Attempts to create, expand, and protect a multiracial democracy in this country have always been met with white backlash. That is an incontrovertible fact, going back as far as Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the racist media of earlier times that tried to gaslight a nation.
In that ugly light, raising the alarm about the current Fox News-fueled disinformation campaign on the supposed dangers of critical race theory -- a decades-old framework for the study of systemic racism -- seems somewhat quaint, or even exaggerated.
It’s not. In the wake of months of election results denialism, voter suppression efforts, and a far-right invasion of the U.S. Capitol, it’s the last thing we need.
Modern right-wing media have periodically attacked and misinformed about both cultural and legal civil rights accomplishments in this country, and their current attempt to falsely brand all anti-racism efforts as “critical race theory” is a tactic out of that tested playbook. Brainwashing white students to obscure the long history of institutional racism in this country, which is now being not only proposed but legislated in response to this manufactured panic, is also nothing new.
Same too with semi-organic, or purely astroturfed, Republican voter groups and PACs promoted by Fox News for electoral gain and mobilization. These have been organized regularly since the tea party movement of the Obama years, and right-wing media were doing it even earlier for conservative groups attacking so-called “political correctness” in the 1990s.
Whether or not this current backlash, the political weaponization of white grievance by opportunists eager to push a right-wing agenda, ends up being part of something more violent, more influential, and more antidemocratic than similar periods past, is irrelevant to the fact that we are -- yet again -- at a moment of reckoning for the viability of our multiracial democracy.
And something is different now about this same old struggle over history, over the acknowledgment of white supremacy, over state-sanctioned violence and voter suppression against persons of color, over what it means to be American.
In part, it is environmental: our obsessive interconnectedness, our ability to mobilize online at unprecedented speed, a growing right-wing media ecosystem that propagandizes for every slight electoral advantage with scary effectiveness. And maybe Trump really was worse than the other white nationalists with fascist tendencies that litter our history, and these are uniquely dangerous times.
Whatever the factor that allowed it to spread, opposition to critical race theory (which is not, in fact, running rampant through our schools’ curriculum) 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.
Blame Fox News.
How to make conservative white people mad about civil rights (again and again)
Right-wing media, and Fox News in particular, have a long record of attacking civil rights by lying about the legality of race-conscious policy and mislabeling any attempts to achieve true equality for African Americans under law. The accusation of “racial quotas” and “reverse racism” to the detriment of whites has long been tossed around Fox as a mischaracterization of diversity efforts, or wielded inaccurately in Fox’s never-ending campaign against the constitutionality of disparate impact law.
The repeated mislabeling serves its purpose. Affirmative action, for example, has been so demonized by right-wing media’s decades-long quest to delegitimize a constitutional race-conscious civil rights policy that the term itself, even properly used, has seemingly receded mostly to niche writings or periodic warnings about its demise.
But the Fox News-fueled campaign against critical race theory has taken this well-worn anti-civil rights disinformation tactic to new heights. Although it’s been almost a year in the making, as Media Matters has shown, Fox News’ practice of labeling as “critical race theory” anything that seeks to explain or ameliorate America’s long history of systemic racism has gone into overdrive with mentions on the network spiking to 1,300 times in the past three and a half months. According to another Media Matters study, online mentions and interactions about critical race theory are similarly being dominated by right-wing sources, with over 90% of Facebook posts mentioning the theory coming from right-leaning pages.
Republican-led attempts to ban the supposed teaching of critical race theory in schools both through activist pressure on local school boards and cookie-cutter state-level legislation, fueled in part by right-wing media, are in turn obsessively covered by Fox News in a feedback loop that has been exponentially escalating every month. Fox News is conditioning its audience, and it is working.
Against this fact-free Fox News backdrop, after a Trump administration that pushed the boundaries on tolerating white supremacy as it attacked societal attempts to reckon with America’s institutional racism, attacks on critical race theory have become a way of galvanizing white grievance around an entirely inaccurate explanation of civil rights history and law.
In addition to their astonishing new reach, the lies these attacks are built upon have gotten even more brazen.
The “colorblind” constitution does not exist
Colorblindness is not a universal constitutional principle. The constitution does not flatly prohibit state action that acknowledges or incorporates race in its decisions.
Not only has a conservative Supreme Court rejected this “colorblind” argument in its repeated defenses of the constitutionality of race-conscious policy, the framers of the 14th Amendment themselves refused to prohibit race-conscious legislation on behalf of African Americans and instead repeatedly approved race-conscious assistance to newly freed victims of white supremacy. Even the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia admitted that certain race-conscious law was a choice Congress was constitutionally free to legislate.
Martin Luther King Jr., whose principles right-wing media continuously mischaracterize, was also a supporter of race-conscious action to achieve racial equity. Racial equity, another target of Fox News, was a goal of the Voting Rights Act and its race-conscious components -- as explained by President Lyndon Johnson himself. These facts of history have always been fatal to right-wing media’s fetishization of a “colorblind” constitution.
But now, the conservative advocacy to push constitutional law in that reactionary direction has become even more unhinged from reality as Donald Trump proved Republicans could operate in as fact-free an environment as the worst corners of Fox News.
The supposed dangers of critical race theory, or at least the made-up boogeyman constructed by Fox News, is the new tool by which the right is trying to push its “colorblind” rollbacks of civil rights precedent in a post-Trump world of alternate realities. Its activists are no longer even trying to pretend they want to effectuate change through court-packing and radical legal attacks on civil rights precedent, as they did at times before.
Instead, in their MAGA-learned insistence that proponents of anti-racism efforts are the real racists and Trump supporters are the true descendants of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, they aren’t just actively turning history upside down, they are entirely whitewashing it, and insisting that a new generation of white kids -- and Republican voters -- are taught these lies.
“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory’”
Take Christopher Rufo, a self-confessed charlatan, at least when it comes to expertise in actual civil rights law or history. As he recently admitted, his efforts to push a negative framing of the term “critical race theory” into right-wing media were an unprincipled misinformation campaign to “put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” He bragged the ultimate “goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” And in this, he was successful.
More so than any other guest on Fox News, this “writer, filmmaker, and senior fellow at Manhattan Institute” helped drive the network’s early interest in attacking critical race theory, appearing over 32 times on Fox since 2019. His original distaste for old-school liberal ideas about diversity and race-conscious policy may have emerged from losing a local race for public office as a conservative (not unique among anti-civil rights activists). But in his apparent determination to find a culprit for his failure, he was one of the earliest propagandists to make critical race theory the new bête noire of the right, so much so that the Trump administration allegedly got its idea for an anti-critical race theory executive order after seeing Rufo on Fox.
A former fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Rufo also picked up the anti-civil rights’ “colorblind” messaging somewhere along the way. Just after he appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight twice to lie about critical race theory, he falsely wrote in a September article titled “Against Wokeness” for the in-house publication of the Manhattan Institute: “The racial narrative that underlies these [critical race theory] initiatives poses a grave threat to the ideal of colorblind justice under the law enshrined in the American constitutional system.”
Rufo did not, of course, mention Supreme Court precedent explaining “the statement by Justice Harlan that ‘[o]ur Constitution is color-blind’ was most certainly justified in the context of his dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. ... In the real world, it is regrettable to say, it cannot be a universal constitutional principle.”
Nor does Rufo or right-wing media ever seem to acknowledge that the late Justice John Marshall Harlan's famous “colorblind” dissent went on to explicitly praise white supremacy -- “the dominant race in this country” -- that Harlan deemed would “continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.” (The much-quoted justice also would proceed to fearmonger about the “Chinese race.”)
A new conservative non-profit, with deeper connections to Heritage and more institutional influence than Rufo, is now trying the same trick -- attacking critical race theory as a threat to a supposed goal of transcending Americans beyond skin color -- but in local politics across the country.
Enter Fox News again.
A “bill mill” for ahistorical right-wing hackery
On June 9, FoxNews.com published an “exclusive” with Russ Vought, Trump’s former Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director who in his retirement from public service formed the Center for Renewing America (CRA), a new non-profit dedicated to attacking critical race theory. Returning to his roots as a right-wing operative, Vought has apparently set up CRA under the patronage of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a far-right dark money organization with connections to a multitude of well-known right-wing foundations and activist groups, and with a former senior Trump official on staff who enabled the former president’s attempts to effectuate a coup.
There is a connection between the heads of these organizations as well -- the current chairperson of CPI is former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who ran the Heritage Foundation when Vought was a senior official at the foundation’s lobbying arm, Heritage Action. Heritage Action currently has a “toolkit” available to help people “reject critical race theory” and recently was busted for helping develop and coordinate voter suppression bills across the country. This “bill mill” approach -- popularized by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) during the Obama years -- feeds cynical or uninformed Republican legislators across the country with cut-and-paste legislative guidance on whatever the current political issue favored by right-wing money. Vought’s new CRA handbook for the “effort to train anti-CRT parents” that FoxNews.com promoted was accompanied by model legislation for critical race theory bans, an indication Vought brought over lessons learned, if not direct collaboration, from his time at Heritage.
Vought additionally repeated Rufo’s ahistorical attacks on the civil rights movement, misappropriating Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his materials to support his agenda and backwardly claiming in a video accompanying his FoxNews.com exclusive that “critical race theory is a critique against the civil rights movement and the view that as a matter of law we should be headed towards a colorblind society.” Vought’s toolkit also managed to echo a white nationalist conspiracy theory.
Efforts like Vought’s -- who as OMB director was responsible for the issuance of the Trump executive order prohibiting critical race theory in federal diversity trainings -- appear to be partly working as evidenced by the striking similarity of critical race theory bans and prohibitions on anti-racist teachings popping up across the country. But Heritage has been trying this trick for years, to varying success. The Affordable Care Act, after all, is still here. Political correctness -- still practiced.
The current shamelessness of Fox News catering to the racist fever swamp of MAGA insurrectionists might have been just the missing ingredient this anti-civil rights movement needed.
Fox News is burning down our democracy -- its attack on critical race theory is the latest spark
On June 8, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that sources within Fox News confessed that faced with increased competition from Newsmax and One America News in the wake of Trump’s presidential loss, the network decided to take even more of a hard right to appeal to Trump’s disappointed and deluded base through rampant election denialism. It worked --- Fox is back in first place for viewership. But as Stelter explained, “because Fox News is the primary trusted source of information for millions of Americans, including Republican elected officials and party activists, the changes affect everyone.”
We saw the deadly consequences of Fox News’ lies pre-election with its COVID-19 misinformation, and post-election, the commitment of the network to disinformation has only increased with its far-right lurch. But now the target isn’t public health efforts to contain a once-in-a-century pandemic, it’s a multiracial democracy that is barely more than a half-century old.
The real-world effects have been immediate as we saw with the insurrection at the Capitol. As Media Matters’ Lis Power reported, “In the two weeks after Fox News called the election for Biden, Fox News cast doubt on the results of the election at least 774 times. The network’s most prominent figures relentlessly attempted to subvert democracy by fueling conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation, rhetoric for which the network has refused to hold them accountable.”
Fox News literally built the lie that led to the racist insurrection of January 6. The network is now trying the same tactic with state-level voter suppression bills across the country, spinning away the fact that Republican legislators and governors are blatantly attempting to disenfranchise voters of color to protect GOP prospects. And the Republican Party on a national level is fully supporting these efforts, abandoning its adherence to democratic principles at an alarming rate.
The wildly dishonest campaign against critical race theory fit right into Fox’s new programming strategy.
Political leaders and historians are increasingly warning us -- our democracy is at a dangerous breaking point. The country’s first attempt at the semblance of a multiracial democracy collapsed under white domestic terrorism and a population that countenanced a new reign of apartheid under Jim Crow, rewriting history to whitewash the country’s shame. The echoes are there, and Fox News is trying its hardest to amplify them.
Ultimately, attacks on critical race theory are not the final nail in the coffin of the republic. We’ve been through worse, and we still have people willing to call out anti-civil rights lies. But in the tinderbox we currently find our democracy, the last thing we need is Fox News tossing another match.
Uncontrollable fires have been started by less.