The Critical Racialization of Parents’ Rights
abstract. In the aftermath of the global protests against White supremacy in the summer of 2020, conservative operatives mobilized to resist race-conscious demands for racial justice. Under the banner of a caricatured account of Critical Race Theory (CRT), between January 2021 and December 2022, government officials at all levels across the country, in red states and blue states, introduced over 560 bills, regulations, resolutions, and policies to restrict teaching about and training on contemporary racial injustice or the effects of historical subordination. In this Feature, I argue that we cannot understand the explosive growth of the anti-CRT movement without understanding how parents’ rights over education have historically been and continue to be racialized. Indeed, the anti-CRT movement has built on and been intertwined with the trend toward parents’ rights, which complains that official educational policies usurp fundamental parental rights.
I argue that the “twin” movements against CRT and for parents’ rights legally and culturally enshrine colorblindness and innocence to resist and reverse any claims for or efforts to achieve racial justice. Despite the claims that both movements represent concerns of all parents and children, both center White parents’ rights and the protection of White children. To support these assertions, I present data from a unique database of anti-CRT activity and contemporary parents’ rights mobilization.
This Feature adds to the CRT literature on racial reform and retrenchment, especially regarding schools. It examines a relatively unexplored intersection of Critical Race Theory, parents, and educational policy. I contend that the racially regressive ways in which White parents, historically and presently, use their status as parents reflect not only an impulse to protect their children through asserting control over education, but to protect Whiteness.
author. Assistant Professor, University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. This Feature draws on the work of UCLA Law’s Critical Race Studies program’s initiative CRT Forward. The Feature was not possible without the entire CRT Forward team: Taifha Alexander, Noah Zatz, Cheryl Harris, Ahilan Arulanantham, Jasleen Kohli, Kyle Reinhard, and the librarians and research assistants that created the Tracking Project website. It also draws on a report written for the Tracking Project, which I coauthored with Taifha Alexander, Kyle Reinhard, and Noah Zatz. Taifha Alexander, LaToya Baldwin Clark, Kyle Reinhard & Noah Zatz, Tracking the Attack on Critical Race Theory, UCLA (Apr. 2023), https://crtforward.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/UCLA-Law_CRT-Report_Final.pdf [https://perma.cc/6QTS-8K3C]. For valuable feedback, thank you to Cheryl Harris, Jonathan Masur, Monica Bell, Jonathan Feingold, Farah Peterson, Jerry Kang, Franita Tolson, Shaun Ossei-Owusu, and Guy-Uriel Charles. Thank you to the participants of the faculty colloquium at Cornell Law School for valuable feedback. I am indebted to the editors of the Yale Law Journal for your excellent editing and unending patience. Richard Peng, Whitney Forbis, Katharine Young, and Emma Bell: thank you for outstanding research assistance. William, Ahmir, Amina, and Ahmad: I am because you are. All mistakes are mine.
The summer of 2020 marked an epic shift in the national dialogue about race and racism. Following the release of a searing video showing the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers1 and the disclosure of the murder of Breonna Taylor by police as she slept in her home,2 millions of people flooded into the streets under the banner Black Lives Matter.3 The protests against White supremacy4 and anti-Black state violence were international; one journalist noted: “There is a George Floyd in every country.”5
Major news outlets described the protests as indicative of a “racial reckoning[:] . . . the fight against systemic racism that is reverberating around the country.”6 Institutions declared their solidarity with this antiracist movement. Schools began incorporating antiracist curricula,7 and companies pledged to fight anti-Blackness in their organizations.8 Books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility9 and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist10 became book-club favorites.11
The popular groundswell in support of a true racial reckoning rejected the dominant colorblind racial frame and produced considerable anxiety among political conservatives in the context of the pandemic and a hotly contested election cycle. During the presidential campaign, as President Trump’s approval numbers continued to sink and the pandemic continued to take its toll, there was a desperate search for a vehicle from which to mount a counteroffensive. Finally, in the summer of 2020, one began to emerge.
Conservatives like Christopher F. Rufo, who had been working to eliminate antiracism efforts for years, railed against antiracist training sessions as abusive of White men.12 As reported in a series of articles and interviews in the conservative press, he noted that the footnotes of popular antiracism books drew from Critical Race Theorists’ work.13 Rufo then argued that Critical Race Theory (CRT) was at the root of not only the maligned diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives but was also the source of similar “indoctrination” efforts in colleges and universities.14 Rufo deployed CRT as a handy rhetorical sledgehammer for conservative pushback to racially progressive politics.15 Indeed, he acknowledged that his objectives were to “turn [CRT–the brand] toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”16 “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”17
His remarks and arguments reached a receptive audience in the White House. According to several news sources, Rufo was instrumental in getting the President to take action.18 On September 22, 2020, then-President Trump issued an Executive Order (EO)19 denouncing any attempt to provide antiracist instruction or training to federal employees and contractors. The EO claimed to “promote unity in the Federal workforce, and  combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”20 Under the mandates of the EO, federal contractors were prohibited from “inculcat[ing] . . . in their employees . . . any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.”21
The EO did not explicitly name CRT as a tool for implementing race and sex scapegoating. While CRT is an intellectual movement explicated in academic journals and books, the EO had an intentionally warped version of CRT in mind. The EO decried a “malign ideology” that “may be fashionable in the academy, but [that] ha[s] no place in programs and activities supported by Federal taxpayer dollars.”22
While President Biden rescinded the EO upon assuming office in January 2021, the EO had already wreaked havoc. Its tenets spread nationwide to state legislative houses and school-board meetings. In the wake of the EO, anti-CRT resolutions, regulations, and legislation emerged in Congress, state legislatures, and local-government institutions. Backed by political organizations, including those trumpeting parents’ rights, between January 1, 2021, and December 31, 2022, lawmakers at every level of government have introduced or adopted over 560 laws, regulations, policies, and other official actions to restrict CRT training, teaching, and curricula.23 These measures also targeted the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project24 and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” efforts.25
Over 90% of these measures at the state and local level target K-12 public schools, seeking to regulate teachers and curricula. This targeting is not surprising; schools have long been foundational sites of racial contestations,26 and curriculum wars are not new.27 Predictably, these struggles mobilize parents, and mobilizing White28 parents for racially regressive ends has been a recurring response to racial reform efforts, however modest.29 For example, White mothers actively organized to resist racial desegregation in schools after Brown v. Board of Education,30 and parents’ rights groups have been at the forefront of many other contestations over race.31
The parents’ rights movement seeks to codify aggressive forms of supposedly race-neutral school surveillance, transparency, and unprecedented access to classrooms and lessons.32 Between January 2020 and December 2022, state lawmakers in at least thirty-four states introduced parents’ rights bills alongside anti-CRT efforts.
Anti-CRT and parents’ rights proponents argue that these
parents’ rights bills result from grassroots activism of parents of all races
who are outraged at many forms of what they see as government overreach during
and after the restrictions of COVID.33 But the emergence of this
movement cannot reasonably be characterized as grassroots. Instead, powerful,
well-funded national entities hostile to racial redistribution of
power34 champion parents’ rights. Other organizations provide talking points and strategies parents can adopt to fight CRT in their children’s schools. Together with the anti-CRT activities, the well-organized parents’ rights movement fuels this contemporary form of racial retrenchment in response to racial reform.35
In this Feature, I situate the “twin” movements of anti-CRT and parents’ rights in Critical Race Theory’s critiques. By using the metaphor of twins, I suggest that the movements work in tandem because they are born from the same parent: White supremacy. To do so, I draw on insights from a qualitative descriptive analysis of anti-CRT laws, regulations, policy, and the contemporary movement for parents’ rights as found in both introduced laws and conservative operations, along with organizational encouragement. While the movements assert the normative superiority of colorblindness in protecting innocent children against indoctrination, I show how the movements are not at all colorblind nor protective of the rights of all parents or children. Instead, together they are color conscious of Whiteness, White parents’ rights, and the psychological needs of White children.
I develop my thesis in three parts. Part I provides a brief primer on CRT concepts for those unfamiliar with this body of work. The caricatured version of CRT pushed by the right is often in direct opposition to what CRT actually argues. This Part offers a background for the trends I describe in Parts II and III and explicitly counters the disinformation campaign that serves as the backdrop to the anti-CRT movement.
In Parts II and III, I describe the national landscape of the anti-CRT and the parents’ rights movements using a publicly available, national, and comprehensive data set unavailable to authors who have previously written on the anti-CRT movement.36 I analyze anti-CRT measures, self-styled parents’ rights legislation, and conservative organizations’ guides instructing parents on resisting CRT and other so-called leftist agendas in their local schools.
In Part IV, I show how the twin movements provide a contemporary example of how race-neutral calls for colorblindness and invocation of White children’s innocence work in service of racially regressive maneuvers. Again, despite protestations to the contrary, both campaigns are color conscious and racially selective in their “protection” of children to include only White parents and White children. Both, in fact, operate in the service of a more significant campaign to retrench White supremacy. The example reveals an underexplored intersection of Critical Race Theory, parenting, and educational policy.
A few notes before continuing. First, while I name the movement that began with the Trump EO “anti-CRT,” the measures invoke CRT in about one-third of introduced measures. Thus, using “anti-CRT” to encapsulate these varied efforts may be imprecise and misleading.37 But close to fifty percent of all adopted measures expressly prohibit CRT,38 such that the impact of these laws places CRT squarely in the middle of the movement.
Second, while I speak of White parents, my goal is not to indict all White parents as nefarious actors. Nevertheless, although the parents’ rights movement claims to act on behalf of parents, its rhetoric suggests its true goal is to work only on behalf of White parents.39 The campaign seeks to retrench the status quo in light of stark racial disparities across many domains—which is to say, racial subordination.40 The retrenchment benefits all people who can claim Whiteness, even if they would instead not consciously claim it.
Lastly, the data I present here is a snapshot of the national landscape of these movements as of the year’s end of 2022. While the analysis is descriptive rather than causal, and it is not statistically sophisticated, it represents the most comprehensive quantitative and qualitative picture of official anti-CRT activity. This analysis is part of a project that continues refining and identifying other ways of collecting, cataloging, and analyzing this information. Thus, this analysis will necessarily be somewhat imprecise. Nevertheless, it is valuable to understand the attack’s depth and breadth and its contours.