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GOP debate summons Critical Race Theory boogeyman

The GOP Recall Debate last week wasn’t a true debate. Except for a couple pokes at former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the four participating GOP gubernatorial candidates disagreed on little and debated even less.

However for the fifth question in the 90-minute discussion, moderator Hugh Hewitt introduced a fairly new topic to the California recall election: Critical Race Theory (CRT). How new is CRT as an issue in the recall race? During their campaigns, none of the four candidates on stage have authored an op-ed or white paper on it nor list it among top issues on their campaign websites.

Yet, the debate participants’ responses to Hewitt were telling in a different way. Despite months of obsessive national conservative drum-beating to elevate CRT into a significant culture war issue, if you ask four conservatives today what CRT is, you’ll likely get four different answers. Such was the case at the debate.

As background, Critical Race Theory is an arcane academic theory taught in elective graduate-level courses such as in law school. The theory suggests racism is ingrained in the U.S. legal and criminal justice systems and contributes to disproportionately negative outcomes for minorities such as more frequent police stops, higher incarceration rates, and longer, harsher prison sentences.

What CRT is not is a theory taught in any K-12 public schools. That is why few educators in charge of developing K-12 curricula had ever heard of it prior to right-wing leaders and media figures raising their alarm starting last year. But in answering Hewitt, this is how the recall candidates confusingly responded:

  • Former Congressman Doug Ose called CRT “anti-merit, anti-objectivity and anti-achievement,” and prevents third graders from learning to read.

  • Faulconer said CRT “leads to cancel culture” and the renaming of public schools.

  • Businessman John Cox said CRT is part of the liberal politicization of education, which is partly why he supports school voucher programs.

  • State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley said “ethnic studies” is a euphemism for CRT, and he opposes a current bill in the California legislature that would mandate ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement.

Quite a jumbled mix with little to do with what CRT actually is. Kiley’s answer at least attempted to connect CRT to some kind of curriculum, though at the incorrect educational level. But as Kiley holds two Ivy League degrees and is vice chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Kiley probably knew this. In fact as a graduate of Yale Law School, he may even have some exposure to CRT in its pure higher-education form.

Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said he didn’t watch the GOP Recall Debate but has followed the national CRT debate. He believes CRT fear-mongering is little more than a new racial boogeyman designed by the Right to undermine faith in public education and move more states toward charter schools and voucher programs.

“All it is are talking points and keywords intended to create an emotional response and get people to support them. There is no reality behind what they are trying to express,” Freitas said. “That is where the red herring is. They throw out a term with no fact or basis to create further division in our country.”

“As a former math teacher who also taught cultural studies back in 2001, I had never heard of CRT until recently.” He added he is unaware of it being taught in any California K-12 classrooms. “Nor is [CRT] the basis of any kind of curriculum developed for K through 12.”

The Sacto Politico invited all four GOP debate participants to amplify on their CRT debate remarks. Larry Elder, who was unable to attend the debate, was also asked to share his CRT position, but only Ose responded. He couldn’t point to any specific examples of CRT being taught in California schools, but he shared that many parents he’s met on the campaign trail use CRT as a catch-all term for a variety of dissatisfactions they have with their local public schools.

“This is broader than just Critical Race Theory. It has to do with sex education. It has to do with all of these other imposed requirements. The parents are just fed up,” Ose said. “Parents are sitting there having learned one set of ‘-isms’ growing up and now see an entire shift toward another set of ‘isms.’ And CRT represents an easy target for them.”

When asked what he meant during the debate by CRT being “anti-merit” and “anti-achievement,” he explained, “There is evidence to support the notion the bureaucratic institution of education has been disproportionately influenced by people not aligned with mainstream American thought on capitalism and achievement and things like that.”

A provocative statement, but again one that has little to do with CRT as an actual theory of the legal and criminal justice systems. This and other elaborations only confirmed how vague and inexact the Right’s use of CRT is. Freitas, though, thought some of this was by design.

“They don’t clearly define it because they want to be able to label everything CRT. They want to keep it broad and vague so they can apply it to anything and attack anything that is public education,” Freitas said. “That is why they want to go to vouchers and what they call ‘full choice.’ And they are using every term that they can to achieve that.”

In fairness to Ose, he expressed a pretty fulsome view of the uglier parts of American history. He said, “The facts are we slaughtered the indigenous peoples, either on purpose or with disease. The blacks were enslaved, and it was an abhorrent system. People who lived in tenements in [writer] Upton Sinclair’s time were absolutely abused in the Industrial Revolution, but here we are with the highest standard of living. Everyone wants to move here, so we are doing something right.”

However as he continued, it was soon down another confusing rabbit hole:

“If Critical Race Theory and its foundational legs are accurate – which means to a very great degree that the color of your skin dictates your outcome – then how do you explain disparate outcomes for two young black men or for two black women? Or between two young white people?” he said.

Ose felt this to be pretty conclusive evidence of CRT’s flaws. But since CRT doesn’t attempt to explain differences within minority groups, it naturally has no answers to offer there.

But it wasn’t Ose or any of the top GOP recall candidates who brought the subject up. It was the national conservative commentator Hewitt who shoehorned it into last week’s debate. Such is the CRT boogeyman conservatives have been trying to unleash in these unsettling times, both nationally and now here in California.

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