school room with right wing media outlets logos on the chalkboard

Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Here’s how right-wing media are attacking America’s education system

Conservatives are making race in education a culture war issue heading into the election

Right-wing media figures are systematically attacking a variety of initiatives intended to increase racial equity and inclusion in America’s education system. Since 2021, they have attacked or rebranded certain related concepts in order to vilify them: critical race theory; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and affirmative action.

Schools in Oklahoma and Florida are even starting to partner with right-wing media’s PragerU and “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty, which spread conservative propaganda in public schools. These ongoing strategic assaults from right-wing figures and outlets are poised to make education a culture war issue for the 2024 election.

  • Right-wing media have spent recent years making CRT and DEI in schools into culture war issues

    • Media Matters noted in 2021 that the conservative movement’s strategy took “alleged left-wing excesses in discussions of race” in the classroom and sensationalized these stories for political gain. Media Matters’ Matt Gertz wrote, “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.” [Media Matters, 8/3/21]
    • The conservative movement uses a feedback loop between think tanks, advocacy groups, right-wing media, and GOP politicians to fuel its anti-CRT strategy. Right-wing media generated enough noise around the issue to gain further national media coverage, using that attention to create incentives for Republican politicians to change education policy. [Media Matters, 6/3/21]
    • Opposition to critical race theory “might not be the defining strand of this new neo-confederate resistance,” but “no anti-civil rights campaign has ever spread this fast, this effectively,” Media Matters observed in 2021. Panic over critical race theory “has become a new battle flag, a very effective catalyst of multiple lost causes driven by veteran right-wing operatives and funded by far-right dark money. It might not be the defining strand of this new neo-confederate resistance -- storming the U.S. Capitol in support of white nationalism is tough to top -- but no anti-civil rights campaign has ever spread this fast, this effectively.” [Media Matters, 6/17/21]
    • Fox News fearmongered about CRT, then promoted it as a hot-button issue in the 2021 midterm elections. Fox News whipped up a frenzy over CRT through relentless coverage, inflating its importance as a voting issue. Fox reporter Carley Shimkus even admitted that no one was talking about CRT until the network manufactured the issue. [Media Matters, 5/26/21]
    • Chris Rufo, a leading figure behind the CRT scare campaign, has admitted that the “goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” The frequent right-wing media guest also acknowledged that he doesn’t care about understanding the theory, an academic legal framework examining the impacts of systemic racism. [Media Matters, 6/23/21]
    • No Left Turn in Education, a leading anti-critical race theory group, has compared efforts of educators to those of Pol Pot, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. Founder Elana Yaron Fishbein has claimed that “black bigotry towards whites”' is a “very real problem.” The group has also complained that an educational video about George Floyd's death does not cover violence by Black people and promoted anti-LGBTQ rhetoric telling transgender people to go “back to Trans-sylvania.” [Media Matters, 6/22/21]
    • Conservatives succeeded in abolishing DEI programs at public universities in Florida, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas by collaborating with high-level lawmakers. Bills banning DEI-related programs in these states prohibit “using federal or state funding to support DEI offices or staff at public colleges, mandating diversity training, using diversity statements in hiring and promotion, or using identity-based preferences in hiring and admissions.” Documents obtained by The New York Times “cast light on the playbook and the thinking underpinning one nexus of the anti-D.E.I. movement — the activists and intellectuals who helped shape Texas’ new law, along with measures in at least three other states.” [U.S. News & World Report, 8/18/23; The New York Times, 1/20/24]
  • Fox News and others in right-wing media have obsessed over CRT since 2021

    • Right-wing media spent 2021 attacking CRT to sow panic among their audience and energize the Republican voting base. Conservatives spun “critical race theory” into a key phrase in the national political landscape, marking a new battle in the unceasing culture wars. Right-wing media and hundreds of right-wing Facebook groups helped, using empty but dangerous and often racist rhetoric to depict CRT as a threat and energize the Republican base. [Media Matters, 12/8/21
    • A Media Matters report found that Fox ran nearly 80 segments on “critical race theory” in a single Virginia school district. The network spent 4 and 1/2 hours of airtime decrying Loudoun County schools for teaching children about critical race theory. School board meetings in Loudoun County, a “bedroom community for GOP activists, analysts, and operatives,” became the targets for mob scenes and racist threats. [Media Matters, 7/21/21]
    • Fox News mentioned “critical race theory” over 1,900 times in 3.5 months in 2021, a sharp increase over the preceding months. [Media Matters, 6/15/21]
    • Right-wing media and Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly drove talk about critical race theory on Facebook. Media coverage of critical race theory has influenced discussion on right-leaning Facebook news pages as well, with nearly 90% of posts mentioning CRT — and 97% of the interactions the posts earned — coming from right-leaning pages. [Media Matters, 5/20/21]
  • Conservative media fearmongered about CRT as a supposed tool for liberal indoctrination and anti-white racism, often calling to defund colleges and universities where it is taught

    • Fox News host Jesse Watters suggested critical race theory is responsible for deaths of high school students, said “the Trojan horse” in the U.S. education system “is a Black history AP high school class,” and blamed “critical race theory consultants” for school shootings. He asked, “Is it a coincidence that when they start teaching CRT, two kids kill each other in public schools?” In another episode, he suggested CRT distracts from concerns about school safety and “the mental health crisis,” saying, “We’re spending all this money on hiring critical race theory consultants. How about hiring some school therapists instead?” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 11/28/23, 1/24/23, 5/25/22]
    • On his radio show, Turning Point USA co-founder Charlie Kirk attempted to mobilize his audience to defund colleges teaching CRT. Kirk urged, “If you are in a red state, you should defund every single one of your colleges and universities if they are teaching DEI, CRT.” [Salem, The Charlie Kirk Show, 9/20/23]
    • Conservative radio host Mark Levin: CRT is “anti-white racism,” and “Hitler himself would agree with that kind of thinking process.” Levin stated, “If you're promoting critical race theory, which is, at bottom, the promotion of anti-white racism — even if you're not white and you actually love America, you're obviously an anti-white racist between your ears, if not by skin color — but it is a horrific racist ideology.” [Westwood One, The Mark Levin Show, 1/23/23]
    • Fox News twisted the truth about funding from Biden’s American Rescue Plan to fearmonger about critical race theory. Fox accused over a dozen blue states including California, Illinois, and New York of using COVID-19 relief funds to promote CRT in schools, using shoddy research from a conservative dark money group to back up its claims. [Media Matters, 5/2/22]
    • Citing The Daily Caller, Fox & Friends promoted a false claim that parents in Loudoun County, Virginia, are forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement to learn what their children are being taught in school, suggesting it was tied to CRT. In fact, the county partnered with Second Step, a company that provides materials for social-emotional learning to teach children about conflict resolution and understanding other people. The company’s materials are not a secret, as sample lesson plans and supporting materials are posted on both the school district and the vendor’s websites. [Media Matters, 10/26/21]
    • Right-wing local news conglomerate Sinclair has relentlessly platformed anti-CRT activists and pushed right-wing misrepresentations about critical race theory. Sinclair began circulating conservatives’ distorted views on the topic in the summer of 2021, giving a microphone to right-wing activists Christopher Rufo and Ian Prior in an August town hall debate over CRT. Sinclair’s morning show The National Desk has also repeatedly aired unchecked GOP falsehoods about critical race theory. [Media Matters, 8/30/21]
    • Telling parents to pull their kids out of schools, The Daily Wire's Candace Owens said students today are worse than the “Hitler Youth” because they are being taught to hate their country. Owens: “In fact, somebody said to me, via comment, that it feels like today it's Hitler Youth or Stalin Youth. And, actually, I said back to them no, you're wrong, because Hitler and Stalin Youth were taught to love their country. … What are the children actually learning in school today? Well, first and foremost, they are learning that America is a fundamentally backwards and racist country. They are learning that it is a good attribute, it is a virtue to hate your country.” [The Daily Wire, Candace, 8/24/21]
    • Right-wing commentator Michael Savage called critical race theory “the road to the death camps.” Savage argued that “attacks on white people is exactly what was done to the Jews in Germany in the ‘30s. Don't fall for this garbage. This is the road to the death camps. Stand up to these bastards and sue them.” [Newsmax, Cortes and Pellegrino, 6/21/21]
    • In 2021, Fox News promoted an attack on CRT that echoed the white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy theory. The network hosted former Trump official Russ Vought and posted his pamphlet on its website accusing the left of trying to “replace you” and proposing to forbid teachers from acknowledging systemic racism. [Media Matters, 6/10/21]
    • Appearing on Fox, Heritage Foundation visiting scholar Allen Guelzo claimed the Confederacy was “built on a similar kind of critical race theory and equity.” Guelzo: “The American Confederacy, for instance, the Southern Confederacy, was built on a similar kind of critical race theory and equity — but then it was about giving equity to white Southern slaveholders, who rejected the Declaration and the Constitution, and who sneered at reason and law.” [Fox News, The Story with Martha MacCallum, 5/14/21]
    • On Fox, network contributor and New York Post columnist Miranda Devine proclaimed critical race theory a “Marxist concept” that will “warp the minds of American children.” She also argued that teaching kids not to be racist “is a recipe for social upheaval and mental illness, frankly.” [Fox News, America Reports, 4/22/21]
    • Then-Fox host Tucker Carlson complained that “race hate” was being taught in schools and claimed that “teachers are given ‘white allies’ agenda items.” [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 2/19/21]
  • Right-wing media’s anti-CRT campaign directly targeted schools, teachers, and other staff for harassment, and encouraged viewers to do the same

    • Right-wing media figures harangued Black Republican elected officials who criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new history curriculum on slavery. The new Black history standards, approved by the Florida State Board of Education on July 19, 2023, include instruction claiming that during the centuries of slavery in America, enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” After several Black GOP lawmakers including Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), and Rep. John James (R-MI) criticized DeSantis for the new standards, right-wing media attacked them, with TheBlaze’s Steve Deace accusing Donalds of “trying to race bait Ron DeSantis.” [Media Matters, 7/31/23]
    • Fox's Rachel Campos-Duffy stated that Howard University students are “some pretty dumb college kids” if they believe the country “is full of white supremacists.” Co-host Pete Hegseth suggested that “most college kids across America” have never seen “real racism.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 5/14/23]
    • Fox News reporter Hannah Grossman published nearly 100 articles between May 2022 and May 2023 targeting specific educators over their discussion of systemic racism, gender, and sexuality in the classroom. Multiple teachers, administrators, board members, or other staff named in her reporting have been doxxed, harassed, fired, sued, or forced to resign. [Media Matters, 5/9/23]
    • Right-wing media twisted comments made by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to falsely paint her and the teachers union as hysterical and anti-parent. In an interview regarding the conservative movement’s efforts to limit discussions of race in schools, Weingarten suggested that propaganda and misinformation are often a prelude to hatred and war. Right-wing media twisted her words to make it seem as though she said parental rights bills are “the way in which wars start.” [Media Matters, 4/26/22]
    • Rufo urged viewers to continue protesting local school boards: “Do not stop, double down.” While arguing that “it's not really critical race theory or not critical race theory, masks or no masks,” Rufo asked, “Who is the ultimate authority of our public institutions? Is it the actual public, the parents and the voters, or is it the unelected bureaucrats and the unelected teachers unions that want to jam down this curriculum in all 14,000 local school districts.” [Fox News, America Reports, 10/6/21]
  • Conservatives smeared DEI programs in higher education and other institutions and called for their abolition

    • Right-wing media celebrated the ouster of Harvard President Claudine Gay as a victory in their prolonged assault on DEI initiatives. Gay’s resignation was the result of a right-wing pressure campaign over accusations of antisemitisim and plagiarism, amid a clearly stated strategy to target higher education and root out supposedly “woke” ideology, including a prolonged assault on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. [Media Matters, 1/5/24]
    • Conservative media figures cited pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses during the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict to call for defunding education and diversity initiatives and deporting students studying here on visas. They also claimed the protests were evidence of “indoctrination and identity politics” on college campuses. [Media Matters, 12/15/23]
    • On YouTube, Chris Rufo asserted that “the next conservative administration must work to radically reshape the federal bureaucracy, defund left-wing ideological programs, abolish DEI departments and build a patronage system capable of cultivating a new establishment.” [YouTube, 8/14/23]
    • The New York Times elevated Rufo by publishing his op-ed attacking DEI, amplifying the right-wing offensive against education. Other articles published by The New York Times downplayed the right’s attack on DEI in education, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to ban teaching the actual history of racism in schools. [Media Matters, 7/27/23]
    • The Daily Wire's Matt Walsh called diversity “an anti-white conspiracy.” Walsh: “All diversity initiatives are anti-white initiatives. Anytime you hear about any kind of diversity initiative anywhere, whether it's in government, in corporations, in any institution at all, it is an anti-white initiative. Diversity is an anti-white conspiracy.” [The Daily Wire, The Matt Walsh Show, 5/23/23]
    • Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer accused a day care chain of teaching “woke issues” and “indoctrinating little children.” Hemmer mischaracterized KinderCare's “diversity, equity, and inclusion” plan, which includes reading multicultural books, as teaching kids as young as six weeks that “they're an oppressor.” [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 11/5/21]
  • Right-wing media attacked affirmative action, celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to bar it in higher education, and smeared Black people in positions of power as diversity hires

    • Right-wing and fringe media celebrated the Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision ending affirmative action, calling the policy “unconstitutional,” “racist,” and “discriminatory.” The court ruled that the race-conscious admission policies of Harvard College and the University of North Carolina violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, effectively dismantling affirmative action in higher education. [Media Matters, 6/29/23
    • Conservative “parents' rights” activists led the charge for gutting the 14th Amendment and laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action. By demonizing long-standing efforts to redress systemic racism in education and beyond, the coalition of anti-civil rights activists and right-wing media helped to lay the groundwork for the Supreme Court to strike down affirmative action in higher education in the name of so-called colorblindness. [Media Matters, 6/28/23]
    • Following the Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action, right-wing media responded by pushing for privatization and school choice. The policies referred to by the right as “school choice” promote defunding government education and instead investing in private school vouchers as part of the crusade against “woke” curricula. So-called school choice not only fails to improve educational outcomes — as writer Wajahat Ali explains, it is “all about entrenching right-wing power, control, and Christian nationalism.” [Media Matters, 7/5/23
    • Right-wing opponents of affirmative action falsely claimed it created racial “quotas” in college admissions. [Media Matters, 7/6/23]
    • Conservatives responded with racist smears and vitriol following Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s dissent in the affirmative action decision. Attacks labeling Jackson as “racist” and belittling her as a “diversity hire” joined a long-running right-wing smear campaign against the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. [Media Matters, 6/30/23]
    • Then-Fox host Tucker Carlson said that affirmative action is “what the Nazis did.” Fellow right-wing personality Charlie Kirk also claimed that affirmative action policy is “evil” and “immoral,” adding that it does not address the “real problem” of “Black crime” and Black fathers abandoning their children. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 11/1/22; Real America’s Voice, The Charlie Kirk Show, 7/6/23]
    • Newsmax host Marc Lotter said ending affirmative action “fulfills Dr. King's dream.” Lotter: “You know, one of the things that many people, especially on the right, have taken away is that this, basically, fulfills Dr. King's dream of saying that you would be judged by the content of your character, not by the color of your skin.” [Newsmax, The Right Squad, 6/29/23]
    • Fox News host Jesse Watters lectured Black Americans on affirmative action: “A white person who’s more qualified was discriminated against.” Watters: “Many Black Americans acknowledge that they never would have achieved a certain level of success if it hadn't been for affirmative action. They own the fact that they were admitted because they were Black and maybe they didn't have the perfect application and I'm sympathetic to that. I get it. But a white person who's more qualified was discriminated against and didn't get in. And when you discriminate on race, some people win and some people lose.” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 6/29/23]
    • While celebrating the end of affirmative action, right-wing personality Benny Johnson called the policy “Nazi-level thinking.” Johnson argued that “these leftists, these libs, they really do have, like, Nazi-level thinking here. The racial quotas, … it's like eugenics-thinking. It's so backwards.” [YouTube, The Benny Show, 6/29/23]
    • Fox News contributor Leo Terrell claimed that the affirmative action decision will result in “minimizing wokeness throughout this country.” [Fox News, The Faulkner Focus, 6/29/23]
  • Right-wing media spread conservative propaganda through PragerU partnerships and Moms for Liberty activism, and encouraged the latter group’s efforts at taking over school boards

    • PragerU created partnerships with Republican-controlled states such as Oklahoma and Florida to put its PragerU Kids videos in schools. PragerU billed these videos — which are widely criticized for including right-wing propaganda, such as distorted histories about slavery — as a counter to “the woke and anti-American leftist narrative taught in most schools.” Oklahoma’s Department of Education, led by top education official Ryan Walters, joined Florida in treating PragerU Kids’ propagandistic work as legitimate educational content. [Media Matters, 9/7/23, 10/6/23]
    • Moms for Liberty introduced right-wing propaganda into public school libraries. Moms for Liberty, a self-described “parental rights” organization advocating for the banning of books across the country and strategically harassing school officials, partnered with three conservative publishing companies and figures, including Ben Carson’s American Cornerstone Institute, to introduce right-wing propaganda into public school libraries. [Media Matters, 4/22/22]
    • Moms for Liberty has also previously banned books about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and recommended a history book written by a far-right conspiracy theorist. Beyond opposing education about the history of racism in America, the organization also recommends reading an American history book by a far-right conspiracy theorist that is sympathetic to slave owners, calling them “the worst victims” and writing that “in some ways, the economic system of slavery chained the slave owners almost as much as the slaves.” The group’s co-founder Tiffany Justice also actively opposed desegregation efforts while formerly serving on her school board. [Media Matters, 11/15/21]
    • As a guest on conspiracy theorist DeAnna Lorraine’s show, Walters promised to “put folks that share our conservative values” into the state’s education agency. Walters appeared on Shots Fired with DeAnna Lorraine and promised to continue “running the left wing out” and to “put folks that share our conservative values” in the state's education agency. [Media Matters, 1/2/24]