Fox News star Tucker Carlson calls it a cult. Will Cain, co-host of Fox and Friends Weekend, calls it “modern-day Jim Crow.”
Newt Gingerich says the people pushing it are out to brainwash our kids.
The watchdog organization Media Matters for America actually kept track, and it says Fox News hosts raised the topic 1,300 times in a stretch of four months. It came up 244 times in a single week.
So what exactly is it?
Stephen Sawchuk addressed that question in a May 18 analysis for Education Week.
“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old,” he wrote. “The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
He mentioned “red-lining,” a practice that began in the 1930s when government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly because of their racial makeup. Banks then refused to offer mortgages to the people trying to buy homes in those areas.
“Some critics claim that the theory advocates discriminating against white people in order to achieve equity,” Sawchuk wrote. “They mainly aim those accusations at theorists who advocate for policies that explicitly take race into account.”
Among the critics is a man named Shawn McBreairty, one of the leaders of an organization called No Left Turn in Education.
“This is a war with the left,” he told NBC News, “and in war, tactics and strategy can become blurry.”
He was talking about the billboard- sized picture of a school board member in his front yard. The sign, he says, is surrounded by rat traps to guard against theft.
No Left Turn in Education was formed last year by a woman who was mad about a suburban Philadelphia elementary school’s response to the social upheaval that followed the death of George Floyd. The woman, Elana Yaron Fishbein, wrote a letter complaining the lessons the school had introduced represented a plan to indoctrinate children into the “woke” culture.
The letter went unanswered, she said, so she pulled her kids out of school and launched a movement.
Well, she and Tucker Carlson.
Her organization’s Facebook page had fewer than 200 followers when she appeared on Carlson’s show in September. The next day, it had more than 30,000.
The group now has 39 chapters in 23 states, including the one led by McBreairty in the state of Maine.
“The schools have been hijacked,” Fishbein told NBC News. “Our kids are captive audiences. And they think they can do whatever they want with our kids.”
The movement has drawn the attention of prominent conservative figures such as Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Donald J. Trump.
“The path to save the nation is very simple,” Bannon said on his podcast last month. “It’s going to go through the school boards.”
Groups across the country have been inundating school administrators with public records requests and packing the seats at school board meetings.
Timothy Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island Superintendents Association, told NBC News part of the goal seemed to be to discredit public education.
“There was the ‘war on Christmas,’ and now everybody is teaching critical race theory,” he said. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find five people in the state who could even define that.”
For Christopher Rufo, senior fellow at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, that’s the whole idea.
“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’” he tweeted in March. “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”