Critical Race Theory and the 2021 Election

 by Michael C. Dorf

For Democrats like me, the results of the off-year election just held are very concerning. How concerning? Here's what I tweeted yesterday morning:

My "optimistic" take on the election results: If current trends continue, Republicans will win back Congress in '22 & prez in '24 w/o needing to lie about and override the vote. We will have awful policy, including voter suppression, but some semblance of democracy could survive.

That bit of sardonic humor prompted one Twitter follower to observe that my bleak outlook sounded more like my co-bloggers Prof Buchanan and Prof Segall than my own apparently often more sanguine self. To be clear, although my tone is not necessarily as apocalyptic as theirs, there's not a lot of daylight between our substantive views and projections. Perhaps I'm just better at hiding it when I want to write about something other than impending doom.

And guess what! Today I want to write about something other than impending doom. In particular, I'm going to offer some unsolicited advice to Democratic candidates and their campaign managers in the hope that elections will continue to matter in the future. Although I realize it isn't exactly my lane, I want to talk about messaging. I'll focus on the role of "critical race theory" in the Virginia gubernatorial race.

Political analysts can point to a combination of factors to explain Glenn Youngkin's defeat of Terry McAuliffe. As Charles Blow began a NY Times column yesterday, the factors that led to McAuliffe's defeat included: President Biden's and Congressional Democrats' failure thus far to deliver major legislation on infrastructure, social spending and voting rights bills; McAuliffe's difficulty tying Youngkin to Donald Trump, who wasn't on the ballot; and the"structural, historical patterns that still hold true in states like Virginia, where voters tend to punish whichever party controls the White House." To Blow's list, I would add the Delta-fueled COVID surge making people unhappy with the incumbent party, and McAuliffe's campaign, which both lacked a coherent raison d'être other than he was governor once before and included various ill-advised statements.

One of those statements, perhaps taken out of context but predictably and thus avoidably so, was that parents shouldn't be telling schools what to teach. As we know, Youngkin's campaign seized on that statement as part of a package of grievance politics that also included a vow to purge school curricula of critical race theory.

One wonders how anyone missed the contradiction of decrying McAuliffe for his rejection of parental control over curricula while at the very same time boasting about how, as Governor, Youngkin would decide on a statewide level that school curricula would not include critical race theory--presumably even if the parents in some district overwhelmingly want critical race theory taught. Perhaps Youngkin's contradictory stance was overlooked because McAuliffe and his allies were too busy portraying Youngkin's stance as dishonest.

Living in central New York, I only followed the Virginia gubernatorial race from a distance, but I can report that just about every time I read or heard it discussed (in the media from which I get most of my news, namely the NY Times and NPR), journalists would add to their coverage that Virginia schools don't teach critical race theory. That was a milder version of what McAuliffe himself said, which was that the very term critical race theory as used by Youngkin, FoxNews, and the right is a "dog whistle."

Saying, as the Times and NPR did, that the Virginia schools don't teach critical race theory is probably technically accurate but beside the point. Let's stipulate that middle schoolers in Richmond are not assigned Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well or any of the narrative scholarship of Richard Delgado. Let's even stipulate that whatever curriculum involving diversity, equity, inclusion that the Virginia public schools teach departs in various respects from what we might think are the generally shared propositions espoused by the leading critical race theorists.

Still, objections to the term critical race theory seem like hairsplitting. After all, as I explained here, most progressives now use the term "intersectionality" in a way that is different from and in part contrary to the way in which Prof Kim Crenshaw articulated it in her landmark article. For better or worse, and I'll say that it's mostly for worse, the Tucker Carlson version of critical race theory is what most people who have not read the relevant literature (which is nearly everyone) have in mind by the term. In a nutshell, the central tenet of this version of CRT is "all white people, including young children, are privileged and racists." 

Meanwhile, the journalists fact-checking Youngkin by pointing out that that Virginia public schools don't teach critical race theory did not exactly explain what critical race theory is, nor, more to the point, did they say what the Virginia schools were teaching. And McAuliffe's own dog-whistle point--while containing more than a kernel of truth--was highly counterproductive, unless it was intended solely as a Democratic base mobilization strategy.

If our politics are sufficiently polarized that base mobilization is all that ever matters, then sure, calling the misleading attacks on critical race theory a dog whistle makes sense. It says to African American and liberal white (and other race) Virginians: the Republicans are appealing to racism, so go vote to stop them.

However, in an off-year election and, one worries, in other elections as well, base mobilization is not enough. You need to win the purplish suburbs too, where there are some remaining swing voters. Some of those people are deplorables and unreachable. But some are at worst deplorable-adjacent. They are not overtly racist and don't like being told that they or their children are racist. They thus find the critique of what they think critical race theory is at least somewhat appealing. For them, calling the critique of critical race theory a dog whistle simply repeats the insult. It says that what they regard as merely their opposition to being called racists when they are not racists is itself racist. Needless to say, that will not win their votes. And it didn't.

Following Youngkin's success, expect GOP candidates in next year's midterms to go all in on attacking CRT. How should Democrats respond? It's almost certainly fruitless to try to explain the irrelevance of CRT to whatever is actually being criticized. And it's probably counterproductive to call the criticism of CRT a racist dog whistle. Although, to repeat, I am not a political strategist, it strikes me that a much more fruitful way to respond is for Democratic politicians to emphasize what they are for--with respect to racial equality, schools, health care, and everything else. Because the vast majority of Americans do not know and will never learn what CRT is, it should be possible for any plausible Democratic candidate for Congress or other elected office to paint their support for whatever is being challenged as support for conventional civil rights. 

Will that work? I have no idea. It's quite possible that if Democrats succeed in changing the conversation, we will next see the FoxNews talking heads defining "unconscious bias" or "structural racism" as a kind of Marxism or something equally evil. It's impossible to prevent one's political opponents from distorting or outright lying. But that's no reason to give them extra material with which to work.