Critical Race Theory: The Perfect Straw Man
by LIsa Greene October 5 2021
In recent months School Boards across the country have been and continue to be stormed by people who are afraid of two things: mask mandates and Critical Race Theory. The controversy surrounding both of these subjects – one around public health, one around a body of legal scholarship – have been manufactured by people who want one thing: to keep our nation divided.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the opposition’s manufactured controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT). I’m going to use the term CRT as a descriptor for the purposes of this article, but when actually messaging around this topic, I caution you to never use that term. It only reinforces the opposition’s frame. Instead, let’s explore how we can message around this issue.
First, let’s look at two definitions:
Dog Whistle – Wikipedia describes this as “In politics, a dog whistle is the use of coded or suggestive language in political messaging to garner support from a particular group without provoking opposition. Dog whistles use language that appears normal to the majority but communicates specific things to intended audiences.” It’s helpful if dog whistles are short, three words or less.*
Straw Man – Dictionary.com describes this as “an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument.”
Now let’s look at recent history. The brutal and well-documented murder of George Floyd by a white police officer brought many white people over to the cause of Black Lives Matter and police reform. It also led to corporations and institutions making statements about institutional racism. Societal change was blossoming and that always leads to backlash by people who are invested in maintaining the status quo.
A fascinating article in the New Yorker “How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory” illuminates how one man, Christopher Rufo, weaponized the term to foment that backlash among middle class Americans. After looking at the language already being used: political correctness, cancel culture, woke, he determined that these terms were not having the desired effect. “’Critical race theory is the perfect villain’, Rufo wrote. He thought that the phrase was a better description of what conservatives were opposing, but it also seemed like a promising political weapon.” **
As a straw man, CRT is perfect. It is an actual thing but it is not something typically taught in Pre-K – 12 schools as a subject matter in and of itself. It is difficult, however, to prove a negative. And it forces people to actually use the term in refuting it thereby reinforcing the negative frame surrounding it. Ie. “We don’t teach Critical Race Theory to 3rd graders.” Even saying the words “we don’t” only reinforces the original message.
As a dog whistle, it is also perfect. Most white Americans do not see themselves as racist and don’t want to be racist. The concept of institutional, structural racism that is built into our systems is something difficult to see if the system works for you. Therefore, teaching something called “critical race theory” sounds scarily like school districts trying to indoctrinate white students into thinking they’re racists (and the students of color thinking all white students are racists). In fact we hear the charge that CRT is “teaching white kids to hate themselves”.
Christopher Rufo also thought of this:
“‘Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans. Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.’ Most perfect of all, Rufo continued, critical race theory is not ‘an externally applied pejorative.’ Instead, ‘it’s the label the critical race theorists chose themselves.’” **
How do we fight back against this powerful dog whistle? First, if you are not on a school board, running for school board (or other elected office) or work in a school district, you are under no obligation to respond to it at all. It’s a straw man argument, not real and created for the sole purpose of dividing Americans and moving forward a conservative agenda. If, however, you are in a group that needs to respond, remember to not reinforce their negative message by using the term.
Using “I care” statements can help. Think through what you value most about educating students. “I care that all of our students feel safe in the classroom.” “I believe that all students are empowered when the full history of our great nation is taught.”
Jill Bornes is running for School Board in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, the largest school district in Minnesota. After taking our Stop, Drop and Roll workshop, she crafted the following statement for her website:
“We need curricula that works for all.
“In order for children to thrive, I believe it is important for children to feel safe, successful and seen in their community and their classrooms. Providing a robust social studies curriculum and a supportive atmosphere for honest discussions builds empathy and understanding.
“I believe graduates of Anoka-Hennepin schools would be well-served with a broad view and multiple perspectives of human history, in order to come together to build a more just future for all of us.
“We can’t move forward from conflict if we aren’t willing to honestly face the causes of it.”***
This statement works because Jill never uses the term critical race theory. She invokes her values and emphasizes the importance of empathy that creates a just future for all of us. Best of all Jill is on her message, not her opposition’s.
Here’s how we can break down messaging around this topic using the Stop, Drop and Roll technique. First, Stop and analyze what others are saying about CRT and why the opposition is promoting it. Understand that it was intentionally set up as a straw man and dog whistle intended to cause division. Then Drop what doesn’t work in your messaging. In this case, don’t take the bait if you don’t have to – remember you are never obligated to respond and do not ever use the opposition’s terminology. Then Roll with a well framed message based on your values – like Jill Bornes message around her values and beliefs regarding social studies curricula and supportive classrooms.
For more information about the Stop, Drop and Roll technique, please check out our website www.Connectionslab.org
*Watch this excellent TED Talk: Dog Whistle Politics: Ian Haney Lopez at TEDxOregon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qibFwUNDZX4
**How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker, 6/18/2021 Online article pulled 10/4/2021, www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-inquiry/how-a-conservative-activist-invented-the-conflict-over-critical-race-theory?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker
*** Jill Bornes for School Board website, pulled 10/3/2021, www.jillbforsb.com/community-concerns