In Alabama, two bills were signed into law this year that banned books and curricula that “impute fault, blame, [have] a tendency to suppress others, or [create] the need to feel guilt or anguish to persons solely because of their race or sex.”
In Georgia, legislators passed a bill that prohibited books or curricula that would “indoctrinate” students or “promote one race or sex above another.”
In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a state budget bill that banned teachers from “discussing race, gender, and other identity characteristics in certain ways in class.”
Together, these—and myriad other—challenges to books or classroom instruction are the latest efforts by political conservatives to disguise racist policies and statutes as something more acceptable to the voting public, says Meredith D. Clark, associate professor and founding director of Northeastern’s Center for Communication, Media Innovation, and Social Change.
And the move has deep roots.
In the 1980s, Republican campaign consultant Lee Atwater made plain a core tenet of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”: Use abstract language to appeal to some Southern white voters’ opposition to racial integration and equality without using overtly racist language.
“I go back to the Lee Atwater quote all the time, because he makes the strategy so clear,” Clark says. “If you want to mobilize a base, but you can’t speak in frank and unpopular terms, you find ways to abstract your language and your approach so you can gather more people into this group to buy into your agenda.”
Clark says the wave of legislation to ban certain books or parts of K-12 education because they contain elements of critical race theory—an argument that distorts the actual meaning of critical race theory as an academic theory about how systemic racism seeps into all aspects of society—is yet another example of Atwater’s strategy at play.
The bans, she says, fall “under this overall guise of banning critical race theory [because it’s] something that’s damaging, rather than a legal framework for considering race and difference.” The misrepresentation of what critical race theory is then serves as cover “to ban books that people don’t agree with,” Clark says.