The trending outrage of conservative media outlets, think tanks, law firms, political PACs, far right activists and grievance-peddling Republicans, raises the question: “What are they so afraid of?” Clearly, the well-orchestrated crusade to demonize “critical race theory” is about scaring the bejesus out of the GOP base. Fox News made critical race theory its No. 1 boogeyman on the prowl to incriminate and displace white America, and Trumpian politicians followed suit with fearmongering theatrics to launch another “culture war” ahead of the midterms.
The coordinated siege — to exploit and manipulate white voters’ fears of a changing cultural landscape — has exploded across the country. The same demagogues who brought you faux controversies over “woke” corporations and Dr. Suess, are the loudest voices on the biggest platforms wailing about how critical and racist (against white people) critical race theory is and how it poisons young minds with America-hating doctrine. Truth is the first casualty of Republican-contrived culture wars and this one is no different.
The groups driving (and funding) the nationalized fury over critical race theory, (CRT for short) are creating mass hysteria over something not widely understood. They are deftly playing on the ignorance of the gullible for political ends, calculating that the fireworks they set off now will be key to GOP success later. So far so good. People are in an uproar over a nonexistent threat. But they don’t know what they don’t know, and most Americans are in the same boat when it comes to defining critical race theory.
Can you explain the relatively obscure analytical tool constructed by legal scholars over 40 years ago without a quick dive into Google? Even then, all the reams of literature on critical race theory, as a school of thought examining how race and American law interact, defy simple explanation. Which makes the academic study of enduring U.S. racism an easy target for political framing. Republicans could recast critical race theory as a fundamentally racist threat because few voters had ever heard of it, let alone understood it. The alarmist portrayal of CRT — a way of studying systemic racism, its impact on communities of color and how it still permeates many aspects of our society — is wildly off target. But it stuck.
The GOP weaponized critical thinking about the legacy of slavery as a political cudgel to wield against unwanted change. Call it a backlash to the focus on racism and racial justice in the country after the George Floyd murder. No more reckoning with racial accountability that felt like an attack. Far right pundits and politicians came up with a smokescreen to channel white rage that could pay off in TV ratings, donations and future votes. The strategy was not to evaluate diverse perspectives that critique the pervasiveness of racism in the U.S in relation to its history of white supremacy. The plan was to distort academic analysis on the subject into “divisive” ideology that makes people feel bad.
The panic-stricken right-wing movement built an emotional defense, if not rational debate, over a phantom menace of its own making. Republican lawmakers seized the political gauntlet to heighten anxiety over nothing. They drafted, passed and signed into law legislation to prohibit racial history discussions using the same template to deem CRT discourse too loaded with “divisive concepts.” The text of two pending Ohio House bills, banning the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s K-12 schools, parrot the same vague prohibitions against the same hypothetical problems that don’t exist.
House Bill 322 forbids schools “from teaching, advocating, or promoting divisive concepts” that include beliefs that: “one race or sex is inherently superior” to another, or that one individual, by virtue of race or gender, “is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that people “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other forms of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.
The sponsor of that gem, Freeport Republican Don Jones, didn’t cited any examples of where his imagined affronts against critical race theorists occurred — because they haven’t. But Jones wants you to believe there’s a potential threat of social studies teachers in Ohio ostracizing students for their “whiteness,” or “white privilege,” or assigning blame to children for the racism firmly woven into the fabric of American society.
It’s a charade based on intimidation. Critical race theory does not teach that every white person is inherently bad or inherently racist. It’s a scholastic approach that views racism as a social construct rooted not only in individual bias or prejudice but embedded in legal systems and policymaking. The idea of CRT is to spark conversations about the ways racism continues to show up in unexpected places in the country from housing to medical care, education, employment, voting rights, criminal justice, and police brutality. But the cosponsor of House Bill 327 — armed with similar constraints against nebulous divisiveness — refused to let facts get in the way of her false narrative.
“It is an unconscionable perversion that any child should be held personally responsible for the sins of their father, or a group of individuals in the past,” sniffed Sarah Fowler Arthur, an Ashtabula Republican. It is an unconscionable perversion of truth to stoke widespread alarm over a politically generated myth designed to enrage parents about a non-issue in 611 Ohio school districts. She and every Republican sponsor on those bills let a ploy for votes devolve into screaming matches at local school board meetings over a fabricated crisis.
Which again raises the question: What are partisan anti-CRT forces so afraid of? An honest rendering of our imperfect union with open, unsuppressed dialogue about the racism we all have seen manifest in myriad ways, especially last year?
“It is the absence of such truths regarding our historical narrative that has caused our current social unrest,” said the Columbus City Schools in a statement opposing the Ohio bills that would “undermine the free flow of information and ideas that serve as a foundation of our democracy.”
Consider this a call to action for all Ohioans who value the pursuit of truth, wherever it leads, and for all students whose learning and outcomes stand to be impacted by Republicans peddling blatant deceit to fire up the base. They have fanned “the flames of dissension and polarization,” added the Columbus district. It’s a trending outrage against “education and common understanding.”
Shame on them and their political ruse to impede knowing and healing.
Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.
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