I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
On Wednesday, headlines and news tickers from Tuesday’s election said “education” concerns had propelled voters to come out for Republican Glenn Youngkin, who defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the race for Virginia governor.
I think we need to be more specific – and honest with ourselves – than that.
Voters weren’t screaming at school board meetings over math textbooks or reading concepts. A top polarizing issue was how our kids are taught about race and slavery in K-12 schools, with specific concerns over critical race theory.
In order to understand how “critical race theory” became such a wedge issue, USA TODAY senior data reporter Aleszu Bajak looked at speeches from the Virginia governor’s race, Twitter posts from Congress over the past month and cable news transcripts over the past year.
Bajak’s analysis of 10 campaign speeches given by Youngkin in the week before the election found that “schools” was among Youngkin’s top 10 most uttered words, ahead even of “jobs,” “taxes” and “government.” Virginia’s Loudoun County was a flashpoint for fights over how race is addressed in school among other topics.
Next, Bajak collected data from the Twitter feeds of 533 members of Congress. He found that Republicans have out-messaged Democrats 20 to 1 over “critical race theory” in the past month. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., were among the most vocal.
After exploring a database of cable TV news transcripts hosted by Stanford University, Bajak found that this week’s elections brought a new wave of attention to “critical race theory,” first seen in late spring and summer 2021.
On Google, searches for the term “critical race theory” were flat for the past five years, with a spike this summer (as Texas and other states signed laws banning it) and another spike this week (an issue in school board races across the country).
The drumbeat started in September 2020, when then-President Donald Trump accused educators and Democrats of attempting a “liberal indoctrination of America’s youth” through alternative views of the nation’s history.
“Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” Trump said during what aides billed as the first “White House Conference on American History.”
He took particular aim at the New York Times 1619 project – and a little-known academic term known as critical race theory.
Critical race theory is a higher education concept that examines how systems and policies perpetuate racism. But it’s become a culture war catch-all term for voters who are concerned about how race, equity and slavery are taught in public schools.
“Everyone’s got it wrong,” said Nichelle Smith, USA TODAY’s race and history editor. “Critical race theory is college-level material. People are confusing critical race theory with teaching Black history generally. CRT looks at the intersection of how racism is infused in all our systems and is a part of all we do, whether or not people are trying to be racist. That is separate and distinct from what Black history is, what Asian American history is, looking at everything people of color have had to go through.”
One critic implies the misinterpretation is by design.
Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, is a leading voice against critical race theory. In March, he tweeted how forces were “steadily driving up negative perceptions” of the concept. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
To be sure, critical race theory was not the only education- or school board-related issue that charged up Virginia voters; masks and COVID-19 policies resonated as well, as did gender-inclusion initiatives. But it clearly was the driving issue for many of them. You could hear that in what voters told us after casting ballots and also in how Youngkin, like other politicians nationwide, hammered on that message in the run-up to the election.
On July 23, Youngkin told a conservative radio host, “We’re actually watching this critical race theory move its way into all schools across Virginia.”
The fact-checking site Politifact found that statement “highly exaggerated.”
“Critical race theory is being widely discussed by educators across Virginia,” the site concluded. “But there’s a difference between educators learning about the theory and actually teaching it to students. On that front, Youngkin cites a collection of memos and seminars, but no evidence that critical race theory is being taught in each of the state’s 1,825 public schools.
“Critical race theory is not mentioned in the state’s Standards of Learning. A growing list of localities say they do not teach it.”
Retirees Bob and Judy Allen said they supported Youngkin because they want parents to be able to object to curriculum that involves critical race theory.
“If my kids were to be educated right now, I wouldn’t put them in Fairfax County schools. I would probably homeschool them,” Judy Allen said.
At least 28 states have sought to restrict teaching about racism or bias in schools, according to Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news site. “Some have gone as far as restricting teaching ‘divisive concepts,'” report USA TODAY writers Alia Wong and Lindsay Schnell.
And, they reported, some teachers and parents are concerned the outcry has spiraled out of control: “They’re worried the new laws not only limit freedom of speech, but also the teaching of accurate history.”
What does this division look like in real life? Youngkin ran a campaign ad showing a mother who said her son was traumatized by a reading assignment about slavery in his senior AP English class.
Turns out, the book was Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved,” and the incident occurred a decade ago. Her son is now associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“White readers are often shocked by the revelations of ‘Beloved,'” USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz wrote, defending the book. “There is no easy story about slavery, with its rapes and tortures and lynchings. There is no gentle way to describe losing your child to the auction block or watching your husband swaying dead and castrated from a tree.
“With thoughtful, age-appropriate discussions led by open-minded adults, children can be trusted to learn about our history, and feel the magnitude of their own emotions. What better way to prepare them for the world that awaits?”
And what was the response?
Shultz got an email that read, “Nevermind that Ms. Morrison’s prose is fiction and not based in fact, you tar all white Southern people. Happy will be America when someone deservedly blows your head off toxic progressive misanthrope.”
Culture wars are dangerous.
And so often ignited by politicians.
It’s our job as journalists to help you understand who or what is fanning the flames and bring you the facts – not the spin.
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalists and journalism. Support journalism – subscribe to USA TODAY here.