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The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession

How conservative politicians and pundits became fixated on an academic approach.

As with other academic frameworks before it, the nuances of critical race theory—and the debate around it—were obscured when it escaped the ivory tower. It first entered public discourse in the early 1990s, when President Bill Clinton nominated the University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Lani Guinier to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Republicans mounted an aggressive and ultimately successful campaign to prevent her appointment, tagging her the “Quota Queen.” Among the many reasons her adversaries said she was wrong for the job was that she had been “championing a radical school of thought called ‘critical race theory.’” The theory soon stood in for anything resembling an examination of America’s history with race. Conservatives would boil it down further: Critical race theory taught Americans to hate America. Today, across the country, school curricula and workplace trainings include materials that defenders and opponents alike insist are inspired by critical race theory but that academic critical race theorists do not characterize as such.

Fox News gave only passing thought to critical race theory until last year. The first mention on the network occurred after Bell died, in 2012. A video of President Barack Obama praising him 21 years earlier began circulating online. “Open up your minds and your hearts to the words of Mr. Derrick Bell,” Obama said. That introduction was followed by a hug between the two men, which Fox cited as further evidence of Obama’s tendency to consort with radicals. A guest on Hannity offhandedly alluded to the theory during a segment on George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2014; network regulars briefly referred to it twice in 2019. Then, in 2020, after Derek Chauvin was captured on video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, and the United States became awash in anti-racist reading lists—some of which included books and articles that discussed critical race theory—Fox suddenly took a great interest in the idea. It became the latest in a long line of racialized topics (affirmative action perhaps being the most prominent) that the network has jumped on. Since June 5, 2020, the phrase has been invoked during 150 broadcasts.