were very popular and, you know, unobjectionable, you know? Like any textbook, they had been through an adoption process, and they had been read by school superintendents, teachers. You know, the books had been seen as the best new, modern books.

DEMBY: But this was the 1930s, and it was also the time of the first Red Scare. And so the folk devils in this case were communists or people who were assumed to be communists. So all sorts of progressive ideas were getting close scrutiny and the side-eye. And in Rugg's textbooks, the United States is discussed as imperfect, as a society with social problems that could be improved. And that did not go over well with patriotic groups, like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion. They said that these books were promoting socialism.

LAATS: And then some independent journalists, which, you know, today's mix of influential activists seem very similar. People like Bertie Forbes, who founded Forbes magazine - you know, he played a leading role in publicizing these accusations about this set of textbooks, that the textbooks tipped and pushed towards anti-American sentiment and especially a version of American history that highlighted the fact that racism was a problem in America and that highlighted the fact that class antagonism was a thing that America experienced in the past.

FRANK: They had newspapers. They had circulars. They had pamphlets. They had meetings. They would hold a meeting, and it would get reported by the local news. They would go to school boards, right? They would have letter-writing campaigns. So much of the infrastructure that we see today, which is only magnified through social media, through the internet, was already there. And so it was a lot of things like what we might now call kitchen table politics or barstool politics, where people would network within their neighborhood. They would drum it up. And they would use this particular language of moral panic. They would use slippery slope arguments.

If we allow the textbook into the class, pretty soon the children will become communists, and we'll be just like Russia. And so if they come to believe a very simple thing - there is conflict in American society; Black people are not treated well, that there's class exploitation, that economic system of capitalism is not the best for everybody - if they believe that, that is just the end of America. And they would use this catastrophizing language to gin up high emotional feelings.

DEMBY: At one point, even the advertising lobby got into this. Like, they were calling the Rugg textbooks un-American because there was a line in one of his textbooks that said, quote, "advertising costs are passed on to consumers," end quote. They thought that that was maligning the American way of marketing things.

LAATS: And this is the dramatic and damaging part of these panics. You know, if it were just a smallish group of people who were nervous about something and talking about it amongst themselves, then, OK, fine. But in the case of the Rugg textbooks, they were not only taken from shelves, taken out of school warehouses, in at least two cases, and probably more, they were actually burned by school boards. And this - mind you, this is 1940, 1941. The Nazis are stomping across Europe burning books. And they're so terrified of what they think these books include that no one in the room says, hey, we shouldn't burn books - I mean, if only for the optics.

DEMBY: For the most part, though, the Rugg textbooks weren't burned, but they were taken out of circulation and put in warehouses until school boards could figure out just what to do with them.

LAATS: And this is 5, 6 million copies of textbooks.

DEMBY: Adam and Gillian said teachers and superintendents and administrators saw all of this happening, all this uproar, and they wanted nothing to do with it. A lot of them just decided, all right, it will be easier to just avoid teaching these subjects altogether.

LAATS: And even the next generation of textbook authors were watching this. And we have archival evidence. They talked with their publishers and said, hey, maybe don't tell the kids that there's racism.

DEMBY: You might be wondering, like I was, how the textbook (laughter) authors or just liberals in general at the time responded to this freak out. Well, Harold Rugg himself thought that maybe he could calm people down and just, you know, go out, explain what was in the books. Maybe cooler heads will prevail - about that. Harold Rugg was an Ivy League elite. Like we said, he taught at Columbia University. So he wasn't going to engender a whole lot of sympathy from his critics just off that alone. But also, he was kind of a [expletive].

LAATS: He wasn't a very pleasant person, just personally. And at first, he was like, well, this obviously is going to peter out because I'll go and I'll say, I'm not a communist, and then they'll stop (laughter). And that didn't work. And he became more and more flummoxed. He'd say, well, they say that I write, you know, basically that American history happened in an American history textbook. And it did (laughter). I don't - I can't - Rugg would say, I can't understand what they are angry about.

DEMBY: Adam and Gillian said that this is kind of a theme in curriculum panics. The people behind the curriculum, who write the textbooks, who come up with the learning materials, they often try to appeal to the people who are freaking out to talk through any of the misunderstandings or mischaracterizations. And that strategy, they say, is kind of hit or miss, you know, because we're talking about a moral panic. Ain't nobody trying to hear no reason, right now, right?

They gave me another example from the 1960s. A woman named Mary Calderone was advocating for sex education in schools. And not surprisingly, a bunch of groups popped up in opposition. One was called Mothers Organized for Moral Stability, or abbreviated to MOMS. I'm always kind of curious, like, do people come up with the, like, acronym for the group and then, like, retrofit (laughter) the words in the title afterwards?

Anyway, MOMS and another group called the Christian Crusade distributed and popularized these pamphlets, tens of thousands of them, expressing their opposition to the sex education plan. The pamphlet was called "Is The School House The Proper Place To Teach Raw Sex?" Am I telling this anecdote just so I had an excuse to read that pamphlet title on the radio? I'm not not telling that story for that reason.

Anyway, "Is The School House The Proper Place To Teach Raw Sex?" spread like wildfire. Conservative groups say this whole sex ed campaign was part of a Marxist plot to indoctrinate children, and on top of that, it would expose them to STDs. And Mary Calderone, the lady who was advocating for the sex education, was like, what? What are y'all talking about? What?

LAATS: I'm not trying to tell anybody to go have raw sex or any kind of sex. That's not my goal. And it wasn't her goal at all. Her goal was to tell heterosexual married couples how to have safe, you know, sex, not even pleasurable sex, just safe sex if you're married and heterosexual. And she gets accused of all this, you know, Satan-bringing.

And her first response, like Harold Rugg's, is, well, I'll just explain it, and then we'll be good. And (laughter) she explains it. And it wasn't good. Just like today's fight, those fights in the past were not about the actual issue that was being put on the table as the main issue. They were about this furious, bubbling cocktail of fear.

DEMBY: This furious, bubbling cocktail of fear - which brings us back to critical race theory. We've gotten through basically most of this episode talking about, or I guess around, this thing called critical race theory. But we haven't spent a lot of time talking about what it actually is (laughter), which kind of makes us like everybody else, I guess. But that's because in a moral panic, the putative issue at the center, as we just heard, is in a lot of ways kind of beside the point. But it's not beside the point for us at CODE SWITCH, so I called up Khiara Bridges.

KHIARA BRIDGES: I'm a professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law.

DEMBY: Khiara is also a critical race scholar and the author of the book "Critical Race Theory: A Primer," which came out in 2019, you know, before this whole freakout. So I asked her to give us a primer.

BRIDGES: Yeah. So critical race theory is an approach to thinking about race and the law. Critical race theory emerged in law schools in the 1970s and '80s, I would say, in response to the perceived failures of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

DEMBY: So obviously, those are monumental pieces of legislation that changed a lot of things in American life. But by the 1980s, Khiara says, a bunch of scholars were looking at the whole civil rights landscape and realizing that racial inequality wasn't on the wane. And in a lot of ways, it had become even more entrenched. Sure, there was a lot of backlash to those big civil rights initiatives from the 1960s. But these scholars noticed that revanchism wasn't the only reason for this persisting inequality. And one of the main people making this observation was a Harvard law professor - a man named Derrick Bell.

BRIDGES: He was kind of, like, one of the first people to challenge the assumption that law was just, like, kind of, like, a neutral arbiter of race relations in the U.S. He was one of the first people to say, well, you know what? Actually, maybe the law is not, like, kind of this this referee between the races, but maybe the law is actually producing (laughter) this relationship between the races that so often results in non-white people's kind of subordination to white people.

So he was one of the first to say, you know what? Maybe the insufficiencies of civil rights laws are kind of baked into the civil rights laws themselves. Maybe the reason that the civil rights laws have not achieved racial equality is not because of some conservative judiciary, but rather because of the failure of the imagination of civil rights lawyers themselves.

DEMBY: And these ideas were really controversial in academic circles. Derrick Bell and his colleagues ticked a lot of people off, but the body of scholarship that was built on their ideas came to be known as critical race theory.

BRIDGES: It's kind of, like, an analytical, like, tool set. It's a framework for investigating how it is that racial inequality persists despite, you know, these really beautifully crafted pieces of legislation, despite the fact that our Constitution promises equal protection of the laws. How is it that racial inequality persists? That's what critical race theory is.

DEMBY: And up until recently, nobody else out of the academy knew much or cared much about critical race theory. It's basically only taught in law schools and some graduate school programs. Khiara, who is an actual critical race scholar, said she hadn't heard of it until she was a disenchanted second-year law student. She spent her first year of law school pouring over and being quizzed on all this esoteric legal jargon and ideas. She said it all felt so abstract and removed from the real world.

BRIDGES: I was interested in justice. I was interested in race. I was interested in gender. I was interested in pregnancy. You know, I was interested in society. And the first year of law school, the curriculum is such that you don't really engage with, you know, those issues at all.

DEMBY: And then she stumbled upon a critical race theory class. In that class, they were discussing race and pregnancy and gender and society. And it changed her life.

BRIDGES: I had always thought that I was going to practice law. But then after taking that class, I was like, no, I don't want to actually practice law. I want to theorize about the law. I want to theorize around race and the law. And so a couple of decades later, here I am (laughter).

DEMBY: When Khiara was explaining critical race theory to me, I could kind of see why it might make for a useful boogeyman. Because as she explains it, it is provocative and chewy, and it asks the kind of questions that will piss off conservatives and civil rights liberals. Like, take Derrick Bell's thoughts on school integration.

BRIDGES: His argument was that the civil rights lawyers who were fighting for integration - integration of schools specifically - were not actually listening to their - the people they purported to represent. They weren't actually listening to the Black families whose children were trapped in these, like, underfunded, you know, segregated schools with dilapidated physical plants. Had they been listening to those parents - those parents weren't saying, like, oh, I really want my kids to be sitting next to a white kid because that's the only way that kid's going to learn, is if my Black kid is next to that white kid, and that's what I really want. Those parents are saying, like, I want my kid to get an adequate education. And it seems like the only way to get my kid an adequate education is to make sure that they're learning next to white kids. Because we know the white kids are going to get funding for their schools. So let's put my Black kid in those white kid schools because that means that my kid will be going to a school that's adequately funded.

However, the parents would say, if you could just make sure that the kids - that the schools in my neighborhood are adequately funded, that the teachers are adequately trained, that the physical plant is adequately maintained, that they have, like, the books and the facilities that they need in order to learn and thrive, then that's cool, too.

DEMBY: So Khiara says one reason critical race theory was such a hot-button issue in academic spaces was because it tweaked post-civil rights orthodoxies like this. Like, maybe Black kids would be better served in segregated Black schools instead of integrating white ones, where people were incredibly hostile to them.

BRIDGES: Ruby Bridges - you know, my namesake - tried to go to school - you know, folks yelling at these children just trying to integrate schools. So some critical race theorists have rejected the idea that integration is a requisite for racial justice. Does that mean that critical race theory champions segregation? Absolutely not. That's a reductionist account.

DEMBY: She says some critical race theorists, like her, think integration is the move. That's the way to go. But other people are open to very different approaches. The solutions to inequality are not something that all these scholars agree on. She said they actually disagree on all sorts of things because these issues are so complex and layered. It's one reason that she finds the notion that critical race theory is supposedly being taught to grade-schoolers so maddening.

BRIDGES: I've never seen anybody propose that kindergartners through 12th-graders could understand law and economics. I've never heard anybody suggest that kindergartners through 12th-graders could understand feminist legal theory. I've never heard anybody suggest these things. But it's so funny that the theory that is associated with scholars of color becomes something that people are proposing that kindergartners could be introduced to.

DEMBY: Khiara told me when she first heard about the furor over CRT, she thought it was strange and off-base, but, you know, she thought it would pass. It was just too much research, too much important scholarship, to just be torpedoed by a bunch of fearmongering on the news. And she said all those bills proposing bans wouldn't really affect the teaching of CRT in K-12 schools because, like we've been saying, CRT is not taught in K-12 schools.

BRIDGES: And then I started to get a little bit worried. Because then I was like, OK, so critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools. But what are they banning?

DEMBY: Yeah. What are these legislatures banning?


DEMBY: Khiara says that regardless of how you feel about critical race theory, this is potentially a huge free speech issue. Most of the state bills meant to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools don't even explicitly name critical race theory. Instead, they prohibit the teaching of so-called divisive concepts. Some of the banned divisive concepts include race- or sex-stereotyping or race- or sex-scapegoating. And that language might sound agreeable. Like, you know, scapegoating and stereotyping - those are bad things.

Many of these bills, though, are more pointedly tailored to make it harder, if not impossible, to teach about things like systemic racism or unconscious bias or oppression. In some cases, they would ban teachers and other government workers from trainings that even mention those things. So if you taught in a place where one of these bans is in effect, how would you teach about or lead a classroom discussion about something like redlining or the racial wealth gap? Could you even teach those things?

We know from history that earlier curriculum panics have had far-reaching consequences, like those panics about the Harold Rugg textbooks or the so-called raw sex curriculum. Gillian Frank and Adam Laats told us that teachers and principals and textbook-makers sometimes decided that it was just easier not to touch those subjects rather than risk the potential fallout of tackling them.

And this moral panic over critical race theory has allowed for a kind of definitional creep. Everything from The New York Times' 1619 project to workplace diversity initiatives to those books about how to be a white ally or an anti-racist that were all over the bestsellers list last summer - they have all been characterized as critical race theory. The concept of culturally relevant teaching - that has been characterized as critical race theory. As Ed Week noted in a recent explainer over this whole kerfuffle, to an extent, the term critical race theory is now cited as the basis of all diversity and inclusion efforts, regardless of how much has actually informed those programs.

And y'all, that's not an accident. One of the most prominent critics of critical race theory is this conservative activist named Christopher Rufo. He's become a regular on Fox News over the last year. And in March, he tweeted that he wanted all of these ideas to be conflated in eradiated. He wrote, quote, "we have successfully frozen their brand" - critical race theory - "into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think, critical race theory. We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans," end quote.

So there's a potentially boundless universe of things that might run afoul of these policies and bans which will remain on the books long after this particular moral panic eventually recedes or passes or the news moves on. People are likely going to be sorting through and fighting over what is and isn't in-bounds regarding these new rules for a very long time. These rules, these outlooks, these norms, these laws that are race-neutral in the ways they're written, could prevent schools from teaching about race in the United States. If only there was some conceptual framework to think through how these constraints become embedded into law and policies and what happens when they do - perhaps some theory, even.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. You can follow us on IG and Twitter at the same - @nprcodeswitch. Shereen is on Twitter at @radiomirage, all one word. I'm on Twitter at @geedee215. If email is more your thing, ours is And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode was produced by Jess Kung with help from Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. It was edited by Leah Donnella. And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Christina Cala, Natalie Escobar, Alyssa Jeong Perry and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. Our intern is Carmen Molina Acosta. Shereen is back next week. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.


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