Republicans are convinced that the Virginia playbook will work for them all over the country, and are ready to launch hundreds of bills designed to codify the white backlash against Black Lives Matter and American History itself by declaring all of it to be "critical race theory" and banning the entire thing from schools, colleges, and workplaces.
Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz has one clear priority for the 2022 legislative session: “Shut down” critical race theory in his state. He intends to do that by passing a bill that would forbid public school teachers from discussing critical race theory, an examination of how race and racism permeates American society.
In South Carolina, a bill lawmakers may consider in coming months would require K-12 public schools to post online detailed lists of instruction materials and curriculum. Another bill would go a step further by banning any state-funded entity like colleges, private contractors and nonprofit organizations from promoting “certain discriminatory concepts.”
And in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is urging the GOP-led state Legislature to pass a measure that would allow parents to sue school districts that teach lessons rooted in critical race theory.
Attacking the study of racism in the United States emerged as a leading culture war cause for Republicans in 2021. But state lawmakers have only just begun focusing on the issue, which promises to dominate red-state legislatures across the country this year.
Legislators in at least a dozen Republican-controlled statehouses — including in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio — plan to push dozens of bills in upcoming legislative sessions that aim to halt teachings about race and society and give parents more say in what’s discussed in classrooms.
There’s a clear power incentive: Republicans are amped up by the party’s November election sweep in Virginia, where education was a top issue, and intend to campaign on such bills leading up to the midterms.
“There is a huge red wave coming,” Seitz, a pastor and business owner, said in an interview. “Virginia is just a microcosm of the rest of the United States.”
Critical race theory is an analytical framework originally developed by legal scholars examining how race and racism have become ingrained in American law and institutions since slavery and Jim Crow. Many conservatives began using critical race theory as shorthand for a broader critique of how race and social issues are being taught in the K-12 education system.
Their criticism centers on the belief that white students are being told that they are oppressors because of their race. In turn, history lessons about the the founding of the nation that adopt some of the tenets of critical race theory promote discrimination against white students and depict students of color as victims, they argue.
Yet most public school officials across the country say they do not teach any curriculum based on the theory, even in districts and states where lawmakers are seeking to ban the practice. Some Democrats and other critics say the anti-critical race theory push is motivated by a deep fear among white conservatives about changing racial awareness in the U.S. and an unwillingness to grapple with how the legacy of slavery manifests today.
A major question is what sort of long-term impact these bills will have — whether they will end up being mostly symbolic acts to energize GOP campaigns or actually permanently transform what millions of students are taught.
Academics are concerned about the “chilling effect” these bills will have on teachers as Republican lawmakers “race to outdo each other to pass the most extreme legislation,” said Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Acadia University who has been tracking these bills. He’s worried about teachers already making changes to courses and readings to avoid potential backlash from parents and in advance of any legislation being enacted.
Sachs said he believes people are “not taking the scale of this threat seriously” and it’s a mistake to dismiss parents’ concerns by denying that teachers are not changing the ways they teach about the persistence of systemic racism in the U.S. He pointed to former Virginia Gov. Terry McCauliffe’s comments during the 2021 gubernatorial race as the wrong approach. McAuliffe said that outrage over the theory is a “made up, racist dog whistle” that has never been taught in Virginia schools.
“One better response is to highlight how dangerous and extreme some of these bills are and the terrible consequences when teachers operate in a climate of fear,” he said.
No offense to Professor Sachs there, but you'd better believe that there are tens of millions of GOP voters who want teachers to operate in a climate of fear of parents and the state. The GOP won Virginia because outraged white parents who didn't bother to vote in off-year elections did, and Democrats stayed home.
That won't be as much of a case this year, obviously. But Republican voters are going to show up. Once again it's a question of if Democratic voters will even be able to vote in many counties and precincts at all.