At the beginning of the year, Texas state Rep. Steve Toth thought his bill to prevent schools from teaching concepts of systemic racism was dead in the water.
But by the end of April, Toth, a Republican, said things had changed. That month, a Texas grand jury indicted two school board members in Southlake, an affluent Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, who supported new diversity and inclusion training requirements for students and teachers. (They were accused of violating the state open meetings law.) Then there were reports of an elementary school in the wealthy Dallas suburb of Highland Park recommending the picture book "Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness" to students.
"All of a sudden, you start hearing from parents across the state of Texas that, 'Oh, my God. This is going on in our school. This is going on in our district,'" Toth told NBC News. "And they're alarmed over it."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed Toth's legislation into law in June, making it one of a handful of the more than 20 similar bills introduced across the country to cross the finish line. Republican efforts to ban what conservatives have labeled "critical race theory" comes amid the debate around teaching about race and racism that followed George Floyd's murder last year and the largest outcry over racial justice in decades.
Yet there is scant evidence that CRT itself — an academic area of study that examines the modern-day impact of systemic racism in law and society — is actually being taught in K-12 schools, and six lawmakers who authored or sponsored anti-CRT legislation told NBC News their efforts are mostly pre-emptive. In interviews, they took issue with the idea that racism is embedded in all aspects of American society, in part because they did not see evidence of widespread racial tensions growing up.
"I don't know why there's such a rush right now to burn everything down and to make everything about race," Toth said. "It's not always about race. Sometimes it's about race. And there's a cry now to say that there is institutional racism everywhere — all aspects of our economy, of our school system, our education system, of the family unit. It's all based on white structure. It's just, it's not true."
Teachers have said these bills are already having a chilling effect on their lessons, with some becoming leery of what could be considered crossing the line. Experts said the legislative rush comes in response to a movement to disrupt the old way of educating children about race that people of color, at least, have long said is insufficient — a system they said served to inform these lawmakers' own views.
"My suspicion is that when it comes to being schooled in the history of race and racism and white supremacy in our various homes and the manifestations of injustice in this country, a lot of our elected officials have been miseducated and don't know," said Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at University of Houston–Downtown and co-editor of "Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines."
In defining critical race theory, lawmakers are at odds with those who study it
Born out of legal scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s, critical race theory involves studying the lasting effect of institutional racism and its impact on day-to-day life.
An NBC News report last month detailed a coordinated conservative campaign seeking to cast the area of study as racist — an idea that seeks to make white people feel "guilty" — that began shortly after President Joe Biden in late January reversed a Trump administration order that barred the federal government and its contractors from conducting diversity training it deemed "divisive." It was around the start of that campaign when many of the state lawmakers, they said, started learning about CRT, which has often been used as a catch-all phrase encompassing diversity trainings and other anti-racist efforts criticized by conservatives.
State lawmakers have, for the most part, avoided using the phrase "critical race theory" in the text of their legislation. A number of the bills, which include similar language and provisions, would prohibit teaching "that one race or sex is inherently superior to another," that the U.S. "is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist" as a country or anything that provokes feelings of "discomfort, guilt or anguish" because of their race or sex.
Kentucky GOP state Rep. Lynn Bechler, who sponsored his state's legislation barring what conservative think tanks and lawmakers have identified as the "tenets" of critical race theory, defined the concept as "the philosophy that one race is superior to another."
"That by the color of your skin rather than what you have done makes you either oppressed or an oppressor," Bechler, 75, added. "And I think that trying to define color of skin as being oppressed, just because you're not a white person is an insult to those who aren't white. It implies to me that the only way to get ahead is to have racism on your own side."
Other lawmakers said arguments over what constitutes "critical race theory" were missing the forest for the trees.
Idaho state Rep. Wendy Horman, a Republican who wrote her state's legislation, said, "This is a much bigger issue to me than one particular theory." In Oklahoma, Republican state Rep. Kevin West, an author of his state's legislation, said, "At least for me, it was much more important to look at what is getting into the classroom, regardless of what you call it."
Most Americans have no opinion or have never heard of critical race theory, according to a Politico/Morning Consult survey released last month. The poll found Americans about evenly divided on the question of supporting the theory being taught in grade school and college, with roughly 1 in 3 either supporting, opposing or not having an opinion.
'More of a preventative'
When asked about their own schooling, these legislators, all white and over 50, said the role of race in American society was not discussed much if at all in their classrooms and that their views are shaped more by their experiences growing up — experiences that did not lead them to believe racism was a pervasive issue.
"I will tell you that in my experience, we had no problems," Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan, a Republican who authored such legislation in his state, said of his education. Ragan, 72, attended a newly integrated high school during the late 1960s in North Carolina and the Air Force Academy in Colorado. He noted that Black and Asian classmates were "two of the best men in my wedding."
"So I have no problem personally with that," he said. "And my experience in the education system did not indicate a problem. It has quite honestly become a problem, in my humble opinion, only in the last few decades."
Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican whowrote legislation in his state, said he attended public school near Detroit at the tail end of the civil rights era and "as far as race issues and so forth, at the time that I was growing up, I think that was somewhat behind us."
As to the role race plays in society today, Seitz said, "I think everything that we've done historically could play a role."
"But America was based on independence and freedom. Did all people gain that right away? Absolutely not. And that history needs to be taught and it needs to be taught accurately," he said. "Therefore, we do not repeat that history. "
Educators from diverse backgrounds have long sought to be more inclusive of different perspectives in the teaching of the nation's history, with the racial justice movement sparked by Floyd's murder helping to bolster those efforts.
It's against that backdrop — and changing attitudes toward race in battleground suburban districts that swung for Biden last fall — that many these bills have been filed.
"It's a tactic that has been employed for a long time in the culture wars — accusing those that are agitating for social justice, racial justice, equality, equity of being racist," Chism said. "It's an old trick in the book."
Teachers said K-12 schools are not requiring or pushing them to teach critical race theory, according to the results of a nationwide survey of more than 1,100 teachers conducted by the Association of American Educators, a nonpartisan professional group for educators, obtained by NBC News. Most respondents expressed opposition to adding the academic approach to their course instruction.
Most of the lawmakers interviewed acknowledged this but said bans were still necessary.
"It's more of a pre-emptive move," Bechler said. "My district is not pushing this. There are some others that, while they don't call it critical race theory, are kind of pushing the envelope on it anyway. From my perspective, it's more of a preventative."
In Texas, Senate Republicans have since voted to advance another bill that, among other measures, would strip required lessons on white supremacy.