Politics

The Spirit of Lee Atwater Lingers Among Us: How Critical Race Theory Became the GOP’s new

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By LaKeshia N. Myers

Representative LaKeshia Myers

As a historian and educator, I have always been fascinated by the methods and platforms of big tent political parties and the strategists who often lead them. One of the most interesting was Republican Lee Atwater. Atwater, a southern political consultant is known as the father of the “Southern Strategy” an electoral strategy used to increase political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans. Building on the mass exodus of whites from the Democratic Party in 1968 over the issue of voting rights, Atwater began to usher in a new era of identity politics for conservative white voters based on deregulation and tax relief.

In a now infamous 1981 interview, Atwater revealed the Republican Party playbook by saying, “As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this’, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’ So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner.” (Perlstein, 2012).

In the same interview, Atwater went on to discuss former President Reagan’s campaign saying, “But Reagan did not have to do a southern strategy for two reasons. Number one, race was not a dominant issue. And number two, the mainstream issues in this campaign had been, quote, ‘southern issues’ since way back in the sixties. So Reagan goes out and campaigns on the issues of economics and of national defense. The whole campaign was devoid of any kind of racism, any kind of reference. And I’ll tell you another thing you all need to think about, that even surprised me, is the lack of interest, really, the lack of knowledge right now in the South among white voters about the Voting Rights Act.” (Perlstein, 2012).

Fast forward to 2021 and race—or the unwillingness to discuss the subject of race and racism, are once again front and center in American politics. This time under the guise of Critical Race Theory. According to the American Bar Association, “Critical Race Theory (CRT), is an academic practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship. Professor Kimberle Crenshaw—who coined the term, notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation” (George, 2021).

Across the country, legislation has been introduced to combat the teaching of CRT in K-12 classrooms. Like Atwater, a new conservative race-baiter has emerged, named Christopher Rufo. Rufo, a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute, he outlined the Republican strategy to again use race as a wedge issue to push conservative whites to the polls. “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. 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 and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’

We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans” (Rufo, 2021).
The attack has already begun. Under Wisconsin’s version of the bill, it would be required that a school district’s curricula be presented on demand to any person to review regardless of their academic background, district authority level, understanding of context, or teaching capability. The bill also provides a very low threshold for legal standing if passed that would allow any parent/guardian to sue a school district based on said parent’s opinion that a school was in violation of the measures in this bill, which would include any discussions of race, sex, or meritocracy; and any resulting feelings of, “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race or sex.”

Should anti-CRT bills pass, every state legislature in the country should be prepared for statewide bankruptcy, because the way American history has occurred, everyone will be left with hurt feelings, psychological distress, and discomfort. These feelings come with being human and learning the truth about our history in this country and abroad. We cannot revise, retell or erase what has or is happening. Historically, this was attempted and failed miserably.

Anti-CRT legislation is actually a testament to history, the revisionist kind, which existed with the advent of the “Lost Cause” mythology in post-Civil War America, when ex-rebels yearned for the days of old when it was customary to own people as property, and groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy purposely wrote and edited textbooks to glorify the heritage of the old south. This soothed the sensibilities of white southerners and their allies and the texts were staples in schools until the 1960s. The same can be said for more modern textbook revisions like those created by the Texas Board of Education that in 2013 described the enslaved as, “unpaid interns”.

Not only is anti-CRT legislation a blatant attempt to revise and erase history, it also seeks to remove workplace training standards in government and education. This was a nod to former President Trump who ended diversity and sexual harassment training via executive order in 2020. Without necessary workplace training, we are effectively turning the clock back to a time when incidences of harassment and blatant racism in the workplace will again become commonplace and employers will be more susceptible to legal action and fiscal remediation.

CRT is only the tip of the iceberg; our republic is at stake.

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