From the Classroom

Critical race theory a hot topic in Georgia with U.S. House at stake

Republicans in Georgia are attacking an undefined and largely untaught academic concept in hopes of taking the majority.

A photo of a former candidate for Atlanta Board of Education and a Republican candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional District.

Thanks to a Republican Party that sees it as a wedge issue, the once little-known college level idea of critical race theory has been turned into a paramount problem in classrooms, school districts, and now congressional elections across the country.

Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is almost certain to flip red because of redistricting, and nearly all GOP candidates for the seat are directing their wrath at one common enemy for their party: CRT.

CRT is largely a college-level academic field that Republicans allege is being taught in kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms. Blake Harbin, one of the Republican contenders for the 6th District’s seat, has said he believes CRT indoctrinates rather than educates children.

But Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the Columbia Law professor who coined the term “critical race” in the mid-1970s, said CRT is only receiving attention because of how the GOP has turned it into a misleading political flashpoint.

“It’s only prompted interest now that the conservative right wing has claimed it as a subversive set of ideas,” she told the New York Times in 2021.

CRT focuses on accounting for the ways that America’s history of racism and inequality affects society today, Crenshaw said in the Times, such as in policies or infrastructure.

A single definition for the idea does not even exist but Republicans have linked the concept to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and the “1619 Project,” which also sought to examine the consequences of slavery on today’s America.

The midterm elections in November will be the first federal test of how opposition to so-called CRT might drive the most strident conservatives to show up and vote.

Until recently, Georgia’s 6th District was represented by Democrat Lucy McBath. The district, which spans from the suburbs of Atlanta north into rural Milton and holds nearly 750,000 people, is mostly white but its seat has been held by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

That is almost certain to change because of redistricting, the process of redrawing district lines after every Census to account for changes in population. Republicans only need a net gain of five seats to take the House majority.

The 6th District now overwhelmingly favors the GOP by 24%, as opposed to tilting 1% Democrat with the previous boundaries. McBath will instead run in the 7th District, which leans Democratic, after her home in Sandy Springs was redrawn there.

“These new maps that we’re seeing are going to influence the U.S. House elections and the next 10 years of elections,” said Greg Giroux, a senior U.S. House elections and redistricting reporter for Bloomberg. “How the new lines are drawn will affect who controls the levers of power in Washington [D.C].”

The Republican candidates aiming for the 6th District include Mallory Staples, a former teacher branded the MAGA mom; Jake Evans, who calls himself a conservative trailblazer fighting to retake America and was endorsed by Donald Trump; Rich McCormick, a conservative physician who suffered a narrow defeat in the 7th District’s last election; and Paulette Smith, who said on Facebook that she aims “to stop the Socialist and Communist Ideology of the Democratic Party.”

The nine conservatives vying for their party’s nomination are all taking aim at CRT, an issue that has become a staple for Republican candidates in the upcoming midterm elections and is already prevalent in Georgia.

“Critical race theory is evil, it’s divisive, and it’s a lie,” Staples, a candidate in the district who previously taught English and Old Testament Bible in Atlanta, said in an interview with Annenberg Media. “To judge people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character is just ungodly, it’s un-American, and it will ruin a society. I call [CRT] cancer.”

Staples is endorsed by South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus who claimed that CRT “asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist” because of the color of their skin.

The other candidates in the 6th District sound a similar note.

“I’m totally against critical race theory because it tells people of color that you’re less than white people,” said Smith, who is Black. “I’m totally against that because I know some brilliant Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites — it doesn’t matter.”

Georgia’s “Protect Students First Act” would limit class discussions regarding race and prohibit so-called divisive concepts from being taught in K-12 classrooms. It echoes language previously used by the Trump administration regarding CRT, such as rejecting the notion that the United States is an “irredeemably racist and sexist” or “fundamentally racist” country.

The Georgia Senate passed the bill at the start of April, but it still needs final approval from the GOP-controlled House and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp before being signed into law.

The focus on CRT in Georgia’s 6th District falls in line with Republicans across the state and country seeking to limit what is being taught in classrooms.

“Georgia Republicans seem to understand that parents are concerned about their children being taught ideas regarding sexuality or race contrary to their family’s principles,” said Robert Schmad, an Atlanta-based senior correspondent for the conservative Campus Reform website. “As any party would, the GOP is capitalizing on this.”

More than 20 states have at least introduced legislation banning or limiting race-related concepts that are supposedly a part of CRT. Last May, Utah Rep. Burgess Owens sponsored legislation calling CRT a “prejudicial ideological tool” that should not be taught in K-12 classrooms.

“It’s really more of a red herring,” said Candace Bond-Theriault, the director of racial justice policy and strategy at Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. “It’s more of a talking point and media strategy to galvanize their bases to get out and vote.”

Resolutions like the one supported by Owens, she said, are ways to put something on the record rather than attempts to enact legislation.

“It’s hard to say what [Congress] can do because how can they ban something that isn’t happening?” Bond-Theriault said.

Instead, Democrats in Georgia believe that curriculums across the state should reflect what students want, and become more diverse and inclusive.

“Young folks are starting to demand a more honest, truthful, comprehensive curriculum, especially when it comes to history and social studies,” Royce Carter Mann, a former candidate for Atlanta Board of Education who attended public school in Georgia, said in an interview.

Even though CRT is not taught in K-12 classrooms and Congress’ ability to act on it is difficult to examine, the issue still resonates with Republicans. In January, a UMass Amherst poll found that more than half of the party’s voters believe racial inequality should not be taught in schools.

Parents who had to stay at home during the pandemic grew unhappy over their children’s educations, said Schmad of Campus Reform, and now long for greater control over “progressive interpretations” of race and history.

“Georgia Republicans, seeing themselves in a state [Joe] Biden only narrowly won, view education as a way they can catalyze support among parents to give themselves a valuable edge in what’s shaping up to be a very tough midterm election,” he said.

Discussion around education and CRT had a galvanizing effect in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, with Republican Glenn Youngkin defeating Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state Biden had won by 10 percentage points just the year before.

“It was a conversation about education that absolutely turned that race around,” Staples said. “The parents heard the quiet part said out loud, which is [that] as a parent, you do not have a say in what your children learn.”

It remains to be seen whether the backlash over what is taught in schools is as effective in mobilizing voters for the midterms, but Georgia Democrats are concerned about a repeat.

“Unfortunately, folks on the right are really just trying to find anything that they can make into the boogeyman, and they decided to fixate on the so-called CRT,” Mann said. “They know that they’re just creating this fake enemy, but that’s what they do. That’s how they win.”