John Stoehr on Critical Race Theory Pt. 1

Have you noticed what’s got the far right-wing of American politics hot-and-bothered lately? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to John Stoehr, the founder and editor of The Editorial Board about the latest red herring issue from the Right – critical race theory – and how it’s affecting political races across the country. In the first half of this two part discussion, Stoehr helps explain how the topic gained traction, distinguishes fact from fiction, and connects critical race theory to a larger discussion about race and American exceptionalism.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

John Stoehr  0:22  If you have bigotry on your side slander and smear campaigns are usually very effective, because people will they’re already believing it. You’re just telling somebody something they already believe, if they already believe the Liberals are out here trying to make trouble in race relations, meaning give let people freedom and equality, then they’re communists, right? Or they’re socialists, or they’re troublemakers or just anything to smear their intentions.

Narrator  0:51  Have you noticed what’s got the far right wing of American politics hot and bothered lately? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to John Stoehr, the founder and editor of the Editorial Board about the latest red herring issue from the right – critical race theory – and how it’s affecting political races around the country.  In the first half of this two part discussion, Stoehr helps explain how the topic gain traction, distinguishes fact from fiction, and connects critical race theory to a larger discussion about race and American exceptionalism.

Alex Wise  1:46  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by John Stoehr. He’s the founder and editor of the Editorial Board. John, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

John Stoehr  1:55  Thanks for having me back.

Alex Wise  1:56  Always a pleasure to speak to you, sir. So you’ve written a piece about critical race theory on the editorial board. And so have some of your colleagues, Rod Graham and Trent Nelson. They’re all slightly different takes on this hot button issue. First one, we summarize what the issue of critical race theory is to political debates going around in school boards and in the pundit class in America right now.

John Stoehr  2:26  Right. So the first thing you really need to understand about anything with the words critical race theory is that they are part of a backlash against the political gains made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. George Floyd, as everyone knows, I hope is, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and he was his murder was recorded. And this murder is set off a chain reaction across the country, in institutions from K through 12, up through colleges, nonprofits, other democratic institutions, to kind of do some soul searching about what we’re doing that is contributing to the oppression of African Americans and other racial minorities. So that’s the proper context in which to understand this critical race theory thing. I guess the second thing you should know is that it’s not about education, even though the Republicans are insisting that it is about education

Alex Wise  3:26  Particularly K through 12 education, right?

John Stoehr  3:30  Especially K through 12. Exactly. It’s about education, to the extent that the focus of the political energy is school boards, and that’s really where the education angle stops. Otherwise, it’s really about a political fiction. Nobody in K through 12, teaches critical race theory. critical race theory is a theory that law students use to understand law and the history of law. I mean, really, you have to be an advanced, advanced Secondary School to even touch critical race theory. Otherwise, school kids are not touching this thing.

Alex Wise  4:08  As a side note, the 1619 project is worth mentioning because I think its publication or when it came to prominence, it posed a threat to conservatives around the country, maybe you can also mention how that plays a role.

John Stoehr  4:26  What right that goes back to the proper background context in which to understand the critical race theory angle, like it’s not only the murder of George Floyd, but also the explosive impact of that history project. And it was explosive because it told a counter narrative as to the origins of our country that is really reprehensible to some people in this country. Some people want to believe that America is the shining beacon, the city on the hill, a beacon of hope and liberty, etc. And without really even acknowledging a lot of the bad things that we have done in our history. That’s what Trent Nelson gets to quite a bit in his piece. So it’s not about education.

Alex Wise  5:10  But it is about race, isn’t it?

John Stoehr  5:12  Absolutely. What’s happened? So lots of K through 12 institutions are looking at themselves wondering, you know, are we contributing to the oppression and disenfranchisement of racial minorities in this country. The other thing that’s going on in the background is something that my contributor Rob Graham talked about, and that is, cultural is the other CRC culturally relevant teaching. This is a, a Teacher project, to address the fact that K through 12 is primarily populated by non whites, the majority of K through 12 students are non whites.

Alex Wise 5:55  And that’s a that’s a huge transformation from 20 years ago, where it was I think, 61% of public schools were white, and now it’s I think, 48 or 49%.

John Stoehr  6:06  That’s right. It’s a slim majority, but it’s a majority minority now, and are minority majority now. And with that, fact, being the case, teachers across the country, as well as scholars like like rod, some working in tandem, others working independently, but on the same issue, they came up with this program called culturally relevant teaching, which is basically the way I understand it is meeting kids where they are. And also kind of getting rid of some things that just weren’t relevant to the students have now, in the past, this is the way rod puts it in the past, it was functional, it was reasonable to, to teach kind of race blindness, like we were, we’re going to minimize our differences and heighten our similarities, and kind of just overlook issues of race. And broad says that works when you have a majority white population in K through 12. But it doesn’t work when you have a majority non white in K through 12. If you keep doing this kind of colorblindness with people who are always being reminded of their color, it’s kind of a form of gaslighting to these poor kids. And you just don’t want to do that you want so you change there. You change your tact. And that’s that’s where this idea of culturally relevant teaching comes in. Right likes to be funny to us. Like there’s there is a CRT itself, but it’s not critical race theory, it’s culturally relevant teaching.

Alex Wise 7:39  But as you point out, no one is teaching white children to hate themselves.

John Stoehr  7:44  No, no one, that what they are doing is asking, you know, are some people treated differently than others? That’s what my kid learns in school, when they have discussions about race. It’s about fairness, it’s about things that kids think is right and wrong, right? Nobody’s teaching a white kid like you’re wrong, because you’re white, or you’re bad, because you’re white. Nobody’s saying that. But that resonates quite a bit with people who are at first after George Floyd’s murder, and after the 1619 project came out a lot of white people are like, oh, yeah, we should really think about, you know, our own complicity in the perpetuation of white supremacy, etc, etc. But, you know, over time, they realize, oh, you know, I have to start thinking about myself as a white person, as somebody with race, as somebody who’s participating in a system that is rewarding me on account of my race, but punishing somebody else on account of theirs. And that’s for a lot of white people. That’s a painful process. painful because, one, they’re not used to it, too. They don’t want to go through that process. And so there’s a kind of this happens whenever there’s a liberal advancement, what I call respectable white people, which is like white people who care about their respectability with other white people. These people are, you know, at first, they’re like, oh, yeah, we should talk about race but there’s a time there’s a deadline, like after that, after a certain point, they’re tired of it and they want they start walking away from whatever previous, soft commitment they had before. This is how I interpret by the way, the Virginia elections. That state went to Biden, in 2020. And that state was part of a national coalition that was comprised of respectable white people and the energies around Black Lives Matter. And that coalition, you know, came together, it was the biggest one in history and I’d like to Joe Biden, well, the Republicans successfully split that coalition in Virginia, by what I think is exploiting the difference. comfort that a lot of white respectable white people have when it comes to thinking about their own race.

Alex Wise 10:07  And Glenn Youngkin was, even though he tried to kind of have it both ways in terms of distancing himself a little bit from Donald Trump, he took a page right out of Trump’s playbook in in the lies that he told about critical race theory in his race against Terry McAuliffe. You right, that critical race theory is kind of tied to Trump’s big lie about the election as well.

John Stoehr  10:35  Right? I mean, so the big lie is that Trump lost. And the big reason for that is because of fraud. Well, what Trump’s really saying is that a lot of non white people voted. And that’s not supposed to happen in this country. This is a white man’s country, these people shouldn’t vote, they did vote, and therefore it’s a fraud. That’s what he’s saying. Right?

Alex Wise 10:54  But then Youngkin takes it into another little place. Why don’t you explain?

John Stoehr  10:59  Right.  So the other side of that is that Youngkin is appealing to people who believe that their country is being taken away from them. So just as the election was stolen from Trump, America has being stolen from people who, who are supposed to be the rightful owners of America, meaning white people, right? And so this, this is, this is an equal kind of fraud, right. And it always goes back to race, always. You can always find the if you just dig far enough, it always goes back to the friction between Democratic politics, which all is always attempting to flatten the hierarchies of power, and conservative politics, which is always trying to maintain the hierarchies of power. And when these two things come, work against each other. You get, sometimes you get violence. Republicans try to stay away from violence because violence makes them look bad. So they they talk in this kind of coded language the way young can did when he talks about banning critical race theory, what he’s really talking about is banning the politics that makes white people feel bad about themselves. That’s that’s really what he’s talking about.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise 13:14  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to the founder and editor of the editorial board, John Stoehr. So, John, we were talking about the Virginia race for governor that just saw Glenn Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe. What’s your analysis in the role of critical race theory in that election? Was it the central wedge issue which turned the tide or was there more to it, in your opinion?

John Stoehr  14:00  No, I think it was the central thing. Yeah, for sure. Remember, Terry McAuliffe won more votes than any democratic candidate ever. So what a young man have to do, he had to drive out the rural voters. And he did by by race baiting. I mean, that’s, that’s just what, what he did, and it worked it but he never called it that. Of course, he never called it you know, he just called education, you know. And the other things in the thing about this coded language is that people know what’s going on. Especially in the south, you know, the South is. I lived in the South for close to a decade and you when you live there long enough, you realize like race, you don’t really have to speak the words race for everyone to be conscious of race. It’s just it’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s everywhere. So all you really have to do is hint and nudge and, and wink and people get what you’re talking about. Without you having to explicitly say what you’re talking about. So yeah, I think that, that that really did that really did make or break things for Youngkin. The The other thing too, you know, going back to the fact that most K through 12 students are, are non white now, you have to think about, okay, that’s the fact. So why, why push this this critical race theory thing when it first of all doesn’t exist? It’s not really about education, etc, etc. So if they’re pushing it in, and you see the fact that the most kids are non white in K through 12, what does that really mean? It really means that, even as for someone like Youngkin, is saying he’s going to ban this mode of thought, what he’s really doing is saying, I’m going to force non white people to believe my preference as to the history of this country. Do you see what I mean? Like, you know, credit, if, you know, kids, or are talking about race in class, their teachers are talking or using culturally relevant teaching to approach this new generation of students and meet them where they are? Well, that’s a problem for some conservatives. Remember, education in the United States is like, the most democratic public education in the United States is the most democratic institution, perhaps we have. It always tries to flatten those hierarchies of power, because it’s, it’s teaching kids or at least the goal is to teach kids to think for themselves, right. You know, if you’re a conservative, you don’t want that. You want them to think the way you think. Right? If you think America is the best, the most awesomest country ever and never did anything wrong. You want those people to think the same thing. Right.

Alex Wise 16:57  And it’s almost a religious fervor right there. There’s this in you, you mentioned how it’s almost harkening back to the McCarthyism. But it could also hearken back to any nation state where they’ve kind of conflated a god with a leader or an in this case, it’s the this ideal of Americanism with and the Judeo Christian ideals that the right has kind of tied to the founding of this country.

John Stoehr  17:28  Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this is, this is God’s country, to the extent that God gave this country to my white men to ruin his name. I mean, and anyone, any institution or anything, or anyone that attempts to flatten the hierarchies of power, that were given by God is the enemy, and the enemy that needs to be crushed in some way. Of course, you can’t just like send an army out and crush, literally crush people in a democracy that won’t work. So you just you devise a coded system that will work that’s compatible with democracy, but seeks out to undermine it at the same time.

Alex Wise 18:12  And your contributor to the Editorial Board, Trent Nelson, wrote about this in his piece about American exceptionalism, maybe you can kind of summarize and expand on what Trent was writing about.

John Stoehr  18:26  So Trent’s peice is basically like, “look, the United States is like is no better, no worse than any other. Any other Western nation, right? We’ve done a lot of bad, we’ve done a lot of good, maybe more good than bad.” You know, you can make that argument. What the country is not is what the right wants us to think it is it is not the beacon this beacon of hope, and liberty. It is not it has not been a democracy for its for the duration of its history. It wasn’t it’s really been a democracy since about 1964. But of multiracial democracy, let’s say that since 1964, it was a it was a white person’s democracy.

Alex Wise 19:09  It wasn’t a truly representative democracy until 1984. And some might say it’s still not.

John Stoehr  19:14  And some may still say it’s not. And we’re certainly going in the direction of it not being that that way. That’s called democratic backsliding. So Trent goes back to the idea like that. We’ve done good things, we’ve done bad things, but there’s bad that can be done when we insist on replacing the truth of our history with some preferred interpretation of our history. And not just not just like a simple interpretation, but one that is rigid and dogmatic. Which is really what you get from the right the right wants, wants you to believe you know, this is the best country and if you don’t love it, you should leave it right. It will crush dissent. It will you know, it will see seek out ways to, to even censor you in the name of free speech, which is what all this ban on critical race theory is really is it’s a it’s an effort to censor people in the name of free speech. And it’s like the old saying, you know when fascism comes it will be it will come with a cross and wrapped in the flag I can’t remember the whole thing but it will always seem like the best thing but it’s really it’s really the worst thing and trends piece really is trying to say like a lot of this preferred myth mythmaking about American history seeks out to crush dissent. It seeks out to crush anyone who’s challenging, again, those hierarchies of power

Alex Wise 20:46  In a much more subtle and insidious way than you know, Nazi propaganda because it’s been centuries old in the making, in some ways.

John Stoehr  20:55  Oh, yeah. I mean, I wrote a piece today I’m writing a piece today about about how the Wright has used communism and socialism against liberals. It you know, liberals have never been communists, they’re liberals. They’re not communists. I mean, they liberals hate communists. But the right is often lumped liberals in with Communists in order to smear their objection, their intentions and their objectives. This week, look at it this way, the Republican Party has money. The Democrats have numbers. The Republicans because they have money, who can spend a ton of it on on propaganda, right. And, and they only have to aim for one or two audiences. Basically anybody who’s a bigot, anybody who’s like on the margins of bigotry, like those are the people that they can talk to. The Democratic Party has to be talks with multiple personalities and multiple voices. And it’s just like all it seems all over the place, because the Democratic Party is all over the place. It’s everything to everyone. And so therefore can never be can never have a singular, speak with one voice. And it’s just not possible for the most part for the Democrats to do that. The Republicans however, can write, they always have bigotry on their side. And so if you have bigotry on your side, slander and smear campaigns are usually very effective. Because people they’re already believing it, you’re just telling somebody something they already believe, if they already believe the Liberals are out here trying to make trouble in race relations, meaning give Black people freedom and equality. Then they’re the communists, right? Or they’re socialists or they’re troublemakers or just anything to smear their intentions.

Alex Wise 22:40  They’re just as bad as the minorities to white racist America. They’re the “other,” basically.

John Stoehr  22:47  They’re the other. Exactly right. And this has been going on for a long time. Interestingly, the whole communist accusation is still with us after all these even all these years after the Soviet Union fell and it still has a kind of emotional charge to it. And I don’t know why that is if some of your listeners have an opinion about that I’d like to know.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise 24:19  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to the founder and editor of the Editorial Board John Stoehr. So if critical race theory is the next big wedge issue, the social wedge issue that Republicans can count on for elections to come you know they’ve had God’s guns and gays and in the god section can be issues like abortion and ridiculous red herring arguments like gender neutral bathrooms or whatever it might be, but something to try to stir the pot and to get people off of issues where they agree when you look at like how people support Joe Biden’s Paul sees versus supporting Joe Biden that candidate you see, there’s this real disconnect in that sense. And so the Republicans want to exploit that variance. So do you think that critical race theory has legs as a social wedge issue? Or is it maybe just going to be a short term thing that they can exploit in southern states?

John Stoehr  25:19  Will it always be hot in this in the South? I mean, that’s just the way it is. I wish I knew the answer to that. I think part of the answer if there is an answer, is determined by the Washington press corps. When I say that, I mean like legitimate respectable reporters who aren’t partisan or aligned with some partisan outlet.

Alex Wise 25:45  Speaking to that, has the press corps Mischaracterized and run with this critical race theory in an irresponsible way – not including Fox News and the like in the subset?

John Stoehr  25:59  Yeah, the answer is a resounding yes. Hugely irresponsible.

Alex Wise 26:05  What comes to mind?

John Stoehr  26:08  Well, well characterizing race baiting as an education issue. You know, for instance, I mean, that it’s not an education issue. An education issue is like, what kids and what curriculum you’re going to have, etc. It’s not about what Youngkin is proposing is a is a project of censorship, right. But it’s never characterized that way. Right. It’s characterized as an education issue. And meanwhile, the Republican lawmakers in Texas, North Carolina and Georgia are actually seeking out ways to censor teachers and censor ways of thinking all in the pretext of under the under the pretext of protecting free speech and protecting children from this Boogeyman. I mean, it’s really serious going back to the press corps. The thing about the press corps is, first of all, the big media companies are is really about six companies that own all the big, profitable media companies, as opposed to 50 years ago when there was 50, and more. And so when they speak with one voice, that’s a really big, loud voice. And the other thing that I’ve come to, sadly realize is that fascism or being friendly to fascism is really profitable. I mean, the Fox News model is Case in point it’s the most profitable cable news channel. And for there’s one reason for that, it’s because it foments anger, it taps into bigotries and prejudices that people already believed to be true. It smears, the intentions of the minority voices, etc.

Alex Wise  27:49  John Stoehr – thank you so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

John Stoehr 27:54  You’re very welcome. Thank you.

Narrator  27:56  Tune in next week to hear the second part of our discussion with The Editorial Board’s John Stoehr.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Fela Kuti, Southern Avenue and the Four Tops. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.