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Critical Race Theory and Asymmetric Mobilization

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Teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools quickly became a salient issue nationally and in local elections despite CRT’s origins as an academic theory. In this paper, we argue that elite asymmetries regarding the importance of CRT spillover to the electorate. We show that Republican legislators and conservative media’s use of the term “critical race theory” dwarfed that of Democratic legislators and liberal media, respectively. A spike in general interest in the term happened concurrently with this elite push. We then hypothesize that in part due to this asymmetry in exposure to the term “critical race theory” itself in elite messaging, CRT policy may have an asymmetric effect on political mobilization, favoring Republicans, who tend to oppose the teaching of CRT in schools. To test this hypothesis, we conduct a survey experiment and find that Republicans presented with a pro-CRT policy change are politically mobilized, while Democrats presented with an anti-CRT policy change are not. In particular, Republicans exposed to the pro-CRT policy reported a higher likelihood of voting, encouraging others to vote, and contacting their local politicians. Thus, the case of CRT helps to illustrate the conditions under which issues can asymmetrically mobilize citizens.

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  1. In 2021, Vought founded The Center for Renewing America. One of the Center’s main aims is combatting Critical Race Theory.

  2. Though Derrick Bell is colloquially credited as the godfather of Critical Race Theory, the phrase was officially promulgated at a 1989 workshop led by Professors Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, and Stephanie Phillips on the topic (Lang 2020).

  3. Some state legislatures have introduced both pro- and anti-CRT legislation.

  4. Even at its peak popularity in newsletters in 2021, correspondences that mentioned CRT only made up a maximum of 3.4% of total newsletters sent out by Republican legislators. This is still a notable absolute volume of newsletters. For a more detailed figure on what percentage of total newsletters mentioned CRT, see Figure A1 in Supplementary Information.

  5. See the Supplementary Information for a graph of this Google Trends data for the entire period (2004 to May 2023).

  6. We define CRT for respondents earlier in the survey before our experiment. For more details, see Data and Methods.

  7. This study was not pre-registered.

  8. Respondents who did not correctly answer the attention check question were excluded from the survey before they reached the experiment. In the Supplementary Information we show that our results are consistent when subjects who took the survey too quickly are included in the analysis.

  9. This definition was adapted from the one provided by Encyclopedia Britannica (“Critical race theory. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrived May 11, 2023, from”), which reads: “intellectual and social movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour. Critical race theorists hold that racism is inherent in the law and legal institutions of the United States insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.”.

  10. We found no statistically significant effects for the venue randomization and therefore do not further discuss this in the paper. Results are reported in Supplementary Information.

  11. We include traditional p-value calculations in the main paper. For p-values adjusted for multiple testing bias, please see Supplementary Information.

  12. Self-reports of projected political participation are on a 100-point scale, with 0 being the smallest likelihood and 100 being the largest likelihood.

  13. Though this result is no longer significant when we apply a correction for multiple testing bias (see the SI).

  14. The six response categories are strongly agree, somewhat agree, slightly agree, slightly disagree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree.


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For their excellent comments and suggestions, thank you to Deborah Schildkraut, Eitan Hersh, and Rebekah Jones. Thanks are due as well to the Department of Political Science at Tufts University, which funded this work.


This work was funded by Tufts University.

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Correspondence to Brian F. Schaffner.

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Deshpande, P., Blatte, S., Margalit, Y. et al. Critical Race Theory and Asymmetric Mobilization. Polit Behav (2023).

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