Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

criticalracetheory-3600x1885

Signs are seen on a bench during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

The Moral Panic of Critical Race Theory Is a Right-Wing Tool

Why a disparate group of billionaires, Republican politicians, televangelists, media outlets, and white supremacist militias have found common cause around a new and exciting moral panic.

Thom Hartmann

The moral panic currently sweeping America about Critical Race Theory (CRT) has been covered ad nauseum by the press and commentators across the political spectrum.  That's what typically happens with moral panics (more on that in a moment). 

What nobody is talking about, though, is the why of this particular issue at this particular time. As a result, we're mistaking the tool for the goal.

Moral panics, when driven by politcians, are usually just tools. This CRT moral panic is a tool being used by a coalition of interests to achieve their own goals, none of which have anything to do with teaching or not-teaching the history of race in America. 

Here's how it works:

  • Imagine you're part of a group of libertarian billionaires who don't believe in public education and who see any such sort of taxpayer-funded effort to improve "the underclasses" as an absurd waste of the tax dollars you "worked so hard to earn" and the "gummint" now wants to take away from you "at the barrel of a gun." 

  • Imagine you're a leader in the Republican Party who's seeing the average age of the Fox audience—70—as a threat to your own political longevity because old white people don't go into politics and you need 30- and 40-year-olds to learn their basic political skills locally (like on a school board) so you can groom and propel them up into state or federal politics.

  • Imagine you're a multimillionaire white evangelical preacher who's looking for an issue you can use to more tightly bind your congregation—your donors—to you by portraying yourself as a crusader who's going to save their children from a horrible fate.

  • Imagine you're a white supremacist militia leader who's looking to expand his base by bringing in white middle-class adults and therefore you need an issue to get yourself into the headlines "taking on authorities" but that won't also end with you going to jail.

  • Imagine you're a Republican politician who's looking at a serious challenge in the upcoming primary elections and you need an issue that'll be both popular and energizing for your base voters, even if the larger population doesn't much care, because base voters are all you care about in the upcoming primary.

These are the goal-oriented "crisis actors" who've brought us the moral panic around Critical Race Theory that has now morphed into a book-banning frenzy. 

It has deep roots.

  • The movement to entirely privatize public education in America began in a big way after the 1954 Brown v Board Supreme Court decision that ended legal racial segregation in our public schools.  Entire counties shut down their schools and a new industry of all-white "Christian academies" popped up all over the country. 

  • Talk radio in the 1970s (I was in the business then) was often dominated by arguments against unionized public schools funded by property taxes, with the mantra of "I understand about paying taxes for police and fire, but I don't have kids so why should I pay?" or "My kids are grown now, why should I pay?"

  • The Charter School industry evolved out of this with Reagan's encouragement and in some parts of America now dominates the education scene.  And a moral panic about CRT is made-to-order to take down what's left of our taxpayer-funded unionized-teacher-run public schools. 

  • This is now big business. In Washington, DC, for example, there are now as many charter schools making profits for their investors as there are public schools. The continuing existence of free public education represents a lost profit opportunity.

As billionaire former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently wrote for Fox "News," it appears she believes the best solution is just to kill off unionized public education because it can never be reformed:

"Because wokeness is the left's religion, 'banning' critical race theory or the 1619 Project won't fix the problem.  The liberal education establishment will simply rename, rebrand, or repackage these insidious ideas to get around so-called bans."

These are the very simple and easily identified goals of the Republican movement to "ban Critical Race Theory." 

The tool they're using is a new moral panic. 

  • If you're old enough to remember the 1980s, you can recall when Tipper Gore and James Baker's wife Susan were worried that song lyrics were going to corrupt a generation of Americans (tell that to Ari Melber).  Or the McMartin pre-school satanic ritual abuse hysteria, that ran for much of the decade.

  • In the 1990s, after a young British girl died of an ecstasy overdose, there was a moral panic around "Rave Culture," and much of the multi-million-dollar advertising campaign that kicked it off was funded by alcohol companies that saw the upswing in drug use by young adults as a threat to their bottom lines.

  • Since then we've seen national panics that just happened to politically or financially (or both) benefit Republican politicians ranging from Islamophobia to Trump's Birther claims against Obama to Southern border caravans to the "bathroom hysteria" directed against trans schoolchildren just a few years ago.

In this context, we can understand how a disparate group of billionaires, Republican politicians, televangelists, media outlets and white supremacist militias might find common cause around a new and exciting moral panic.

Thus, today's Critical Race Theory hysteria.

Each group wins something substantial—particularly the billionaires and Republicans, as is usually the case—and the only losers are Black people and schoolkids. And, of course, objective real history, which is just a throwaway casualty to the people funding and promoting the hysteria.

Because "history" and schoolkids don't vote, and Republicans have figured out how to make it very, very hard for Black voters to overcome everything from being purged off voting rolls to having to stand in line for hours to being given "provisional ballots" that are never counted.

By December of 2024—and maybe December of this year—the elections will be over and the whole freak-out around reinventing American history will have gone away, the same way nobody today is seriously working to push "bathroom bills" in state legislatures.

But don't worry: it'll be replaced by a brand new Republican moral panic that targets another convenient and vulnerable group. 

Will it be Hispanics (race)? Sikhs (religion)? Lesbians (gender/sexuality)? 

You can bet that today's version of Newt Gingrich/Frank Luntz is focus-grouping it right now.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Freelance Photographer Says He Was Fired by NYT Over Support for Palestinian Resistance

"What is taking place is a systematic effort to distort the image of Palestinian journalists as being incapable of trustworthiness and integrity, simply because we cover the human rights violations that the Palestinian people undergo on a daily basis at hands of the Israeli army."

Kenny Stancil ·


Permian Basin Leaking 14 Times More Methane Than EPA Estimates: Study

"Applying this estimate to all gas gathering pipelines nationwide for illustrative purposes would increase the EPA inventory estimate for the entire natural gas system by 27%," noted co-authors of a new study.

Julia Conley ·


Coalition Representing 24 Million Workers Demands Senate Vote on PRO Act Before Midterms

"Passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act would level the playing field for these workers, and show people which side the Senate Democrats are on," said one advocate.

Kenny Stancil ·


US Should Respond to OPEC by Reinstating Oil Export Ban, Says Green Group

"It is no surprise that the international oil cartel is seeking to maintain high prices," said a campaigner with Food & Water Watch. "Political leaders here at home must understand that the solution is not to increase drilling."

Jake Johnson ·


Coalition Says Biden Should Offer This Many Offshore Drilling Leases: Zero

"We cannot continue down a path that overlooks the irreversible damage of Big Oil," warned one campaigner.

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo