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McDermott: Critical race theory is the GOP's latest show about nothing


What's in the briefcase? It doesn't matter, as long as it scares the voters. (Miramax Films)


Screenwriters often employ what is known in the movie business as a “MacGuffin” — a static object that has no intrinsic relevance to the story but is just there to drive characters’ actions. Think of the namesake statuette in “The Maltese Falcon,” or the glowing but unseen contents of the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”

The Republican bogeyman known as critical race theory is the MacGuffin of 2022 politics. As the midterms approach, GOP candidates will put on quite a show to convince voters that this menacing topic is something more than a cheap plot device. It isn’t.

If you’re under the impression that critical race theory is classroom code for pick on the white kids, and that it’s routinely taught in public schools, you’re mistaken on both counts. Those misconceptions are understandable, because Republican politicians have been hawking that script for about a year now. As with microchips in vaccines and Donald Trump’s stolen reelection, it’s scary fiction designed to drive voters screaming into the arms of the GOP.

There have been other MacGuffins over the years. Remember flag burning? Other than a few fringe lefties looking for attention, no one was burning flags in the 1990s. Yet Republicans managed to make this a heated national debate for about a decade. A few years later, Shariah law didn’t sweep through communities across America. But that didn’t stop Republican lawmakers from frantically passing bans against it. Like “Seinfeld,” these were shows about nothing — and like “Seinfeld,” they were hits, driving conservative voters to the polls to put a stop to these things that weren’t happening.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework in law schools. It holds that racism in America isn’t just a matter of individual prejudice but is embedded in our institutions and in society itself, manifested in ways that are more subtle and insidious than blunt expressions of racism — red-lining in real estate, for example, or white flight from urban schools.

Like most Americans, I’d never heard of critical race theory until last year, but its logic strikes me as obvious. By just about any metric you can name — employment, household income, school test scores, incarceration rates — Black Americans on average do worse than their white counterparts. Unless you believe, like some 19th-century pseudoscience quack, that there’s something about darker skin pigmentation that makes people less intelligent, industrious and law-abiding (which is, of course, the dictionary definition of racism), then the conclusion is inescapable: The cultural poison from centuries of slavery and then Jim Crow didn’t just magically disappear from America’s bloodstream with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It still lingers, creating systemic, lifelong disadvantages for Black Americans that make societal success more difficult.

Once we’re done listening to all the racists’ heads exploding, let’s move on to the main point here, which isn’t really about critical race theory at all. It’s about the MacGuffin.

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race in November has been largely attributed to his vow to ban critical race theory from public schools “on day one.” It was an easy campaign promise to keep, because the theory isn’t taught in secondary schools in Virginia, or pretty much anywhere else.

If Youngkin’s win won’t change anything in Virginia’s classrooms, it did demonstrate the potential power of the critical race theory MacGuffin. The lesson hasn’t been lost. As Politico reported last week, at least a dozen red-state legislatures, including Missouri’s, are now pursuing laws to ban critical race theory from the classroom, even though it is vanishingly rare there.

Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson, who is among lawmakers sponsoring such legislation, told Politico that his priority in 2022 is to “shut down” critical race theory here. He’s going to have a leisurely time of it. According to a survey last summer by Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education of the more than 500 school districts in the state, just one, Kansas City, said it addresses critical race theory, and that’s in a college preparatory academy.

Nonetheless, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt — never one to be out-demagogued in his quest for a U.S. Senate seat — is suing the Springfield school district, alleging they’re withholding information about whether they’re teaching critical race theory. This despite the fact that the district has publicly and repeatedly said it doesn’t teach the theory.

Educators have expressed concern that the GOP’s crusade against critical race theory could have a chilling effect on the teaching of any topics that touch on race at all. For many of the crusaders, that’s no doubt the whole point.

For others, it’s a means to an electoral end. As Seitz, the Missouri lawmaker, bragged to Politico: “There is a huge red wave coming.” And the show must go on.

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