Media Coverage of Critical Race Theory Misses the Mark

The postmortems of this month’s elections have reminded us once again of just how large a shadow critical race theory has cast over K-12 schooling this past year — even though we still can’t quite seem to agree on just what it means or whether it’s even taught in schools.

Despite that epistemological uncertainty, CRT-aligned advocates like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo have risen to educational prominence as schools adopt “anti-racist” practices designed to combat “systemic racism” and “white privilege.” Critics have argued, in turn, that the resulting practices promote toxic dogmas, violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection, and encourage students and staff to regard peers of other races with suspicion and distrust.

As this contentious dispute has played out in school boards, statehouses, and Washington, it’s attracted considerable media attention. Given that much of the public only hears about this debate through the media, it’s worth looking into just how these media accounts portray the issue.

In a new AEI report, I examined all news accounts addressing CRT published between September 2020 and August 2021 by four major newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today) and three influential education press outlets (Education Week, The 74, and Chalkbeat). Ninety-one news articles met these criteria. For clarity’s sake, I’ll emphasize that the analysis did not include the many editorials and op-eds on the topic.

Well, it turns out that news accounts of CRT spend a lot of time discussing slavery and racism but relatively little discussing CRT, its intellectual foundations, or controversial CRT-aligned practices like race-based affinity groups or “anti-racist” instruction.

Each of the 91 articles discussed racism in some fashion. Two-thirds of mainstream-press news accounts and more than 4 in 5 education press news stories mentioned the history of race or the way history is taught in schools. Most articles mentioned slavery. And the articles routinely asserted or implied that these kinds of issues are at the heart of the CRT debate, as when The New York Times reported that the CRT debate is really about how “the legacies of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow still create an uneven playing field for Black people.”

At the same time, news articles rarely mentioned CRT’s intellectual foundations, despite the contentious claims on which it rests. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, two founders of the CRT movement, have explained in their book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” Yet, of the 91 articles examined, just two mentioned that CRT is skeptical of rational thought and just one that CRT is skeptical of universal values or objective knowledge. Put another way, then, one could read more than 95 percent of CRT coverage and never encounter the extraordinary claims at the heart of a raging national debate.

And, while CRT-aligned advocates have embraced controversial positions and practices in order to combat “white supremacy culture,” these rarely make it into news accounts. The use of race-based affinity groups — a practice in which schools separate students or staff by race in order to discuss charged topics and which has drawn substantial pushback — was mentioned in just 5 of 91 news accounts. That influential speakers and thinkers call for “anti-racist discrimination” or urge schools to abandon notions of “colorblindness” is scarcely mentioned, with neither of those provocative directives showing up in even a dozen of the 91 articles.

Now, let’s be clear: I appreciate that some readers endorse “anti-racist discrimination” or detest the notion of “colorblindness.” Sure. Fine. I get it. But my point is that it’s hard to comprehend the idea that these sorts of assertions aren’t newsworthy or to imagine that reporters can fairly illuminate the impassioned back-and-forth without addressing key claims being made.

In short, the media have focused on the topics that are not particularly controversial, while eliding those that are. After all, for all the times that the media have suggested that the debate is really about whether schools should teach about racism and slavery, national polling shows that more than 4 in 5 Republicans and Democrats alike say that social studies textbooks should discuss that many Founders owned slaves, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the federal government’s maltreatment of Native Americans. Heck, 90 percent of the public agrees that students should read “works by a racially diverse set of authors.”

So, it turns out that the CRT fight isn’t over whether to teach about slavery (in fact, Texas’s oft-maligned anti-CRT law mandates that schools teach a unit on slavery) so much as it’s about a series of controversial practices that deserve careful scrutiny. Unfortunately, that kind of examination hasn’t been forthcoming. Indeed, it’s almost as if the media had set out to make the skeptics and critics look unserious by giving short shrift to their actual concerns about what CRT means in practice.

That’s fanned partisan flames, sowed misunderstanding, and done a grave disservice to parents, communities, and educators who want to understand one another and find common ground. Here’s hoping for better going forward.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.