LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
It may be time for summer break. Schools are closing, but there's a lot of agita still about textbooks and lesson plans. Here's some tape from Fox News.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Critical race theory is racist.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: These theories that are not based in fact.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: CRT is racist. It is abusive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Critical race theory is the newest manufactured wedge issue, and it's following a pattern we've seen with others recently. A cultural squall pops up, gets amplified on cable news and turns into a political storm. NPR's Barbara Sprunt is going to take us through how an obscure academic theory now has parents laying siege to school board meetings. And she joins us now. Hi, Barbara.
BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We need to start with what critical race theory is and what it is not.
SPRUNT: Because they are very different things. In the late '70s, early '80s, legal scholars developed an academic approach that examines American institutions and laws through the lens of race and racism. So it's been around for decades, and it's used in postgraduate studies. But many Republicans and right-wing media have co-opted this term, and they're using it as a catch-all way of describing basically any conversation about race or racism that makes white people uncomfortable. So conversations about white privilege, having dialogues about anti-racism - these have all been branded falsely as critical race theory.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In September of 2020, President Trump issued the executive order on combating race and sex stereotyping, which President Biden has rescinded. Trump's EO didn't actually mention critical race theory then, even in the sections specifying what shouldn't be taught in the armed forces or at federal agencies. It has been mentioned a lot on Fox, though.
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CHRISTOPHER RUFO: It's absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded every institution in the federal government. And what I've discovered is that critical race theory has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, that's Christopher Rufo on September 2, 2020. Talk to us about his role in all this.
SPRUNT: Yeah. So Rufo is a central player in this. He's a former documentarian, and he's the one who called on Trump to issue that executive order you just mentioned. And this all started in July of 2020. A Seattle city employee sent Rufo an antibias training that they did at work, and Rufo essentially saw it as a political opportunity to manufacture a culture war issue. And he's been transparent about that. I mean, he tweeted in March of this year that, quote, "the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think critical race theory."
And he added that he's rebranding the theory and driving up negative perceptions to turn it toxic. And, I mean, it's worked. I mean, you can go on Twitter and type in critical race theory, and you'll see videos of hundreds of parents at school board meetings with signs saying, stop critical race theory, even as the superintendents are saying, hey, this is not something that we teach. Saying critical race theory is being taught in schools is like saying electrical engineering is being taught in K-12. It's just not happening.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But when you talk to conservative lawmakers, what are they saying?
SPRUNT: Well, the overall argument is that talking about race and racism leads to more division in an already very divided country. Byron Donalds is a Republican congressman from Florida, and he told me recently that, look. It's important to teach the full history of the country, but he thinks that the approach just further divides Americans.
BYRON DONALDS: As a Black man, I think our history has actually been quite awful. I mean, that's without question. But you also have to take into account the progression of our country, especially over the last 60 to 70 years.
SPRUNT: You'll also hear some Republican lawmakers and media outlets say, you know, this theory is unpatriotic. It tells white people that they're racist, you know, just for being white, when, of course, the actual theory itself is about institutions, not individuals.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. It's about the systems that are in play and how that has actually created more difficulties for Black and brown people. But there is an actual legislative movement on this. It's not just people talking about critical race theory. They're actually legislating about it now, right?
SPRUNT: That's right. I mean, this is something where perception has led to actual movement in legislatures. Republican lawmakers in nearly two dozen states have proposed legislation that would limit how teachers can talk about race and racism in the classroom. Now, just like you pointed out earlier, that Trump's executive order on this didn't actually mention critical race theory, that's the same thing that you're seeing here on the state level. Only a handful of these bills explicitly mention critical race theory, but they're moving forward regardless.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we've discussed, critical race theory is a technical term. It's sort of a framework for graduate programs. So money isn't being spent on it in public grade schools, you know, teaching it to young people. But that doesn't seem to stop people getting upset.
SPRUNT: Exactly. I mean, this is a perfect culture war issue. Unlike issues like taxes or foreign policy, this is something that strikes people at their very identity. And that's what makes it an effective political strategy, to be honest. I spoke with Christine Matthews. She's the president of Bellwether Research and a public opinion pollster, and she says there's evidence that Republican voters have been responding much more to culture issues and that this issue could impact turnout in next year's midterm elections.
CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: I think it's just one more addition to the culture war that the Republicans really want to fight. And Republicans are wanting to make this about othering the Democrats and making them seem as extreme and threatening to white culture as possible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I guess that brings us right back to the right-wing media ecosystem because it's easier to conflate anything related to race with critical race theory, especially if you don't understand what it is.
SPRUNT: Exactly. And from a messaging perspective, critical race theory is easy to use and is being used as an umbrella term to cover all sorts of white grievances about how society is talking about anti-racism, you know, particularly in the year following the murder of George Floyd. And Matthews says that talk news can really keep this issue top of mind for voters, even though the midterms are over a year away.
MATTHEWS: That's the job of Fox News - is to keep these cultural, polarizing topics front of mind. And so for the base and for the people that, say, Fox News reaches, they can keep it alive if they want to.
SPRUNT: And it seems like they want to. A study from Media Matters, a left-leaning nonprofit, recently found that nearly 1,300 mentions of critical race theory were on Fox News over a 3 1/2-month period.
SPRUNT: Another, you know, important factor in this is the role of social media. Experts I spoke with said this is just another prime example of something that gets posted on Facebook and just takes on a life of its own. And if that's where people are getting their information, their news, they're going to be getting a lot of misinformation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Barbara Sprunt. Thank you very much.
SPRUNT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.