ASHBY, MINN. – Jason Kirchenwitz wanted to know more about an issue arising often now in his conversations, and he suspected others did too, especially Republican activists he helps organize in rural Grant County.

He was right. Nearly 100 people filed into a gymnasium in this town of fewer than 500 people last week for a meeting he called. They all came to hear about critical race theory.

"I have kids in school," said Kirchenwitz. "I don't want them pressured or pushed into other views."

Critical race theory first emerged in the 1970s in academia, but it rocketed back into the spotlight after George Floyd's killing and the racial reckoning it sparked. The concept contends racism is systemic, creating fewer opportunities for Black people in America. But in conservative media and activist circles, it has become a blanket term for equity efforts across all institutions, especially in classrooms.

GOP campaign operatives are already positioning critical race theory as a wedge issue in the 2022 midterm election, much like Republicans effectively used defunding the police as a blunt instrument against swing district Democrats last fall.

"It's this idea that the American dream — individualism, hard work, free markets — doesn't truly apply equally to everyone," said Michael Minta, who teaches classes on politics and race at the University of Minnesota. "Republicans are using the whole idea about diversity and teaching about race, and they're finding a term — that they don't necessarily quite understand, or care to understand — and using it to rouse racial resentment that's out there in the population."

The concept has become particularly controversial around schools, where conservative activists have begun disrupting local board meetings across the country, including a Rochester Public Schools meeting last week.

Critical race theory is not being taught in Minnesota's K-12 classrooms, but groups have raised alarm about the once-a-decade process of revising state social studies standards. Proposals under review would include more lessons from the Native American perspective, as well as studies in LGBTQ civil rights and the history of segregating policies such as redlining, which pushed people of color out of certain neighborhoods through lending policies or denying them mortgage insurance.

Republicans claim the most extreme DFL activists want those lessons to be added at the expense of teachings on the Civil War, World War II and the Holocaust.

"They want to tear it down and replace it with something else," said Jeff Niedenthal, a consultant who has been traveling to American Legion clubs and cities such as Ashby for presentations on critical race theory.

Mark Westphal, a history teacher and vice president of the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies, said the conversation has been around adding to, not subtracting from, current standards.

"It's trying to bring in a more inclusive set of histories, and that's where a lot of conservatives argue that it's going to be a rewriting of history," said Westphal. "It's a fear-based proposal that's going to rile up the troops."

More broadly, conservatives say critical race theory is being used to accuse all white people of being racist, whether they think they are or not.

"I certainly don't want to see people being divided over this because of the color of their skin and where they come from," said Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan. "I do personally feel that's the left's narrative and it's further dividing us."

That messaging is becoming an effective motivating tool for the Republican base, and campaign operatives are testing to see if it will resonate widely, particularly in vulnerable suburban swing districts.

A June poll commissioned by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican Governors Association found 63% of voters in 26 battleground states disagreed with the statement that white people were inherently racist because they benefited from "systematic racism and white privilege."

"Parents all over the country have been mobilized because they do not want their children being taught that they are automatically racist because of their skin color. I fully expect Democrats' support for this controversial theory to be at the center of 2022 campaigns," said National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer, who represents Minnesota's Sixth District in Congress.

All 201 seats in Minnesota's Legislature are on the ballot next fall, as well as the race for governor. Several of Minnesota's eight seats in Congress will be targeted as Republicans try to take back the U.S. House.

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said Republicans have employed the strategy of tapping into emotional, fear-based issues for decades.

"Why do you think they talk about crime, why do you think they want to talk about defunding the police, why do they want to talk about critical race theory? It's all part of the same tactic to instill fear that it's going to impact people's lives in a negative way," said Martin. "The Republican attacks on equity in schools are racist dog whistles."

Many Democrats believe racism is systemic, but they're struggling to respond to questions about critical race theory in a way that doesn't anger white constituents. Michigan Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens was shouted down at a town hall event in June when she said critical race theory was a local issue, not a congressional one.

Unlike 2020, when Democrats largely ignored GOP attacks tying candidates to calls to defund police departments, Martin said Democrats need to call out Republican messaging on critical race theory.

"The lesson from the last cycle is we need to be more direct in taking that on and not assuming that it's not resonating with voters," said Martin.

In Ashby, Megan Mueller heard about the meeting through Facebook. She stood up and asked the presenter if critical race theory came up in any drafts of the proposed social studies changes.

"It doesn't explicitly say anywhere in that 'critical race theory,' " said Niedenthal. "What you have to do is peel the onion back four or five layers."

Mueller pushed back on the idea that teaching more racially inclusive history lessons means other histories will be lost.

"This is not a crisis," she said. "I agree with adding to it. Zero people are suggesting tearing it down and starting over."

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach