Manufactured Moral Panic: How critical race theory is weaponizing K-12 parents

When it comes to protecting children, parents will summon the power of Zeus to eliminate any threat. We will run beyond human capacity to retrieve a stroller careening into an intersection. We will lift a vehicle with one arm while grabbing a toddler out from under it with the other. Some will even aim their parentally protective vitriol at youth sports referees as if their very identity depended on that single bad call against their child—a behavior, by the way, which has led to a significant drop of available referees and officials in youth sports. It should come as no surprise, then, that some of these same parents have inserted their protective fury into the newly weaponized Critical Race Theory (CRT) debate.

Unleashing their parental power of Zeus on typically nonpartisan-elected school boards from sea to shining sea, these parents assert that CRT is being maliciously integrated into curriculums in K-12 schools without their consent and are demanding that it be removed. With arguments espousing what they’ve witnessed in performative media and politics, the assertion is that CRT is a threat to American patriotism because they claim it teaches children—White children, specifically—to hate themselves and their country. They decry the harm CRT will do to White children as a form of reverse racism, an indoctrination by way of rewriting American history positioning White people as inherently racist oppressors. Nevermind that CRT, as a formal academic theory, is not being taught in K-12 schools. What CRT actually is and how it is actually being used is of little concern to these protective, patriotic parents—or to the politicians that are using CRT to incite a moral panic. What matters is their outrage.

CRT has been intentionally plucked from the ether by the GOP to address the real elephant in the room: a government legitimacy crisis. Similar to the counter-hegemonic social movements of the 1960’s, the recent Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ and women’s rights movements have prompted a backlash of conservative White culture to fiercely grasp a fading ideology of national pride—a deeply embedded identity that has been carefully designed and hegemonically ingrained in K-12 education for a century. The larger cultural conversation is about whether or not it is possible for the United States to transition out of the status quo narrative that places racism firmly in the past as a means of maintaining the White Christian patriarchal government power and control in a nation increasingly becoming a multicultural majority.

While CRT does exist–and while there have been concerted efforts in recent years to create an equitable, diverse and inclusive educational environment in K-12 schools that aim to balance the historical narratives and understand entrenched social and cultural biases–they are not one in the same. Critical Race Theory is an academic social and cultural framework conceived and developed during the 1970’s and ‘80’s within American Legal Theory that is taught to law students and used by lawyers to combat racial inequality within policies and practices. In their research article titled “Countering the Furor Around Critical Race Theory,” educators Leslie S. Kaplan and William A. Owings explain that legal scholars had noticed how racial discrimination was continuing even after civil rights laws had been in place from the 1960’s and sought to understand why. What the scholars concluded was that racism is not a thing of the past, but rather something that has continued to exist within laws, because laws themselves are “not objective or apolitical”—they are created by highly subjective and political humans.

While CRT remained in relative obscurity for nearly 50 years, it was brought to the national stage in July of 2020 when it was discovered by one man, Christopher Rufo, an American conservative author and activist, who saw it as a “promising political weapon” and stoked White conservative fear in a series of articles and cable news appearances. Two months later, then President Trump—influenced by Rufo’s claims that CRT was not simply a theory, but rather a catchall term for anything that bore the intention of equity, diversity and inclusion— issued an executive order that prohibited federal contracts from containing what the administration considered “divisive” diversity and inclusion training.

Just like easing the beach chair back under a tropical palapa after a job well done, conservatives had their next unsubstantiated moral panic in CRT, this time specifically targeting the roughly 63 million protective American parents. But not just any parents–White parents, who would volunteer as weapons of mass-school-board-destruction in order for conservatives to accomplish two agenda items. The first was to create a new pool of potential GOP candidates that can win back a conservative government stronghold in national, state and local elections across the country, with a special focus on local school board elections. According to Ballotpedia, there were more recalls of school board members in 2021 than any year on record, and every candidate in local races in Houston and Texas in 2021 who ran on a platform that opposed CRT in schools won their elections. The November 2021 win of Virginia Republican Governor, Glenn Youngkin, won in part to his promise to abolish CRT on his first day in office–a tactic that helped turn a state that went blue for Biden in November 2019, back into red for Youngkin two years later. We can brace ourselves for more of this, as Republicans are expected to use the false rhetoric surrounding CRT in K-12 education in the 2022 midterm elections for Congress.

The second agenda item was to address the larger government legitimacy crisis in the wake of the social progress made by the Black Lives Matter protests after the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, and the shifting tide of renewed anti-racism and anti-sexism sentiment. These social forces represent a challenge to the status quo of the White-majority hegemony over time, something Stuart Hall, sociologist and author of “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” explains is an inevitable feature of hegemony. He asserts that because hegemony is not static, the collective will of a society constructs a moral and political authority that must be maintained until a crisis causes social forces to change it again. In this case, the existing conservative White Christian government hegemony is being challenged by a powerful anti-racist counter-hegemony, to which the conservative government’s defensive response was to create a new moral panic with CRT to help tip the scales back in its favor and maintain its legitimacy.

A similar government legitimacy crisis took place in response to the social justice movements in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the Civil Rights, Gay Rights and Feminist movements that were all directly challenging the neoliberal hegemony. This ushered in what Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University and author of Economies of Abandonment refers to as “late liberalism”—a time when government began being faced with the challenge to recognize social difference, while at the same time not disturbing the hegemonic status quo. Povinelli argues that the Western ways of governing, with longstanding colonial mentalities, were beginning to be seen as behind the times and were called to the table by the masses as not addressing human inequalities, but rather, as creating and cementing them into laws.

In response, politicians and lawmakers at that time created the “Long Southern Strategy,” a set of GOP tactics that looks strikingly familiar today. The strategy took advantage of anxieties about race, religion and feminism in order to lure White conservative voters to the polls after some southern states went blue. According to Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields, both Assistant Professors at the University of Arkansas and authors of “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics,” this was a set of a conservative maneuvers that included “preaching absolutes, accusing the media of bias, prioritizing identity over the economy, depicting one’s way of life as under attack, encouraging defensiveness toward social changes, and championing a politics of vengeance.” Republican strategies at that time included taking the Equal Rights Amendment off of the GOP platform, promoting traditional gender roles, and politicizing fundamentalist Christianity, all pushes towards re-legitimizing a White Christian patriarchy that positioned racism and sexism as things of the past in order to justify ignoring and legislating against social progress.

With a changing social and cultural demographic today, this set of strategies has been reignited in what Povinelli would describe as a rekindling of this “culturalization of politics”—an exploitation of social differences where culture itself has to become an “artifact,” or a thing of the past, in order to slap laws onto it. Povinelli calls this an imaginary implementation of a national and cultural “division of tense.” Governments placing cultures in the past tense—which Povinelli also refers to as the “governance of the prior,” especially when referring slavery and Indigenous communities—provides late liberal governments a way to justify their power and control by instilling the ethos that racism is in the past, not something that exists today. This promotes the idea that since it doesn’t exist today, we, the status quo government you know and love, are very much present tense, and also future tense, therefore we must remain in power. This division of tense legitimates for late liberal governments their differential belonging, which the state needs in order to justify “killing” social projects and cultures—like CRT.

The strategic use of the latest moral panic in CRT is a way that the existing hegemony of the late liberal government can realign and reaffirm its legitimacy, enabling public consent in supporting new laws to control these artifacts of the past. As of November 2021, the rhetoric vilifying CRT as anti-White and anti-patriotism, and the propaganda that has manipulated the abstract CRT term to encompass all educational efforts related to equity, diversity and inclusion, has led to 29 states so far introducing legislation to “ban the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression”, according to authors Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons of the article on Brookings Institute, “Why are states banning critical race theory?” Ray and Gibbons explain that nine of these state bills have already passed, and all of them were introduced by Republican lawmakers seeking to use the perceived threat of CRT to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism and other social issues in the classroom, something that has already started producing a chilling effect among teachers. Educators now fear retaliation from parents and their institutions, while also being unsure if they are breaking the law when teaching history and social studies topics that cause a student to be “uncomfortable,” or if they try to answer student questions about sensitive topics. Ironically, Ray and Gibbons point out that only two out of 29 of these state bills actually mention the words “critical race theory.” Why is CRT not mentioned in the language of these bills? Because this effort to keep equality, diversity and inclusion out of schools has nothing to do with CRT itself—not legally, and not in reality. It is about maintaining the status quo through rhetoric and legislation of the White hegemonic government legitimacy, power and control in a nation that is projected to become “minority white” by 2045.

While the counter-homogenization of anti-racism sentiment in recent years has been successful in reverberating through corporations, sports teams and institutions who have voluntarily removed, under social pressure, their racially stereotyped logos and policies, achieving a true counter-hegemonic government is more related to what Raymond Williams, author of Marxism and Literature, explains as the “archaic” vs “residual” elements of our dominant culture. Archaic is an element of the past, whereas residual is formed in the past, but is still active in the cultural process as part of present times. Under these definitions, our dominant culture still has residual elements of slavery and racism that are very much a part of our present, but the dominant culture has chosen to distance themselves from this reality for hundreds of years. Instead, they are more comfortable undisturbed in a traditional hegemonic society that considers racism archaic—a thing of the past—which has maintained a hegemonic practice of institutionalized epistemic inequality for longer than most Americans have been alive today, and most certainly longer than parents of K-12 children.

These mostly White parents dutifully infiltrating school boards are right about one thing. They have been treated unfairly for centuries. An epistemic inequality of monumental proportions has been committed against them—they don’t know their own history. The status quo of modern hegemony, much like racism itself, is not necessarily conscious. According to Williams, hegemony is a concept based on the power relationship of domination and subordination as a part of a “whole social process” that includes political, economic and social activity that is so normalized that it is essentially invisible to us. He explains that this hegemonic social process results in a cultural system of meanings and values—like what it means to be a patriotic American, for example—that reinforces practices and expectations—like what should and should not be taught in schools—which then becomes so normalized that the whole system seems common sense to the point of being taken for granted.

Take for example how the ideal textbooks were historically defined. Kaplan and Owings explain that in 1925, teaching history was specifically designed to orient youth to society, what they term as a “socialization to citizenship.” At that time, it was asserted by the American Legion that “the ideal textbook must inspire the children with patriotism” and that “textbooks should be careful to tell the truth optimistically, must focus on failure only for its value as a moral lesson, and must speak mainly of success.” Keep in mind this was also just after the turn of the century saw Indigenous peoples pushed onto reservations and their children stripped of their identities through missionary Christian schools; and the eugenics movement was also in full swing, which had the goal of selective breeding in order to eliminate undesirable genetic traits in the human race and included laws that legalized forced sterilizations of people of color and the mentally and physically disabled, and also made mixed-race marrying a crime.

U.S. History textbooks today are still largely focused on what Kaplan and Owings say are “society’s positive origins, esteemed principles, and effective government” with the aim of building a student’s “pride, loyalty and respect for their country,” which has subsequently created an invisible, unquestioned hegemony that the White dominant culture has taken for granted. With five-sixths of Americans never taking an American history course after high school, it is no wonder that this has been the normalized collective ethos in the United States that has created a blinding hegemonic national value system willing to omit anything from our sorted history that threatens American exceptionalism, and more to the point, that threatens the power and control of the White, Christian patriarchy. As a result, Kaplan and Owings explain that the U.S. has “the largest gap of any country in the world between what historians know and what the rest of us are taught.” Now there’s something to be proud of.

As the old adage goes, a lie told a million times becomes a fact. Whether it’s through our textbooks or a moral panic by design, the lines have been blurred between what can be trusted and what is agenda-driven or false, resulting in dangerous social, cultural, political and economic consequences across the board. Anthropologist and author Janine R. Wedel argues in her book, Unaccountable: How Elite Power Brokers Corrupt Our Finances, Freedom, and Security, that the lack of accountability by those in power, and by those of us who participate in these social and cultural structures—particularly in media and politics—has eroded trust and created an environment of performative news and performative politics, because, as a collective, that is what we respond to. Media mentions of CRT in the context of schools—with Fox having more than double the mentions of CNN—rose sharply in the months prior to the recent November elections, helping secure conservative wins, and then dropped sharply post-elections. We can expect to see more CRT fear-mongering as the 2022 midterms and 2024 elections ramp up. This is just one example showing that conservative media and politicians know that calling any social institutions racist for these Americans is like calling them racist personally because their identities are bound to the winning, patriotic achievements of what has been taught and reinforced about their country since elementary school.

CRT has been intentionally weaponized in performative media and politics to continue to erode trust, capitalize on feelings over facts, and scare mostly White people who are struggling to hold onto the false national narrative that acting colorblind is a virtue and that racism is a past-tense issue. What CRT does do is counter race neutrality by illustrating that being colorblind is harmful, not helpful, because professing to be colorblind is a deliberate unaccountability of the impacts of race within societal structures that put people of color at a disadvantage. Wedel asserts that we as a society have been willing participants in “sowing the unaccountability” by isolating ourselves within media content that is more personalized to our own worldviews, where the trusted opinions of family, friends, celebrity news pundits and non-transparent news sources all become more credible than actual evidence and proof. Wedel refers to this as the “Wild West” of transparency and accountability, where websites that are designed to create spin and sow doubt are virtually indistinguishable from legitimate news sources. One need only peruse the comments sections of anti-CRT social media posts to see the sources where much of the propagandized mis- and disinformation is coming from. Not only have we failed to teach our citizenry history, we have failed to teach them how to be critical thinkers and consumers of mass media.

The Zeus strength unleashed by protective parents and patriots on display at school boards across the country is rooted in a mythologized history and fabricated media landscape for the sake of media profits, votes, power and control. To these parents and patriots, keeping America’s triumphant historical narrative untarnished is as paramount in maintaining their deep-rooted individualized national identities as is their child’s performance on the soccer field. According to Catherine Sanderson, a professor of sports psychology at Amherst College, many parents derive their own identities through the achievements of their children. In a Washington Post article she explains, “Their success, in academics or sports, is a tangible way for parents to measure their own success: If my kid is a ‘winner,’ then I must be a winner, too.”

This is the psychology of the American identity. My country’s achievements are a direct reflection of my individual identity. If my country is a winner, then I am a winner, too. Conversely, if my social institutions are being called racist, then that must mean I am racist, too—and that is where the train falls off the rails. While people of color discuss present racism from the perspective of a group experience, and legal scholars discuss present racism from a social and structural framework, it is White Americans that have been conditioned to view racism only through individual, colorblind, good-person identifiers that place racism solidly as a relic of the past. ‘I’ am not racist. My country, my textbooks, my Internet, my history. With so much invested in this hegemonic identity that has been ingrained through centuries of being told only the optimistic, prideful American success stories, what happens when our country makes a bad call?

I would argue that what happens is the same thing that happens when all the kids on the team get a trophy, even when they don’t win. They learn that they don’t have to try harder to play better to win fairer. What do we tell our kids when they strike out with the bases loaded? Do we teach them how to deal with failure or do we hand them a trophy and pretend it never happened? Do we help them learn and grow from their mistakes, or do we protect them at all cost from ever having to endure, or own up to, anything negative? How do we as parents celebrate our child’s achievements without creating a sheltered, unrealistic, grandiose idea of themselves without them having to actually be truly exceptional? How do we do that as Americans?

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