In America’s never-ending culture wars, a new phrase has begun popping up with ever-increasing frequency: critical race theory.
Senators have spoken out against it. Parents have fought their school boards over it. Fox News mentions it so often that it sometimes refers to it just by its initials, CRT.
One such headline concerned Nicole Solas, a mother in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Ms Solas, who says her young daughter just started school, suspected that it was teaching her the dreaded CRT. She demanded to see the curriculum.
After meeting resistance, Ms Solas filed over 160 public records requests, according to local reports. Exasperated, the school board met to consider suing her to stop. The drama earned her an interview on Fox & Friends.
“I have a lot of questions,” Ms Solas told the hosts. “They’re teaching something that they’re trying to hide from you… They’re being opaque about it.”
What is that “something”? What school of thought could be so heinous that American parents – and the TV stations they watch – are up in arms over it?
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines critical race theory as an “intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is … a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour.”
Officially organised in 1989, the theory essentially acknowledges what modern progressives call “systemic racism” – discrimination that’s not just acted out by individuals, but baked into our society’s institutions.
“Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist,” the encyclopaedia goes on, “insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.”
Republican pundits and politicians, however, present it differently. When conservatives complain about critical race theory, they often say it accuses people – not institutions – of inherent racism.
“Critical race theory asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist, not because of their actions, words or what they actually believe in their heart – but by virtue of the colour of their skin,” Rep Ralph Norman, South Carolina’s Republican congressman, said at a press conference earlier this month.
He was flanked by several other members of the House GOP’s Freedom Caucus, including the conservative firebrand Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, as they unveiled a bill to stop the teaching of CRT.
Rep Lauren Boebert of Colorado put it more simply.
“Democrats want to teach our children to hate each other,” she said.
Experts say this misrepresents critical race theory, whether or not it’s on purpose.
“I’m not really sure that the conservatives right now know what it is or know its history,” Andrew Hartman, a history professor at Illinois State University, told NPR.
But that might be beside the point. What critical race theory represents to conservatives, Mr Hartman says, is a threat to the idea that America has already solved its racism problem.
“Conservatives, since the 1960s, have increasingly defined American society as a colourblind society, in the sense that maybe there were some problems in the past but American society corrected itself and now we have these laws and institutions that are meritocratic and anybody, regardless of race, can achieve the American dream,” the professor said.
Critical race theory gets in the way of that idea, so according to Republican leaders, it must be stopped.
“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense,” Senate Republicans wrote in a scathing letter to the US Department of Education. “Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil.”
There’s also another, simpler reason for opposing the theory: it’s a way to get votes.
Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research, says President Biden’s popularity – polls consistently show more than 50 per cent of Americans support him – means Republicans have to look elsewhere for reasons voters should turn on Democrats. In lieu of a polarising president, the GOP needs an issue “as extreme and threatening to white culture as possible.” A plot to indoctrinate children with anti-American ideology appears to fit that bill nicely.
“I think it’s just one more addition to the culture war that the Republicans really want to fight and it’s what they want to make the 2022 midterms about,” Ms Matthews told NPR.
So as the 2022 elections get closer, expect to hear the phrase “critical race theory” more than ever.