If Things Feel Extra Bad Right Now, It’s Because They Are

We don’t have a lot of time before the 2022 midterms, so I want to tell you my real takeaway here up front: Things are not looking good. Regardless of who wins or loses on Tuesday, the right is at war with young people, and using that as an avenue to target marginalized communities across the board. If things feel extra bad right now, it’s because, unfortunately, they are.

None of our problems — the targeting of LGBTQ people; the continued funding of the police state; attacks on the education system and teachers; dark money in politics; election denialism and voter suppression; destroying reproductive healthcare access; and on and on — can simply be resolved at the ballot box. Yes, we can and should vote in the midterms. But we also need to talk about how these issues will fester beyond Election Day, and the extent to which students are being used as pawns in the culture wars.

How did we get here? There are certain names who pop up across this infrastructure of anti-trans organizing, and messaging: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson; Libs of TikTok account operator Chaya Raichik; Moms for Liberty; conservative activist Christopher Rufo. You can also name current electeds like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene to the list of those whose policies and words have contributed to this hostile environment for young people, and particularly for trans children and their families.

Thanks to their propagandizing, “protecting” kids has, for a substantial number of Americans, come to mean limiting how they can discuss race and gender in schools, cracking down on their ability to protest, banning books from libraries, preventing trans teens from seeking gender-affirming care, and restricting access to abortion. This agenda is driven by conspiracy theories demonizing educators and progressives as “groomers” and ahistorical, anti-science thinking.

Let’s start with the attacks on “critical race theory” (usual reminder that CRT is a legal theory and not a form of K-12 education). Conservatives have spent much of the past two years insisting that public students are being taught that the United States is a fundamentally racist country. Christopher Rufo launched the anti-CRT campaign on Fox News in September 2020, while protesters were still in the streets calling for racial justice; he once claimed CRT “connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American views.” (I can’t think of anything more hostile, race-obsessed, or poisonous than the people mentioned in this op-ed, personally; but in terms of elitism, there’s always Tucker Carlson.) By the following spring, Rufo tweeted that his efforts had “successfully frozen [CRT] into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions.”

In a recent report from the New Yorker, emails from a Tennessee county commissioner made an unintentionally insightful comment on critical race theory in schools. As it turns out, this particular county’s school district was hosting field trips to plantation sites, where slavery was reportedly being presented as banal. A diversity consultant team was brought on to assess the trips, along with other accusations of racism and bullying. According to the New Yorker, county commissioner Gregg Lawrence wrote, in an email to a school board member complaining about the consultants, “These young people who have been protesting, looting and burning down our cities in America are doing so because they don’t see anything about America worth preserving. And why is that? Because our public schools and universities taught them that America is a systemically racist nation founded by a bunch of bigoted slave owning colonizers.”

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