Parents’ disconnect on critical race theory has enflamed elections

November 3, 2021
Protestors gather, May 18, 2021, outside the Springfield Public Schools Kraft Administration Building on East St. Louis Street to protest critical race theory being taught in Springfield, Mo., schools.
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  • More than 8 in 10 Democrat parents believed their children should learn about the lingering impact of slavery and racism, compared to fewer than 4 in 10 Republican parents.
  • The poll found that just 37% of white parents are in favor of their children’s schools teaching critical race theory, compared to 83% of Black parents.
  • Almost 1 in 4 parents – 22% – said children should begin learning about racism in kindergarten, according to the poll.

More than 60% of American parents want their kids to learn about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism as part of their education, according to a new USA TODAY/Ipsos poll.

But just half of parents support teaching critical race theory in schools – even though the theory’s main premise is that racism continues to permeate society. About 4 in 10 parents support restrictions on schools’ ability to teach critical race theory.

That disconnect underscores the heated feelings parents have about race-related conversations and how teachers should be handling that and other delicate topics. And, not surprisingly, the issue is firmly politicized: More than 8 in 10 Democrat parents believed their children should learn about the lingering impact of slavery and racism in schools, compared with fewer than 4 in 10 Republican parents, according to the poll’s findings.

Intense feelings about race and gender issues in school played major roles in Tuesday’s election results. Anti-critical race theory activism and attention on schools propelled Republican Glenn Youngkin to a victory in the Virginia governor’s race and solidified the approach as a key GOP strategy ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

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Across the U.S., a solid majority of parents, about three out of four, believe schools should teach slavery and racism as part of American history, the poll showed. That left some wondering about the respondents in the minority.

“Who are those one out of four parents who don’t want their kid learning history?” said David Hinojosa, a lawyer with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that’s investigating the effects of laws banning critical race theory in some states. “Or do they think American history should be taught, but without slavery?”

A representative sample of about 2,000 Americans participated in the USA TODAY/Ipsos back-to-school survey, conducted between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1. About a fifth of participants are parents of schoolchildren. The poll had a credibility interval, akin to a margin of error, of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. 

In addition to asking about critical race theory and history education, the poll surveyed parents about online learning, school mask and vaccine mandates, sexual education and media literacy education.

Most parents, concerned about learning losses brought on by remote learning, support in-person learning with universal masking and teacher vaccination requirements. Roughly three in four parents also said they’re in favor of schools teaching students about sex, as well as how to spot misinformation online. 

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Parents’ race, politics influence feelings about critical race theory

Opinions on discussions of race in schools are more mixed, poll results showed.

Specifically, 63% of parents want their children to learn about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in schools, while just 49% say critical race theory should be taught in schools – even though the two topics are intertwined. Three in 10 parents oppose the teaching of CRT.

How parents feel varies significantly by race. 

Just 37% of white parents are in favor of their children’s schools teaching critical race theory, compared with 83% of Black parents, according to the poll. Parents of color also support teaching about systemic racism at greater rates than white parents. 

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Deborah Valentine, a 58-year-old Black grandmother of four schoolchildren in Martinsburg, West Virginia, said she believes such education is important “so history won’t repeat itself.” 

“At this point, the grownups seem to be having a hard time getting along and accepting others who are different from them,” said Valentine. “If that is allowed to continue, the next generation won’t do any better.”

Schools can teach about systemic racism in a way that’s age-appropriate and avoids making white children “feel like they’re being singled out,” she added, by emphasizing mistakes made in the past, and that young people of all races have the power to make it right in the future.

“Putting your hands over your eyes and acting like (racism) didn’t happen when it did – it’s just not going to be good if we want to keep our country moving forward,” said Valentine, a Democrat.

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Critical race theory encourages disadvantaged students to see themselves as victims when their education should teach them “tenacity and grit,” argued Wayne Pittman, a Republican father of three in Monument, Colorado.

“All racism is wrong … that’s not a debate,” said Pittman, who’s white. But “once you get into this blame game, it’s automatically someone else’s fault for the situation you’re in – you’re never going to be able to break out of that cycle or that mindset.”

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Almost 1 in 4 parents – 22% – said children should begin learning about racism in kindergarten. Overall, a majority feel it should at least start sometime before middle school. 

Still, nearly 1 in 5 respondents – 17% – said it’s never appropriate to teach schoolchildren about racism.

The continuing fight over critical race theory education

Battles over what critical race theory is and isn’t, whether it’s being taught in schools and why it even matters have made headlines for months.

CRT is a framework developed decades ago by legal scholars who wondered why more progress hadn’t been made on civil rights in America. The theory is commonly discussed in law schools, but rarely mentioned by name in K-12 schools, teachers and scholars say.

But conservative critics believe elements of the theory’s premise – that racial inequality continues because racism is baked into societal structures and even embedded in humans’ own subconscious – is being taught as a form of progressive indoctrination in public schools. 

Christopher Rufo, a vocal critic at the conservative Manhattan Institute, a nonprofit in New York City, has written extensively about CRT, calling it “a new political education spreading everywhere.” He’s been featured on Fox News, which has run numerous stories on the theory and its connection to schooling.

Parents’ views on the issue are divided sharply by political affiliation, according to the poll. About 82% of Democrat parents support schools teaching about the ongoing effects of slavery, compared with 38% of Republican parents.  

Justine Larison, a 51-year-old mother of two children in the Wilmington, Delaware, area opposes public schools teaching critical race theory. Such critiques have reinforced her decision to send her teenage son to a private Catholic school, said Larison, who’s white.

Larison and her family discuss critical race theory – which she defines as the ways race and law intersect – at home, though not in depth because she didn’t learn about it in school herself, she said. 

Teaching kids about the history of slavery and racism is important, Larison said, but she’s wary of public schools overemphasizing conflict between Black people and white people. 

“People are people,” said Larison, a Republican, noting that she believed white people face just as many struggles as their Black peers. 

How did CRT gain traction?

A national reckoning over racial injustices and police brutality began last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. The national discussion intensified after the publication of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which reframed the founding of America around slavery.

Then last September, former president Donald Trump issued an executive order banning workplace training within the federal government and its contractors that aimed to address racial disparities. President Joe Biden’s administration has since rescinded the order. But conservative critics have continued to focus on what they see as “critical race theory” embedded in schools.

Republican lawmakers in GOP-controlled states have since pursued legislation that restricts how race and racism can be taught in public schools. 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.”

Parents riled up by the issue have flooded school board meetings. Conservative organizations have offered tools to help them. The Manhattan Institute, for example, released a guide for parents concerned about “woke schooling.” 

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Read more on race and identity: Sign up for USA TODAY’s This Is America newsletter 

“If you are a parent worried about your child’s miseducation but afraid to speak up for fear of being called a “bigot” and a “racist,” recognize this: you are not alone, and thousands of parents like you are preparing to fight back,” the guide says.

Many parents and teachers are concerned the outcry over critical race theory in schools has spiraled out of control. They’re worried the new laws not only limit freedom of speech, but also the teaching of accurate history. A newly formed group called the Learn from History Coalition, aims to rally teachers and parents behind teaching the full history of America, including the uncomfortable parts.

“Our kids need the truth, so they can learn from the past,” said Suzanne Schreiber, a school board member in Tulsa Public Schools, in Oklahoma, and a member of the new coalition. “It’s our responsibility to teach kids that racism is wrong.”



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