USA TODAY International Edition

How critical race theory was used to spur voters

- Nicole Carroll Editor- in- chief USA TODAY

On Wednesday, headlines and news tickers from Tuesday’s election said “education” concerns had propelled voters to come out for Republican Glenn Youngkin, who defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the race for Virginia governor.

I think we need to be more specific – and honest with ourselves than that.

Voters weren’t screaming at school board meetings over math textbooks or reading concepts. A top polarizing issue was how our kids are taught about race and slavery in K- 12 schools, with specific concerns over critical race theory.

In order to understand how “critical race theory” became such a wedge issue,

how systems and policies perpetuate racism. But it’s become a culture war catch- all term for voters concerned about how race, equity and slavery are taught in public schools.

USA TODAY senior data reporter Aleszu Bajak

looked at speeches from the Virginia governor’s race, Twitter posts from Congress over the past month and cable news transcript­s over the past year.

Bajak’s analysis of 10 campaign speeches given by Youngkin in the week before the election found that “schools” was among Youngkin’s top 10 most uttered words, ahead even of “jobs,” “taxes” and “government.” Virginia’s Loudoun County was a flashpoint for fights over how race is addressed in school.

Next, he collected data from the Twitter feeds of 533 members of Congress. He found Republican­s have out- messaged Democrats 20 to 1 over “critical race theory” in the past month. Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Dan Bishop of North Caraolina were among the most vocal.

After exploring a database of cable TV news transcript­s hosted by Stanford University, Bajak found that the election brought a new wave of attention to critical race theory first seen in late spring and summer.

On Google, searches for “critical race theory” were flat for the past five years, with a spike this summer ( as Texas and other states signed laws banning it) and another this week ( an issue in school board races across the country).

The drumbeat started in September 2020, when then- President Donald Trump accused educators and Democrats of attempting a “liberal indoctrina­tion of America’s youth” through alternativ­e views of the nation’s history.

“Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” Trump said.

He took particular aim at the New York Times 1619 project and a little- known academic term: critical race theory.

Critical race theory is a higher education concept that examines

“Everyone’s got it wrong,” said Nichelle Smith, USA TODAY’s race and history editor. “Critical race theory is college- level material. People are confusing critical race theory with teaching Black history generally. CRT looks at the intersecti­on of how racism is infused in all our systems and is a part of all we do, whether or not people are trying to be racist. That is separate and distinct from what Black history is, what Asian American history is, looking at everything people of color have had to go through.”

Fear and fights over the concept have led to efforts to ban books and anti- racism posters and end anti- racism training. Exhausted teachers worry about lessons being misconstru­ed.

One critic implies the misinterpr­etation is by design.

Christophe­r Rufo, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, is a leading voice against critical race theory. In March, he tweeted how forces were “steadily driving up negative perception­s” of the concept.

“We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” he wrote.

To be sure, critical race theory was not the only education- or school board- related issue that charged up Virginia voters; masks and COVID- 19 policies resonated as well, as did gender- inclusion initiative­s. But it clearly was the driving issue for many of them. You could hear that in what voters told us after casting votes and also in how Youngkin, like other politician­s nationwide, hammered on that message in the run- up to the election.

On July 23, Youngkin told a conservati­ve radio host, “We’re actually watching this critical race theory move its way into all schools across Virginia.”

The fact- checking site Politifact found that statement “highly exaggerate­d.”

“Critical race theory is being widely discussed by educators across Virginia,” the site concluded. “But there’s a difference between educators learning about the theory and actually teaching it to students. On that front, Youngkin cites a collection of memos and seminars, but no evidence that critical race theory is being taught in each of the state’s 1,825 public schools.

“Critical race theory is not mentioned in the state’s Standards of Learning. A growing list of localities say they do not teach it.”

Retirees Bob and Judy Allen said they supported Youngkin because they want parents to be able to object to curriculum that involves critical race theory.

“If my kids were to be educated right now, I wouldn’t put them in Fairfax County schools. I would probably homeschool them,” Judy Allen said.

At least 28 states have sought to restrict teaching about racism or bias in schools, according to Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news site. “Some have gone as far as restrictin­g teaching ‘ divisive concepts,’” report USA TODAY writers Alia Wong and Lindsay Schnell.

And, they reported, some teachers and parents are concerned the outcry has spiraled out of control: “They’re worried the new laws not only limit freedom of speech, but also the teaching of accurate history.”

What does this division look like in real life? Youngkin ran a campaign ad showing a mother who said her son was traumatize­d by a reading assignment about slavery in his senior AP English class.

Turns out, the book was Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, “Beloved,” and the incident occurred a decade ago. Her son is now associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressio­nal Committee.

“White readers are often shocked by the revelation­s of ‘ Beloved,’” USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz wrote, defending the book. “There is no easy story about slavery, with its rapes and tortures and lynchings. There is no gentle way to describe losing your child to the auction block or watching your husband swaying dead and castrated from a tree.

“With thoughtful, age- appropriat­e discussion­s led by open- minded adults, children can be trusted to learn about our history, and feel the magnitude of their own emotions. What better way to prepare them for the world that awaits?”

And what was the response? Shultz got an email that read, “Nevermind that Ms. Morrison’s prose is fiction and not based in fact, you tar all white Southern people. Happy will be America when someone deservedly blows your head off toxic progressiv­e misanthrop­e.” Culture wars are dangerous.

And so often ignited by politician­s. It’s our job as journalist­s to help you understand who or what is fanning the flames and bring you the facts – not the spin.

 ?? ANDREW CABALLERO- REYNOLDS/ AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? People’s strong views about whether critical race theory should be taught in schools drove voter turnout in Virginia’s elections Tuesday.
ANDREW CABALLERO- REYNOLDS/ AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES People’s strong views about whether critical race theory should be taught in schools drove voter turnout in Virginia’s elections Tuesday.
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