Harvey J Graff

Fearing for his political life, at the end of August, Gov. DeWine joined the right-wing blinded parade in opposing teaching critical race theory in Ohio’s K-12 schools. Not only would this be anti-democratic (small d), unconstitutional, and a threat to the maturity of Ohio’s children, but it is based on a lie. [“Mike DeWine opposes teaching critical race theory in Ohio's K-12 schools” Columbus Dispatch, Aug. 31, 2021 (]

A widespread fiction would lead you to believe that a debate over critical race theory is “roaring” across the U.S. According to right-wing activist groups Heritage Action, the 1776 Project, and Citizens for Renewing America (and their education affiliates) on one hand, and Fox, OANN, Newsmax, and their online and radio outgrowths on the other hand, this “debate is raging widely” in state legislatures and local school boards. Unfortunately, without adequate fact-checking, the more objective media too often repeat the claims.

In reality, there is no debate, neither widespread nor roaring or raging. The dramatic exaggeration results from an organized publicity campaign by these actors. Not only do they secure excessive air time, posts, and tweets, but they are following a detailed playbook. Search their websites for examples. Listen to Tucker Carlson on Fox, interviewing the pseudo-journalist/researcher Christopher Rufo, who lies incessantly about critical race theory and teaching about race in schools. DeWine is only a more sanitized version, while New York Times “conservative” columnist Ross Douthat adds to the confusion.

Despite all the noise, few documented examples of parental protests in schools or before school boards exist. The same handful representing relatively few states (California, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and New York) is cited over and over, falsely creating the pretense of a larger number. The overactive media machine creates much more discordant noise than harmony. Too few news sources fact-check these claims.

Even more telling, the reported cases reveal that the few protesting parents do not cite or document events in their children’s school classes. Rather, they follow, almost word for word, the scripts circulated in the “handbooks” and “toolkits” posted on the websites of right-wing activist groups. Recently, two mothers of students at the private preparatory Columbus Academy (Ohio) took their scripted remarks to a right-wing national podcast as well as to school meetings. The first result: their children lost their places in the school for violating their contract. The second: support for the school increased.

There can be no debate because there are no real issues. None of the attackers is familiar with the contents of the textbooks, scholarship, or course syllabi. Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 education and rarely in universities outside of law schools, where it has been a regular required course for more than four decades.

“Critical race theory” is intentionally conflated with teaching about race and slavery, a normal (if not always adequate) feature of history and civics courses. The false charges range from claiming the approach is un-American to alleging that it “blames” and “shames” students and somehow holds them responsible for hundreds of years of injustice and inhumanity. Agents like Rufo fabricate the lie that reputable scholars are “Marxists who advocate the abolition of private property and the overthrow of capitalism.” And, that critical race theory is “state-sponsored racism.”

There is nothing to debate. The fear-mongering is rooted in a fictional narrative that appeals to a significant minority of Americans. To debate requires agreed-upon issues, a set of established facts, and a commitment to a meaningful exchange and civil discourse. None of that exists here.

These allegations would be laughable if the stakes were not so high. Appealing to fears and grievance, Republicans hope to make the nondebate a 2022 election issue. Facing a primary challenge, DeWine fears for his political future.  Following the handbooks, Republican state legislators move to “ban” critical race theory or some vague version of teaching about race that makes some students feel “uncomfortable.” It is impossible to ban courses that do not exist or to enforce a prohibition in every classroom. Such a ban is also an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment rights of teachers and students. The threatened actions, however, seek to stoke fear and intimidate both teachers and students.

The stakes are even higher. The greatest danger is to students' education. The right-wing activists oppose education founded on inclusive knowledge and understanding, student maturity, respect for and awareness of self and others. Those are the basis for a free and fair democratic society and polity: the promise of America.

Please see my essays and forum “Republicans assault fact-based American history and promote popular ignorance,” Columbus Dispatch, May 28, 2021 (;

“The attack on critical race theory threatens our democracy,” Inside Higher Education, Aug. 2, 2021 (;;

“There Is No Debate About Critical Race Theory: How GOP politicians and conservative activists are trying to create controversy where there is none,” Washington Monthly, Sept. 4, 2021

“Fiction and Fact about Critical Race Theory,” Forum,Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University, Sept. 9, 2021

“The New White Fright and Flight and the Critical Race Theory Nondebate,”Academe Blog, Sept. 29, 2021 (


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history including The Literacy Mythand The Dallas Myth. His specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.