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In the aftermath of racial justice protests, the country has witnessed a wave of conservative anti-“critical race theory” (CRT) legislation. This essay argues that such legislation is best understood as the latest iteration of a long-standing reactionary political practice. This practice goes back a century to World War I and the 1920s. Then, as now, it was marked by two critical elements: an argument about national identity and a focus on public schools. In the early twentieth century, conservatives began systematically fusing ethno-racial claims about Anglo-European cultural distinctiveness with a self-consciously universal language of the United States as a uniquely free and equal society. They further contended that public schools were failing to adequately teach children in the nation’s true values and called for a series of school measures with uncanny resemblances to the present.

In exploring this pre-history of today’s attacks on public schools, the essay teases out why arguments akin to anti-“CRT” claims initially emerged and recur whenever there have been major flashpoints around cultural and national identity. It also highlights a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon: In the United States, the most prominent defenses of racial hierarchy and attacks on racial reform often speak in a “civic” and ostensibly universal register rather than in an “ethnic” nationalist one. This fact requires Americans to confront the embedded drawbacks of longstanding and taken-for-granted narratives of national purpose, narratives commonly invoked across the political spectrum.


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29 Sep 2023
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  • Subject
    • Gender

    • Law and Society

    • Legal History

    • Race and Ethnicity

  • Journal title
    • Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review

  • Volume
    • 58

  • Issue
    • 2

  • Pagination
    • 551-577

  • Date submitted

    29 September 2023