In the face of white backlash following the 2020 protests, Fox News’ persuasive and broad reach helped Republican party leaders and elected officials mobilize conservative parents and organizations over a non-issue: critical race theory.
The Republican party was on defense in 2020. National protests over the murder of George Floyd and, more broadly, racism, mobilized Democrats’ diverse constituency (Gillion 146). The protests also became emblematic of America’s increasing diversity as people of all ethnicities supported Black Lives Matter amid the protests. The consequence of these events and realizations is white backlash. White backlash occurs when fear and anger in white communities mount into a cultural, political, and policy crusade to strike back against perceived power loss. In 2020, the fearful and enraged looked to their party, the Republican party, to take action.
To vilify Democrats and take concrete action, Republican leaders sensationalized CRT by falsely claiming it is being taught in K-12 schools and mischaracterizing it as a theory that teaches children to believe that white people are intrinsically racist and that white children should feel guilty for being white. In reality, CRT is the practice of critiquing race and institutionalized racism as social constructs that reinforces a racial caste system that puts people of color at the bottom. A tenet of the theory is recognizing that the legacy of racism is still alive within America’s social structure, even though institutions such as chattel slavery and Jim Crow are no longer around. CRT is discussed in legal academia and taught in law schools.
Nevertheless, outraged white parents took action. The crusade was successful because beginning in 2021, America saw a slew of anti-CRT legislation being passed in several states. How were Republicans able to inspire such outrage over a non-issue? Fox News.
“Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization” authors Gregory J. Martin and Yurukoglu Ali found that cable news can increase polarization and can account for two-thirds of increased polarization among the public. This increase is dependent on the persuasiveness of the news and the preferences of like-minded audiences. The authors specifically found that Fox News increases the Republican vote share in presidential elections and has a relatively high persuasion rate compared to MSNBC (MSNBC has no significant effects on its viewers). Given Fox News is influential on its viewers, it is problematic when it aids a political effort to sensationalize a non-issue. Conservative reporter Christopher Rufo appeared on the news network in March 2021 to report his findings about schools and workplaces that incorporated training on the role of white privilege in reinforcing systemic racism in response to the 2020 protests. That same month, Rufo tweeted “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.'” This tweet is problematic because it displays Rufo’s desire to defame and sensationalize CRT and like practices, not protect the public from legitimate danger. Since Rufo’s appearance, the intensity skyrocketed. Through February 1 to June 13, 2021, Fox News mentioned “critical race theory” almost 1,300 times, with use of the term doubling each month. The news source also called for teachers to wear body cameras to ensure CRT is not being taught, and brought enraged parents on programs, failing to state these parents’ connections to conservative organizations.
Republican elected officials have talked to Fox News about the dangers of CRT, lending even more legitimacy to the manufactured controversy. This reporting becomes more concerning when the jump in primetime viewership programming is taken into context. From 2019 to 2020, viewership jumped from just over 1.9 million to over 3 million viewers. Fox News’ persuasive reporting is reaching more people and helped stoke white backlash, which has led to real consequences.
In 2022 alone, there have been a number of political and policy changes. School boards are seeing more support for GOP candidates, the mobilization of conservative groups to help parent protests and, most recently, changes to school curriculum. Florida rejected 41 percent of its new math books earlier this month because they did not adhere to Florida’s new standards or included prohibited topics. 41 percent is the largest percentage of books rejected in Florida history. Reasons for rejecting the books included references to CRT and the addition of social emotional learning (SEL). SEL is becoming seen as a delivery mechanism to teach children about CRT and related racial pedagogies.
Though public outcry has largely named CRT as a source of concern, legislation passed in various states do not specifically name CRT, rather, race education in general. The legislation, which is similar across states, ban lessons that include “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; an individual “is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex”; et cetera. The lingering question is, if race education is successfully limited by vague legislation, then how will that affect the next generations’ understanding of the world?