By Gabriella Borter and James Oliphant
ASHBURN, Virginia (Reuters) - The school board of Virginia's wealthy Loudoun County had planned to hold a routine meeting to close out the school year. Instead, it was pandemonium.
Many of the hundreds of parents who flooded the auditorium in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night were there to accuse the schools of teaching their kids that racism in America is structural and systemic - which the board denies. Some signs read, "Education not indoctrination" and "You don't end racism by teaching it."
The evening grew so heated that the board walked out of the room, leaving sheriff's deputies to disperse the crowd.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Wayde Byard, the Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman for more than two decades, after deputies took two attendees out of the room in handcuffs.
Loudoun has been roiled for months by accusations that it has embraced critical race theory, a school of thought that maintains that racism is ingrained in U.S. law and institutions and that legacies of slavery and segregation have created an uneven playing field for Black Americans.
The school system says it is simply training teachers, the majority of whom are white, to be “culturally responsive" to serve the county's increasingly diverse student population.
The tensions in Loudoun echo a larger battle playing out across the country. As Americans tackle racial and social injustice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last year, several Republican-led states including Florida, Georgia and Texas have enacted new rules to limit teaching about the role of racism in the United States.
The idea that a once-obscure academic doctrine is infiltrating public schools has become a rallying cry for conservatives. From school boards and parent activists to governors and lawmakers, they say tenets of the theory - popularly known as CRT - are being used to indoctrinate children that America is a racist country. Fueled by right-wing media, the conflict has mushroomed into a national debate over how – and which version of - U.S. history is taught in schools.
Critics argue there is no evidence CRT is being taught in most - if any - public schools. Instead, they say, it has become a handy red flag to wave at any efforts to promote racial equity and better outcomes for non-white students.
Several teachers and education experts say they worry that rules banning CRT or placing limits on how to talk about racism generally could have a chilling effect on efforts to teach Black history, including the legacy of slavery and race relations.
Vanessa Skipper, an English teacher and vice president of the Brevard County teachers union in Florida, said the state ban "set a dangerous precedent for teachers."
“It’s our job to present the factual parts of history, which are messy and dark, and allow the students to come to their own conclusions and think critically," Skipper said.
For an example of what some states are doing, look to Georgia, where the state Board of Education earlier this month passed a non-binding resolution forbidding the teaching of concepts "that the country is racist, one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex" or that "an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive."
Cobb County, an affluent, predominately white suburb northeast of Atlanta, soon followed with its own resolution banning the teaching of CRT.
In Loudoun, which has seen a massive influx of immigrants in the last decade into what was once rural, white-dominated northern Virginia, parent groups are trying to recall six of nine school board members for supporting diversity and equity efforts in public and on social media.
Those efforts include teacher and staff training materials "related to addressing opportunity and achievement gaps, systemic oppression, and implicit bias."
“It’s anti-white,” said Scott Mineo, a parent who launched an advocacy group, Parents Against Critical Theory. “It takes a negative position against the United States.”
Beth Barts, a board member who has voted in support of equity efforts, defended the initiatives as necessary to serve the student body, which is 43% white, 25% Asian, 18% Hispanic and 7% Black.
Big questions remain over how new measures will be enforced, given that in some cases they are vague and that CRT itself has been subject to varying interpretations.
When Florida's Board of Education, whose seven members were appointed by Republican governors, this month announced its ban on teaching CRT, it said the theory "distorts" historical events like the Civil War.
Asked by Reuters to elaborate, Governor Ron DeSantis' office pointed to what it called examples of "race essentialism" being taught in school districts nationwide, even if it may not be called "critical race theory". It did not define either term.
"We do not want this divisive ideology in Florida classrooms," said spokesperson Christina Pushaw.
Republican Party officials and strategists say they increasingly view the controversy as central to their efforts to paint the Democratic Party as having been taken over by its left wing.
Focusing on the issue could help Republicans win back college-educated suburban voters in next year's elections that will decide control of the U.S. Congress, particularly women they have lost to Democrats in recent cycles, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican operative in southwest Florida.
“This is the issue that will get suburbanites with you,” O’Connell said. He cited an Economist/YouGov poll conducted last week that showed that 76% of independent voters hold a unfavorable view of CRT.
Democrats say Republicans are seeking to stoke cultural conflict because they lack an affirmative policy agenda in Washington after losing the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2020.
“The Republican Party is hellbent on making up fake issues to divide our country,” said Daniel Wessel, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
On Monday, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, released an online toolkit it said would help activists use public information requests to help identify whether CRT is being taught in their schools.
Meanwhile, public school teachers, as state employees, enjoy relatively little leeway in terms of what can they say in the classroom and lack full protections for freedom of speech, said Suzanne Eckes, a professor of education at Indiana University.
In Georgia's Cobb County, a member of the school board who abstained from voting on the CRT resolution, Jaha Howard, said he is worried teachers are “going to have to operate under a banner of fear" and will hesitate to talk about race issues or dark parts of U.S. history.
“What supports white supremacy more than making rules to say you can’t talk about racism or white supremacy?” he said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and James Oliphant, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Sonya Hepinstall)