The GOP’s emphasis on critical race theory has been criticized by Democrats as a racial dog whistle. What will they do next?
Joe Biden has faced practically every flashpoint in American racial politics, from school desegregation to crime crackdowns that disproportionately affect communities of color, with varying degrees of success during his five decades in public life. He promised to «repair the soul of our nation» that had been inflamed by Donald Trump when he ran for president last year.
Biden is facing a growing backlash over education and critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that’s become a catch-all term for everything Republicans despise about diversity initiatives, how schools teach US history and other fallout from last year’s reckoning on racial injustice sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
The president and his party face a number of hurdles as a result of this issue. It recalls appeals to white grievances that have a history of political success, fueled by a right-wing media ecosystem that can intensify and distort the argument. Democrats may be hesitant to engage, but ignoring the topic risks being accused of being out of touch or dismissive of parental concerns, a notion that Republican Glenn Youngkin exploited in his successful campaign for governor of Virginia.
So yet, Biden’s response to challenging race theory concerns has been minimal.
Last week, he remarked at the White House, «I think the whole answer is just to say the truth, put out where we are.» Biden has tried to concentrate attention on his broad economic program, which took a big step forward Friday when the House passed $1 trillion in bipartisan infrastructure legislation.
Democrats regard the conservative concentration on critical race theory as part of a long tradition of racist dog-whistle politics, a practice that has frequently put their multiracial coalition-based party on the defensive.
A Democratic pollster, Cornell Belcher, called it «the latest, greatest, most eloquent iteration of the Southern strategy,» referring to the political realignment that occurred during the civil rights movement when Republicans appealed to white racists to siphon votes away from the Democratic Party. «It’s the next incarnation of welfare queen, crosstown busing, southern border invasion, and police defunding.»
Speaking about critical race theory was not a dog whistle, according to Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist who worked for Youngkin.
«Just because Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat who lost to Youngkin, says it’s racist,» Roe remarked, «doesn’t mean it is.» «With the exception of Democratic operatives, no one believes that.»
In the end, McAuliffe’s attempts to accuse Youngkin of racism failed to sway enough voters to help him reclaim his former Virginia governorship. His attempts to paint Youngkin, a former private equity CEO who has never held public service, as «Trump in khakis» failed miserably.
According to political pundits, McAuliffe didn’t do enough to send a favorable message about his record and intentions for a second term as governor. According to Amanda Wintersieck, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, voter turnout increased for Republicans but not for Democrats, indicating that McAuliffe’s message «wasn’t sufficient for the Democratic base.»
On Oct. 26, Biden campaigned with McAuliffe, but he didn’t mention schools in his stump speech, and he didn’t bring up critical race theory. Rather, he mirrored McAuliffe’s pitch, which linked Youngkin to Trump.
Biden stated, «I ran against Donald Trump.» “And Terry is running against a Donald Trump acolyte.”
Youngkin’s pleas struck a chord with families still hurting from the pandemic’s aftermath.
Conversations on racism, such as efforts to change school names, struck some parents as tone-deaf after the coronavirus upended their children’s schooling, according to David Winston, a pollster who advises Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
«Why are we discussing all of these issues when their children are a year and a half behind?» he wondered.
Winston said the topic gained traction during the last debate of the campaign when McAuliffe declared, «I don’t think parents should be instructing schools what they should teach,» giving Youngkin a bipartisan argument.
«The idea that parents should have a large involvement in defining or having debates about their children’s education is not a particularly partisan discussion,» Winston explained.
Republicans had produced a convincing narrative, according to Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which backed McAuliffe in the Virginia election.
She stated, «I don’t think they’re wrong about this business about parents demanding greater say.» «They absolutely want to be involved in how school choices are made,» says the principal.
But, as Shropshire explained, the conversation also struck a nerve in another manner. Republicans, she claimed, have gone from declaring that white children should not have to sit in physical proximity to black children to now declaring that white children should not have to sit in physical proximity to a curriculum that discusses the role of racism in the United States.
Critical race theory is based on the idea that race is socially created and that racism has historically been ingrained in the country’s legal and government structures. Virginia wasn’t the first state where an election touched on critical race theory.
In states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Connecticut, candidates who opposed it lost local school board elections. Republicans are likely to lean into similar arguments in the 2018 midterm election after Youngkin’s triumph in a state that Biden had won by double digits just a year ago.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said his caucus would release a «Parents’ Bill of Rights» to preserve the party’s focus on education, which has traditionally been considered as a stronger subject for Democrats.
Another caucus leader, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La. ), said the election demonstrated that parents are concerned about “things like critical race theory being forced down their kids’ throats, attempting to instill hatred of America.”
After the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, numerous public schools in Virginia closed rather than confront integration. Funds from taxpayers were diverted to «segregation academies,» which were exclusively for white children.
After Floyd’s death by a white police officer in Minneapolis, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was having an outsized impact on communities of color, the cycle of racial advancement and retribution continued. According to Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a U.S. history professor at Ohio State University, «millions of white individuals became active in the succeeding protests, particularly young white people who suddenly had questions for their parents.»
«Kyleigh hadn’t been coming home saying, ‘We have a systemic racism problem,'» Jeffries said before the protests. “And now Mom is asking, ‘What the hell is this?’” says the narrator.
Parents were suddenly given an intimate look at their children’s education when schools closed during the pandemic, turning their lives upside down, just as attitudes about race were transforming.
Right-wing leaders have labeled such views as critical race theory since some parents didn’t like what they saw or thought the remedy went too far. Republicans stated that the remedy was to get that theory out of schools, despite the fact that it wasn’t part of the curriculum.
«Republicans are deceiving the public. Last Monday, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, «They’re not being honest.» «They aren’t telling us the truth about where we stand.» They’re also shamelessly attempting to use our children as political footballs.»
Some fear, however, that Democrats underestimate the power of racially inflammatory messages.
«A lot of liberal political insiders convince themselves that racial dog whistles are evident and only appeal to racists,» said Ian Haney López, author of «Dog Whistle Politics» and professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. “That isn’t the case at all.”
After all, he pointed out, Trump received more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, and his nonwhite voter percentage grew. In Virginia, Republicans ran a diverse slate of candidates, including Winsome Sears, a Black woman running for lieutenant governor, and Jason Miyares, a Latino running for attorney general. They all came out on top.
“We want our kids to learn the good and the bad so they have a bright future and don’t repeat mistakes of the past,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with Biden’s campaign last year, believes Democrats can effectively respond to arguments about critical race theory by saying, “We want our kids to learn the good and the bad so they have a bright future and don’t repeat mistakes of the past.”
Biden, she continued, “has a lot of credibility, he has a lot of comfort, he has a lot of experience” heading into next year.
Biden established solid contacts with Black communities early in his political career, but he refuses to be boxed in when it comes to racial justice concerns.
He took part in civil rights demonstrations and worked as a lifeguard in Wilmington, Delaware’s primarily Black area. As a senator, he fought against federal funding for busing-based school integration initiatives and promoted tough-on-crime policies that raised incarceration rates.
He eventually became President Obama’s loyal wingman, serving as the country’s first Black commander in chief for eight years as his vice president. Even while certain off-the-cuff remarks caused controversy along the way, he won the Democratic presidential nomination and the election last year thanks in large part to the backing of Black people.
Heather McGhee, an expert on the role of racism in American politics who has previously worked for Democratic politicians and organizations, believes Biden can thrive as a spokesperson for his party by combining populist appeals with race discussions.
«You can be honest about racism’s role while also broadening the circle of individuals who feel like they can be on the right side of history by emphasizing that it’s not a zero sum game,» McGhee added.