Week of 11/1: “Critical Race Theory” Bans

Josh Berezin, Lead Strategist

Summary: We found three messages that were effective at changing opinions on “CRT” bans in schools. Each message was especially effective with Republicans. 

This research was conducted in partnership with Strategic Victory Fund.

Background

As Tuesday’s election results and the ensuing conversations indicated, the issues of K-12 education, parents’ influence on schools, and “critical race theory” are not likely to go away soon. 

This week’s research sprint aimed to explore attitudes and values that people bring to the issue of education about racism in schools, and to uncover messages that reduce net support for misguided laws that ban schools from teaching vital concepts about race.

We hope that by conducting and sharing this research, organizations might find messages to adapt and use in their programs, evidence they can apply to understanding this issue better, or research ideas that they can pursue to increase their effectiveness.

Future research ideas could include how to message on this topic as a candidate, how to counter opposition messaging, or how to increase support for specific policies being proposed nationally or in states. Contact us if you’re interested in these or other questions!

Audience Understanding Survey

On November 1st, we conducted an Audience Understanding Survey, asking 790 people their opinions on schools teaching about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism, along with a battery of closed- and open-ended questions. This quantitative and qualitative information helped us understand the range of perspectives and values that people brought to this issue.

In the Audience Understanding Survey, we prompted respondents with the following question:

Do you support or oppose K-12 schools in your area teaching about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the United States?

We found that people who supported schools teaching about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism tended to be younger and less likely to be white. They identified values like compassion, equality, and justice as relevant to them for this issue. They described this kind of curriculum using words like “important,” “essential,” and “critical” and mentioned how students need to understand history to help make a better future.

A number of people who somewhat supported, somewhat opposed, or were undecided mentioned concerns about materials being age-appropriate, or that this subject should only be taught to older students. 

Those who were strong opposers were much older than average and more likely to be white. They were higher in patriotism and nostalgia, based on Grow Progress’s modeled values scores. This group had a low level of trust in teachers. Open-ended responses for this group included “there are no ongoing effects of slavery or racism,” “there is no racism going on in the USA,” and “it’s phony crap based on the 1619 project.” We came to the obvious conclusion that we were not likely to figure out how to persuade this group in the short term.

Rapid Message Test

We drafted eight messages, some of which reflected the values and attitudes we heard in the Audience Understanding Survey, and some of which were drawn from news sources and the public discourse on this topic. We aimed to represent a range of different arguments, values, perspectives, and messengers. 

We recruited 2,176 respondents and randomly assigned each to see one of the eight messages, or a placebo, after which they were asked the following survey question:

Some states have passed or are considering laws that ban K-12 schools from teaching about certain concepts based on critical race theory such as systemic racism in our legal system and the ongoing effects of slavery. Would you support or oppose these laws in your state?

Note that this question is different from the audience survey question. For one thing, it mentions critical race theory directly, as a reflection of the language and context that many people are now seeing around this question. It’s designed to give all respondents, including those in the placebo group, some shared information about the topic before answering. Further, it’s flipped from the audience understanding survey question — we are looking to move people toward opposing laws that ban teaching these concepts. 

Results

Two messages were especially effective at reducing support and one that was especially effective at increasing opposition

A message’s effects on reducing support don’t necessarily increase opposition by that same amount, since the effect may be to move a supporter to “undecided” rather than opposed.

Messages that reduced support by the largest margins were “Education is good,” which featured a Black student talking about why education on race is important to him, and “Divide us,” which discusses America’s complicated history and politicians’ efforts to divide us. (Full text of all messages is in the appendix, below.)

“Education is good” reduced support by 9 points, and “Divide us” reduced support by 10 points compared to the placebo group

The message that increased opposition by the largest margin was “Not politicians,” which talks about the wide range of topics kids learn about in school and asserts that we should trust educators and parents, rather than politicians, on issues of education. The “Not politicians” message increases opposition to “CRT bans” even though it doesn’t mention race at any point, focusing instead on who should be involved in decisions about what kids learn. Interestingly, anti-CRT activists have used a very similar concept — the idea that parents, not politicians, should influence student curriculums — to argue for the other side.

”Not politicians” increased opposition by 10 points over the placebo group

We found that our winning messages worked better with Republicans than with any other group. “Not politicians” increased opposition for “CRT bans” among people who voted Trump in 2020 by 29 points, while it only moved Biden voters by 11 points. “Education is good” decreased support for “CRT bans” among Trump voters by 17 points, compared to an 8-point effect on Biden voters, while “Divide us” moved Trump voters by 20 points, versus 9 points among Biden voters. 

It’s especially promising that our most effective topline messages move opinions among Republicans specifically, as they’ve been at the core of activism on this issue.

It’s also worth noting that none of these messages clearly backlashed. In fact, we estimate that each message had a positive net effect, though some of those effects don’t meet this test’s statistical significance threshold.

Appendix

Messages

Education is good

NBC News, September 1, 2021:

Black students across the country have a lot to say about policy changes that would bar educators from teaching about racism in schools.

“Race shouldn’t just be taught at home with families. It should be taught in school because we come to school to learn and learning about yourself is a part of the school experience,” said one student, 16-year-old Kerry Santa Cruz. “It’s important for kids, especially Black kids, to learn about race so they can understand who they are. So they don’t end up hating themselves for being Black. Education is good.” 

Butt out

It matters to me what my kids learn in school. I heard they’re learning about civil liberties and race and some of the history of our country, and you know what? I know their teachers. I trust them to do a good job with this stuff. And I get to go down and talk to them for conferences once a quarter.

So I don’t like the idea of government officials in the state capital telling my kids’ teachers how to teach. Butt out, guys. We got this.

Divide us

Most of us want similar things from our schools, no matter if we’re White, Black, Latino, Asian, or Native. We want our teachers to care for every student, and to teach them the full history of our country. This is the country that won World War II and saved the world from fascism. This is also a country that once had legal slavery and Jim Crow. Some politicians want to divide us and say that schools shouldn’t teach the full history of our great nation. I think we’re too smart for that.

Tough issues

I’m not going to lie—I miss the days when school was as simple as reading, writing, and arithmetic. But my kids are growing up in a different, more complicated world. 

I want to see their school get them ready for that world. So I say, go ahead and teach them more complicated stuff! They’ve got to learn about tough issues like the ongoing effects of slavery and racism to be prepared to be successful adults when they graduate. 

Not Politicians

Parents and teachers want to give kids the best education they can. They want kids to learn and grow. A great public school education includes art and music, math and science, and history and literature. But now politicians want to limit what history our kids can learn about and what books they can read. We should trust educators and parents—not politicians—to ensure our kids get the best education possible. 

Age-appropriate

I know a lot of parents are frustrated with the way we talk about race in this country. I know it can make a lot of white people feel guilty. I get it. Racism is a painful, embarrassing part of American history and it’s really hard to talk about. When my kids ask me what’s going on with critical race theory in the news, I don’t have good answers. That’s why I trust my kids’ teachers to find a way to teach them the truth about American history in an age-appropriate way. 

Afraid of the dark

We all want our country to be a safe and stable place for our kids. And for a lot of folks, talking about racism can feel threatening and unsafe. But when I was a kid and afraid of the dark, adults telling me to ignore it or “just get over it” didn’t make me feel safer. Ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away and it doesn’t make us or our kids safer. That’s why I want my kid to learn about racism in an age-appropriate way at school the same way he learns about the rest of American history.

Mrs. Brown

Growing up, my mom taught me to always treat people with respect and to own up to my mistakes. 

But my history teacher, Mrs. Brown, taught me how to think for myself. When we learned about American history, she told me and my classmates everything, the whole truth—good, bad, and ugly. When we studied slavery and the ongoing effects of racism, we got the chance to look at everything from both sides.

I hope every kid gets to go to a school that teaches them the truth and then comes home to parents that love them for who they are.

Key experiment details
  • Audience: All adults, balanced on age, race, and gender
  • Geography: the United States
  • Sample size (raw / weighted): 2,176 / 2,176
  • Dates in field: Wednesday, November 03, 2021 to Thursday, November 04, 2021
  • Weighting factors: age, race, gender, education, and party