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Seven out of 10 people don’t know what critical race theory is, US poll finds

More U.S. residents would rather see the legacy of racism taught in public schools than critical race theory, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Northeastern and several partner institutions. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Critical race theory. Donald Trump once called it a “destructive ideology.” Supporters counter that critics of the academic framework are just blowing a “racist dog whistle.”

CRT has been around for decades, but one would be hard-pressed to find a political lightning rod that more ignited the divide between red and blue America this year than the teaching of CRT in public schools. It became one of the most searched terms on Google in 2021, surpassing Black Lives Matter.

But what is the theory exactly?  

Turns out that’s not so easy for most people to pin down, according to a newly released analysis by the Covid States Project, a collaborative effort by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities. It found that an overwhelming majority of U.S. residents—seven out of 10 in all―have a hard time articulating what CRT is. 

‘Critical race theory is a very particular theoretical framework for understanding the role that race plays,’ explains David Lazer, distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“Critical race theory is still pretty obscure for most people,” says Alauna Safarpour, a postdoctoral researcher in Northeastern’s Network Science Institute.

Republicans, men, and college-educated people say that they are more familiar than Democrats and independents, women, and the non-college educated. One-third of Black respondents report being more familiar than other racial groups in the study.

The public opinion poll of 19,000 U.S. residents launched nationally on Nov. 3, a day after Glenn Youngkin, a businessman making his first foray into politics, upset former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, in the state’s gubernatorial race.

McAuliffe’s comment—“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”—was a turning point in the race for Youngkin, who opposed CRT in the state’s public schools. “On day one, I’m going to ban it,” says the Republican, who becomes Virginia’s chief executive in January.

In fact, more than half the country— 29 states—have taken legislative or other restrictive actions curbing how history and racism may be taught in public schools since the start of 2021. In an interesting twist, the study found that the public’s attitudes toward CRT have no consistent relationship with state policy. In fact, opposition to CRT is identical in states that have or haven’t enacted legislative bans.

To better understand attitudes toward how schools should educate students about racism, survey researchers conducted an experiment. They split up respondents into two camps, asking one half of them, “Do you support or oppose teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools?” The other half were asked, “Do you support or oppose teaching how racism continues to impact American society today?”

Almost twice as many respondents supported educating students about racism when the question omitted the phrase “Critical Race Theory.” Fifty-two percent of people asked supported the second question, whereas just 27 percent favored teaching CRT.

“To what extent are people just opposed to this three-word phrase they’ve heard a million times but has been mischaracterized, versus the more generic issue of how racism continues to impact American society?” asks David Lazer, one of the study’s authors and a professor of political science and computer sciences at Northeastern.

The decisive results may lead some to wonder—aren’t the topics of teaching racism in schools and CRT essentially the same? Lazer doesn’t think so. “Critical race theory is a very particular theoretical framework for understanding the role that race plays,” he explains. “People can agree with it, or they can disagree with it.”

On the other hand, people can disagree with CRT as a theoretical framework but feel strongly about racism’s impact.

That was indeed the case among people of different races and political partisanship. The survey found that 73% of Democrats, for example, wholeheartedly supported teaching the legacy of racism vs. 44% of them who backed CRT. In the GOP, the percentages were much smaller, but 24% of Republicans still supported teaching racism to just 7% who supported CRT.

Among respondents of different races who were asked the same question, however, significant percentages of them neither supported nor opposed the teaching of CRT in public schools. It further underscored just how little people knew about it, researchers explained.

But that was not the case with people of different races who had strong opinions one way or the other about teaching the legacy of racism.

“It’s really about legitimate uncertainty of CRT,” says Lazer.

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