Last Thursday, the latest event in the Turner Talks series focused on “Talking About Critical Race Theory in 2022 and Beyond,” The event featured Andrea Young, author, lawyer, longtime civil and human rights advocate and current Executive Director of the Georgia ACLU. And it featured Drew Westen, noted messenger and author of The Political Brain.

For a copy of the video and slides contact Drew Westen

When the 2021 Virginia governor’s race first kicked off, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe received generally high marks for his record on education. After all, Virginia’s K-12 public schools ranked 4th in the U.S., and Democrats – including McAuliffe – had been at the state’s helm for coming up on 8 years.

But something funny happened on the way to the polls.

Progressive strategists and digital organizers noticed that social media in Virginia was being swamped with hundreds of thousands of references to “Critical Race Theory,” a once-obscure school of thought in legal academia focused on the failures of mainstream legal approaches to fully remedy racial inequalities in American law and society.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not a standard part of the K-12 curriculum in Virginia – or in any other state, for that matter. But the new catch phrase, pushed by conservative activists and amplified by Fox News and other conservative outlets and digital channels, played a role in turning out voters to support Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, who successfully clawed back many Biden voters from the Commonwealth’s northern suburbs, and narrowly defeated McAuliffe – coming from behind to do so.

Young said attacks on CRT are spreading like “wildfire” across the country – bills banning CRT or banning certain books in the classroom or library or proclaiming “parental rights” governing content taught in the classrooms (all close cousins of anti-CRT legislation) have been filed in 30 states and passed in 10 – despite the fact that CRT does not, in essence, exist in the K-12 classroom anywhere. Many of the books under attack address race or racism, women’s sexuality, LGBTQ issues, and the Holocaust.

Young said the most recent root of the attacks on CRT actually dates back several years, to when former President Trump issued an executive order banning inclusion and diversity training in federal agencies. “This is…stoking concerns about the growing diversity in the United States. It’s aimed at the growing (diversity) in states like Georgia, which is now 40 percent people of color, Black, Asian American and Hispanic,” she said.

It is, Young said, about stoking people’s fears and aspirations about the future.

But the good news, Young said and Westen’s research confirms, is that there is a way to beat back attacks on CRT. And it all begins with the language we use. “We just have to make sure we’re using the right language and we’re not using buzzwords that sound good in the coffee shop on the Upper West Side, but don’t sound so good on the baseball field or the football field in Middle Georgia,” Young said.

In order to determine the best language and messaging to beat back attacks on CRT, Young turned to Westen, who used years of experience, field research, and sophisticated, online dial-surveying of 890 Southern voters to arrive at messaging guidance. The result: A report, Talking About Race and “Critical Race Theory:” Speaking Progressive in Southern, delivered to the Georgia ACLU this past January.

Westen suggests avoiding using certain catch phrases in a vacuum, without context or accompanying narrative. These phrases include implicit bias, systemic racism, voter suppression, and environmental racism. He argues that the overwhelming majority of Americans have no idea what these phrases mean, suggesting they are more fit for use in the faculty lounge than around the kitchen table.

And sometimes, they can even do damage, and make it so the listener is less likely to hear, and accept, an opposing viewpoint. “Unless we give concrete examples of systemic or implicit forms of prejudice or discrimination, people feel like they are in Kafka’s trial, accused of a sin they do not consciously feel,” Westen says.

Westen has three examples of strategies advocates should not pursue when defending public schools against CRT attacks. Do not remain silent. Do not become defensive. Do not address the issue as if race is not in the room. (The McAuliffe campaign arguably was guilty of the first two of these.)

Westen has come up with a broad array of messages that work surprisingly well against conservative activists who are raising, or inventing, the CRT issue. Space prevents us from listing these messages in this blog post (although you can and should read them for yourself – For a copy of the video and slides contact Drew Westen

However, here is the excerpted form of one of Westen’s most successful messages. We will close with it:

“We should teach about race and racism the same way we teach about math and chemistry: as accurately as we can. As a kid, I learned about the fight for freedom and democracy in the Revolutionary War and about how Thomas Jefferson penned those immortal words, that all men were created equal. But I also learned how even Jefferson, like many of our Founders, couldn’t extend that vision to all people of color…I want my children to learn things I never did, like about the massacre in Tulsa of black people who’d done everything right and prospered for it, or the lynchings of Italian Americans because they weren’t considered “white enough.” Most of all, I want my kids to love their country and to love the truth. You can’t love one without the other.”