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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Opinion | Why the Right Likes Public School Culture Wars

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There’s a quote from Ralph Reed that I come back to often in trying to understand how the right builds political power. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than a president and no school board member,” the former Christian Coalition leader said in 1996. School board elections are a great training ground for national activism. They can attract parents, especially mothers, to politics around extremely emotional issues, creating a thriving base and keeping it engaged.

You could easily write a history of the modern right that is only about schools. The battles were initially about race, in particular segregation and the bus. From these struggles was born the Christian right, born in reaction to the revocation of tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools. As the Christian right developed, political struggles for control of schools became more explicitly religious. Campaigns have been carried out against allowing homosexuals to work in schools and against the teaching of sex education and evolution.

Now the Christian right has more or less collapsed as anything but a category of identity. There are still many religious fundamentalists, but not, after Donald Trump, a movement that confidently asserts itself as the repository of healthy family values. Instead, with the drive to eradicate the teaching of “critical race theory,” race has returned to the center of cultural wars between public schools.

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I am quoting Critical Race Theory because the Right has transformed a term that originally referred to an academic school of thought into a catch-all for resentments over diversity initiatives and the evolution of educational agendas. ‘history. Since I first wrote about anti-racial theory activism in February, it has become difficult to keep up with the wave of bills to ban the teaching of what is often referred to as “divisive concepts,” including the idea, as Rhode Island’s bill says, that “the United States of America is inherently racist or sexist.” “We will reject critical race theory in our schools and public institutions, and we will CANCEL Cancel culture wherever it occurs!” the ironic challenge Mike Pence tweeted last week.

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As the Dave Weigel of the Washington Post pointed outRepublican primary candidate Glenn Youngkin from Virginia recently posted four anti-criticism videos on racial theory in 24 Hours.

Part of the reason the Right is putting so much energy into this crusade is that it can’t elicit much opposition to the core of Joe Biden’s agenda. Biden’s spending plans are much more ambitious than Barack Obama’s, but there hasn’t been a new version of the Tea Party. Voters view this president as more moderate than Obama, a misconception that scholars of critical race theory would have no trouble explaining. Republicans lamented how difficult Biden is to demonize. They need a scarier, more rabid villain to keep their people engaged.

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Critical race theory – touted as an attack on history, a program to indoctrinate children, and a stealthy form of Marxism – does the trick. The recent elections in Southlake, Texas show just how politically powerful the backlash to critical race theory can be.

In 2018, the affluent Texas suburb was in the news for a viral video of a group of laughing white college students shouting the N-word. Black residents told reporters unambiguous cases of racism, such as a sixth grade student joking with a black student, “How do you get a black man out of a tree?” You cut the rope. The video, NBC reported, “seemed to trigger some real soul-searching on the part of school leaders,” and they created a diversity council made up of parents, teachers and students to develop a plan to make their school more inclusive. The council, in turn, created a document called the Cultural Competence Action Plan.

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The reaction of conservative parents was furious. A PAC trained to fight the plan. At a controversial school board meeting, The Dallas Morning News reported, a black student on the diversity board “was booed after testifying, ‘My life matters.’ Two school board members who supported the plan were charged with violating the Texas Open. Meetings Act, simply because they texted about the plan before a board meeting. Conservative radio host Dana Loesch, who lives in Southlake, appeared on Tucker Carlson to denounce “far-left Marxist activists” trying to “implement critical education in racial theory.”

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Over the weekend, in an election in Southlake that drew three times the regular number of voters, opponents of the cultural skills action plan dominated, winning two school board seats, two city council seats and the mayor’s office of about 40 points in each race. Their victories will likely serve as an example for the country’s conservative organizers. The Federalist, a right-wing website, announced the election as the start of a new “cultural tea party” rallied against “critical race theory” instead of government spending.

The Christian Coalition took off during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the religious right became involved locally because it felt excluded from national power. Obviously, some conservatives believe that opposition to Critical Race Theory could be the germ of something similar. Telling parents that the Liberals want their children to hate their country and feel guilty for being white can be absurd and cynical. It also looks like it could be effective.

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