Opinion: Why are Republican Politicians Denying Critical Race Theory?

A war is being waged for control over students’ curriculum. Why has teaching about racism become a partisan issue?


Justin Ha - Photo Courtesy of Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons License)

In April 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to end the teaching of CRT. Seven states have officially banned CRT, and 16 states have a possible ban in progress.

It’s no secret that Republican politicians have chosen critical race theory as their bargaining chip to capture parent voters. 

During his midterm campaign, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a frontrunner for the 2024 presidential election, criticized CRT for “scapegoating kids based on skin color” and “distort(ing) American history,” while he denied that the United States was founded on stolen land. 

The term “CRT” has become so diluted by endless euphemisms and fear-mongering that it’s now a boogeyman to invalidate any discussion of race in the classroom. 

As a result, an alarming number of voters, especially on the right, do not want the history of racism taught in public schools. For example, conservative states, such as Florida, Tennessee and Texas, are passing legislation to end the teaching of critical race theory, attempting to ban books that include marginalized voices and restricting teaching about racism.

In spite of this noise, a sizable portion of the population does not understand CRT. In a poll conducted by Reuters, 33% of respondents said they believed CRT “says that white people are inherently bad or evil” or that “discriminating against white people is the only way to achieve equality.” 

While CRT’s “white discrimination” is a common Republican politician talking point, it is not actually a part of CRT’s teachings. In fact, only 5% of respondents who claimed that they were familiar with CRT could answer seven true or false questions about the history and teachings of the subject. 

The main premise of CRT (and the concept politicians are seemingly most upset about) is that race is a social construct and that racism is often subtle and systemic rather than explicit. This is not debatable.

There is tangible proof to show that racism is often subtle. Simply having a “black name” will decrease your chances of getting hired or receiving a loan. Likewise, it is undeniable that racism is often systemic. Look at redlining, police enforcement, gerrymandering and racial health disparities. These are definitive trends, not coincidences.

So why are so many conservatives adamantly denying CRT? Why is the battlefield they have chosen to wage their war on?

The disconnect between being “not racist,” and denying CRT begins with the politicians pedaling these sentiments.

The Republican party, as a monolith, has long promised to its voters that it will help the United States return to the “good old days” or at least maintain the status quo. That promise manifests as a symbiotic relationship. 

Through its voice and policy, the Republican party validates the system (whether it’s the criminal justice, economic or medical system), and in return, its supporters, who benefit from the system, vote red. 

This is why out of all demographics, white men have remained the most consistent voting block for Republicans. It’s why corporations that stand to benefit from the current economic system continue to fund and support Republican candidates. It’s why “Make America Great Again” was so effective.

But a party designed to perpetuate the system cannot coexist with a theory that demands that systemic racism exists. For politicians, admitting that CRT is valid would be conceding that the system is flawed. It would be telling their voters that the system is not working for everyone – that it must be changed.

Honesty at such a level would break the multi-decade-long symbiotic relationship Republicans have with their supporters, so instead, they double down and resort to weaponizing CRT. 

Suddenly, CRT is no longer about critiquing racist systems and ideologies. It’s about critiquing white students and making them feel bad. It’s about indoctrinating students to hate their government. It’s about hyper-focusing on race.

This unsubstantiated reframing is much more palatable for the GOP’s base, and thus the symbiotic relationship continues with both the politician and the voter denying CRT.

Of course, politicians are only one half of this relationship. The GOP wouldn’t wage war on CRT if it didn’t think it would help them win elections. Despite overwhelming evidence, many voters are willfully ignorant of systemic racism. Why? It starts with the two definitions of racism.

When kids are in elementary school they are taught that racism is when people are mean to another group because of the color of their skin. And while we continue to mature, the shape of this definition remains the same. It’s a binary. You are racist or you are not. The assumption is that if you believe in equality as a principle, you are not racist.

But CRT views racism as a spectrum. The complicated truth is that if minorities are suffering under systemic racism, white people are inherently benefiting from it (this doesn’t automatically make white people bad). Many institutions, such as the education system and criminal justice system, are designed to sustain and amplify white privilege. 

In a world with systemic racism, voters would also have to accept that there is a difference between opposing these systems and being indifferent to them. The implication is that they may be complicit.

It is no wonder why moderates and conservatives prefer the binary definition of racism. Under the first definition, they can oppose racism as a concept, while not having to deviate from their behavior or voting patterns. It is purely performative. Discussing systemic racism (or race in general) would require discussing their place in the system. The Republican party knows thinking about privilege is uncomfortable, so it has offered an escape option to its base, which is 81% white, by outright denying CRT, systemic racism and fundamental aspects of U.S. history. 

Politicians looking to ban CRT in classrooms aren’t selling student safety. They are selling the elementary school definition of racism. 

When given a choice between being complicit in a system and ignoring it, voters will choose the latter.

In our community and across the nation parents are becoming increasingly involved in the school curriculum, which means that minority voices must be filtered through the majority’s interests. 

Curriculum discussing race is under attack for being “divisive” or because it might make students feel bad. It is unbelievably egocentric to believe that the purpose of including unrepresented voices in curriculum is to make your child feel bad. It sends the message that marginalized voices must be granted, not expected – that they can only be taught on the majority’s terms. 

This is a dangerous movement to sanitize, alter or even erase underrepresented history, and it should not be taken lightly.

These politicians and parents are not asking to remove the discussion of race from the classroom. They are stating a preference for whose race should be discussed.