The protests of summer 2020 may have been not only some of the biggest in the country, but also some of the biggest in the world.
Millions took to streets to condemn the racism that pervades modern life, as well as decades of past injustice. Protesters called for accountability across the ages. The oppressive policies and practices of this era as well as those of yore were tied up together, a continuum, and all of them had to be brought down, their perpetrators brought to justice.
The lies America had told itself about the degree and severity of its oppression were put on trial. The American narrative was put on trial. And it didn’t fare well.
There was a great movement for many toward enlightenment, a mass removing of scales from eyes. Industries responded, schools responded, individual citizens responded.
Confederate monuments came down, and social justice monuments went up, sometimes with paint on streets and sometimes in ways that were more permanent.
The change was swift. But, predictably, so has been the backlash. The response has particularly taken hold and found a form in the campaign to ban the proper teaching of America’s racial history in schools.
The Republicans behind those bills can bang on about how they are banning the teaching of critical race theory, but what they are really banning is the teaching of the horrific history of white supremacy and how it spawned the oppression of nonwhite people.
The truth is that critical race theory is generally not taught in grade school, but that was never the point, in the same way that in the 2010s conservative lawmakers were never really concerned about what they called the threat of Shariah law in the United States when they introduced bills to ban it in American courts; what they wanted was to advance a racist, Islamophobic agenda.
As a 2019 report born of a partnership between USA Today, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity pointed out, conservative lawmakers had drawn on the same basic rubric for these bills, a model perfected and touted by a network of far-right activists and organizations like the Center for Security Policy, a think tank founded in the 1980s by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official “who pushes conspiracy theories alleging radical Muslims have infiltrated the government.”
The report detailed how “at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced nationwide in the past eight years, and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.”
Critical race theory is the new Shariah law, a boogeyman the right can use to activate and harness the racist anti-otherness that is endemic to American conservatism.
Republican lawmakers learned long ago that a surefire way to activate their base was to stoke fears of cultural change and inclusion. They are constantly looking for new issues to hitch this wagon to, and they believe that they have found one this cycle in critical race theory.
Lawmakers have only just begun to push anti-CRT bills. Politico reported on Wednesday, “Legislators in at least a dozen Republican-controlled statehouses — including in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio — plan to push dozens of bills in upcoming legislative sessions that aim to halt teachings about race and society and give parents more say in what’s discussed in classrooms.”
Republicans believe that these bills could propel what one called a “huge red wave” in the midterms.
But the right’s opportunistic, politically motivated, repression-rooted culture war crusades are by no means new; they are enduring, central features of American politics.
You can see it in the recent rash of anti-trans bathroom bills, again largely focused on schools. One could argue that they are in part a backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage in 2015.
In 2006, there was a massive immigrant rights march. In 2007, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, with President George W. Bush’s support, pushed a comprehensive immigration bill. Although it failed, there was still backlash. Within a few years, scores of anti-immigrant bills would be passed.
As Mother Jones reported in 2012, between 2010 and 2011, state legislatures passed 164 of these measures, including so-called show-your-papers laws, which allowed the police to demand proof of immigration status from anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally.
You can see this same pattern in the wave of anti-gay marriage laws passed in the 1990s. In 1993, gay Hawaii couples won a procedural victory in their fight to marry in the state. The reaction was strong. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by a Democrat, Bill Clinton. Soon after, states across the country passed their own anti-gay marriage laws. “Ultimately, 30 more states adopted constitutional amendments prohibiting gay marriage,” NBC News reported in 2020.
This list could go on and on, but there is only so much room on the internet. The point and pattern are clear: The right, and even some on the left, keep lashing out against cultural inclusion and liberation, and Republican politicians continue to exploit the panic.
Critical race theory isn’t really what’s being targeted right now, it is progress. And for Republican lawmakers, the issue is just the latest acid tablet they can place on the tongues of the members of their base to keep them raging and spastic.
Charles M. Blow (Twitter: @CharlesMBlow) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.