Glenn Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia based in part on his anti–critical race theory platform. His 2021 campaign and others like it continue a long-standing conservative disinformation campaign of falsehoods, half-truths and exaggerations designed to create, mobilize and exploit anxiety around white status to secure political power. The problem is, these lies work, and that shows that liberals have a lot of work to do if they want to come up with a successful countermessage.

Conservatives have spent close to a century galvanizing white voters around the “dangerous” idea of racial equality. When such disingenuous rhetoric turns into reality, the end result is the criminalization of educational programs that promote racial equality. Youngkin, who pledged to “ban critical race theory on Day One,” frequently repeated this promise at his “Parents Matter” rallies across the state in the final months of the campaign.

But in his campaigning, he and others misrepresented what critical race theory (CRT) actually is: a specialized intellectual field established in the 1980s by legal scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda and Stephanie Phillips that emphasizes the unique historical role that legal systems play in upholding and producing racial inequalities in the U.S.

Conservatives instead framed CRT as nearly anything taught in schools that would discuss racial inequality. Youngkin’s appeals targeted white suburban voters by creating fears of these kinds of lessons. He promised to implement the supposedly color-blind values of Martin Luther King, Jr., replace the entire Virginia board of education and install a curriculum based on the 1776 Project, an education initiative by Donald Trump that has been heavily criticized by historians for trafficking in jingoistic mythology.

Democrats have not successfully countered this disinformation campaign or accurately reflected on its history. Indeed, in response to charges of reverse racism and the subversion of parent rights and parental say, Democrats argued that none of the things criticized by Republicans are actually part of CRT. Clearly, these kinds of logical appeals are not working.

This is in part because campaigns such as Youngkin’s are built on a legacy of lies dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. Our research demonstrates that conservative fearmongering over CRT reuses a set of scare tactics that equate racial justice with Communism that originated during the cold war. Conservative politician George Wallace once called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “a fraud, a sham, and a hoax” and likened it to the Communist Manifesto. Indeed, whereas today’s conservatives strategically misuse King’s values to justify colorblindness in the service of inequality, their 1950s predecessors labeled King an “outside agitator” and used fears of Communism to rationalize physical violence against civil rights groups.

Even in a post-Soviet world, fears of Communism are evergreen. On May 24, 2021, Christopher Rufo, a key figure in the anti-CRT movement, tweeted that “American schools haven’t ‘whitewashed’ history; they’ve ‘redwashed’ it.” The 1776 Project PAC, which opposes CRT and backed candidates in 58 races around the country, argues that advocates of racial justice “believe we need to undo the cornerstones of American society including classical liberalism, legal reasoning, and capitalism in order to promote their version of cultural Marxism based on race rather than class.”

Republican think tanks, thought leaders, media figures and politicians such as Youngkin draw on this legacy to brand any diversity, equity and social justice initiative as the dangerous (and Communist) “critical race theory.”

Conservative anti-CRT rhetoric and the accompanying bills introduced and enacted by Republican state legislatures across the country constitute a disinformation campaign designed to manufacture white grievance in the service of white power. These policies reveal the need for researchers and scholars concerned with the quality of democratic debate to treat white supremacy as a disinformation campaign and to incorporate an honest accounting of America’s racial history and legacy of present-day inequality into all levels of education.

Anti-CRT efforts offer a sweeping, bad-faith indictment of any attempt to do so on the grounds that it is “reverse racism,” will make white kids feel bad for being white and will further divide the nation.

These claims are not true, but many white people believe them because of a systematic disinformation campaign carried out by Republican politicians, media and thought leaders. For example, conservative viewpoints on CRT dominate search returns, as one of us (Tripodi) has testified to the U.S. Senate; this is the product of a concerted campaign to shape publicly available information. Search “What is CRT?” on YouTube, and the content with the most engagement is from PragerU, a nonuniversity whose goal is to spread conservative views and values. Produced just last year, this five-minute explainer video has almost two million views.

Elections never depend on a single factor, and it’s not unusual for the party that captures the presidency to lose ground. That said, the perceived success of conservatives’ anti-CRT campaign is likely to further legitimate explicit appeals to white people such as those famously used by Trump. This will probably have long-lasting consequences. It further organizes U.S. politics around hardened racial and ethnic coalitions: a majority-white Republican Party and a multiethnic, multiracial Democratic Party. The Republican Party promises to maintain white people’s status at the top of the social hierarchy, and anti-CRT rhetoric conveys that this is justifiable.

The perceived success of anti-CRT campaigns also jeopardizes any meaningful discussions of systemic inequality as part of public school education. As of March 2022, 16 states had passed anti-CRT legislation, and another 19 were considering similar bills or policies. These bills have the practical effect of preventing even tacit acknowledgment of racism or sexism. A bill passed by the Wisconsin Assembly, for instance, bans any books, educational materials or classroom discussions that include terms such as “racial prejudice,” “patriarchy,” “structural inequality,” “intersectionality” or, ironically, “critical self-reflection.” With this rule in place, it is hard to see how the Civil Rights Movement, women’s suffrage, or any number of events in American history could be discussed at all, let alone in depth. Indeed, such legislation may effectively “chill” the teaching of race by teachers scared to run afoul of conservative politics.

Many white voters are reacting en masse to fears that children will be taught about white privilege and white supremacy, even as conservative pundits and politicians rely on tried-and-true anxieties over Communism to paint antiracist efforts as a threat to capitalism and America as a whole. Unfortunately, we know from history that white racial mobilization is a potent force, both at the ballot box and in attempts to subvert it.

This disinformation campaign must be directly confronted. Rather than dismissing manufactured concerns over CRT as fake, Democrats should embrace the robust teaching of America’s racial history in our public schools and make an affirmative case for why it matters for American values of fairness, equality and justice. Democrats should then focus on articulating how attacks on CRT are meant to divide people of all races who otherwise share interests. Rather than dismissing these attacks as isolated incidents, Democrats should mount their own sustained and coherent campaign to argue affirmatively for diversity, equity and inclusion programs and for complementary efforts such as the 1619 Project.

Conservatives are unified around anti-CRT rhetoric. Now it is time for Democrats to form the same united front, to own that racism is real and to call out conservative legislative efforts designed to outlaw the teaching of racial inequality for what they are: a fitting example of how legal systems uphold racial inequality in the U.S. This, of course, is exactly what CRT is trying to point out.