Poll: The real reason Republicans are so riled up about 'critical race theory'

·West Coast Correspondent
·6 min read

Conservatives claim that schools are indoctrinating students in “critical race theory.” Liberals argue that conservatives don’t even know what critical race theory is — and that if they did, they’d realize teachers aren’t actually exposing kids to it.

But a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll suggests that the roiling culture war over so-called CRT isn’t about whether today’s schoolchildren are suddenly probing the complexities of an academic approach to race that originated among legal scholars in the mid-1970s.

Rather, the clash over CRT — aside from whatever the term now connotes in the public imagination — appears to be a supercharged spinoff of a deeper dispute between conservatives and pretty much every other group in the United States.

Opponents of the academic doctrine known as Critical Race Theory protest outside the Loudoun County School Board headquarters in Ashburn, Va., on June 22, 2021.
A protest against critical race theory outside Loudoun County School Board headquarters in Ashburn, Va., on June 22. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

According to the poll, the right largely believes that racism is personal — the product of one individual discriminating against another. The rest of the country mostly agrees that racism is systemic — a force that continues to harm people of color, regardless of how isolated individuals treat them.

And therein lies the disagreement over what kids should learn in school.

The survey of 1,592 U.S. adults, which was conducted from June 22 to 24, set out to determine how closely the public’s opinion of the term “critical race theory” aligns with a central idea behind it. To do that, Yahoo News and YouGov asked respondents whether they’d “heard of critical race theory” — and followed up with the ones who had heard of it by asking if “critical race theory is something students should be exposed to in school.”

It turns out only about half of Americans (52 percent) are even familiar with the term "critical race theory," according to the poll, and political engagement is likely to account for that exposure. As Time magazine reported in a recent cover story, “conservative advocacy groups, legal organizations and state legislatures” have “mounted a campaign to weaponize” the term because they believe that “fighting it will be a winning electoral message.”

As a result, awareness is much higher among white Americans who identify as conservative (71 percent) or liberal (70 percent) than it is among white moderates (48 percent), African Americans (42 percent) or Latino Americans (39 percent).

A protester holding a sign saying
A protester in Leesburg, Va., on June 12. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Given the sharply polarized, cable-news-driven nature of the current feud, it’s little surprise, then, that the people who say they’re familiar with the term also tend to say they don’t want it in schools. Overall, 49 percent of those who have heard of CRT are against “exposing” students to it; 37 percent favor exposure.

Some groups disagree, of course, including Democrats (by a 76 percent to 9 percent margin), Black Americans (62 percent to 23 percent) and 18- to 29-year-olds (53 percent to 23 percent). But within most demographics, those who’ve heard of CRT — including people 45 or older as well as independents (who oppose exposing students to it by a 55 percent to 29 percent margin) — do not.

The interesting thing is what happens — and, more to the point, what doesn’t happen — when you dissociate one of CRT’s main tenets from the hot-button term.

To do that, Yahoo News and YouGov also asked — before ever mentioning “critical race theory,” so as not to influence the answers — whether respondents agreed or disagreed with the concept that “racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” We then asked if that concept is “something students should be exposed to in schools.”

That particular wording, it’s worth noting, wasn’t chosen at random. Here’s how the Florida Department of Education’s new policy prohibiting “the teaching of Critical Race Theory” in public schools — one of dozens of similar measures introduced in Republican-controlled states this spring, and one of at least six that have been enacted — defines the term: “the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems.”

A protester holding a sign saying
Protesters at a packed school board meeting in Ashburn, Va., on June 22, at which two people were detained. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

So what do Americans think of the idea that Florida just banned, absent the CRT label? A full 54 percent agree with it; just 27 percent disagree. And similar (or larger) margins of agreement show up pretty much across the board, including among 45- to 64-year-olds (53 percent to 31 percent), white Americans (49 percent to 34 percent), Americans making less than $50,000 a year (52 percent to 31 percent) and independents (50 percent to 28 percent).

In fact, a majority or plurality of every single group surveyed by Yahoo News and YouGov agrees that “racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

Except one: Republicans. By a more than 2-to-1 margin — 57 percent to 27 percent — they disagree that racism is systemic and embedded in the United States. And those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 are even more likely to disagree (65 percent to 20 percent).

The dynamics around exposing students to the idea of systemic racism are the same. A plurality of Americans — 47 percent yes, 31 percent no, 22 percent unsure — say students should be exposed. Independents — who opposed teaching “critical race theory” by 26 points — favor teaching the existence of systemic racism by 12 points. Nearly every other group agrees by similar or larger margins.

But there remains one clear outlier: Republicans, who oppose student exposure by a three-to-one margin (60 percent to 19 percent). Again, Trump voters are even more vehemently opposed (67 percent to 14 percent).

Protesters against
Protesters against the teaching of critical race theory in schools confront a counterprotester at the Leesburg rally. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

The gap between Republicans and everyone else on this issue appears to be widening. Last June, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Yahoo News and YouGov asked Americans if there was “a problem with systemic racism in America.” Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said yes; just a quarter said no. Strikingly, the share of Republicans who considered systemic racism a problem at the time (39 percent) wasn’t much smaller than the share who didn’t (45 percent).

One year later, however, that’s no longer the case. Today, just 27 percent of Republicans say there’s a problem with systemic racism in the United States, while a full 59 percent say there isn’t — a net shift of 26 points.

The upshot is clear. Teaching about the United States’ “history of racism” is fine with 53 percent of Republicans, according to the poll; teaching about its “history of slavery” is OK with even more of them (84 percent).

But teaching that racism is still embedded in U.S. legal systems and policies even today — and that all Americans are part of that system, regardless of how they treat others — is not.

This represents a more fundamental divide than what critical race theory is or isn’t, and who is or isn’t teaching it — and one less likely to fade after a few overheated news cycles.

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,592 U.S. adults interviewed online from June 22 to 24, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote), and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is 2.7 percent.

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