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How Do Education Researchers Contest the Anti-Critical Race Theory Propaganda?

by Francesca A. López, Royel M. Johnson, Ashley N. Patterson & LaWanda W. M. Ward - October 06, 2021

While many education researchers understand both what CRT is and why policymakers are targeting it, we are not leveraging our collective knowledge to more forcefully and effectively combat the kind of propaganda that thwarts progress in schools. As education researchers we must rely on evidence to create the necessary conditions for change.

Mounting racial tensions in the United States have led educators across the nation to seek knowledge and skills to foster more inclusive school environments. In what appears as a response to the growing attention to antiracist education, former President Trump signed Executive Order 13950, prohibiting trainings that are undergirded by “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” like critical race theory (CRT). Although President Biden rescinded the executive order on January 20, 2021, to date, lawmakers in 26 states have introduced similar legislation that bans teaching CRT in schools. While many education researchers understand both what CRT is and why policy makers are targeting it, we are not leveraging our collective knowledge to more forcefully and effectively combat the kind of propaganda that thwarts progress in schools. As education researchers, we must rely on evidence to create the necessary conditions for change. We take up this call in this commentary by contextualizing the current exploitation of CRT and drawing upon what evidence says about the kinds of experiences youth must have to thrive; we then offer ways we might engage stakeholders (voters, families, educators) to ensure that education practices are protected from ideology-driven efforts that aim to undermine a democratic, just, and educated citizenry.


CRT was born out of a body of scholarship led by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado (among others) in the mid-1970s to examine how racism produces and sustains inequality. These scholars were frustrated by failures of critical legal studies to account for negative effects of race and racism in U.S. jurisprudence (e.g., Bell, 1980, 1995; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). CRT was introduced in education by Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate in 1995 to enhance the understanding of educational inequity through explicit focusing on race. Since then, a voluminous body of work has been amassed by education researchers who draw on CRT as a theoretical and analytical tool for examining a wide range of intractable issues across the P–20 educational continuum. Although education scholars have used CRT in research, the likelihood of educators receiving CRT training to teach it in K–12 schools is aspirational at best, making its current attack within the K–12 sphere puzzling. In fact, scholars have lamented the resistance to institutionalizing policies and practices that aim to provide educators with specific knowledge to address inequities in educational contexts (Valenzuela, 2016). As such, it largely remains a theoretical tool used by researchers to understand and explain inequities in education. That said, there are certainly parallels in CRT’s aims to identify and address racism and K–12 efforts to address inequities. These include understanding the sources of long-standing racial inequities in education and creating the conditions to ensure that all youth have opportunities to thrive.


The recent flurry of bills banning CRT are not isolated cases, but tactics of policy distraction, defined as “a persistent focus on a narrowly defined set of policy solutions that diverts attention from root causes, structural forces, and historical/contextual circumstances” (Farley et al., 2021, p. 168). Tactics driving the surge of anti-CRT efforts across the United States have a well-documented history of manipulating core narratives (López, 2019) in American politics. As explained by López (2019), “The core narrative offers an ideology: a lens on the world. When the Right convinces people to view society through their lens, they move them decisively toward supporting the Right’s agenda” (p. 72). The activated core narratives involve (1) fueling fear and resentment of people of color; (2) distrust of government; and (3) trust in free-market approaches. We are reliving a new version of the explicitly pro-private, segregation academies that mobilized nearly seven decades ago to maintain the tax-exempt status of private schools. Today, much of this education policy making is driven by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (Anderson & Donchik, 2016). This is one reason that pieces of legislation across 26 states have all been proposed by the GOP, with similar (when not identical) language that can be found in the Heritage Foundation’s policy recommendations (e.g., Gonzalez & Butcher, 2021).

In addition to the core narrative, politicians and news pundits alike co-opt discourse used by racial-equity-oriented groups to repurpose terminology, disregarding the original intended meaning of said terms. For example, many of the Republican-proposed bills prohibit teaching “that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior” even though the voting base in large part rejects racial-equity-oriented policies and legislation (López, 2015). The terms “divisive” or “promoting division” are found in all but two bills (Oklahoma and South Carolina) even though the attempts to promulgate ideologies aligned with the bills’ aims are themselves divisive and hostile. As detailed by López (2019), the GOP has a long history of deploying doublethink, such that “those who call out dog whistling are themselves the real bigots” (p. 33).

Simply attempting to educate the public with such information is not a worthy offense against mounting anti-CRT policies. Indeed, think tanks have intentionally reframed terms we use as education researchers (e.g., “CRT,” “equity,” “social justice,” and “culturally relevant pedagogy,” among others) to create confusion and capitalize on innate fears that any attempt to aim for equity is a zero-sum game (e.g., Norton & Sommers, 2011). As such, we must rely on evidence to effectively craft and disseminate our messaging if we truly intend for education research to inform policy.


Amid a debate about whether to teach about race and history in America, it is important to emphasize that avoiding discussions of race and racism in the classroom increases prejudice, lowers achievement, and cheats students out of valuable learning experiences (Priest et al., 2014). Indeed, children are keenly aware of racism; 86% of children think people in the United States are treated unfairly based on race, and nearly half of the elementary-age children surveyed reported that racism was top of mind, with reports of racism more prevalent in responses of Black children (Wong Chin et al., 2021). While parents are an important source of racial/ethnic socialization for youth, educators play a fundamental and influential role (Priest et al., 2014). This is particularly important given that many families, particularly those who are White, do not engage in discussions of race, racism, and stereotypes with their children (Loyd & Gaither, 2018). When students are exposed to discussions of race in classrooms, their racial prejudices are reduced (Hughes & Bigler, 2007; Hughes et al., 2007).

Children develop implicit biases at very young ages (Baron & Banaji, 2006). To counter these biases, research points to the importance of providing learning experiences that recognize diversity (Marks et al., 2020) and promote empathy (Beelmann & Heinemann, 2014), belonging (Gray et al., 2018; Liu et al., 2021), and collaboration (Gray et al., 2018), along with strategies to diversify the teacher workforce (Dee, 2005) and promote culturally and racially affirming practices among teachers (e.g., Civitillo et al., 2018; Kumar & Hamer, 2013; Stephens et al., 2021).


Stakeholders include families, voters, and anyone we aim to engage with education research evidence to promote evidence-based practices in education settings (not those who are promulgating propaganda). Evidence suggests that we must both excite the base and persuade the “middle”—stakeholders who have not made up their mind about particular education issues (FrameWorks Institute, 2020; López, 2019). As such, there are evidence-based strategies that we should engage if we are to convincingly engage stakeholders (BELE, 2021). These include a list of many things we should avoid: being defensive; conversing with trolls on social media; assuming that people understand what CRT really is; getting stuck in a debate about what CRT is and how practices in education setting are or are not CRT; repeating negative framing to address criticism; watering down why equity is important for students, adults, and society; or expecting to win in one conversation (RALLY, 2021). So how do we use our research to engage our stakeholders? Evidence points to the following: asking for clarifying questions to get at the root of concerns; leveraging youth voices and stories when we attempt to show why equity is necessary; unapologetically sharing examples of equitable practices in action; and appealing to shared values (e.g., the importance of students being able to see themselves and their cultures in the books they read) and looking for common ground in education (RALLY, 2021).


As education researchers, we aim to carry out and disseminate research that will result in evidence poised to inform best practices. What we often lack, however, is an understanding of evidence to engage stakeholders in ways that will promote best practices—particularly in contexts where we are combating propaganda. To fully realize the potential of our evidence, we must strategically apply it to truly inform policy, an aim that necessarily includes reaching families, educators, and voters.


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Beelmann, A., & Heinemann, K. S. (2014). Preventing prejudice and improving intergroup attitudes: A meta-analysis of child and adolescent training programs. Journal of applied developmental psychology, 35(1), 10-24.

Bell, D. A. (1980). Race, racism and American law (2nd ed.). Aspen.

Bell, D. A. (1995). Who's afraid of critical race theory? University of Illinois Law Review, 1995(4), 893–910.

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Gray, D. L., Hope, E. C., & Matthews, J. S. (2018). Black and belonging at school: A case for interpersonal, instructional, and institutional opportunity structures. Educational Psychologist, 53(2), 97–113.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 06, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23865, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 10:44:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Francesca López
    Pennsylvania State University
    FRANCESCA LÓPEZ, Ph.D., is professor and Waterbury Chair of Equity Pedagogy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The Pennsylvania State University. The overarching goal of her program of research is to inform policymakers, school leaders, and teacher educators about policies and classroom practices that can mitigate racial/ethnic inequality and social stratification. Her work has been supported by the American Educational Research Association Grants Program, the Division 15 American Psychological Association Early Career Award, the National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Institute of Educational Sciences, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
  • Royel M. Johnson
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    ROYEL M. JOHNSON, Ph.D. is on the faculty in the Department of Education Policy Studies at The Pennsylvania State University, where he is also Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education. Dr. Johnson is a nationally recognized scholar, whose interdisciplinary research addresses issues of educational access, racial equity, and student success. His work has an unapologetic focus on racially/ethnically minoritized and other institutionally marginalized populations including young people with foster care experience and justice-involved youth.
  • Ashley N. Patterson
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    ASHLEY N. PATTERSON, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education in the department of curriculum and instruction at The Pennsylvania State University where she also co-directs the newly established Social Justice in Education Minor. Dr. Patterson's research observes, measures and documents patterns of (in)equity in a variety of educational settings for the purpose of informing the envisioning of new, inclusive, justice-oriented learning environments where students and teachers thrive in the shared space. She highly values collaborative generation of knowledges as witnessed by her many partnerships with community members, non-profit and corporate entities, school systems, and colleagues both inside and beyond the academic realm.
  • LaWanda W. M. Ward
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    LAWANDA W.M. WARD, J.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor of higher education at The Pennsylvania State University and Research Associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. Her commitment to social justice, racial equity, and inclusion in U.S. higher education is influenced by her family of educators. Dr. Ward’s research agenda includes critically analyzing how legal interpretation of issues in higher education impact the experiences of Black women and other racially minoritized people as collegians, professors, administrators, and staff.
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