This report draws heavily from my prior discussions of “The feedback loop the conservative movement is using against ‘critical race theory’” and “How right-wing lies move through the Fox Cycle in the Biden administration.”
Fox News and its right-wing media compatriots have in recent months obsessively fixated over the purported infiltration of “critical race theory” in the U.S. military, corporations, universities, and particularly K-12 schools. Progressives have at times been caught flat-footed at the speed with which the issue became the focus of Republican politics at the local, state, and national level.
Critical race theory is an academic legal framework which examines the systemic impact of racism in the United States. But a right-wing movement involving think tanks, advocacy groups, media outlets, and Republican politicians has turned it into an umbrella term that focuses its mostly white adherents’ racial anxiety into political energy.
This movement’s strategy is to identify, exaggerate, or fabricate discrete local instances of alleged left-wing excesses in discussions of race; dishonestly brand them all as “critical race theory”; nationalize coverage of those stories as part of the broader culture war; and polarize the debate for political gain, at times using the issue as justification for changing laws or policies.
The following report details how that strategy works, first in general, and then through a case study from the spring.
The right-wing movement’s “critical race theory” feedback loop
A feedback loop between powerful right-wing institutions is fueling the Republican Party’s anti-“critical race theory” strategy, which seeks to turn local debates about school curricula into a polarized national issue Republicans can wield in state and national elections.
There are more than 130,000 K-12 schools in the United States, with nearly 13,500 school districts governing the public facilities. As teachers and administrators grapple with how to discuss race and racism in the wake of 2020’s police killings and protests, it is inevitable that some of them will make decisions that are clumsy, ineffective, unpopular, or all of the above.
Such disputes over curricula have traditionally been managed between local officials, educators, parents, and other stakeholders. But the right’s “critical race theory” strategy is to encourage local parents to view those debates as part of a national fight -- and mobilize them for GOP political gain. Here’s how the loop works.
Right-wing think tanks came up with a framework for discussing “critical race theory.” As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo, who helped launch the campaign, has explained, the goal is to “put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category” so that people “read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” Other right-wing institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the newly established Center for Renewing America followed up on Rufo’s work, putting on events, producing “toolkits” for local activists, writing model legislation, and convening allied lawmakers to discuss state-level bans.
Advocacy groups use the think tank framework to oppose “critical race theory.” There are now “at least 165 local and national groups that aim to disrupt lessons on race and gender,” according to an NBC News analysis, several of the most prominent of which are headed by right-wing activists or GOP strategists. These groups try to garner attention for the flawed interpretation of “critical race theory” put forward by Rufo and his think tank colleagues. These groups highlight controversies in their communities, attend and speak at public meetings, lobby public officials, and appear in local and national media.
Advocacy work generates press coverage, particularly from right-wing media. The seemingly organic activism of anti-“critical race theory” groups provide a steady stream of news hooks, both for local mainstream news outlets and national right-wing media players. Such right-wing media attention gives the advocacy groups a bigger platform that helps them raise funds and gain new recruits.
Media coverage creates the incentive for GOP politicians to take action. Republican politicians are increasingly indistinguishable from right-wing media personalities, latching on to whatever culture war outrage is currently roiling the GOP base rather than trying to grapple with actual societal problems. As Fox and its ilk made “critical race theory” that subject, GOP candidates and officeholders began highlighting it as a core part of its political strategy for future elections. Meanwhile, at least 26 states have reportedly introduced or passed legislation banning “critical race theory” in public schools or taken other steps to supposedly curtail its spread.
For the right-wing movement, this is a virtuous cycle. Each step of this process bolsters all preceding steps. Advocacy groups’ on-the-ground efforts create increased demand for the think tanks’ work. Right-wing media coverage boosts the influence of advocacy groups and think tanks. And political action provides more news hooks for right-wing media outlets to cover; creates victories for advocacy groups to claim and rally around; and adopts the framework crafted and promoted by the think tanks, all of which creates incentives for more think tank work, more advocacy, more media coverage, and more political action. And every iteration of the cycle drives the right-wing base into more of a frenzy, which shows up everywhere from enraged social media engagement to public meeting uproars.
Key tactics the right uses to sustain the “critical race theory” outrage
Spewing extreme, violent demagoguery. On Fox News and other right-wing outlets, “critical race theory” is described as a ”racist theology,” a “neo-marxist religion,” and “civilization-ending poison” that “threatens to overturn the advances of human civilization over the last 500 years” and puts the country on the “road to the death camps” and the genocide of white Americans.
Scrutinizing and cherry-picking from documents. Rufo, in particular, frequently obtains and publicizes documents from government or corporate entities that detail school curricula or diversity trainings. He and others on the right often promote overwrought or inaccurate interpretations of these documents, exaggerating their importance or misrepresenting their contents. They even scrutinize the links in documents to determine whether they can suggest the groups that produced linked materials have also made controversial proposals.
Organizing scenes at public events. Anti-“critical race theory” groups both hold their own rallies to garner media attention and try to pack local school board meetings with agitated supporters. The Loudoun County Public Schools board in Virginia shut down a June meeting and went into closed session after outbursts from such protesters, leading to the arrest of one attendee who refused to leave and resulting in substantial coverage from Fox.
Building alliances with anti-trans activists. Critics of “critical race theory” in schools also frequently complain about the inclusion of transgender students. Fox figures regularly compared the two topics to each other, claiming that they both are “designed to divide” people, that transgender rights silence women while discussions about race silence white people, and that teaching about race or gender identity will lead to “dumber” kids and a weaker military. That overlap has trickled down to the activist actions at local school board meetings, including the June meeting in Loudoun County.
Holding political inquisitions. Idaho’s far-right Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin tried to put “critical race theory” front and center for her primary challenge against sitting Gov. Brad Little by announcing a “Task Force to Examine Indoctrination in Idaho Education.” The group appeared for the first time in late May and held a five-hour public meeting in which “committee members rattled off allegations of indoctrination in U.S. schools, wrote down their understandings of critical race theory and listened as hard-line conservatives leveraged critiques against alleged left-leaning curricula,” according to the Idaho Statesman. She later went on Fox to talk up the task force’s effort.
Circulating and passing stock legislation. Bills that Republicans introduced in state legislatures often bear the fingerprints of former Trump White House official Russ Vought and his organization -- the Center for Renewing America. His presentation of critical race theory and similar approaches as “divisive concepts” and prohibitions on teachings that an individual is “inherently racist” or that the U.S. or relevant state is “fundamentally or systemically racist,” have been generally replicated in bills across the country. In some states, the bills prohibit teaching students that one race is superior to another, which conservatives have falsely claimed is a tenet of “critical race theory.”
Using opposition to “critical race theory” as an excuse for right-wing policy-making. Conservatives have recently invoked purported connections to “critical race theory” in opposing affirmative action, universal pre-K, and one of President Joe Biden’s nominees.
Case study: The “critical race theory” in Virginia math lie
Fox News’ website reported on April 22 that Virginia’s Department of Education “is moving to eliminate all accelerated math options prior to 11th grade, effectively keeping higher-achieving students from advancing as they usually would in the school system” as part of a confrontation over “controversial ideas surrounding equity and race.”
That wasn’t true. The Washington Post debunked the story days later, reporting based on an interview with Superintendent James Lane that Virginia “is not eliminating advanced high school mathematics courses.”
But in between, the “critical race theory” feedback loop helped turn the tale into a major national story in the right-wing press and a key political fight in the state. As with many such “critical race theory” outrages, the Virginia math lie went through what we term the Fox Cycle, generating heavy coverage from the network before fading away in favor of other angles.
1. A right-wing outlet manufactures a bogus story. FoxNews.com based its April 22 report on a Facebook post from Loudon County school board member Ian Serotkin as well as comments from regular Fox guest Ian Prior, a former Trump official and Republican political strategist leading the anti-“critical race theory” advocacy group Fight For Schools. Prior told FoxNews.com the supposed move “is critical race theory in action and parents should be outraged." The story also included quotes from a department official casting doubt on Fox’s framing.
2. The bogus story goes viral. The FoxNews.com story received more than 250,000 Facebook interactions, according to CrowdTangle. Other right-wing websites picked up the story, including TheBlaze, MRCTV, The Federalist, Breitbart, the Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, and The National Pulse, and each of those stories received thousands or even tens of thousands of Facebook engagements of their own, according to BuzzSumo.
3. Fox News picks up the bogus story, reports on it incessantly. Fox ran at least 12 segments on its daytime programs on the story from April 23 to April 30, with the network’s coverage totaling more than 33 minutes across six different shows that week. America Reports anchor John Roberts interviewed Prior for one such segment, identifying him only as “the founder of FightForSchools.com” and as a parent with children in Loudoun County, Virginia, schools while giving him a platform to decry “this push toward critical race theory-inspired concepts.” A chyron during the interview read, “Virginia’s ‘Woke’ Move To Eliminate Advanced Math.” Another segment on The Story featured Carrie Lukas, who has also spent her career working in conservative and libertarian think tanks, and introduced as a “Virginia mom of five”
4. Republican politicians promote the bogus story to attack Democrats. The Republican Party of Virginia and every leading Republican gubernatorial candidate tried to take advantage of Fox’s story, issuing statements denouncing VDOE’s supposed plan to take away advanced math classes. GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin went furthest, calling for the resignations of Lane and his deputy. This apparently caught the attention of Fox’s star host Tucker Carlson, who gave Youngkin a showcase interview to discuss the issue days before the party convention that ended up selecting him as its nominee. National Republicans also weighed in, with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (TN) saying the story showed that “the woke liberal mob is now CANCELING MATH.”
5. Responsible news outlets debunk the bogus story. In his interview with the Post, Lane explained that the department is in the early stages of a regularly scheduled revision of the state’s math standards, and one proposal involves “rejiggering eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade math courses to place a greater emphasis on fields including data science and data analytics.” But Lane “said the initiative does not propose eliminating accelerated math classes,” and he also “noted that those kinds of decisions — how an advanced student should best progress through middle and high school math classes — would be made by local school officials, not the Virginia Department of Education, as has always been the case.”
6. Repeat. Fox produced only a handful of additional segments on the Virginia math story since the spring. But the initial salvo came in the early stages of a monthslong Fox propaganda campaign attacking “critical race theory” in Virginia schools, with a particular focus on Loudoun County, the home of Prior and other GOP operatives moonlighting as anti-“critical race theory” parents. From March through June, Fox ran 98 segments and nearly 5 1/2 hours of coverage of “critical race theory” in the state’s schools.