It’s no secret that Republicans are exploiting culture wars and the pandemic to attack public schools via a so-called “parental rights” movement that represents only a small sliver of parents, and is funded, in part, by right-wing dark money. The uproar over education is not just a Trojan horse for school privatization or an effort to inflame the GOP base ahead of the midterm elections. This movement is the latest manifestation of the right’s longstanding effort to erase federal protections for Black, Brown and LGBTQ students by attacking bedrock civil rights laws, and even pushing to shutter the Department of Education.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregating schools by race is unconstitutional. The ruling was a critical win for the growing civil rights movement. Southern white conservatives were enraged. Howard Smith, then the chairman of the House Rules Committee, released in 1956 the racist Southern Manifesto, which attacked Brown as an abuse of federal power. About one-fifth of Congress signed on, which each supporting member hailing from a former Confederate state. Civil rights advocates say Republicans are following the same “states’ rights” playbook today, and “states’ rights” still serves as a clear dog whistle for racism and bigotry.
“What we are seeing today is a revival of the resistance to Brown movement. It’s the Southern Manifesto by another name,” said Liz King, the senior education program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in an interview.
For months now, the right-wing media has been awash with overtly racist propaganda about “critical race theory,” extremely homophobic and transphobic accusations of “grooming” and bizarre allegations about the “Marxist indoctrination” of schoolchildren. Experts say it’s all part of a broader effort to capitalize on the reactionary impulses of a vocal minority in the wake of uprisings for racial justice in 2020 and the xenophobic former presidency of Donald Trump.
“They have longstanding motives to take apart public education, and I think they now see that their end goal might be able to be achieved by riding this specific critical race theory wave, which has now developed an accompanying anti-LGBTQ aspect,” said Sergio Muñoz, policy director at the watchdog group Media Matters for America, in an interview.
Legislation banning discussion of queer identity and racial justice in schools and/or attacking the health and well-being transgender and gender-nonconforming adolescents has been introduced across the country and passed into law in a handful of red states. Republican governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have championed these efforts, possibly in an attempt to pad their right-wing resumes for potential presidential runs.
Muñoz said right-wing think tanks and media outlets throw buzzwords at the wall and see what sticks, and with help from Trump and the propagandist Christopher Rufo, conflating the advanced academic field of critical race theory with any effort to teach children about racism struck a nerve with conservative white parents. It’s the same playbook the right has used for years; before critical race theory, the right stoked white grievance with buzzwords such as “affirmative action” and “diversity.”
“We thought it was periodic, but it’s amazing how quickly they pivoted to including anti-LGBTQ hate,” Muñoz said.
Schools across the country have become ideological battlegrounds over anti-racist education, LGBTQ rights and the banning of books as a result. A network of far right “parental rights” groups are fueling the most recent culture war flare up, many of them bolstered by ultra-wealthy donors and members who also work for Republican Party or right-wing think tanks. They claim their mission is to reestablish “parental control” of what children learn in school, but in reality, they represent only a narrow sector of conservative, largely white parents. Their tactics include strategically harassing educators and spreading plenty of misinformation about school curricula at outlets like Fox News.
One of these groups said the quiet part out loud before critical race theory became the latest right-wing bogeyman. U.S. Parents Involved in Education, a group that attacks comprehensive sex education and claims “lies” are taught in public schools, released a “blueprint” for eliminating the Department of Education in 2017. The plan also calls for the privatization of federal student loan programs and the “repeal” of all laws permitting “federal intervention” in public schools going back to the 1960s, when lawmakers began implementing standards to improve education and protect the civil rights of students of color as schools desegregated. This could conceivably include Title IX, which has prohibited gender-based discrimination in schools since the 1970s.
Far right Republicans, including Kentucky Rep. Ed Massey of Kentucky and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, are sponsoring legislation to “abolish” the Education Department. The bill has little chance of passing the House, at least as long as Democrats remain in control. However, Muñoz said conservatives had no problem with the department when Betsy DeVos, the billionaire champion of school privatization, served as education secretary under Trump.
“The Department of Education has over the years — insufficiently, we would argue — intervened to make sure that students have legal protections they are promised by Constitution and enjoy basic civil rights,” King said. “There is a resentment about equal opportunity, there is a resentment about diversity, and that is what we are seeing right now.”
Muñoz said most of this is not new; only the buzzwords have changed. Republicans have pushed to eliminate the Department of Education for years. Schools depend on grants from the department, allowing federal policymakers to require certain standards and protections for students. Back in 2000, George W. Bush fought to keep eliminating the department out of the GOP platform before going on to pass his own controversial overhaul known as No Child Left Behind, according to Vox.
“But the end results are the same: They are banning books, they are whitewashing American history to actually corrupt what is correct, and more fundamentally, they are trying to not only deny their identity, they are trying to make it harder for these kids to attend schools,” Muñoz said.
Republicans are attracted to the culture wars in public schools for the short-term political gains, which can propel GOP activists in local elections while, on the national level, whipping conservative voters in a frenzy for the midterms. But the right is also playing the long game, Muñoz said. As the uproar over critical race theory created chaos in school board meetings, think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation dusted off their old playbooks for undermining civil rights. Elite donors began funneling millions of dollars into “parental rights” groups and PACs backing GOP candidates.
“This is advantageous [for right-wing groups] from a longstanding policy perspective of trying to roll back the civil rights movement,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz pointed to the Supreme Court, which could be poised to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion and fundamentally reshape college admission programs that advance racial equity. The same arguments used to oppose so-called critical race theory are routinely presented to a court that has already rejected appeals from civil rights groups and gutted federal voting rights protections. The Supreme Court is now dominated by conservative justices, and arguments for overturning Roe v. Wade could resurface in challenges to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, Muñoz said.
The right claims the Constitution is “colorblind” and opposes any form of “race-conscious” policymaking. (This is, of course, untrue; Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments that were established after the end of slavery are one example.) The idea that white children will feel “discomfort” if they learn about the nation’s legacy of racism echoes the arguments made 50 years ago against desegregating public schools and even public pools — the racist idea that white children would be intimidated by Black children, according to Muñoz.
“They can lie on Fox News and say the Constitution is ‘colorblind,’ but the real danger of this is they are making the arguments before the Supreme Court,” Muñoz said. “It’s bad enough that they are trying to roll back 50 or 60 years of American progress, but they are trying to go back to what we fought a civil war over, frankly.”
King said the threat stretches far beyond the laws, institutions and legal precedents that protect basic civil rights. After all, children and teenagers are facing attacks on their very identities. Educators are under attack for simply attempting to create safe and welcoming environments for Black, Brown, transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
“This is an effort to deny access to the schoolhouse door to children and the lifelong benefits education can bring,” King said.
Thankfully, King said the forces behind these attacks are a small minority in the United States, despite being very vocal. Still, they are supported by a massive and well-funded right-wing apparatus. They realize that public education is critical for creating a multiracial democracy that would dilute white supremacy.
“To prevent progress, they are seeking to deny opportunity to everyone,” King said. “What kind of monster wants to make children invisible?”