The Danger More Republicans Should Be Talking About

White-supremacist ideology is harmful to all, especially the naive and defenseless minds of youth.

A black video-game controller wrapped in red barbed wire.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.

Updated at 4:15 p.m. ET on April 18, 2022.

The day after Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race last November, a Wall Street Journal headline declared: “Youngkin Makes the GOP the Parents’ Party.” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio exulted in this new party line on Twitter: “The Republican Party is the party of parents.”

Polling data showed this new branding to be as misleading as the GOP’s framing of critical race theory. In a September Fox News poll, white respondents opposed the teaching of critical race theory by 24 percentage points, while respondents of color were more than twice as likely to favor CRT than oppose it. William Saletan at Slate concluded, “When Republicans talk about a parental backlash against CRT, they’re not talking about all parents. They’re talking about white parents.” Michelle Ruiz summed up in Vogue what has since emerged as the near consensus: “The GOP doesn’t want to be the party of parents; it wants to cement itself as the party of white parents.”

The Republican Party is clearly not the party of parents. The Republican Party is certainly not the party of parents of color. But is the Republican Party even the party of white parents?

This new branding is a myth, a great myth. It is as fictitious and dangerous as the great lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.

But this great myth is not as rudimentary as the great lie. It represents a Trump Tower of GOP propaganda, built over the past year on four hugely false conceptual building blocks:

  1. Republican politicians care about white children.
  2. Anti-racist education is harmful to white children.
  3. Republican politicians are protecting white children by banning anti-racist education.
  4. The Republican Party is the party of white parents because it is protecting white children.

Every great myth is built on a foundational assumption, a fallacy widely assumed to be true. The foundational assumption of this great myth is that Republican politicians care about white children. But if they did, then they would not be ignoring or downplaying or defending or bolstering the principal racial threat facing white youth today. And I am not talking about critical race theory, which Republican propagandists have quite intentionally redefined, as one admitted, remaking it into a threat, and obscuring the real threat.

What are white children being indoctrinated with? What is making them uncomfortable? What is causing them to hate? White-supremacist ideology: the toxic blend of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic ideas that is harmful to all minds, especially the naive and defenseless minds of youth. Which group is the prime target of white supremacists? White youth.

John, a father of two, knew that his 15-year-old white son enjoyed playing multiplayer shooter games online, according to NPR. In games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, players form teams online with friends and strangers. John knew that his son talked with teammates in private online chats. “This is the norm for kids,” John told NPR. “Instead of hanging out at the drive-in they’re all online.”

Many white-supremacist recruiters are online now too, and John’s son started gaming with some of them. These grown men asked this impressionable teenager about his problems in school. They suggested that his Black classmates were to blame and passed along racist literature.

In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League released a report finding that nearly one in 10 multiplayer gamers ages 13 to 17 had been exposed to white-supremacist ideology. An estimated 2.3 million teens each year are exposed to white-supremacist ideology in chats for multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, Fortnite, Apex Legends, League of Legends, Madden, Overwatch, and Call of Duty.

But the exposure to white supremacy through online video games is eclipsed by the 17 percent of 13-to-17-year-olds who encounter white-supremacist views on social media, according to the same ADL study. TikTok’s abundance of young users makes it a major recruiting ground for white supremacists. One study of TikTok videos promoting extremist views found that almost a third “amplified white supremacy.” In addition to anti-Black views, the TikToks also spewed offensive content about Asians, queer people, migrants and refugees, women, Muslims, and Jews.

And yet, there might be more white-supremacist material preying on vulnerable young people on Instagram than on TikTok. White supremacists deploy all sorts of memes, especially Doge, Pepe the Frog, and Cheems. A marketing researcher found that 79 percent of 13-to-17-year-olds share memes.

“Memes are easily consumable and they are funny,” Patrik Hermansson, a researcher at the U.K.’s Hope Not Hate, told Insider. “The humor makes them easier to swallow.”

The more that white kids swallow white-supremacist memes—and like and share them—the more they are introduced to troubling and extreme material. The algorithms for social-media apps and search engines enable this “‘slow roll’ process,” researchers told Insider. Just like innocently inviting a stranger into a multiplayer game or chat room, innocently liking a “funny” meme can lead children into a dangerous hole of white-supremacist ideology. While in the hole, youth may be “groomed” through direct messages that are sent en masse by white supremacists. “You see 30-somethings talking to 14-year-olds and kind of grooming them for the far-right ideology,” the far-right-extremism researcher Miro Dittrich told Insider.

Instead of focusing on this very real threat, Republican politicians—to justify Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law—have cited QAnon conspiracy theories about public schools being overrun by child predators who are “grooming” children to be gay. A spokesperson for Governor Ron DeSantis reframed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill as an “anti-grooming” bill. But if QAnon Republicans really cared about white children, then they would be worried about white-supremacist grooming. This is the grooming that parents of all children should be worried about.

Grooming white kids—usually males—in white supremacy can involve inciting them to commit acts of physical and verbal violence. Against kids of color. Against girls. Against Jewish kids. Against Muslim kids. Against trans kids. Against queer kids. Against other white kids. Defending kids against white-supremacist grooming keeps all kids safe.

Experts know—and white supremacists know—which white kids are most vulnerable to grooming: kids seeking a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging; loners and excluded kids; and depressed kids. And depression among “white teens seems to be rising faster than among other groups,” Derek Thompson recently reported in The Atlantic.

A 13-year-old boy became depressed and isolated after being accused of sexual harassment, his mother wrote in Washingtonian magazine. Sam, as she referred to him in the story, transferred to a new school mid-year, but felt all alone. “I counseled patience, naively unprepared for what came next,” his mother wrote.

Sam soon found online communities on Reddit and 4chan filled with white supremacists who indoctrinated him with ideas like all girls lie, “feminazis” are killing families, and Islam is a fundamentally violent religion. These white supremacists told this Jewish boy that Jews run the financial world. He started Googling these ideas and found what he thought was proof. “Each set of results acted like fertilizer sprinkled on weeds,” his mother explained.

It is important to remember that people actively produce the toxic fertilizer that’s feeding the weeds of bigotry in young (and old) minds, preventing the flowering of truth, of communion across human difference. The Patriot Front is “responsible for the vast majority of white supremacist propaganda distributed in the United States,” according to the ADL. Based in Texas, the Patriot Front split from Vanguard America after that group participated in the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017.

A recent leak to the media collective Unicorn Riot revealed that the Patriot Front “preys on teenagers, recruiting members through the internet who are still legally minors, indoctrinating them with white supremacist ideology and even encouraging them to lie to their parents so the group can transport them across state lines for fascist events,” the group wrote.

In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security released “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” outlining a national strategy. In his prefatory note, President Barack Obama expressed the need to “prevent all types of extremism,” but he specifically singled out “Muslim American communities whose children, families and neighborhoods are being targeted for recruitment by al-Qa’ida.” By 2019, government officials had a new focus: white American communities whose children, families, and neighborhoods were being targeted for recruitment by white-supremacist organizations. “We face a growing threat from domestic terrorism and targeted violence here at home,” DHS warned in “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.” To talk about domestic terrorism is to talk about white-supremacist organizations. DHS expressed “the need to support and protect our most vulnerable populations, our youth in particular.”

Things grew more dire in 2021, after white-supremacist organizations were involved in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In March of that year, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned senators that domestic terrorism was “metastasizing across the country.” In May, Attorney General Merrick Garland counseled members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that violent extremists “who advocate for the superiority of the white race” were the greatest domestic terror threat to the United States.

But how can white kids—or any kids—guard against this threat if they can’t recognize it? How can kids repel ideas of hierarchy if they haven’t been taught ideas of equality? How can kids distinguish right from wrong if they haven’t been shown what’s right and wrong?

Recognizing that “an increasing number of U.S. teens are getting ‘radicalized’ online by White supremacists or other extremist groups,” an article published by the National Education Association concluded: “The best place to prevent that radicalization is U.S. classrooms.”

In the classroom, kids can read a diverse assortment of books. Kids can discover and appreciate the beautiful human rainbow in all its colors and cultures. Kids can amass empathy and critical-thinking skills. Kids can learn how persistent group inequity is produced by bad rules, not bad people. Kids can see themselves in humans who don’t look like them, speak like them, love like them, worship like them, live like them. Kids can explore the complex history of racism and the interracial body of anti-racist resisters.

White kids can learn about the violence of white settler colonialists and enslavers—and the white-supremacist ideology they embraced. White kids can learn about Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who were born into an enslaving South Carolina family and courageously transformed themselves into leading abolitionists.

This is anti-racist education, and it protects white children—all children—against the growing threat of white supremacists, as I demonstrate in my upcoming book.

“Kids need to understand—before they encounter their first alt-right memes—what white supremacy looks like,” the parent and editor Joanna Schroeder wrote in The New York Times. “It’s not just a person in a K.K.K. hood but also the smooth-talking YouTuber in the suit or the seemingly friendly voice in the video game forum.”

And yet, Republican politicians and operatives have radically distorted anti-racist education—and literature. The nation saw this gross distortion firsthand when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas questioned Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Senate confirmation hearing. He pulled out my picture book, Antiracist Baby. Cruz transformed a book intended to inspire young kids and their caregivers to support racial equality into a book impugning babies as racist. He transfigured a book titled Antiracist Baby into a book titled Racist Baby, and asked Jackson, “Do you agree with this book that is being taught with kids that babies are racist?”

It was an emblematic moment. Republicans like Cruz have been distorting anti-racist education and books, claiming they teach white kids to hate themselves, that they are inherently racist, that they are all oppressors, “that they’re superior or inferior,” as Mississippi State Senator Michael McLendon put it. They are misrepresenting these books and educational programs just as they are misrepresenting books on LGBTQ+ communities as “pornography”; books about the Holocaust as having “rough, objectionable language” or being “too adult-oriented”; and socio-emotional learning as “the latest children-indoctrination scheme.” They are labeling all of this as critical race theory, simultaneously slandering the academic field of CRT when the nation’s lawmakers sorely need it and maligning anti-racist education when kids sorely need it.

All of this distortion is intended to justify GOP bans. As of February, 36 states had introduced bills or taken other actions toward banning anti-racist education and literary materials, and 14 states had passed such measures. More than 17.7 million public-school students enrolled in nearly 900 districts could have their learning restricted during a pivotal time when experts say their education needs to be expanded. And in addition, districts are banning education and literature that can allow white kids and kids of color to recognize the sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia of white supremacists.

One day, according to NPR, John noticed a pile of papers facedown next to the printer in his home office in Colorado. He turned over the papers and found a copy of a neo-Nazi pamphlet. All of his son’s gaming had led to this. After confronting his son, John went back to his room. “I was crying,” he said. “I felt like a failure that a child that I had raised would be remotely interested in that sort of stuff.”

As for Sam, one night his mother left a stack of articles on his bed, she wrote in Washingtonian. An article on how white supremacists recruit depressed kids rested on top. Sometime later, Sam came into his mother’s room, curled up next to her in bed, and started sobbing. As Sam struggled to catch his breath, he cried out, “‘Why would adults want to do that? Why would they want to fool kids? How could I fall for it?’”

Sam blamed himself, like John blamed himself, like so many white parents and kids quietly blame themselves for being conned by white supremacists. But what if white families aren’t failures? What if the so-called party of parents is failing white families—not to mention families of color?

Republicans disproportionately represent white Americans. And instead of countering white supremacy by supporting anti-racist education, Republican officials have turned white parental attention away from that threat, rallying their support in order to ban what can protect their kids from white supremacy. The GOP crusade against anti-racist education has left impressionable white kids unprotected from the threat of white supremacists sliding into their feeds, chat rooms, games, DMs—into their minds. And Republican politicians are doing all of this while insisting that they care about white children, while dog-whistling that they are the party of white parents.

The Republican attacks on what they call “critical race theory” aren’t about protecting white kids, or any kids at all. The attacks are intended to deceive, aggrieve, and mobilize enough white donors and voters to win contested elections this year and beyond. Republican operatives have been most likely to organize “don’t say race” campaigns in schools located in swing districts, particularly where a majority-white school population is rapidly diversifying. “This means that students in racially mixed communities whose parents are arguing over politics may particularly be restricted from learning together about complex issues,” UCLA researchers explained.

In swing districts and non-swing-districts alike, teachers are self-censoring for fear of getting in trouble, for fear of “being the next one to be attacked publicly for teaching about race,” as a teacher in Connecticut told the UCLA researchers. A Detroit-area teacher told NBC, “I have teachers who are already leery of teaching race issues. Creating laws about this is only going to make them quieter and make teachers even less relevant to high schoolers who are working through ideas.”

But, as the Columbia University professor Amra Sabic-El-Rayess told the National Education Association, “When educators fail to engage students on issues that matter to them, students will look elsewhere.” They will look to their parents and caregivers. And what if their caregivers fear talking about race? Whom will they end up turning to—or at least becoming vulnerable to? White supremacists.

“Right now, our fear about addressing race causes us to leave kids guessing,” Shelly Tochluk, an education professor at Mount Saint Mary’s University, told The New York Times. “They fill in the blanks with whatever they see online, and this includes horrifically twisted messages from white nationalists.”

In this perilous time, caregivers need to start asking different questions. Instead of asking, Should kids learn about race? they should be asking, Whom do I want teaching kids about race?

Trained educators in schools? Loving parents in homes? Or white supremacists in virtual “classrooms”?

To care about white children is to support parents and educators in teaching children about race. But most Republican politicians do not care about the white children of their constituents. They are banning anti-racist education that protects white children. So how could the Republican Party be the party of white parents?

The Republican Party is not the party of parents raising white kids. The Republican Party is not the party of parents raising girls, raising trans kids, raising kids of color, raising queer kids, raising poor kids, raising immigrant kids. The Republican Party is making it harder for all of these kids to learn about themselves and their histories. The Republican Party is stripping parents and educators of their collective ability to protect vulnerable children from being indoctrinated by—or victimized by—the scourge of white supremacy.

Instead of combatting white supremacists, the Republican Party has harbored white supremacists, has mainstreamed their mantra that anti-racism is antiwhite, and has embraced a president who has called them “very fine people,” has told this growing army on national television to “stand back and stand by,” has incited them to attack the Capitol, has defended their carnage, and has urged the American people to move on from the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time.

This Republican Party is not the party of any group of parents, but the party of white supremacy.


This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the sample of TikTik videos reviewed in the study.