October 27, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

With new anti-CRT laws, the Republicans give the impression they stand against brainwashing. But their goal is brainwashing

“Critical race theory” is 21st-century McCarthyism.

Joseph McCarthy and Glenn Youngkin.
Joseph McCarthy and Glenn Youngkin.

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Three things need saying. One, that “critical race theory” is becoming the most destructive political boogeyman since Joseph McCarthy fear-mongered about Communists hiding behind every bush and tree.

Two, that this political boogeyman is being used by Republican state lawmakers to achieve what they have wanted — to use the power of the state to censor information and to police thought. We are close to updating the old Cold War pursuit of “un-American activities.”

By censoring information and policing thought, the Republicans can replace knowledge and understanding with lies and propaganda advancing a preferred way of seeing America.

Three, that by censoring information and policing thought, the Republicans can replace knowledge and understanding with lies and propaganda advancing a preferred way of seeing America, to wit: In America, everyone gets a fair shake in life. Social ills like poverty and racism are individual failings, not societal ones. Everything is fine. Nothing to worry about. Except “those people” making trouble.

The desired outcome of such rhetoric, of course, is preempting serious and legit challenges to a social order in which white men are on top. 

All of this is happening at the same time. It can be dizzying! But make no mistake. It is a backlash against the political gains made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The movement against anti-Black white supremacy has been (somewhat) successful. The backlash is proof. 

Now, remember. No one is learning critical race theory in K-12. That’s what college students study if they choose to. What’s being debated is make-believe. (Hence, my quotes around “critical race theory.”) So when people like Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate for governor in Virginia, say they’re going to ban “critical race theory,” strictly speaking, that’s not possible. “Critical race theory” doesn’t exist.

But thanks to the efforts of Republicans and right-wing propagandists, there are now lots of things associated with “critical race theory” that have nothing to with critical race theory, without the quotes, and they pretty much include all discussion of race and racism that might make respectable white people conscious of their race, uncomfortable with heightened awareness of their race and even pained by the knowledge of a social, political and legal establishment that protects them on account of their race while punishing others on account of theirs.

Here’s the tip jar!

So there’s some highly coded rhetoric here. When Youngkin says he’s going to ban “critical race theory,” the message isn’t that he’s going to ban ways of thinking about and engaging the world, which is, in fact, what he’s proposing, but instead “ban” the discomfort and pain respectable white people and their kids may feel as a consequence of the political gains made by Black activists after George Floyd’s murder.

If we’re very lucky, respectable white people — that great globular middle of American politics — will see the danger. They will see that, no matter how dangerous “critical race theory” is said to be, that’s no reason to ban books and outlaw the utterance of individual words. They will see the Republicans, even at state and local levels, as being people who cheered the former president’s attempted coup d’etat.

If we’re very unlucky, however, respectable white people — those Americans who view politics through the gauzy lens of respectability between and among white people — will see the GOP as not censoring information and policing thought but instead “banning” Black people from making them feel the pain of being aware of being white. They will see the Republicans, especially at state and local levels, as being not so bad despite cheering the former president’s attempted coup.

What to do? First, make it clear the Republicans are lying. No one, and I mean no one, is teaching white children to hate themselves. No one is teaching white children their moral character is determined by their race. No one is teaching white children that one race is superior to another. All of this is a lie that, when repeated often enough, becomes the basis for state laws forbidding such things from being taught. (See legislation passed by the Wisconsin Assembly for a case in point.)


Second, these lies are part of the Big Lie. Donald Trump lies when saying the election was stolen from him. It wasn’t. What he means, however, is that people he believes should not have a say in American politics — nonwhite voters — had a say in American politics, and that’s wrong. That’s “fraud.” This Big Lie dovetails with another big lie, which is the belief among authoritarian white people that the United States is being taken from them, being stolen from them. By whom? By those who should not have a say in American politics — nonwhite voters. When they pass laws against “voter fraud,” what they mean is passing laws against the “fraud” that is nonwhite Americans having a say.

Third, these lies and the laws these lies are based on are spearheading myriad state and local efforts to do what Republican officials have wanted to do but did not have the chance or justification to do until respectable white people felt first a pang of discomfort on becoming increasingly aware of being white after George Floyd’s murder. 

Compulsory K-12 public education is the greatest tool the United States has devised for flattening the hierarchies of power that allow the Republicans to maintain an advantage in society. For decades, they endeavored to censor information and police thought among teachers and children for the purpose of keeping white men at the top of the order — for the purpose of replacing knowledge and understanding with lies and propaganda advancing a preferred way of seeing America, to wit: America is the best place in the world. Don’t like it? Leave it.

Some even called for banning books and outlawing the utterance of individual words. That seemed extreme before Floyd’s murder.

Let’s make sure it stays that way.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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