PERSPECTIVE: At conservative schools, anti-critical race theory still looms large

Updated October 6, 2022 at 11:59 am ET

While college students have returned to campuses, anti-critical racial theory efforts are in full swing, claiming that the legal academic concept poses a “threat” to conservative Christian colleges and other higher learning institutions.

Scaremongering around critical race theory has been brewing in conservative and evangelical circles for more than two years, particularly since the unprecedented outpouring of support for black lives following the police killing of George Floyd.

Coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the term critical race theory is a concept developed by the late Harvard University attorney and professor Derrick Bell, who believed that racial progress was only achievable if the goals of blacks and whites converged.

The fear mongering was largely generated by conservative journalist Christopher Rufo in 2020. in a New Yorker Interview in June 2021, Rufo wrote: “Critical race theory is the perfect villain.”

He recently told NPR that his use of the term was “both effective and accurate.”

In November 2020, the six Southern Baptist Convention seminary presidents signed a statement “condemning racism in all forms” and also saying that “the affirmation of critical race theory, intersectionality and any version of critical theory with faith and message of the Baptists is irreconcilable”.

In November 2021, parents and alumni of Grove City College, a formerly Presbyterian liberal arts school in Grove City, Pennsylvania, created a petition accusing GCC of “mission deviation” by shaming guest speaker Dr. invited Jemar Tisby. In April, the GCC board of trustees issued a special report to address the allegations in the petition, eventually stating that the invitation was a “mistake”.

And in an interview, President Len Munsil of Arizona Christian University said he “would not at any time tolerate the teaching or promotion of Critical Race Theory or Black Lives Matter on his campus.”

NPR reached out to GCC, SBC and ACU for comment but received no response.

“No institution embodies racist religion, both in its origins, in its development and in the present day, like the Southern Baptist Convention,” says Dr. Kevin Cosby.

Cosby is senior pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church and president of HBCU Simmons College of Kentucky. Although Cosby was never a functioning part of the SBC, he attended SBC’s flagship seminary school, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, during the 1980s. He has long called the SBC about what he sees as racism. In fact, the SBC was formed after Southern Baptists disagreed with Northern Baptists’ anti-slavery stance in 1845.

Tisby, a historian, has been called an apologist for critical race theory. At GCC he spoke about Queen Esther of the Bible, a woman who has spoken out in perilous times. He drew parallels to our current social climate.

Christian nationalism is the real threat to democracy, he says.

“It’s not going to die out in older people,” says Tisby. “It’s being replicated in these conservative Christian colleges. And universities are breeding grounds for really harmful ideas about democracy, about Christianity, and about society as a whole.”

That danger, says Tisby, radiates beyond campus. Take, for example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a provocateur known, among other things, for her views on critical race theory. There’s also Randy Forbes, a former Virginia congressman who founded Project Blitz, a conservative group designed to model public education after Christian private schools.

Faithful America, a coalition of Christians, has launched several campaigns against anti-LGBTQ efforts and Christian nationalism. More than 16,000 Christians have signed a petition rejecting Greene’s comments in support of Christian nationalism.

Faithful America executive director Rev. Nathan Empsall says Christian nationalism is about seizing and holding power.

“We see these bills pop up in state legislatures, local councils and education boards attacking CRT or trans people, and then say it’s about parents making curriculum decisions,” Empsall says.

At least eight states passed curriculum transparency laws this year, most of which have been rejected. But in March, Florida’s HB 7 and HB 1467, which were backed by the conservative nonprofit Florida Citizens Alliance, were successfully signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“It looks grassroots, but it’s actually all coming from places like Project Blitz and WallBuilders and the Family Research Council,” says Empsall.

BlitzWatch, a project launched by national civil rights organizations, has tracked more than 50 lightning-related laws under consideration in 19 states. These bills include school boards revising their history curriculum and designating the Holy Bible as the official state book in places like Oklahoma.

Other coalitions, such as Christians Against Christian Nationalism, have mobilized to prevent Christian nationalist legislation from being passed. But historically they have been black Christians Alerting nationalists and their misrepresentation of the faith.

“I want to encourage people to look beyond Christian nationalism, because that’s not the only expression of faith, and in particular to look at the black church tradition, which has understood the dynamics between faith and politics in a very different way,” says Tisby.

Black students at Brigham Young University can understand that.

Although BYU has not released an official statement on critical race theory, the university has addressed allegations of racism, including recently.

On August 26, during BYU’s doTERRA Classic, Rachel Richardson, a member of the Duke University volleyball team, and her grandmother Lesa Pamplin accused people in the school’s student department of repeatedly using racial slurs towards her. BYU officials have since released a statement saying they would not tolerate the use of racial slurs and banned a Utah Valley University student from sporting events.

BYU Athletics later released a statement saying its investigation found no evidence of the use of racial slurs and overturned the student’s ban.

“Of the 5,000 in attendance, none had the bravery or courage to denounce outright racism,” said The Black Menaces, a BYU student group.

In February, the small group at Latter-Day Saints School in Utah, where the campus is more than 80 percent white, formed an online coalition to support marginalized students at predominantly white institutions. Its TikTok account, where it conducts interviews with people on the street at PWIs, has accumulated nearly 30 million likes and more than 700,000 followers. Two of the primary goals are to get BYU administration to create a mandatory racing class and annual faculty training.

All five students said despite their own racist encounters on campus, they would go through it one more time to help marginalized students at PWIs.

“For so many people, their idea of ​​Christianity is shaped by Christian nationalists who oppose critical race theory, who ban books that seek to make voting difficult, not easier,” Tisby said.

“It strikes me as incredibly tragically ironic that so many Christian nationalists put so much emphasis on evangelism and telling people about Jesus, and they’re the ones pushing people away from Jesus.”

Sierra Lyons was an Ida B. Wells Society intern on NPR’s investigative team.

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