What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?

Dan Heller
5 min readJun 26, 2021


Most Americans don’t know what a lot of things are, but have an opinion about them anyway

Illustration: M. Scott Byers

A story in AL.com, a news site dedicated to Alabama politics, ran a story with the headline, “Alabama lawmaker wants to ban critical race theory, so I asked him what it is.

The story involves an interview with state Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, who wants to make it illegal to teach critical race theory in Alabama. The reporter, Kyle Whitmire, asked Pringle what critical race theory is. Whitmire writes: “Pringle, a Realtor, a homebuilder and general contractor, dug through what he called his ‘executive suite’ (the cab of his pickup truck) looking for an article he’d read. After a few moments of silence, he said:

“Here’s an — it doesn’t say who it was, it just says a government that held these — these training sessions … It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period.”

You might be able to forgive Pringle for not knowing what critical race theory is, because most people don’t. A Politico-Morning Consult poll published on June 22 finds that nearly half of both Republicans and Democrats never even heard of it, let alone were able to define it.

But that didn’t stop 63% of Republicans from saying they are opposed to it being taught in K-12 schools, with 18% of Democrats saying so as well.

In reality, there are no schools that actually teach — or have ever taught — “critical race theory” because it’s not a defined discipline. Rather, it’s more of an abstract area of research that started in the early 1970s that examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism, mostly in the realms of law. UCLA’s law school has a program that includes some scholarly works developed over the decades, but other than that, it’s nowhere to be found as a class you can take.

So, in one respect, I applaud the GOP for protecting our kindergarteners from having to take courses reserved for graduate level law students at UCLA. This, not to mention the savings from having to hire professors equipped with the knowledge on this abstract concept, and who can also help the little ones with potty time.

This isn’t about critical race theory. It’s about messaging. And both liberals and conservatives are increasingly using cultural wedge issues to rally their respective bases, while demonizing the other side. If it divides Americans, it engages voters.

The technique that Pringle is using to activate the base is by introducing so-called “messaging bills,” legislation designed more to send a message to base voters without necessarily expecting the law to actually pass. (But, all the better if it does.)

It’s the classic “race to the bottom” theory of legislation.

(How Republicans came to leverage “critical race theory” as a wedge issue is fascinating. See The New Yorker article, How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory.)

For the Democrats, two examples of messaging bills are the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — you know, the ones that are attempting to reverse the massive voting restrictions that Republican states have passed since January. What most people don’t know is that those bills were introduced back in 2019, just after the Democrats won the house back against Republicans in 2018. The new lawmakers wanted to show the Democratic voters that they were on the case.

To be sure, both bills do many good things — too numerous to list. But they were hastily drafted, large and complex, poorly written, and even disagreeable to many Democratic legislators. That’s ok. It was really just a wish list of things Democrats wanted to see — y’know: “Messaging Bills.” Even Joe Manchin was a co-sponsor back then, and got waves of voter support.

But today, Joe Manchin no longer supports the bill “because it’s not bipartisan.” That’s because the “message” that the bill was sending then is different from the message he wants to send now.

Don’t be offended, that’s how the system works. Initially-drafted bills are never expected to pass; they only serve to put a stake in the ground to establish a first pass at negotiation, while also sending a message to the base.

The problem is, most people are like Representative Pringle and critical race theory: They don’t know the details of any given subject (or bill), only what their own political party thinks, so that’s the side they take.

The thing about messaging bills, however, is that Republicans have a supermajority in many state legislatures, so these bills often become actual law. Passing laws on things you don’t know anything about is like running with scissors. Someone’s going to get hurt. (That’s what they teach in Kindergarten, just after the two hour lecture on critical race theory.)

An example is Florida’s HB233, which Ron DeSantis just signed. It’s mostly a benign piece of legislation that requires the board of education to survey professors and students at Florida universities to ask if they felt they had the freedom to express themselves. But the way DeSantis spoke about it, you’d think he was going to stop liberal professors from teaching critical race theory, and allow right-wing conservative nutjobs to promote hate speech.

Naturally, the press immediately reacted in kind. Salon.com, a liberal publication, falsely reported that the bill would require Florida students, professors to register political views with the state, and that Universities would have their funding cut if critical race theory was taught. Even though none of that is true, it nonetheless was very successful in activating liberals.

Not all messaging bills that Republicans are passing are benign, of course. The waft of bills that Republicans passed limiting voting rights have real consequences. But again, most people are largely unaware of what’s in those bills. This was discussed in great detail in the podcast “Politicology: Constitution Bootcamp,” where Lucy Caldwell, Lanae Erickson and Mike Madrid — all seasoned experts in running political campaigns for both parties — explained in great detail how nearly all of the Republican voting rights bills, while “bad,” aren’t nearly what most people think they are. Many, it turns out, actually expand more voting rights than restrict them, among other surprises. (Remember, Republicans vote too, and use mail-in ballots more than Democrats ever did before the pandemic, especially the elderly and those in rural communities.)

The panelists’ main point was that Republicans’ initial goal with these voting bills was to assuage the vast majority of Republicans who thought the 2020 election was fraudulently stolen. They wanted to assure them that Republican lawmakers are on the case.

And this brings me back to Representative Pringle, who is like many Americans: He may not know the details of his policies, but he knows where his party is on them, so he’ll act accordingly.

More intelligent legislation would be nice, but it’s hard. As John F. Kennedy said, “Too often, we like the comfort of opinion, without the discomfort of thought.”

That’s quite a message.