Critical Race Theory And "The Children"

The current controversy belongs to a larger pattern of right-wing mobilization based on narratives of threatened innocence.

The argument about teaching so-called “critical race theory” (CRT) in public schools and universities have moved from being a political controversy to becoming a full-bloom moral panic. As AP reports from Reno, Nevada: “People wore MAGA hats and waved signs outside a packed school board meeting this week in Reno, while trustees considered expanding K-5 curriculum to include more teaching about equity, diversity and racism…A conservative group even suggested outfitting teachers with body cameras to ensure they aren’t indoctrinating children with such lessons.”

I have previously argued CRT functions as a bogeyman. But perhaps a bit more can be said about the particular tradition of scaremongering it belongs to. CRT is the latest example of a pattern going back more than a century of the political right using fear of innocent (implicitly white) children being corrupted in schools.

As Jelani Cobb tweeted:

Cobb is exactly right in locating the CRT moral panic in the Black Lives Moment backlash and underscoring the starring role (white) children play in this morality play the right has constructed.

This is an old script, one where the name of the bogeyman changes but the basic storyline is always the same: sinister, alien forces are trying to corrupt children. We’ve seen this before in the battles over teaching evolution, over prayer in the schoolroom, over LGBTQ teachers, over sex ed, over trans students, over bathrooms, among others.

Nor have liberals been exempt from such panics: in the past some liberals have joined in battles against comic books, rap music, and video games.

At the outer extreme of these child endangerment fantasies are the 1980s panic over Satanic ritual abuse at daycare or the more recent QAnon mythology about Satanic pedophile rings controlling the government. It’s noteworthy that the CRT panic took off at precisely the moment QAnon is going into abeyance.

The recurrence of these battles make perfect sense when we consider how important childhood education and entertainment is passing on cultural values and maintaining cultural power. But beyond that, these battles stir up the innermost lizard brain, the irrational fear-driven creature inside of us that becomes enraged at the thought of children in danger.

All of this suggests that these battles need to be engaged not just on the level of rational argument (the CRT narrative is easily refuted) but also more fundamentally on an emotional level. What such an emotional reckoning would be like is difficult to imagine. One could begin by pointing out that not all children are white. Another early step is to note that the CRT moral panic itself is harmful because without an honest confrontation with racism, we will pass on a blighted inheritance.

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