Schoolhouse Rot: Critical Race Theory and the US’ Decaying Democracy

Image Source: Jeswin Thomas for

By Gabe Abdellatif 

Critical Race Theory, or at least what conservatives have defined as critical race theory, has dominated the popular discourse on public education in the United States for the last two years. 

Critical race theory, as it first emerged in legal academia in the 1970s, is a theoretical framework derived from critical legal studies. Its purpose is to assess how racism is not merely derived from individual biases;  rather, it is ingrained in public policy and legal institutions and is thus structural. 

In the current political climate, as reflected quite bizarrely by Senator Ted Cruz in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, conservatives use the term critical race theory as a catchall for any anti-racist initiative. In fact, the term has been widened to include any diversity, equity, or inclusion initiative as they relate to not just race, but gender, sexuality, ability, or class.

The result of this debate has had a chilling effect on American public schools as a number of states have instituted bans on “critical race theory” altogether. The result of these bans has had a substantial impact on curricula in history, social studies, and civics courses across the country. 

While the impacts on students across the United States are concerning in their own right, they gain a deeper significance when understood in conjunction with the growing body of scholarship on US democratic decay. 

In September 2021, Spencer Bokat-Lindell penned a sobering opinion piece for the New York Times where he posed the question Will 2024 Be the Year American Democracy Dies? In the piece, Bokat-Lindell synthesizes the scholarship of several political scientists to make sense of the legislative affront to voting rights that is currently underway in the US.  

The article concludes that there are multiple paths toward a 2024 Presidential Election that is anything but free and fair. Notably, the 2020 election set the stage for potential fraudulent election monitoring or vote counting to occur, or for vigilante action to interrupt the peaceful transition of power.

While the aforementioned possibilities represent an imminent threat to the solvency of American democratic norms, there is another more insidious way the conservative agenda is eroding democracy: the attack on schools. 

As Moshe Marvit wrote for the Century Foundation, “people can only make choices if they have access to accurate information concerning society, and the government has a special duty to collect and disseminate this information.” The war on Critical Race Theory is an attack on truth and accuracy. 

The overwhelming push to censor educators, especially history and social studies educators, is a deliberate effort to manufacture a rosy perception of American society that desensitizes the public to political ills of America’s past and present, ensuring an unequal future. This strategy is a direct response to pushes for racial equity, as it is harder to advocate for equitable solutions when the falsified history suggests everyone is starting on equal footing.  

Make no mistake, the culture wars’ permeation into classrooms is no coincidence. The white ruling class has a vested interest in ensuring that future generations submit to their authority. As Paulo Freire writes in The Politics of Education “it would be extremely naïve to expect the dominant classes to develop a type of education that would enable subordinate classes to perceive social injustices critically.” The fight against critical race theory has grown so contentious because it is challenging the long-held norm of racial and social subjugation perpetuated by the US education system. 

The path ahead of us is wholly uncharted. While the political theorists of the modern age predicted societies of great scale and diversity, none were prophetic enough to envision a society as complex as the one we have all inherited. The task for the people reading this, the folks with social, intellectual, and economic capital, is not only to object to the imminent threats to our democratic norms but also to the insidious erosion of knowledge that will affect US society in the future.

It won’t matter if we make it through 2024 if we can’t count on our young people to make it through each and every election afterward. 

Gabe is an MPhil student on the Knowledge, Power and Politics route at the Faculty of Education. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Politics from Pomona College in Claremont, California, where his research concerned Black respectability politics and their effect on contemporary African American social movements. In the Faculty, Gabe is interested in exploring contemporary debates surrounding critical race theory in public schools. Twitter: @gabe_abdellatif