As Conservatives Stoke the Critical Race Theory Culture Wars, Where Is Philanthropy?

ESB Professional/shutterstock

ESB Professional/shutterstock

Not long ago, few people had heard of critical race theory. Then, all of a sudden, the relatively obscure legal theory was leading cable news stories and ripping through school board meetings. It’s been a particularly hot topic on conservative channels: Fox News commentators mentioned critical race theory close to 2,000 times this year, according to Media Matters.

Critical race theory isn’t new; it is a 40-year-old academic concept that explores the ways racism is woven into our legal and social institutions. But conservatives are using critical race theory, misleadingly, as an umbrella term to describe and demonize efforts to combat racism—such as anti-bias training in the workplace and anti-racism curriculum in schools—many of which have been in place for a very long time. 

The New York Times 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, has become a target because it places slavery at the center of U.S. history and challenges the assumptions and heroes that have always dominated the American origin story.

Conservative politicians and commentators describe critical race theory (CRT) in feverish terms, deriding it as racist, anti-white, anti-American, and Marxist, and arguing that its goal is to foment racial tensions and make white students feel bad. As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted: “Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other. It is state-sanctioned racism and has no place in Florida schools.”

If it were merely a media or social media phenomenon, it would be perhaps less concerning. But the panic is leading to state legislation that makes school districts and educators vulnerable at a time when they are already struggling to stay ahead of the COVID-19 resurgence. It’s also connected to broader legislative attacks on multi-racial democracy. 

As in the case of so many public policies and the discourse that informs them, philanthropy and nonprofits are playing a key role, but funding has been lopsided, with conservative donors fueling the uproar and most progressive funders keeping their distance, according to media investigations and nonprofit sources we spoke with. Many of those advocates enmeshed in the CRT fight and broader efforts to defend anti-racism work find themselves wishing they had more extensive financial backing. 

Understanding the frenzy

This new spin on critical race theory was first introduced by Christopher Rufo, a documentarian and senior fellow at conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute; he was also a fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Rufo unveiled the term on Tucker Carlson’s show last summer, which brought it to the attention of then-President Donald Trump. The battle took off after that, inflaming conservative pundits, state legislators, and parents across the country.

Whipping up grievance is the goal, as columnist Eugene Robinson argued in the Washington Post: “This manufactured controversy has nothing to do with actual critical race theory, which, frankly, is the dry and arcane stuff of graduate school seminars,” he wrote. “It is all about alarming white voters into believing that they are somehow threatened if our educational system makes any meaningful attempt to teach the facts of the nation’s long struggle with race.” 

Rufo himself is frank about this objective, tweeting: “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.”

Rufo and his allies have been successful, as the widespread hysteria over critical race theory demonstrates. Around the country, conservative legislators are jumping all over the issue, rushing to craft bills restricting what teachers can teach. As of August 26, according to Education Week, 27 states have introduced bills or other measures “that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.” Twelve states have enacted bans. (To learn more about state legislation, see this analysis by Education Week). 

Water balloons vs. bazookas

Conservative philanthropists and nonprofits are major players in the campaign against critical race theory and anti-racism efforts, although it can be difficult to tell who, exactly, is directing funding specifically to the cause. 

On the nonprofit side, some of the names behind the movement are familiar, including conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and its advocacy arm, Heritage Action for America. Disclosure laws don’t require Heritage to reveal the donors funding its activities, but in a Politico report, a representative for Heritage Action said that there is “huge donor interest in this.” While funding is often not earmarked, the organization has been a frequent grantee of leading conservative funders, including the Koch network, the Bradley Foundation, and through DAF platform DonorsTrust. The same can be said of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which designs model legislation on conservative issues and is also championing anti-CRT activities. 

Political scientist Isaac Kamola took a close-up look at members of the 1776 Commission, which the Trump Administration created in response to the 1619 Project, in a recent article published in Inside Higher Ed. Kamola draws links between commission members and think tanks and funders, including The Heritage Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Koch network. Some lesser-known conservative philanthropies are involved as well, including the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, as Judd Legum’s Popular Information recently reported. 

These conservative funders and advocates occupy a small world: Some of the same names figure prominently in efforts to undermine public education, as IP reported. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer identified that some of the same funders, including the Bradley Foundation, are also bankrolling efforts by Trump and his allies to discredit the results of the 2020 election. Earlier this year, Mayer also reported on the Koch Network’s opposition to voting rights legislation, HR1, also known as the For the People Act. 

If conservative activists and their funders are fueling the anti-critical-race-theory fires, progressive philanthropy has been slow to respond. In a recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Alvin Starks, who leads the Open Society-U.S. Equality Team at the Open Society Foundations, and Pamela Shifman, former executive director of the NoVo Foundation, pushed philanthropy to take a stronger stand. 

Pointing to conservatives’ well-orchestrated efforts and deep pockets, Starks and Shifman wrote, “In progressive philanthropy, there simply has not been the same long-term, trust-based commitment to racial justice work. We are, bluntly speaking, playing catch-up, and the defenders of white supremacy have a head start.” 

Nat Chioke Williams, the executive director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, agrees, pointing to the wealthy interests and powerful conservative media that are backing anti-CRT efforts. 

“The myth out there is that this is Regular Joes fighting for Regular Joes, but what we are up against is so well funded and so well organized. They have ALEC rolling out bills, they have conservative state legislators introducing the bills, and they have the echo chamber of Fox News and other conservative media—it’s chilling, and we don’t have anything like that. It’s like bringing water balloons to a bazooka fight.” 

Pushing back

There has been opposition to anti-CRT campaigns, of course. America’s powerful teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), for example, have both vowed to defend teachers from anti-CRT attacks, according to a report by The 74. “Mark my words: Our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said at a recent union conference. “We have a legal defense fund ready to go.” 

If funders do decide to push back, there are several progressive organizations taking steps to counter the anti-CRT blitz. The African American Policy Forum (AAPF), for example, launched a platform called #TruthBeTold, which provides information and resources to counter anti-CRT disinformation, and tracks legislation.

Last year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU both opposed then-President Trump’s “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” a frontal attack on diversity training. (The order would become the prototype for many of the state bans.) These and other organizations are keeping a close eye on the new anti-CRT state laws and exploring possible litigation

The Partnership for the Future of Learning, a diverse network of education and social justice organizations that support public education, has created a messaging guide called “Truth in Our Classrooms Bridges Divides.” The guide counters anti-CRT information and underscores the value of culturally responsive education. 

Texas state Rep. Mary González, who is associate director of the partnership, helped create the guide. González has observed the on-the-ground fallout of anti-CRT campaigns in Texas. One bill that was recently passed by the Texas Senate, for example, would end rules requiring public schools to include writings on women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement—works by Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others—in social studies classes.

“I think the outcome of this struggle will impact the health of our democracy,” she said. “In El Paso, in my district, students and teachers have had a year of trauma. Having this CRT fight only adds additional trauma—we need to be having conversations, not telling kids they can’t talk about issues that affect their lives. We need avenues for less trauma, not more.” 

González believes funders need to work together to develop a counter strategy. “Philanthropy can’t shy away from this conversation because it is political in nature. That isn’t stopping the funders behind this effort.”

Chris Westcott, political educator at the Solidaire Network, agrees. “The idea that philanthropic and charitable work isn’t political—everything has political choices tied to it. Now isn’t a time to hang back. This is a time for us to show up in the work and make bold commitments to change.”

Showing up means not necessarily firing off short-term, CRT-specific grants, but making deeper commitments to organizations pushing for racial justice and doing advocacy work. The Solidaire Network has raised money to help the African American Policy Forum respond to CRT attacks, and also supports racial justice efforts through two giving vehicles, the Movement Infrastructure Fund and the Black Liberation Pooled Fund. The Hill-Snowdon Foundation, which Chioke Williams heads, explicitly funds Black-led organizing and movement infrastructure under its Meeting the Moment: Black Movement Infrastructure for Racial Justice program. 

Chioke Williams believes philanthropy needs to “listen and be in relationship with those on the front lines. We need to be in service to the folks doing this work, not in service of our own interests. One of the opportunities philanthropy might offer, for example, is providing support for research. And providing spaces for folks to come together to strategize. Because that is what happens on the right. They have spaces, they have conferences all the time. So loosening the reins and recognizing that this is a deep battle and we are way, way, way, behind.” 

Midterms—and beyond

In the short-term, anti-CRT efforts are part of a midterm election strategy: a tool to galvanize conservative voters and get them to the polls. But the broader agenda of those attacking CRT has to do with far more than education. 

“Schools are only one front in this battle,” Chioke Williams said. “Yes, it’s about education, and opposition to multicultural education, but if you just look at education, you are missing the larger power and threat that this represents.” 

Chioke Williams draws a link between new laws banning CRT and other items on the conservative agenda—including laws restricting voter access that are sprouting up around the country.

Nikole Hannah-Jones made this connection in a recent interview with Ezra Klein, pointing out that attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are particularly virulent in states where laws restricting voting have been introduced:

“It is the narrative that you guys are under attack, you are losing your demographic advantage, Black people and other people of color are not legitimate citizens, they never have been, they want to steal your history, they want to make you feel like you are less than them—it is that narrative that then justifies these anti-democratic policies that are being passed.”

Indeed, the head of Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm told Politico that critical race theory is one of the top two issues her group is working on “alongside efforts to tighten voting laws.”

For Alvin Starks of OSF, the anti-CRT crusade is an obvious reaction to the power of last year’s drive for racial justice. But it is also a measure of that movement’s success. 

“We saw amazing energy behind the concept of building a more inclusive society,” Starks told me. “The right had to figure out how to take the wind out of the sails of that movement. So this is really a distraction. The opposition has learned how effective a disinformation campaign can be. And so the attacks on critical race theory are part of a disinformation campaign to incite fear and create divisions to hold back the promise of an inclusive and just society.”