Democrats Can’t Keep Dismissing Complaints About ‘Critical Race Theory’

Whatever you want to call it, there are documented instances of overreach in the name of social justice.


The Virginia gubernatorial race shows that if Democrats want to win elections—and allow kids to get a meaningful education—they should stop dismissing parents’ complaints about “critical race theory” as nonsensical fabrications.

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin found an apparently winning campaign formula in recent months. After noticing that promises to ban critical race theory from the school curriculum drew cheers, he expanded his message into a vow to enable parents to control their children’s education. Then, a few weeks before the election, his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe handed him a gift he wasted no time exploiting.

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said during a gubernatorial debate. That statement became fodder for what the Washington Post termed a “massive” advertising campaign, which “likely cost McAuliffe the governorship,” according to political scientist Stephen Farnsworth.

Exit polls in Virginia showed that about 25% of voters named education as “the single most important issue in deciding their vote,” and about 50% said parents should have “a lot” of say over what their child’s school teaches. Only 10% said parents should have little or no say.

No doubt there were other factors in Youngkin’s win, including others related to education—like slow school reopening during the pandemic, which some voters attributed to the Democrats’ cozy relationship with teachers unions. But McAuliffe’s remark clearly sparked a strong negative reaction—and not just with conservative white voters.

 “What really motivated me was the statement that parents should not have a say in their children’s education,” one Black parent told a reporter. He went on to say that he and his wife were so troubled by public-school teaching on race and gender that they decided to homeschool their children.

Reactions like that have helped convince the GOP that parental control of education is now their issue. And thanks partly to Youngkin’s campaign, it’s become linked in the minds of many to whatever is meant by “critical race theory.” But the exchange during the debate harked back to 2013, when McAuliffe—then the state’s governor—vetoed what was known as “the Beloved bill.” It had been passed with bipartisan support by the state legislature after a campaign by a Virginia parent named Laura Murphy.

In a 12th-grade AP literature class, Murphy’s son had been assigned Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an enslaved woman who murders her child rather than return her to a life of slavery. The son said it gave him nightmares. But Murphy’s objection wasn’t to teaching about slavery, and critical race theory hadn’t yet penetrated the public consciousness. Rather, she was horrified by a couple of passing mentions of bestiality. And the bill would have enabled parents of children at any grade level to opt them out of assignments with “sexually explicit content” and request an alternative.

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with “critical race theory”? The phrase has come to signify all sorts of developments that make some parents uncomfortable: texts they find sexually explicit or just cover topics like homosexuality, accommodations for transgender students, lax security—along with teaching that elevates racial identity over other attributes and conveys the message that white people are inherently privileged and oppressive.

McAuliffe’s general stance on parental control makes sense, even if it was unartfully phrased at the debate. (Back in 2013, he explained that the Beloved bill would require applying the “sexually explicit” label without enough context, and that existing state policy on the issue was sufficient.) Of course, parents should have some control over their children’s education, as they have traditionally through elected school boards and, more recently, school choice. But allowing them to “tell schools what they should teach” would lead to confusion and chaos. In a class of thirty, or a school of hundreds—or a district of thousands—how likely is it that parents would agree on the details of the curriculum? Parents who make the most noise will get their way, whether representative of the majority or not.

More problematic, though, is the standard response to complaints about critical race theory from Democrats like McAuliffe, along with left-of-center commentators and the mainstream media: that it’s an academic framework taught at the college or graduate level and not in K-12 schools. If Democrats want to win over parents—and win back some moderate and left-leaning parents of all races—they’re going to have to do better than that.

First, they’ll need to go beyond the verbiage to analyze what parents are actually upset about—and acknowledge that some of it warrants attention. Yes, the right has gone way overboard, with Republican states passing vaguely worded anti-critical race theory legislation and parent groups up in arms over harmless children’s books about the history of the civil rights movement. But there are also documented instances of leftist activism on racial justice gone awry, and Democrats need to distance themselves from the forces that created them.

So, for example, a biracial teenager in Las Vegas, Nevada who appeared white was required to “label and identify” himself as racially “privileged” as part of a class assignment. Kindergarten teachers in Evanston, Illinois read aloud a book that portrayed white parents who claim not to “see color” as hypocrites, and parents were asked to quiz their kids on whiteness at home. Educators in New York City and elsewhere have been required to attend diversity trainings that list traits like “objectivity” and “rational linear thinking” as part of “White Culture.” In a prominent publication, education professors who train social studies teachers have called for teaching in a way that “eschews neutrality and actively side[s] with the oppressed.”

It’s unclear how widely these developments have spread. Overwhelming majorities of teachers say they don’t teach “critical race theory,” but given the vagueness of the concept, that doesn’t tell us much. And in terms of influence and perceptions, even isolated incidents can punch above their weight. If Democrats don’t distance themselves from a perspective that—whatever you call it—maintains that race is paramount, hard work doesn’t pay off, and individual merit is an illusion, they risk alienating voters and pushing them farther right than they might otherwise be.

Yes, there have been disturbing accounts of racial bullying, some of which have sparked calls for mandatory diversity training. That kind of harassment shouldn’t be tolerated, but it’s far from clear that mandatory diversity training is the solution. In the workplace, it’s been shown to backfire, and it’s unlikely to work any better in schools.

Some on the right are urging Republicans to back off from extreme positions and focus on aspects of the curriculum on which Americans broadly agree—like the idea that students should learn that slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War, or should read works by racially diverse authors. At the same time, it would make sense to avoid teaching concepts like “white privilege,” which is far more divisive: 71% of Democrats favor it as compared to only 22% of Republicans.

Democrats shouldn’t just step aside and let Republicans claim the center. They should make it clear that students need to get a balanced view of history and current events but not be required to join race-based “affinity groups” or map themselves on a matrix of oppression. If teachers simply present history in an honest, even-handed way, the fact that whites have generally experienced more privilege than Black people should become apparent. Parents will undoubtedly still complain about things like sexually explicit books, as they have for many years (Beloved made the list of the top ten most challenged books for both 2006 and 2012). But taking the most inflammatory items off the table could help calm the current wave of outrage.

This isn’t just about winning elections. It’s about not contributing to a spiral of polarization and demonization that puts the very future of our democracy at risk. If teachers are afraid to broach historical and current events because of possible attacks from the left or the right, students will be deprived of the vital knowledge they need to exercise their civic responsibilities—or, rather, they’ll be even more deprived of it than they already are.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a slightly different form.