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Is critical race theory in schools the new wedge issue in politics?

2021 American Family Survey revealed partisan division on teaching the history of racism, with the greatest division between white Republicans and Democrats

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Betty Sawyer, a supporter of critical race theory, stands outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City after a protest organized by the Utah Educational Equity Coalition. 

Betty Sawyer, a supporter of critical race theory, center, exchanges views with a group of women opposed to the theory, after a protest organized by the Utah Educational Equity Coalition outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on May 19, 2021. 

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Culture wars over issues like what to teach schoolchildren about the nation’s racial history and COVID-19 politics appear to have played a role in the outcome of recent elections across the country, from races for local school boards to gubernatorial campaigns.

Buoyed by the support of parents who are concerned about how race is taught in public schools, former private equity CEO Glenn Youngkin scored a narrow victory as the next governor of Virginia, becoming the first Republican to win the seat since 2009.

Many voters supported Youngkin because of his defense of parents who object to new protections for transgender students adopted by the Virginia General Assembly, according to national reports.

Meanwhile, Democratic New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy barely hung on to his seat amid a campaign defined by the pandemic, which has impacted health, the economy and students’ education. Murphy was among the last governors nationally to end an indoor mask mandate and has implemented a mandate that calls for vaccination or regular testing of teachers.

Republican schools and protests

Conservative outrage over public education also played a part in the outcome of some local school board races that heretofore captured little attention from the electorate.

In the past year, however, some school board meetings have been disrupted by raucous protests and threats that prompted elected officials and educators to ask for stepped-up security as community members have pushed back against wearing face coverings in schools or the use of social emotional learning curriculum.

While the recent 2021 American Family Survey did not foreshadow the outcome of the recent elections, it did capture the nation’s deep partisan divide over teaching the history of racism in America’s public schools, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.


No other issue on the nationwide YouGov survey of some 3,000 Americans revealed such a deep divide in opinion, with the greatest division between white Republicans and white Democrats.

Data on critical race theory as a wedge issue

Among Democrats, nearly 8 in 10 nonwhites and close to 9 in 10 whites agree that school curricula should include instruction on the nation’s troubled racial history. Among Republicans, 4 in 10 nonwhites and more than a third of whites, 35%, share that view, according to the survey results.

“I think it indicates that there are real partisan differences in how Americans would like schools to approach the issue of race,” said Karpowitz.

However, “there is agreement between Democrats and Republicans that part of what is taught is a story of progress, right? That we’re not in the same place that we were during Jim Crow or in earlier periods in American history, for example. But there is deep disagreement about how to handle the more negative aspects of the past,” he said.

The results of the survey conducted for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy between June 25 and July 8 show general agreement among Democrats, independents and Republicans that schools should teach that there has been significant progress toward racial equality in the United States. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

“If you want to tell a story of progress, it’s hard to know how to tell that story without saying that things were worse in the past than they are today. So it’s unclear how conservatives want to talk about progress without recognizing challenges from the past. I think it’s also the case that though conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans agree that progress has been made, they might deeply disagree about how much progress has been made, or about the nature of the challenges today,” Karpowitz said.

Critical race theory in schools today

In many respects, debates over teaching critical race theory are tantamount to political theater since few public schools teach it. It is not part of the Utah State Board of Education’s social studies standards for public schools, although some parents say their children have been taught concepts of the theory.

Critical race theory recognizes “that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant,” according to the American Bar Association.

The theory also acknowledges “that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicates racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism,” according to the bar association.

Even though the numbers of public schools nationally that teach or have taught CRT are “vanishingly small,” Karpowitz said, rhetoric around the issue has galvanized some constituencies.

“There’s a big difference between the kind of rhetoric that might give short-term political gain and the kind of deliberative effort needed to actually engage all the members of our community, Black, white and brown, on issues that concern us all,” he said.

“That’s likely going to mean listening to each other in a more effective way than the social media flame wars that get people upset. It gets people angry and it can lead them to make certain vote choices. But it’s not clear that it ultimately brings us together as a community or allows us to find a path forward that we can all feel good about with respect to the education of our children.”

Political wedge issues are changing from the national level

Political observers are also witnessing a “nationalization of politics,” in which voters take their cues from what national parties are doing, Karpowitz said.

“When we’re talking about school board races, that has a number of negative implications because it means that voters are making decisions based on considerations that may have very little to do with what is actually needed at the local board level,” he added.

But Utahns have demonstrated the capacity to bring people with differing points of view together to engage with one another and find common ground, Karpowitz said.

“There are some opportunities at the local level to get beyond this sort of partisan polarization. If we’re able to engage each other well and outside of the framing that this is a deep partisan divide, we can actually ... solve problems together. Local boards, for a long time, have been places where people have done that. So overly politicizing them in a partisan way can get in the way of that sort of practical problem-solving and real engagement within a community,” he said.