Republican governors like Ron DeSantis have elevated critiques about racial and gender politics in schools and universities to the center of American politics, quickly transforming both K-12 and higher education policy debates. What are schools and universities actually doing and why have critiques of critical race theory and educators gained such political power now? Carson Byrd finds that universities are not achieving racial equality, but they’ve still become the place for conservatives to react against cultural change. Jonathan Collins finds that critical race theory has become an effective bogeyman despite wide public support for teaching about racism in public schools. Both reflect on how these debates quickly became the center of our culture wars and merged K-12 and university politics.

Guest: Carson Byrd, University of Michigan; Jonathan Collins, Brown University 

Study: Behind the Diversity Numbers; “They Only Hate the Term


Matt Grossmann: How Diversity and Equity Came to Dominate Education Politics, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

Republican governors like Ron DeSantis have elevated critiques about racial and gender politics in schools and universities to the center of American politics, quickly transforming both K through 12 and higher education policy debates. What are schools and universities actually doing around diversity, equity, and inclusion and their curriculums, and why have critiques of critical race theory and educators gained such political power now?

This week, I talked to Carson Byrd of the University of Michigan about his book, Behind the Diversity Numbers. He finds that universities are not achieving racial equality, but have still become the place for conservatives to react against cultural change.

I also talked to Jonathan Collins of Brown University about his new paper, They Only Hate the Term. He finds that critical race theory has become an effective bogeyman despite wide public support for teaching about racism in public schools. Both reflect on how these debates quickly became the center of our culture wars and merged K through 12 and university politics. Let’s start with the higher education controversy where Carson Byrd has been studying what universities are actually up to.

So your latest book critiques university strategies in the diversity, equity and inclusion area. So tell us what universities are actually doing here and why it’s not living up to the bill.

Carson Byrd: Sure. We see a lot of discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher ed. And obviously, politically, we see a lot of critiques of it. But one of the biggest impediments is kind of underestimating how much needs to be done on a college campus to overcome different obstacles to student success, for example. So some of this is resulting in underfunding and understaffing, which is a big issue. So not actually committing the necessary resources and personnel to achieving some of these big games. And others are not thinking big enough, right, where they might just have a series of celebratory event events about different kinds of moments in time or for different communities. And while these are really important, they don’t do the full job. Right?

So while many universities have kind of improved what they do to increase access and success among students when they arrive, they’re not always consistent. And there’s always a constant need for additional programming and support services and adjustments that haven’t been done before.

So a lot of the critique that my book and my work, in general, put out there is that we need to be attentive to the details and be open to more changes, but just more serious reflections about where we are and where we need to go. And that’s not to say that universities aren’t doing a lot of things, but it’s just a … It’s been inconsistent, if you will.

But there’s also this really interesting kind of a series of efforts where people are trying to do more performative looking good diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and not actually doing substantively better. Right? And so Sarah Ahmed, JT Thomas, and many other scholars have pointed this out where people get really involved in what the appearance of DEI efforts look like and not actually what the changes might be … the changes or lack of changes that are going on behind this work look like.

So it’s almost like PR and image management than substantive change on campuses. So those are some of the general critiques that things are underfunded and understaffed. They’re not thinking big enough, or they’re mainly focused on performance or a combination thereof.

Matt Grossmann: So this builds on your previous work tracking the student experience in elite campuses. What did you find there, and how much is specific to those elite campuses, and how much is carrying over to the wider university sector?

Carson Byrd: Right. A lot of DEI programming is aimed at students in the broader campus community. It has a lot of touch points. Some of it’s curricular; some of it’s co-curricular, right, the celebratory events or speakers, things like that? But then you can have some more integrated and holistic approaches like intergroup dialogues. And here, they have the Intergroup Relations Program at the University of Michigan that is curricular and co-curricular, a set of academic and engagement activities for students. So there’s a lot more going on. So it can vary across campuses in a wide range.

Some of these elite campuses, highly selective, well-resourced universities have been seen as like the leaders in some ways. Right? And that’s because they’ve been in the spotlight for not having a very diverse set of students and faculty, given their histories and everything. And so this has kind of set them up to be mimicked in some ways, right, by other institutions? Like, “Well, if Harvard is doing this, if Grinnell is doing this, if Davidson’s doing this, et cetera, then it must be good.” And sometimes they will take some of these programs and approaches and not step back and say, “Is this really what we need for our campus? Are we having some of the same issues that are occurring at these other campuses?” And even if they are, there’s still adjustments that need to be made. Right? There’s different context of institutions that need to be fully grasped. And sometimes people don’t do that.

I mentioned the intergroup dialogues. Those are really powerful programming for students to kind of engage each other from different perspectives on some really contentious issues, racism being one of them, for example. But sometimes people will say, “Well, we don’t need it to be as longitudinal as the way some of these programs are set up. We just need to have a conversation or two. And really, that completely undercuts the purpose and the effectiveness of some of these programs to help students develop critical thinking, be able to engage around some of these issues in the world, different kinds of policies and politics. Right? And so again, taking these programs and just automatically dropping them on a campus or curtailing them without understanding the full components of them can have some deleterious effects.

But also, and this is a point that people are finally acknowledging in some ways a little bit more broadly, just because something is identified as elite doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s elite in terms of being a leader. Right? It’s more of a status marker. And one thing in regards to diversity programming that it’s really big is recognizing that other universities that might not have this elite label are doing great work as well. And maybe we should be turning to them to seeing how they’re really successfully increasing diversity and success among marginalized minoritized communities and how really the leaders look very different from the ones that we’ve always seen as being elite. Those kinds of differentiations there are really important. But acknowledging that there’s a lot of campuses and universities across the country that have been doing really good work and being much more supportive of different communities than the ivies or the public ivies or what have you, that are always kind of seen as the leaders and the best in that regard.

Matt Grossmann: So how are universities measuring their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts? Is this just a case of counting who’s in what roles, and then maybe surveys for kind of attitudinal-type measures, and is there any better way to evaluate the success?

Carson Byrd: So the short and sweet answer is there’s a multitude of ways that people can measure components to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And again, they’re not always consistent. Some of the most common ones that we think of is student and faculty representation. How many students are identified as Black or Latino on campus? What percentage of students are identified with those groups, right? Those are some of the most common measurements.

The changes also reflect a difference in understanding what accountability, in the legal context, of different institutions are. In the state of Michigan, it’s an Affirmative Action banned state. So what exactly is measured and why has a different context than in the Commonwealth of Virginia that is not an Affirmative Action banned state. Right? So these measurements have a very sociopolitical context that allows institutions to do certain things or not, or have responsibilities and accountability to do that.

Some of these measurements are retention rates … to understand how successful a campus is at supporting students from different backgrounds. Graduation rates four and six years … Sometimes we say, “Hey, it’d be great if all of our students graduated in four years, but we know that that doesn’t always happen.” And sometimes it’s not just about students having to work more because they come from low income backgrounds or they have other family responsibilities. Sometimes we haven’t actually recognized that our programs aren’t set up for students to effectively graduate in four years, that they might have to take a fifth year or maybe a sixth year if there’s certain kinds of internship requirements. Or if you look at some of the programs that are in the College of Engineering here and at other institutions, those are actually a little bit more lengthy programs than perhaps some of these measures are out there. So it’s kind of hard sometimes to see exactly what is going on.

And as you alluded to, there’s also survey measures about student experiences and everyday life with campus climates and engagement. Much less so, we collect data that is more qualitative and open-ended to find out about people’s experiences. And so there’s a lot of data that’s out there, but sometimes, and oftentimes, it’s inconsistent or [inaudible 00:11:18] connected to or less connected to each other so that we can tell a more holistic story of what’s going on our campuses. So that makes it really hard to be able to speak to how effective certain kinds of policies or programs might be because we’re not necessarily monitoring with data as much as we would like to be.

Matt Grossmann: So I just read the book Getting to Diversity, which is about diversity programs in companies. And pretty similar measures came up and also pretty similar strategies. It seemed like the kind of menu of things that we do to try to enhance diversity is pretty similar across institutions. So I wanted you to comment on how different are universities in this respect from other kinds of institutions.

And then the other piece of it is, it’s not that there’s nothing that works, but there seem to be, and in both cases, a lot of things that I don’t know if we know they don’t work, but we have good reason to believe that they don’t work, like training programs, that seem to proliferate nonetheless. So is that something that universities just share with all of these other institutions and why?

Carson Byrd: Yeah, that’s a really great question. And the comparison between universities and other large organizations is interesting because they’re not necessarily under the same pressures. Right? So where if a university has DEI programs, like currently, and we see that they’re highly critiqued, you don’t see the same kinds of pressures on Fortune 500 companies for doing or not doing DEI stuff. Right?

And there’s been a recent study kind of connected to the work that you were just mentioning by Frank Dobbin and colleagues, that companies that created more DEI positions and initiatives in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice movements of 2020, they’ve already started cutting back on those positions and initiatives. And the employees most likely to remain in a DEI position in the company are white employees. We’re already seeing some of these cutbacks and the disproportionate effect on employees of color in these companies. Right?

To your point, there’s a lot of things that we know can work, but are they given the resources and the support to work? What are the positions of the administrators on university campuses, the leaders in these companies, to these kinds of programs and initiatives and positions such that people aren’t being tokenized? Because we have increased diversity to a certain extent, but we haven’t actually changed all the policies to be more inclusive and supportive, right?

There’s a lot of different components that sometimes we look for representation, and we measure that as what we were talking about earlier, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything in the organization has changed to be supportive so that we can reach towards more equitable results down the line beyond just representation and composition. So it’s not just a university thing, it’s not just a corporate thing, it’s an everybody thing, if we will.

Matt Grossmann: So as you mentioned, some of these DEI efforts appear to be alternatives to Affirmative Action or even workarounds to anti-Affirmative Action policies. Does that affect whether and how they work? And is there a case that these have, even in places where they’re not explicitly banned, become kind of alternatives to more direct action to, say, increase the number of Black and Hispanic professors?

Carson Byrd: Yeah. I mean, it’s easy to see how, in the current political context and just the trajectory that have led us to this kind of situation, that we’ve almost used diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as a workaround for what race-conscious admissions and Affirmative Action and hiring were supposed to be about originally. Right? They’ve changed a lot through different kinds of legal cases at the Supreme Court level and appeals court levels. But one thing that is really important to keep in mind, even if a campus is diverse, it doesn’t make it racism free. So the DEI efforts aren’t necessarily a substitute. They’re a necessity on to other access initiatives that race-conscious admissions and Affirmative Action in hiring are supposed to be about. So there’s the access, then there’s that equity and inclusion, and the experience once people are on campus that need to be addressed simultaneously. And we can’t just do the either/or.

That really has been a faulty kind of [inaudible 00:16:46] by a lot of people, not just outside of higher education, but within that, if we only have so much money, we need to be doing certain things and not realizing that it’s not just about the money. There’s a lot of different commitments and a lot of different kinds of efforts that need to be made holistically that just can’t be targeted on one area or another. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of different aspects of how organizations work from policies and practices, trainings, as we were mentioning, and what those trainings entail instead of being one-offs. How do you work with hiring committees to subvert biases and faculty hiring processes and reviews? How do we get around the obstacles, whether they’re individual or organizational, to be more inclusive spaces and places for learning and working?

That’s a lot of work, right? We’ve seen since 1990, for example, that even in states that do not have Affirmative Action bans, Ellen Berry and Dan Hirschman have found that less selective institutions and public institutions, the ones that most people will attend college at, have cut back the most utilizing race conscious admissions policies. So the ones that are already the most open are the ones that have stepped back on these things. Not the most exclusive and well resourced ones, but the ones that have been the most open have already stepped back from these race conscious policies. And they’re still kind of working in these environments where DEI is really important on their campuses, but they’ve already stepped back regardless of what the state policy context is on these things.

So again, there’s a lot of nuances there that people have to work with that it’s not either/or that you need access issues and you need success issues that span the entire life course of somebody going to study or work at an institution.

Matt Grossmann: So I guess I’ll play a little bit more devil’s advocate on this. So there does seem to be a potential meeting of the minds in some of the left and right critiques of this effort, which is on the left we say, “Well, you’re doing the easy stuff,” and maybe doing something where you can have everybody go to a training, you put something on your website, establish a new office. But look at your progress or lack thereof in actually diversifying your faculty or top leadership positions.

And then on the right, sometimes expressed in similar terms is that this is not actually about achieving a particular end of diversity. This is about getting everybody to parrot the same rhetoric, rather than actually achieve that end. So is there any danger to pursuing a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in name and getting pretty poor results?

Carson Byrd: Absolutely. If you’re not committed fully to these things, you’re almost always going to fail. And I think that’s something that’s really important for university administrators and the public at large to consider. If you don’t go 100% at these things, how much progress you’re going to make is probably going to be pretty minimal. And in some cases, depending on how things are set up, you could actually do more damage because you haven’t thought through all these different issues. This is part of what is also really hard about measuring progress is we think about equity, we think about inclusion as goals, as benchmarks and not as processes that we’re always going to have to work on these things because things always change. And that’s really challenging for people who are just like, “Have we done it yet, or not? Have we succeeded or not?” And as much as I would like to say, “Yeah, I’m with you, or we’ve succeeded on these things,” it doesn’t actually mean that something else hasn’t changed that we need to be attentive to in these same conversations. Obstruction is a big thing. If we know that we need certain kinds of resources to support students or faculty, and you don’t get those, then obviously you’re going to be curtailing the results that you’re wanting.

There’s also a very dangerous kind of game that’s played that because we know in general that the deck, if you will, is kind of stacked up against diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in higher education and organizations as a whole. That it could reinforce racially, essentialist, and biologically determinist beliefs about different communities. We already see how people have talked about affirmative action as, “We want qualified applicants.” As if people taking in to consideration the fullest extent of the human experience, and that people are still attacked and excluded from different opportunities and yet are still succeeding, that those experiences aren’t important to take into account by saying, “Well, we want qualified applicants.” You’re also saying that you really don’t care about people. That you’re not really wanting to think about these things, that you view people as incapable or unworthy. And this has come up again and again around affirmative action in DEI.

So the latest wave that we’re seeing is just yet another one that we’ve always had about opening up higher education and opportunity for those who have always been, or have mostly been excluded in different eras. So yeah, there can be a lot of issues for not fulfilling certain kinds of benchmarks or desired outcomes, but we also have to say, what did people have to begin with? And also when we measure progress, we could say, ‘Well, look how diverse our campus is in the year 2023.” Back in 1922, 100 years ago it wasn’t like that. And it was like, do you understand the context of what 1922 or ’23 actually was? Do you understand how much of a bad comparison 100 years, beginning to end, really is? Politically, resource wise? There’s so many things that are different, but we make these really bad comparisons to try to set things up as saying, “Well, we’ve made a lot of progress,” when really it’s a relative kind of comparison that’s being made to discount how much more work is needed to achieve some of these goals that we’re setting out for higher education.

Matt Grossmann: So this was not getting a ton of political attention a few years ago, but now it seems to be potentially at the very top of the political agenda, especially for the 2024 presidential race and very publicly, the governors of Florida and Texas have taken on these initiatives and not sort of left it at that, not only proposed banning these initiatives, but used it as a foray into university decision making more broadly, including tenure and faculty hiring decisions. So why is this coming now, did we see it coming, and is this where the future is headed? A polarized discussion where DEI is kind of at the center of conservative complaints about universities.

Carson Byrd: So again, the short answer is, yeah, we kind of saw this coming for a while. We’ve seen this in cyclical waves. The entrenchment in the 1970s after the peak of the civil rights and Black power movements that led to the establishment of Black studies programs, for example, of affirmative action. We saw this in the ’80s again, with literally trying to get rid of the Department of Education. And we see policy or bills being thrown out by state legislators, like in Kentucky, saying we need to get rid of the department of ed. Saw this in the ’90s with that wave of the cultural wars around multiculturalism. We saw this immediately following the election of Barack Obama under the presidency. So we’ve seen these almost every decade following the civil rights movement peak in the ’50s and ’60s. As you mentioned, a lot of this is wholly for political gain by some of these politicians.

Matt Grossmann: We went on to discuss how conservative complaints about diversity, equity, and inclusion quickly became core debates about how universities should be governed.

So you have portrayed this as mostly a kind of a perennial set of complaints or a cyclical one, but it does seem like there’s been a big shift, at least in the state higher education politics, where I think I read there was some sort of review book that was published 10 or 15 years apart, and it basically was the same stuff. It’s funding and accountability regimes, it’s access. Is there a way to judge student performance and reward schools? And that really seems to have been supplanted, at least in partisan politics, by these debates now surrounding DEI, but also moving to who should govern universities very quickly. So I guess, yeah, what is new about the latest turn?

Carson Byrd: Yeah. As much as it’s cyclical, what’s happened is we’ve seen steady rollback of certain kinds of components. It’s not just like people were rattling sabers and then walk away. There’s actually been a lot of retrenchment and regression away from some of these kinds of efforts.

And what we’re seeing with the targeting of tenure, for example, that’s really not just concerning, obviously it is, but it’s the ability to control the narrative and education in a way that we haven’t seen. We’ve always had this kind of complaint about professors as being disconnected in some way from the everyday life outside of a college campus, but not so much that people would literally say, “Well, we’re going to review you and we’re going to say whether you should have a job or not.” We haven’t seen states step in and go that full blown around a topic of conversation the way it has recently, like you were saying, with Florida. Not being part of the policies that have been proposed are preventing faculty from getting grants to study things like racial inequality.

Now you’re actually messing with federal funding from the National Science Foundation, from the National Institutes of Health to study racial health disparities, for example. Literally not being able to understand how a university could better support all the constituents in a state by doing research and having analyses that could support literally the health and wellbeing of people. That’s pretty dangerous. You’re literally talking about people’s lives here and the ability for higher education to be part of the public good and contribute to people’s lives, even if they’re not being educated on campus, but they can help figure out how to make a community better and be part of that solution process.

So again, these policies are much deeper and as much as we say, “Well, we’ve heard this before,” we haven’t seen them attack like this towards different core components of how higher education functions. As you were mentioning, how it’s governed. We’ve seen a lot of different things in North Carolina, for example, and other states where governors will completely rip out and put in new supporters of their policies on boards of trustees that will circumvent faculty governance and shared governance policies. We’ll see them close down centers. One of the first centers earlier in the 21st century to get closed down was a civil rights center at the University of North Carolina that was providing free legal advice for communities and for people who were needing it. Saying that that was actually outside of the mission of the university. So again, how these things are being spun, and then leveraged to attack some of the core features of higher education is quite concerning. And it’s also a way of controlling not just the narrative, but the ability to change democracy to be more inclusive, to acknowledge the different points of views, to be able to be more supportive.

They’re seeing higher education as one of the mechanisms that is obstructing them from having the power that they want. And we’ve heard this terminology used often over the last several years, but it’s very authoritarian, it’s very fascist. And there’s been a study that came out of the Center for the Study of Education in the Workforce at Georgetown that pointed out that one of the best ways to fight authoritarian views is to provide more education beyond high school, for people to think about the world around them. So it’s not just that it will help with employment, it will help with understanding what dangerous ideas are and how that could impact communities. That’s one of the biggest things that we’ve seen in other authoritarian states, is that targeting higher education is important because it allows them to control the narrative and the power structure that they want to hold on to and prevent people from being able to challenge that. And for some people that they would say, “Well, that’s pretty alarmist of your Carson.” I’m like, Well, we’re in an alarming time.”

Matt Grossmann: Are conservative politicians just representing real public opinion? And what can we learn about the debate over racial issues in K through 12 education? Jonathan Collins argues that the public supports most teaching about race, but opposition has been successfully mobilized around fear of critical race theory.

So your new paper enters this heated discussion over teaching critical race theory, arguing that they only hate the term. That this is really about just that term rather than the teaching of the content. So what’s the evidence for that, and is this really just about what we call it?

Jonathan Collins: Well, that’s a great question. So the paper is maybe perhaps a bit of an oversell of what’s happening here. Well, the title in and of itself is probably a little bit of an oversell. But what was happening was I started doing these national surveys, trying to get a sense of how people were feeling about some of the most hot buttoned education policy issues. And this was starting back in 2020, and I wanted to know … I’m an net policy scholar. I want to know how the public feels about some of the leading education policy issues. And at the time, anti-racist teaching was starting to enter the public sphere, the national conversation. Ibram X. Kendi had released his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, the George Floyd protests had happened, and the conversation on anti-racism and anti-Black racism had become one of the leading national issues. And so I was curious about how people were digesting some of the leading education policy issues with this as the backdrop.

And so literally one of the last questions I ended up throwing onto the survey was this question about whether or not people support anti-racist teaching. Because again, this is 2020. It seemed like, “Okay, there’s some conversation happening around this. People seem to be starting to form preferences around this. At least that’s what I’m seeing from the media and social media.”

And so I asked this question about anti-racist teaching, and if people support the idea of teaching about the history of the history of race in America and the schools, and I get the results back and it’s pretty strong support, over 80% support from the respondents. And I’m like, it seems like this is much more of a polarized debate, again, nationally and the media and the social media. But then I’m looking at these survey results and they seem to suggest that there’s relative uniform support.

And so I do replication. I filled it again in 2021, a few months later, and I get virtually the same results. And again, one of the things that I also did was I embedded an experimental component to this. So I thought, well, if there’s something that is influencing support or opposition here, it might be parental consent. So I thought people would be opposed, especially white parents would be opposed to the idea of anti-racist teaching in the schools taught without parental consent. And so half of the participants were randomly assigned this additional language that anti-racist teaching would be happening without parental consent. Even with this additional language, no results. I still saw really strong support for anti-racist teaching.

And then I got a direct message. So one of the survey respondents while taking the 2021 version, sends me this a message and says, “Hey, I don’t have a problem with anti-racism or teaching about the history of race. What I don’t support is this critical race theory stuff. And then a light bulb went up. And so I had ran another replication, and the treatment this time was literally the same question with just the term critical race theory added into the text. And then suddenly I started to see pretty major differences in supporter opposition for anti-racist teaching. And so that becomes the sort of title of the paper, which is they only hate the term because when the term critical race theory is literally just added into this sentence about supporting anti-racist teaching, then the support for anti-racist teaching declines significantly.

Matt Grossmann: So one reading of that is that it’s about the term itself. One other potential divider though is what are we teaching history and it’s a contemporary influence? Are we teaching something that’s about kind of current policy and politics? And so critical race theory might kind of bring that to mind for people in a way that teaching about slavery and discrimination as history does not. So what do you think about that divide? Is this about history versus current politics and policy, or about this particular theory?

Jonathan Collins: So I think it’s an open question and it’s debatable, right? So what do I think is happening? I think that there’s been this politicization around the term and that politicization is filtering into what I’m finding in my results. And the thing that gives me even more confidence in believing this is when you look at some of the other public opinion polling that has been done around critical race theory, especially over the last year. Plus the consistent thing that people seem to be finding is that there are still a lot of people who don’t know what critical race theory is. I think it was UMass put out a did a poll and they found it close to 40% of their respondents who they asked about critical race theory said that they didn’t know. They weren’t familiar with it.

Ed Week has an article where they looked at exit polls from some of the elections that were happening in 2021, and they were finding similar things. There was a sizable, if not majority, of the survey respondents were saying that they were somewhat unfamiliar with the term critical race theory. And so I think for it to have this interpretation of being about current politics, there would have to be more knowledge and therefore salience around it. And we just not really seeing strong evidence of that. And what we are seeing though are these very strong partisan differences. And so even in the Amherst poll, I think it was slightly more than 50% of Republicans opposed critical race theory, the teaching of critical race theory in schools. And it was like less than 25%, I believe for Democrats. In my study, I find a similar gap about 30 percentage point difference between Republicans and the average from just framing this idea of critical race theory or just introducing the term into the conversation. And so I think it’s possible amongst that this a minority of folks on the right who are thinking about this, thinking about critical race theory as a current phenomenon. But I think what we’re seeing from a modal standpoint are just people who don’t really have clear knowledge of what it is, solidified preferences around it, and therefore I think they’re tapping into a partisanship and ideology.

Matt Grossmann: So you also asked some other questions on the survey and you’re able to relate those to your views of teaching about race and history and critical race theory. And you find that views of protest, both Black Lives Matter protests and the January 6th insurrection were related to these views. So what do you make of those connections?

Jonathan Collins: Well, I think it further strengthens the case that this is a part of a political construct or this is politically constructed. And so what I’m seeing in the date, of course is that the folks who are opposing anti-racist teaching and the folks who with or without the term critical race theory attached were folks who were in strong opposition to the George Floyd protest in 2020 and then who were in strong support of the January 6th insurrection. And so on the surface, there’s nothing that really ties these together anti-racist teaching, the 2020 protests. Now you could argue clearly that racial politics connects these two, but from a policy standpoint, they’re not trying to achieve similar goals. One is about, you could argue that the George Floyd protests were more so about policing as a policy issue than education reform. And meanwhile, when you look at anti-racist teaching, this was obviously about social studies and civics curriculum reform.

And then when you look at the January 6th insurrection, this was about an immediate and threatening attack on American democracy. So again, what ties these together is this connection around racial politics. And so I think the only thing that seems to make sense here is that there is a pretty calculated political movement happening on the right around anti-black racism that essentially connects this triangle. And I think that’s pretty much the only way to explain these pretty strong correlations that I’m finding in the data. And again, across multiple iterations of the survey.

Matt Grossmann: So you also note the development of the sort of culture war surrounding these issues in the paper. And I was struck that a lot of the references weren’t to necessarily things happening in classrooms. They were to popular non-fiction books to the New York Times 1619 project. So I guess to what extent, yeah, was this kind of an educational controversy that bubbled up and to what extent is this sort of a culture war journalism conversation that got kind of put onto the education reform debate?

Jonathan Collins: I definitely think it was more of the latter. When I talk with journalists, one of the big questions that they pose and I think that we’re starting to internally debate is when did the culture war start? What was the tipping point? And I go back to the President Trump former President Trump’s Patriot Education Commission, and this seemed to be the moment where the Trump administration and therefore the Republican Party found this thing that they were throwing at the wall and were able to make it stick. The commission in and of itself did nothing from a policy standpoint. It existed pretty much primarily through Trump’s executive authority. And it just brought some conservatives together to have these conversations around what patriot education looks like. And the commission pretty much died immediately upon the transition from Trump to Biden.

But what it did do is create an issue area that Republicans have since really staked out as a potential area for political mobilization. And so I think the bigger question is why has this been an area that is so fruitful, at least in theory, and you could argue in practice too, there have been some successful school board elections and even people debate the impact of the culture war on Glenn Youngkin’s race in Virginia, which I talk about in the paper. And to the extent that it’s been successful, well why so? And I think the thing that ed education does for political opportunists is it taps into two things, kids, which we all care about, and two, morals and values. And so yeah, the culture war has become a way to have a more clandestine debate around or really a more clandestine attempt at smearing the moral apparatus of the opposing party.

And so you’ll notice that the debates are never really about what’s happening in schools per se. It’s using the idea of something that could be theoretically happening in schools, but really to create more fear mongering around this idea of what is assumed to be or what could be potentially happening in schools. I mean, if you go back and you read HB seven that DeSantis signed into law in Florida, the word critical race theory is never mentioned. And it’s all, the entire bill is all about preventing the mandatory discussion around race or the mandatory discussion around making someone feel uncomfortable because of race or any kind of training or teaching that places a racial group on a moral high ground. If you think that K through 12 schools are these places where kids are being proselytized into thinking that white kids are all these evil immoral people, then you haven’t really been into a K through 12 school, at least any of the schools that many of the education policy scholars that I know have been working in for years. And a lot of the teachers that I know have been working in for years. And so who is this language for? This language is for people who are more involved on in the politics than the education.

Matt Grossmann: So I’ll play devil’s advocate for a little bit and make the counter case and you can respond that maybe that people are responding to a real set of changes here. Maybe the George Floyd protests happened at a time when people were paying more attention to school boards because of COVID, more attention to what was happening in their classroom. There were teachers and administrators that were sympathetic to the Floyd protests and trying to bring in some new curriculum, or at least some updates to what they were talking about. And so they may not have been responding to critical race theory per se, but they were responding to liberalizing trends in what’s taught in schools around race. You think that was wasn’t happening?

Jonathan Collins: Well, even if it was happening, the question is, well why now? Because you could make the argument that these same things were happening before 2020, you know, could actually make the argument that we’ve seen almost kind of like a retreat or a digression in how teachers are teaching about these concepts in schools sort of post 2020. I mean, think about it from the education policy perspective, the biggest conversation that we were having at the time was about learning loss. We had kids that weren’t even in schools, we had kids that were trying to do some form of remote learning, kids that were trying to attend school virtually using a parent’s cell phone. And so you mean to tell me at this moment where we’re trying to figure out how to get ventilators in classrooms, where we’re trying to figure out how to even reopen schools and reopen schools safely and we’re we’re also experiencing major losses in the teacher workforce.

While this is happening, there’s also been this rapid increase in this hyper liberalization of the curriculum in K through 12 schools. I find those two hard to be happening hand in hand. I mean, again, it is possible, but there’s nothing about this particular moment that suggests there would be any kind of like uptick. The only uptick we saw was the public conversation, people having conversations in the media and in social media about being an anti-racist. I think schools were fumbling with fundamentally different problems. The question is, well, where is it stemming from? And there’s nothing that if it’s stemming from the hyper liberal enclaves that are training teachers, teachers have been getting trained in these liberal enclaves for decades. Again, was George Floyd’s murder and then the accompanying protests that much of a trigger that completely hyper liberalized spaces that were already considered extremely liberal?

I mean maybe. I mean it’s possible. We did see changes in national discourse. We saw changes in the ways that businesses were operating, their attentiveness to ideas of racism and putting forth anti-racism initiatives. If corporate businesses can change, I guess there is reason to think that we could see things reach another level in schools and curriculum design and teaching strategies. So it’s not farfetched. It’s not necessarily unfathomable, but the idea that it was something that was specifically happening in 2020 and beyond. And around that moment, again, it’s hard to reconcile with what had been, it’s hard to accept the idea that what started happening in 2021 and 2022 was radically different than what was happening in 2019 and 2018. The only thing that seemed to be different was the national conversation that seemed to be radically different and especially how Republicans were viewing education and specifically social studies. And it’s attached in this idea of attaching race to it as this viable political strategy.

Matt Grossmann: So conservatives’ critiques of racial teaching have also ramped up in universities to the extent that several states are either trying to change tenure or trying to change faculty control of hiring. And there’s a couple potential connections here with the K through 12 debates. One is the kind of mechanical one that you mentioned that teachers are taught in universities. And so conservatives believe that that might be the source of their liberal ideas about teaching race that they take into schools. And another is just simply that the debate that’s taking place in K through 12 could be easily sort of transported to universities. So how do you see, I guess, the connection between these debates in K through 12 and in universities?

Jonathan Collins: Well, the attack on the universities is nothing new. I mean, we’ve been seeing these affirmative action debates happening at the higher education level for quite some time, and it’s hard to see the culture war sort of relationship with higher education as detached from these debates around affirmative action, the place of race and considering undergraduate admissions or graduate admissions. So this is not relatively familiar territory. I think the thing that makes the higher education question so interesting is because of the distinction between public and private institutions and the real power that these laws can have over what’s happening at public institutions irrespective in comparison to private institutions. And so there’s the difference. That’s a different kind of encroachment that for instance, that you face than not than what I face, right? You’re at a public institution. And so state laws can heavily dictate if they decide to encroach, they can dictate what you’re teaching in the classroom.

And I’m inoculated a little bit more from that potential fear. And so I think if you go back to DeSantis’ bill, one of the interesting things that nobody was really talking about until they started to create their own university was the fact that the law was I think the law was it K through 14 as opposed to being K through 12. So they already had ideas of this being something that attracts into higher ed. There’s only one other state that I’ve seen that had a higher education built into their version of that bill, and that was Wisconsin. And so it raises questions as to whether more states will start to see an influx of bills that attack the culture war through the higher education system. But so far, I mean again, we see the conversation happening in Florida, outside of Florida and Wisconsin, there isn’t much policy momentum.

Matt Grossmann: So you mentioned that this tracks onto longer debates about affirmative action in universities. And Conservatives say that universities are basically trying to find a way around bans on affirmative action, or norms against affirmative action. But there’s also a Liberal critique of these activities in universities that says, “Well, something really did change. What changed is that we stopped trying to achieve actual representation among faculty and students. And we got training programs and academic segregated areas, instead of achieving racial equality.” What do you make of that critique?

Jonathan Collins: I think about it in this way. So I think the critique comes from this idea that we see in the language from the most recent ruling on affirmative action. It raises this question of when. When is it considered viable? What is the viable period at which we can assume that race will no longer be needed in these decisions? How much longer will it be? I think the last legal precedent was 25 years. After 25 years, which actually is, I think, ironically, in another four years, will we be at this point where race-based admissions should no longer be needed to spur racial and ethnic diversity on college and university campuses? Now, we’re already gearing up for, I think, a big political movement around the idea that we are not. I think we can look at the demographics of a lot of colleges and universities, and still say that we have a lot of work to do there. And there are real questions as to whether colleges and universities will do that work on their own without some kind of… Not necessarily a legal push, but at least without a legal barricade.

But it’s interesting too because it ties more squarely to the structure of the anti-CRT laws, even more than it ties to the politics around the anti-CRT “movement”. Because it’s all been about removing race from consideration in these things. Removing race from considering admissions. Removing race from considering any kind of moral superiority. Removing race from thinking about from race and identity from the center of how students are being taught, and acknowledging no history as superior to another group’s. So I think the “devil’s advocate” argument to this is, well, yeah, we should get to this point where we can have discussions with racial pluralism without the need to have these barriers in place. But we haven’t seen clear evidence, when the barriers are removed, that we do see that in practice. That we see whether it’s universities engaging in admissions practices that create a diverse student body. Or social studies and civics courses that will substantively center the perspectives and the voices of kids of color and kids from more marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Matt Grossmann: So the response to the CRT bills in K through 12 was a little bit bifurcated in that some people were saying, “This isn’t taught.” Which was accurate in thinking about CRT in a particular theory. But also saying, “We need to teach about racial history.” And those weren’t in contradiction, but they were two different ways of responding. And it seems like similar kinds of things might be happening in higher ed, but we might veer a little bit more toward the latter. Is there anything that the higher ed folks can learn from the way that this debate has played out in K through 12?

Jonathan Collins: Well, a couple of things. I think, one, they can learn. And this is the thing that doesn’t get spoken about enough, I think, which is this idea that you can play offense and defense. I think the K through 12 debate has really been framed as this culture war, in which folks on the right have been ramming these anti-CRT bills through state legislatures. And pretty much dominating the curriculum reform policy space. And that’s not really true. We’ve seen a lot of representatives on the left, at the state level, pushing through bills that are trying to counteract this.

And I think at the higher ed level, you have to learn the same lesson. What we’re seeing is that race and school reform, especially around these cultural war related topics, is becoming more of a contact sport. And so if there are bills on the table to place constraints on the ability to teach and talk about race at the higher education level, then you need to be thinking about what bills at the state level look like to counteract this. But this is all new territory. Because the funny thing about this whole thing is that, now we’re talking about curriculum reform around civics and social studies as this hot button contact sport that’s dominating the education policy reform debate. And 10 years ago, all we cared about was charters versus traditional public schools. And it’s like, “Well, how did we get here?”

And, again, I’ve been arguing that I think we got here through this politicization. And you could argue too, that we got here through the nationalization of local politics, where the national parties have been trying to find ways to connect to local level and vice versa. Or how local candidates and local political organizations and groups have been trying to attach themselves to national structures. And so, if this is the trend that education reform is moving in, and we’ve seen K through 12 get engulfed by this, I think higher education should be on the lookout and understand that they could be next. And, again, the best thing to think about is not just playing defense, but also playing offense as well.

Matt Grossmann: So given that, you cover the research on these areas as well. So, normatively speaking, what is the right approach to teaching about race in schools? And to what extent should teachers and administrators be considering community opinion in where they live? Or the difference between the political views or racial views of the teachers in the schools and the community that surrounds them?

Jonathan Collins: It’s an interesting question because it’s become so polarizing and contentious to entertain as a question. But when you go back and you read Gloria Ladson-Billings and some of the ed policy scholars, who were first writing about culturally relevant teaching and critical race theory as something that could be applied to teaching and instruction. They always retreat back to this very simple idea that culturally relevant teaching is just good teaching. And so it’s really just this idea that we would teach, and not just social studies and civics, but math, science, language, in ways that tap into or resonate with the everyday lived experience of students. And especially as our schools become more and more diverse, then the teaching strategies that tap into lived experience should reflect this emerging diversity.

How this turned into this idea that schools were spewing this notion of white supremacy through the halls, this, to me, feels like an exaggeration. What it’s really about is making the classroom space feel at home, or feel like a space that’s conducive for learning, regardless of your background. And the thing is, if you’re a black kid going to public schools in the US, it’s been much harder than it should be to see yourself in the curriculum. And I think we do need to make efforts to make sure that especially black kids can see themselves in the curriculum that we teach. That they can see themselves in this idea of being contributors to knowledge around mathematics, science, technology, language, arts, writing, chemistry, physics. The curriculum should really fit the image of what we see in our school systems.

And especially when you’re talking about K through 12 public schools, where the majority of the students in K through 12 schools in America are now kids of color. And so if the majority of the kids in the schools are students of color, it shouldn’t be controversial to ensure that the teaching that happens in those schools centers the experiences that they live on the every day.

Matt Grossmann: So a lot of your other work actually intervenes in the schools. And attempts to wrestle with these conversations about actually getting students and others involved in trying to make some decisions for their own school system. Relate that, if you can, to these kinds of debates. To what extent are these kinds of culture war debates filtering into how you’re perceived, coming from Brown University to these school systems? But, also, what do students want to be involved in, in terms of decision making at their schools? Is it this curriculum? Or is it more of the resource allocation questions?

Jonathan Collins: Well, it’s interesting because I think the work that I’ve been doing in schools has really reinforced the idea that the public debate around the culture wars, and critical race theory, and anti-racist teaching is just far removed from the experiences of kids in schools. If you go into a school, the last thing that people are talking about is critical race theory. And I’m talking about going into “inner city schools”, urban schools, whatever description that you want to have of schools that mostly educate black and brown students. The last thing that people are really talking about are these kinds of ideas. And when we’re talking about… These are kids. They want an educational experience that, essentially, just works for them on their terms. They want, whether it’s better facilities, or ways to make learning math and science easier. And that’s essentially what’s been happening in my work.

I guess my concern with the education policy reform debate fits in the middle. I think the big concern, from the culture war perspective, has become whether or not and how we teach kids about race in schools. And I think that’s a big concern. But I think before that was the concern, it was about, well, what kind of hot button reform can we pull off the shelf, drop in schools, and lead to changes in student performance? And it was about, well, could it be a technology thing? Or could it be some kind of programmatic intervention? Or what can we do to increase literacy rates and to help students learn math better? And, for me, the potential answer to that question, I would say, is democracy. And really thinking about, well, these kids are here every day, how can we tap into their voices and get a clear understanding of what they think could be used to facilitate school improvement?

And if that school improvement could essentially be bottom up, that kids could learn math better in schools that ask students how they can learn math better. Then design processes to where we can tap into their collective voices. And then, therefore, facilitate this kind of school improvement. And so I’m hoping that this work can bubble up because it goes back to how I see the critical race theory debate. And the upshot of the paper, which is that this stuff has really become a distraction. When state legislatures are passing bills about, or these anti-CRT, bills or even when legislatures are passing bills to counteract that, you’re taking away legislative energy and activity that could be used to improve the conditions for kids in schools. And to help to ensure that they have some of the tools that they need to do better in the primary academic subjects that will set them up for a fruitful career and a certain quality of life. We aren’t having that conversation anymore. And that’s one of the biggest, I’d say, frustrations that I have with this current education policy moment.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, I recommend checking out these episodes next, all linked on our website. Higher Education and Engine of Social mobility or a Driver of Inequality; The Politics of School from Home; Racial Protest, Violence, and Backlash; How Politics Changes our Racial Views and Identities; and How Misperceptions and Online Norms Drive Cancel Culture. Thanks to Jonathan Collins and Carson Byrd for joining me. Please check out They Only Hate the Term, and Behind the Diversity Number. And then listen in next time.