This is why the bizarre panic over 'critical race theory' is the perfect right-wing troll
School Students (Ina Fassbender AFP)

The American right is currently in an utter panic over "critical race theory" being taught in public schools.

On Fox News, there's been an explosion of hysterical coverage, complete with contradictory segments where hosts claim they "don't see people for skin color" before whining that "the United States of America elected an African-American as president of the United States" and "the biggest entertainers, the biggest sports stars are African-Americans." Republicans who otherwise claim to be defenders of free speech are busy trying to pass laws canceling any kind of talk they deem "critical race theory," which, in practice, amounts to bans on talking about historical facts. Across the nation, white parents are crowding school board meetings, melting down over this "critical race theory" thing they've heard so much about.

This article was originally published at Salon

Yet with so many white people across the country in a total freak out over "critical race theory," it appears few, if any, of them could even explain what it actually is. That's because, despite what Fox News is telling them, critical race theory — the actual academic framework that was developed in law schools to understand the historical reasons our legal system perpetuates racial inequalities — is not, in fact, being taught to 3rd graders or even 11th graders. Claims otherwise are a complete lie, ginned up by right-wing propagandists who are desperate to keep the GOP base whipped into a racist frenzy.

But even though the whole panic is built on a foundation of sand, it would be unwise of liberals to shrug and dismiss this particular bit of agitprop.

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It is important to note that the fabricated fury over "critical race theory" is a cleverly constructed right-wing troll. Liberals who want to respond with a quick, easily digested rebuttal are instead boxed into a frustrating corner. Because pointing out that critical race theory is not being taught in public schools is a trap, as it could be construed to imply that there's something wrong with critical race theory. And any straightforward defense of critical race theory implies that schoolchildren are somehow expected to understand graduate school-level academic theories. But in fact, the real issue at hand is that conservatives don't want white kids to learn even the most basic truths about American history.

To understand what's really going on under all the scare-mongering, it's important to know that when conservatives talk about "critical race theory," they aren't talking about the actual academic framework developed by law professors. Instead, as Sean Illing at Vox explains, "conservatives have appropriated critical race theory as a convenient catchall to describe basically any serious attempt to teach the history of race and racism."

Of course, telling people that you oppose teaching the truth about American history sounds bad. So instead, conservative pundits and Republican politicians use the term "critical race theory," using the thin justification that the facts teachers are sharing have often been unearthed by people doing academic research within this framework. The word "theory," in particular, has a long history of setting off poorly educated conservative voters who think it just means "not facts" and don't know that, in academia, it is used to mean an analytical framework for developing factual information. Think of the hysterics around evolutionary theory, for instance, which many conservatives would dismiss as "just a theory," not grasping that it was empirically sound.

And that's the crux of it: Schoolchildren aren't really being taught critical race theory, but critical race theory — the actual framework, not the right-wing scare term — is a legitimate academic pursuit that has turned up important facts that white supremacists of yore have covered up. And it's those factsthings like the practice of redlining, the truth about what the Confederacy stood for, what Martin Luther King Jr. really believed, and the history of lynching and events like the Tulsa race massacre — that conservatives want to silence. That is why, for instance, they are so afraid of schools teaching the 1619 Project by the New York Times. Not because, as they falsely claim, it's inaccurate. No, the real objection underlying all the noise is that the 1619 Project is true. Conservatives want facts, the thing that all people claim they want children to learn, to be replaced with flat-out lies about American history.

That's why the feigned umbrage over "critical race theory" is such an effective troll. Responding requires nuance, an explanation of why it's both false that critical race theory is being taught in schools, but also that the real-world practice of critical race theory is not bad or scary or "anti-white." Unfortunately, our political discourse doesn't have much room for nuance, much less lengthy explanations. And so it's easy to get Republican voters, already wanting to believe that white people are under attack from "woke mobs," to get all ginned up on conspiracy theories about "critical race theory," and not look at what the real-world critical race theory actually is, much less the historical facts that Republican politicians want to cover up. While they scare white voters into a panic over their children learning too many details about Jim Crow, Republican legislators are busy passing up draconian restrictions on the right to vote reminiscent of that era of racial segregation.

Indeed, the idea that "critical race theory" was just the kind of phrase that would easily scare conservatives can be traced back to the time that Andrew Breitbart was still alive. He and the other editors at Breitbart understood that "critical," "race," and "theory" are three words their readers don't really understand well — but do fear — and smashed together, could be leveraged as a Voltron of racist paranoia. Salon reporter Alex Seitz-Wald found, in 2012, that a search for "critical race theory" on Breitbart "returns an astonishing 871 results, over 680 from the past month alone." Rarely, if ever, was the term used accurately.

So what can liberals do to fight back against the spread of conspiracy theories about "critical race theory" that misrepresent both what critical race theory is and what is actually being taught in public schools?

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Well, despite just going down the rabbit hole of explaining the history and proper meaning of the phrase in this piece, I would generally caution against doing that. "Keep it simple, stupid," is always key when rebutting or debating conservatives who are lying — or, at least, are regurgitating lies they picked up from Fox News. Instead, as with most trolls, it's wiser to go meta. Instead of getting into the weeds about what is and isn't "critical race theory," point out that it's being leveraged as a scare term to conceal what's really going on, which is a war on the right of teachers to teach basic facts about American history.

Luckily, that's just what a group of educators did on Saturday, organizing a National Day of Action in which teachers across the nation spoke out against censorship and in favor of being able to teach historical facts. The protest was organized by the Zinn Education Project, but Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, also spoke out in favor of fact-based education.

"No matter our color, background, or Zip code, we want our kids to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and courage to do what's right," she said in a statement, adding, "some lawmakers want to play politics with the truth."

Moving away from the debate about what is or isn't "critical race theory" and instead focusing on what lawmakers are actually trying to do — replace factual information with fake history — helps recenter the debate on what's really going on. After all, the only reason Republicans and right-wing pundits lie about what is and isn't in the public school curriculum is because they know they can't win the debate by being honest. The truth terrifies them, which is why they go to such lengths to conceal it both in public debate and in our public schools.